As part of a cost-cutting exercise spurred by the Second World War and the animators strike, Walt Disney released a slew of so-called package films: a collection of short cartoons with live-action filler united around a musical theme. Though critics and animation fans considered these films a step back from the exciting innovations of Pinocchio (1940) or Bambi (1942), audiences in the late Forties responded more positively. Swing music and jazz suited the mellow, easygoing vibe of the post-war period and the accompanying cartoons which were modest in scope and more cutesy were perceived as more accessible compared to the seemingly high-brow ambitions of Fantasia (1940).
The fifth and final package film released by the Walt Disney studio, Melody Time is a lightweight and eclectic concoction typical of its format that, in the words of its opening narration, offers “something ridiculous, something sublime.” It opens with “Once Upon a Wintertime” with Frances Langford performing the title song. Herein a young ice skating couple along with a pair of similarly love-struck squirrels frolic and flirt along the frozen river. When they fall into trouble their resourceful animal friends bail them out. While not without its charms, the segment has a sugary greetings card tone yet showcases why Disney artists were the kings of character animation. Everyone here exudes personality without speaking a word. Like several other segments it also showcases the sublime design work of Mary Blair. Though a strangely controversial figure among Disney animators, Mary Blair was among the studio's most gifted talents and a personal favourite of Walt Disney himself.
Next up is “Bumble Boogie” featuring the musical stylings of Freddy Martin and His Orchestra. Something of a return to the abstract experimentation of Fantasia, this lively little trifle about a buzzy bee trying to escape a boogie woogie melody visualized as exploding flowers, playful piano keys and mischievous musical notes is a riot of delightful proto-psychedelic imagery. After that we have “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed.” Much like the folk tale that inspired it the Disney cartoon became a staple of American classrooms, which is where this writer first saw it as a stand-alone short. Narrated by Dennis Day, the tale of the pioneer who planted apple trees for wandering settlers across America is a lovely story featuring delightful songs and a heartening environmental message. Following an appearance in Fun and Fancy Free (1947), those mischievous chipmunks Chip and Dale also put in an early cameo.
Making their last vocal contribution to a feature film the Andrews Sisters narrate “Little Toot”, the story of a little tugboat who wants to tow ships just like his dear old dad but can't seem to stay out of trouble. Around the same time rival animator Tex Avery produced a slew of rather more raucous cartoons involving anthropomorphicized cars and planes that were a clear precursor to Pixar's lacklustre Cars (2006). This has much the same tone. Based on a children's book written by Hardie Gramatky, it is a compact, vivid, mildly touching story of a social misfit who makes good a la Dumbo (1941), although stylistically its achievements are modest. By contrast “Trees”, inspired by the well-known poem by Joyce Kilmer, is the one sequence that most evokes the spirit of Fantasia. Ditching cuteness for a more lyrical tone its artistry is quite stunning.
Our old friends Donald Duck and José Carioca returns in “Blame It on the Samba”, which seems like a discarded sequence from either Saludos Amigos (1943) or The Three Caballeros (1945). Colourful but disposable it is another riot of vibrant imagery featuring Donald flirting with comely live-action organist Ethel Smith while the music is undeniably catchy. Typically with these package films, the best sequence is saved for last. Singing cowboy Roy Rogers appears on screen accompanied by his backing group the Sons of the Pioneers. Roy's mellifluous vocals weave a wonderful atmosphere as he regales wide-eyed youngsters Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten, the stars of Song of the South (1946) with the tall tale of “Pecos Bill.” Raised by coyotes this rough-riding cowpoke had no better friend than his trusty horse Widowmaker until he cops an eyeful of shapely cow gal Slue-Foot Sue. Proving the Disney studio could match the freewheeling anarchy of Tex Avery and the Warner Brothers crew, “Pecos Bill” has rollicking sense of humour and embodies the best aspects of American folklore. Its whimsy, its humour, its homespun charm. Not to mention an unexpected dose of sensuality courtesy of sexy Slue-Foot Sue, whose va-va-voom and panty-flashing antics proved way too racy for some. Along with Bill's cigarette smoking, these scenes were severely trimmed from reissues of the movie on home video.