Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Lady And The Tramp

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp

When Lady And The Tramp debuted on June 22, 1955, it should have been a bigger deal. For years, the Disney name had been synonymous with feature animation. Here was the studio’s first feature cartoon since Peter Pan two years earlier. Not only that, it was the first ever produced in CinemaScope. But animation had become almost an afterthought at the studio. Walt himself had decided it was time for his name to become synonymous with something much bigger. His attention was entirely on Disneyland. Lady And The Tramp would have to sink or swim on its own merits.

Lady And The Tramp is easily one of Disney’s most unusual feature animations. For the first time, the story was entirely self-generated and not based on a classic fairy tale or book. Development began all the way back in 1937 when animator Joe Grant brought in some sketches he’d done of his English Springer Spaniel, Lady. Grant had just had a baby and his sketches of the jealous Lady made Walt think there might be a story there. He assigned a small group of storymen to the project and work quietly began on Lady.

By 1945, work on Lady hadn’t progressed much farther than that. Various artists and storymen dropped in ideas here and there but it simply wasn’t coming together. The project might have disappeared into the vault if Walt hadn’t come across a short story in Cosmopolitan magazine called “Happy Dan, The Cynical Dog”. Walt decided a scrappy, cynical dog might be just the counterpoint the sweet, lovable Lady needed.

Walt already knew the story’s author. Ward Greene was a writer and journalist but his day job was general manager of King Features Syndicate, distributing columns and comic strips to newspapers around the country. Disney had been a staple of the funny pages and a feather in King Features’ cap since the Mickey Mouse comic strip premiered in 1930. Odds are this was not a difficult negotiation.

Work continued on what would eventually be titled Lady And The Tramp off and on for the next several years, mostly off. Joe Grant left the studio (and animation, at least temporarily) in 1949, leaving the story to be molded primarily by Ward Greene. Still, the project was simply not a priority at the studio.

Finally in 1953, Walt and Roy Disney had a problem. For years, they had struggled with having too many animated projects in various stages of development. Now, for the first time, they didn’t have enough. Peter Pan had been released but Sleeping Beauty, intended to be Walt’s magnum opus, was nowhere near finished. Roy was in the process of launching Buena Vista, the studio’s new distribution arm. It would be a lot easier to woo exhibitors to Disney distribution with the promise of new Disney animation.

According to Neal Gabler’s excellent book Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination, Walt first considered simply cobbling together another package film. That would have been easier said than done, since the production of animated short subjects was trickling to a halt. Any animators not working on Sleeping Beauty had been kept busy producing new but cheap footage for the Disneyland TV series and The Mickey Mouse Club. Instead of a package film, Roy encouraged Walt to kickstart Lady And The Tramp, figuring it would be a relatively quick and easy project to complete.

It probably would have been except for one thing: CinemaScope. The widescreen process had become Hollywood’s latest craze toward coaxing audiences away from televisions and back into theatres. Disney had successfully used it on the live-action 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the Oscar-winning animated short Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom. When he decided to shoot Lady And The Tramp in CinemaScope, the animators had to make some big adjustments. The backgrounds had to be bigger. Layouts had to be changed. They even had to prepare a second, alternate version formatted for theaters that weren’t equipped to project CinemaScope. Consequently, the “quick and easy” project took longer to complete than anticipated.

Narratively, Lady And The Tramp remains true to the modest goals first laid out by Joe Grant. The story opens on Christmas with Jim Dear presenting Lady in a hatbox as a gift to his beloved wife, Darling. This incident, supposedly inspired by Walt’s own Christmas gift of a puppy to his wife, Lillian, early in their marriage, helped obfuscate Grant’s contribution to the story in later years. Opening with such a personal moment, everyone simply assumed the story was Walt’s and Walt himself did little to suggest otherwise.

The movie ambles along at its own pace from there, following Lady as she grows up, gets to know her neighbors Jock and Trusty, acquires her collar and official dog license. The movie’s almost a third over before we’re introduced to either the idea of a new baby entering the home or even Lady’s costar, Tramp.

Theatrical re-release poster for Lady And The Tramp

Lady And The Tramp has a reputation as one of the most romantic movies of all time, animated or otherwise. It landed at Number 95 on the American Film Institute’s 2002 list of love stories, 100 Years…100 Passions. But the film takes its time revealing that side of itself. Crucially, Disney spends the first 45 minutes or so romanticizing the characters’ world rather than the characters themselves. Tramp and his friends from the wrong side of the tracks are kept separate from Lady and her Snob Hill neighbors. Both worlds seem equally appealing and idyllic on their own. When Lady and the Tramp come together, they blend into a singular, magical space.

