Here’s some operatic Greek mythology for today’s breakdown!
The outline for The Goddess of Spring, circulated around the studio on April 6, 1934, suggested a Silly Symphony that would burlesque grand opera. Bill Cottrell and his story team used source material originating from the myth of Persephone, the Greek goddess of eternal spring, abducted by the lord of the underworld Pluto, to proclaim her as a permanent bride. Goddess is depicted as a miniature opera, with music and lyrics by Leigh Harline and Larry Morey, with vocals sung by narrator Kenny Baker—the featured singer of Jack Benny’s popular radio program shortly after this film’s release—and operatic performer Tudor Williams as Pluto; the vocalist for Persephone is unconfirmed. This film posed a challenge for the studio, in animating two human characters in a delicate fashion, but the results reveal a problematic struggle.
Persephone’s key animators used available references from the staffers for this daunting assignment. The opening dance in Goddess, animated by Ham Luske, appears more elastic than elegant, as her arms swoop down, inadvertently resembling rubber hose animation. He used his assistant, Eric Larson, to act out her scenes; Dick Huemer recalled Luske using his wife for Persephone, as well. Les Clark, using his sister Marceil—an ink and paint artist for the studio—as a model for the animation, handles the scenes of Persephone in Hades. Dick Huemer primarily animates the scenes with Pluto, but Gerry Geronimi does his first scenes, as he erupts into the earth; Geronimi’s drawing of Pluto gives him a characteristic grin, without many of Huemer’s details on the face—specifically, lips. Other artists credited on the draft, animate on non-principal characters, such as Art Babbitt handling the forlorn elves waiting for Persephone as winter arrives.
During this period of the Silly Symphonies, Wilfred Jackson tended to have different animators animate two characters on-screen within the same scene. In the draft for this film, it credits Gerry Geronimi for scene 9, animating both Pluto and Persephone; likewise for scenes 13 and 14, Dick Huemer is credited for both characters. Since Les Clark is credited with animation on Persephone during this portion of the film, it’s interesting to see Geronimi and Huemer credited for her scenes. However, no information from the exposure sheets or sweatbox notes is available at the moment to confirm this to be entirely accurate.
By 1934, besides the casting of animators, the Silly Symphonies were highly advanced in their effects animation, handled by specialized artists Cy Young and Ugo D’Orsi. Goddess’ effects animation is striking—in Hades, Pluto’s demonic imps dance around a swelling flame (animated by Frenchy de Tremaudan), which alternates luminous color and emits fireworks, like a geyser. Moreover, their shadows are casted against the wall. The contrast between high opera is compromised as they sing “Hi De Hades”, a hot jazz tune imitative of popular bandleader Cab Calloway. The budget for this film, as a result, rose higher than previous Disney cartoons around 1934, which averaged around $25,000. The cost for this film ran up to $37,605.02.
In hindsight to the film’s failures, Wilfred Jackson noted in a lecture to a studio audience five years after its release that the film didn’t make its broad pastiche on grand opera clear to the audience. Human characters for the studio needed more examination, particularly in emotion; for instance, Persephone’s expressions in this film display a lack of range in this film, set against Pluto’s melodramatic mannerisms; however, both characters have appendages that lack joints and angular lines. By August 1934, while Goddess was still in production, a feature-length animated film based on Snow White took form in its earliest stages, as submissions for characters, situations and songs were suggested. By October, a month before Goddess was released, an 18-page outline was completed and distributed around the studio.
Les Clark claimed Goddess wasn’t an initial springboard for the studio to begin production on Snow White. The outline, as Disney and his staff envisioned the film during story meetings, presented a comedic approach in order to enthrall audiences, without many of the serious elements, which developed later. For instance, a haughty, heavy-set queen, in a “cartoony” light meant to serve as a danger to Snow White, instead of portrayed as conniving as her character matured. Clark admitted to his difficulty in animating Persephone to Disney, and apologized. Disney said to Clark, “I guess we could do better next time,” after which the studio expanded, and pursued a longer format for an animated fairy tale—a feat unprecedented in American animation.
(Thanks to Mark Kausler, Michael Barrier and J.B. Kaufman for their help.)