Almost every Halloween, the Walt Disney Company seems to showcase one of its earliest black-and-white cartoons, The Skeleton Dance (1929), the very first Silly Symphony.
While not specifically stated to be Halloween, merely a supernatural frolic during the midnight hour, this five-and-a-half minute innovative short cartoon certainly encapsulates the imagery and spirit of the spooky holiday.
While working with Walt Disney on the scores for the first Mickey Mouse cartoons, Carl Stalling, who was basically the Disney Studios’ first music director, had an idea that he suggested to Walt in late 1928 for a new series of cartoons with the drawings made to fit pre-recorded music.
Walt agreed to do a second series of cartoons because it would allow him to do some experimentation, not be restricted by the formula of the Mickey cartoons and generate an additional stream of revenue.
As Stalling told reseachers Michael Barrier, Milton Gray and Bill Spicer during a June 1969 interview: “He thought I meant illustrated songs, but I didn’t have that in mind at all.
“The Skeleton Dance goes way back to my kid days. When I was eight or ten years old, I saw an ad in The American Boy magazine of a dancing skeleton, and I got my dad to give me a quarter so I could send for it. It turned out to be a pasteboard cut-out of a loose-jointed skeleton, slung over a six-foot cord under the arm pits. It would ‘dance’ when kids pulled and jerked at each end of the string.”
“Ever since I was a kid, I had wanted to see real skeletons dancing and had always enjoyed seeing skelton dancing acts in vaudeville.”
Stalling used a bit of Edvard Grieg’s March of the Dwarfs (1893) but primarily composed an original fox-trot piece so it seemed lively and a little jazzy in keeping with the times.
Iwerks went to the local library for inspiration. He found pictures drawn by the English cartoonist Rowlandson of skeletons dancing. In other books, he found photographs of skeleton dances depicted upon the walls of Etruscan tombs.
Animation under Ub Iwerks began in January 1929 with it taking almost six weeks to finish. The soundtrack was recorded at Pat Powers’ Cinephone studio in New York in February 1929 along with the fifth Mickey Mouse short cartoon The Opry House. According to Roy O. Disney’s records, the total cost for the film was $5,485.40.
The Skeleton Dance was completed in March 1929 and a preview was held on March 20 that didn’t go quite as well as Walt had hoped.
As Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller recalled, “Father wasn’t easily discouraged. He took The Skeleton Dance to a friend who ran the United Artists Theater in Los Angeles and asked him to look at it. ‘We’re looking at some other things this morning,’ the man said, ‘and I’ll have my assistant look at it. You go with him’.
“Father sat beside the assistant while the film was run. It was just before the first morning show; a few customers had drifted in and it was obvious they liked The Skeleton Dance but the assistant didn’t listen to them. ‘Can’t recommend it,’ he said. ‘Too gruesome’.
“Father got a hold of another friend and asked him if he could put him in touch with Fred Miller who managed the Carthay Circle, one of the biggest and most important theaters in town. Father’s friend sent him to a salesman on Film Row. ‘Maybe he can get him to look at your skeleton film’.
“Father found the salesman in a pool hall shooting a little Kelly (a game played on a standard pool table with sixteen pool balls where each player draws one of fifteen numbered markers called peas or pills at random from a shake bottle which assigns to them the correspondingly numbered pool ball, kept secret from their opponents, but which they must pocket in order to win the game). ‘Leave your picture here, Disney,’ the Kelly player said. ‘I’ll look at it. If I like it, I’ll get in touch with you’.
“It sounded like a stall but he actually did look at the film. When he looked he said, ‘I think Fred will like this. I’ll take it over to him myself’. As a result, Miller showed The Skeleton Dance with a feature picture he was running. It went over big.
“Father clipped the local press notices and mailed them to Powers with a note: ‘If you can get this to Roxy (the nickname of Broadway showman Samuel L. Rothafel who ran New York’s prestigious Roxy Theater), he’ll go for it the way Miller did. Powers got a print to Roxy and Roxy liked it. He ran it in his huge New York theater.”
It ran at the Carthay Circle theater along with the feature Four Devils starting on June 10th, 1929. It was the first cartoon ever programmed there and the theater would later host the Hollywood premieres of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia. Walt attended the screening with Iwerks and scratched his head. “Are they laughing at us or with us?” he asked Iwerks.
It ran at the Roxy theater on July 16th, 1929 with Pleasure Crazed. Rothafel wrote, “without exception, one of the cleverest things I have seen and as you know the audience enjoyed every moment of it.”
In early August, Columbia Pictures signed a contract to distribute the Silly Symphonies nationally and made the short available in late August. Its first playdate was again at the Roxy on September 7 shown with Big Time. It was the first time in history that a cartoon had had a second engagement at the theater.
Les Clark recalls that Ub animated all of The Skeleton Dance except for the first scene which Clark animated. Year later Clark claimed he had done a scene with a pair of skeletons playing the spines of other skeletons like xylophones. Wilfred Jackson supposedly animated the crowing rooster at the end of the cartoon.
In an interview done years later, Iwerks stated, “(The Skeleton Dance) was a different type of film from the Mickeys. I did all the animation but I did it rough, in line form. Other guys (Clark and Jackson) put in the rib cages and teeth and eyes and bones.”
Walt sent a print to New York for his film distributor to promote the new series. But after getting poor reactions from exhibitors who felt the film was grotesque, Pat Powers wrote back tersely: “They don’t want this. MORE MICE.” As a compromise, Walt added the title “Mickey Mouse Presents a Silly Symphony”.
Iwerks himself revisited the concept when he directed The Columbia Color Rhapsody entitled Skeleton Frolic (1937). It is very similar to The Skeleton Dance in tone and action but in full, rich color and with much more use of extreme perspective and detail.