This week, we’ll be monkeying around with an early Silly Symphony!
The growing reputation of the early sound Mickey Mouse cartoons provided two distinct variables around 1930—an emphasis on music, using synchronized gags with a cohesive narrative (The Cactus Kid, The Fire Fighters, The Gorilla Mystery), or little to no semblance of plot, with only singing and dancing (The Shindig, The Barnyard Concert). In the Silly Symphonies, the novelty of synchronizing music to the action was an integral component, with characters moving to the beat and melody to a certain piece of music. At this time, the films in the series only established the setting and overall mood, without much framework.
In Monkey Melodies, the 13th Silly Symphony produced by the studio – as indicated on the draft as “S.S. #13” — a romance between a boy and girl monkey is carried throughout the cartoon; the earlier Symphonies hadn’t featured central characters, but showed a succession of various gags. The film introduces the hero early on, as he swings from the treetops and picks flowers for his girlfriend. Later, they are pursued and chased by a crocodile. This particular template would be used in several Silly Symphonies, and its imitators from other studios.
Animation for Monkey Melodies was completed in a few weeks, from July 31 to August 19, 1930. Disney’s animators hadn’t relied on model sheets to keep the characters consistent around this period, so the designs of the boy and girl monkey differ, depending on the animator credited.
Animator Wilfred Jackson—later a director—gives the monkeys a lanky appearance, as they perform their slow dance. In the next scene, animated by Tom Palmer, the monkeys are drawn in a more “cuddly” fashion. Johnny Cannon animates the next sequence as the two playfully chase each other; they are drawn more naturalistically than Jackson’s and Palmer’s work.
This is one of the few early Disney cartoons to use popular songs. Included are some of the hit tunes based around monkeys during the turn of the century: “Down in Jungle Town” (1908, Edward Madden/Theodore Morse) plays during the opening sequences as the jungle animals sway to the rhythm, and “Aba Daba Honeymoon” (1914, Arthur Fields/Walter Donovan) sung by a trio of simians and squawked by a pair of parrots. “Narcissus”, an 1899 tune by Ethelbert Nevin, underscores the hero monkey’s introduction, the couples’ slow dance and the two eating bananas.
Later, the film diverges from the two main characters, with a musical sequence based around the crocodiles. In one extended vaudeville-esque sequence, animated by Norm Ferguson, two crocodiles engage in different “cake-walk” steps with canes in their hands, dancing to the 1897 composition, “At a Georgia Camp Town Meeting” by Frederick “Kerry” Mills. (This tune can be heard, at a much faster tempo, when Donald Duck and his performing sea lions are introduced in Mickey’s Circus, released six years later.) The score also used a brief snatch of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” as a crocodile pursues the monkeys underwater.
The draft for Monkey Melodies doesn’t conform to the finished cartoon in small ways; the monkey pushing the log off from a rock (animated by Dick Lundy), which turns out to be an alligator (animated by Dave Hand) were both originally intended as two separate scenes, though rectified as one single shot, as scene 15, in the draft. Near the end of the film, the boy and girl monkey latch onto a streamer, which is revealed to be a snake. When they swing across a vine, they grasp a leopard’s tail, which upsets the big cat. The leopard was originally intended to be a tiger, changed for reasons unknown.
(Thanks to Mark Kausler and Dave Gerstein for their help.)