In 1929, composer Carl Stalling suggested an idea for a new cartoon series to Walt Disney. Walt, seeing the potential of the new series, immediately jumped on the idea and ran with it. Stalling, at the time the musical director for the Mickey Mouse cartoons, suggested a series of cartoons based on music, instead of on a central character. And so the Silly Symphonies were born. Interestingly, they were titled "Mickey Mouse Presents a Walt Disney Silly Symphony", using the popularity of Mickey Mouse to attract the attention of the audience; Mickey had nothing to do with the series besides having his name above the title.
As is obvious from the name, these cartoon shorts relied heavily on music. The first Silly Symphony was Skeleton Dance; you can pretty much guess the basic plot from the title. But remember, Walt Disney had created a sensation by having Mickey Mouse cartoons with synchronized sound less than a year earlier. So sound cartoons of any type were probably still something of a novelty. Seeing skeletons dancing about in time to music, or playing each other like xylophones, was an exiciting movie-going experience.
Walt realized that the Silly Symphonies could be used as a testing ground for new ideas. Since the focus was not on the actions of a main character, the artists had more freedom to try new things. Indeed, the first color cartoon was a Silly Symphony, Flowers and Trees. And the multiplane camera was first used in The Old Mill. Techniques used in the series allowed the artists to refine skills which were later put to great use in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature. The art of animation would not have progressed as much as it had in the 9 years between Mickey Mouse and Snow White if it weren't for the Silly Symphonies.
Perhaps the most popular cartoon in the series was The Three Little Pigs. People across the country were singing "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf", which came to be something of an anthem during the Great Depression. Even today, most people, even children, can probably sing the song from memory. Several other Silly Symphonies featured the Pigs, including The Big Bad Wolf, Three Little Wolves, and The Practical Pig. While many people point out that this seems to conflict with Walt's often stated dislike for sequels, I wonder if he hoped that the Pigs would become stars in their on right, having their own series of cartoons. After all, Donald Duck got his start in the Silly Symphony The Wise Little Hen in 1934. I get the feeling that Walt was always looking for new characters to build on.
One of my favorite Silly Symphonies is Music Land, which tells the story of the Land of Symphony and the Isle of Jazz. The main characters are violins and saxophones, and their "voices" are actually the sounds of those instruments; however, they are performed in such a way that you have a pretty good idea of what they are saying. The two different islands eventually go to war, which is quite an interesting musical treat.
In all, 75 Silly Symphonies were produced, and each one is interesting to watch for various reasons. Some are set to classical music, while others feature songs written specifically for that cartoon. By 1939, Walt apparently felt that the series had run its course. The studio had released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs two years earlier, and they were hard at work on Pinocchio and Fantasia. I'm sure Walt felt that the animators' talents would be put to better use on other projects. Some of the top artists at the studio had moved on to the feature length films, so the new artists could practice their skills on the cartoons featuring Mickey, Donald, Goofy and Pluto.
Disney has released a Silly Symphonies set as part of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD line. This two-disc set contains 31 of the Silly Symphonies, many with introductions by Leonard Maltin, and some with classic introductions by Walt Disney himself. The cartoons included are a good sampling of the series, giving the viewer an overview of what the Silly Symphonies were all about. Also included is a segment with Leonard Maltin and Dave Smith of the Disney Archives showing some of the merchandise items that were produced to tie in with the series. Composer Richard Sherman also talks about the music of the Silly Symphonies.
Watching the Disney Channel many years ago, I never cared that much when they would show a Silly Symphony in their cartoon shows. I was always hoping to see something with Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. But now, they are fascinating to see. Perhaps I have a different perspective because of age, or perhaps because of a greater understanding of Disney history. You can definitely see how the art of animation progresses throughout the run of the series, and I could spend hours watching these cartoons.
It is quite fun to use this new technology of DVD to see how Walt Disney and his staff pushed the envelope of the technology of animation!
- Story by Steve Burns; Graphics ©Disney
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