After Disneyland opened, it became common shorthand to compartmentalize Disney’s work into the four park areas: Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland. But there was always a fifth area to the park, Main Street USA, and it’s that idealized, hyper-nostalgic worldview that’s on full display in Lady And The Tramp.

More often than not, Disney would indulge his nostalgic impulses through live-action films like So Dear To My Heart and later, Pollyanna. Lady And The Tramp translates that live-action aesthetic into animation and the result is even more idealized. We believe in the somewhat unlikely romance between these two dogs in large part because of their perfect surroundings.

Supposedly, Walt was ready to cut the now-iconic spaghetti dinner scene, concerned that the sight of two dogs wolfing down a big plate of pasta would just look ridiculous. Animator Frank Thomas fought for it, animating the whole thing by himself to prove his point. The beautifully animated scene kicks off the “Bella Notte” sequence, a lovely blend of character animation, sumptuous backgrounds and romantic details. How could anyone not fall in love to images like these?

Theatrical re-release poster for Lady And The Tramp

Their happiness is short-lived as Lady is thrown into the local dog pound, where she learns some harsh truths about her new boyfriend. Tramp gets around and everybody’s got a story to tell about his love life. By the time she gets sprung from lockup, Lady’s fed up with Tramp. He ran off and abandoned her when she was caught. Now it seems he never really cared about her at all.

But Tramp hasn’t abandoned Lady or run away. He’s completely selfish but he isn’t a coward. We’ve already seen that he’s got a soft spot for puppies and is a true and loyal friend, rescuing dogs on their way to the pound. He assumed that Lady would be fine, thanks to her get-out-of-jail-free license. As soon as she’s out, he comes by to check on her and learns that love means putting another person (or dog or, in this case, baby) ahead of your own best interests. As relationship lessons go, the ones taught by Lady And The Tramp aren’t bad.

For the voice talent, Disney cast a wider net than on other projects, recruiting a number of actors from outside the studio. Barbara Luddy provided the voice of Lady. It was her first role for Disney but not the last. She’d go on to voice a number of characters over the years, including Kanga in the Winnie The Pooh series. Tramp was voiced by Larry Roberts, a stage performer who never made another film. He retired from show business in the late 1950s and went into fashion design. Reliable Disney stock players Verna Felton and Bill Thompson appeared as Aunt Sarah and Jock.

Disney even brought in a pair of voice talents not typically associated with the studio. Stan Freberg was an established voice talent at Warner Bros. and on radio who was beginning to hit the big time with his own comedy records when Disney brought him in to provide the voice of the Beaver. Alan Reed was still a few years away from landing his defining role as Fred Flintstone but was a popular radio and character actor when he voiced Boris, the Russian wolfhound.

But the not-so-secret weapon of Lady And The Tramp is undoubtedly Miss Peggy Lee. Disney had never relied on celebrity voices for his cartoons but he certainly wasn’t against using them. Bing Crosby and Basil Rathbone had toplined The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad and Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was modeled after radio star Ed Wynn. But Peggy Lee was in a different category when she arrived on the Disney lot.

Peggy Lee became the singer in Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1941. Within two years, she had the number-one song in the country, the million-selling “Why Don’t You Do Right?” After she left Goodman’s group, her career really took off with huge hits like “Golden Earrings” and “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)”. Her being asked to work on Lady And The Tramp was the 1950s equivalent of Elton John working on The Lion King or Phil Collins on Tarzan.

Peggy Lee gave the work her all. She provides the voices for four characters: Darling, the cats Si and Am and, of course, Peg the Pekingese. She even gave story notes. Trusty the bloodhound was supposed to die at the end until Peggy Lee cautioned against traumatizing a generation that was still grieving Bambi’s mom.

Album cover art for Songs From Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp by Peggy Lee

Most importantly, she collaborated with Sonny Burke on six original songs. Burke had first worked for Disney on Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom and he’d go on to produce some of Frank Sinatra’s most iconic records, including “My Way”. The songs Lee and Burke wrote for Lady And The Tramp work perfectly with Oliver Wallace’s Victorian-tinged score. The lullaby “La La Lu” bridges the gap between the eras nicely.

But the songs everyone remembers from Lady And The Tramp are distinctly modern. “Bella Notte”, “The Siamese Cat Song” and “He’s A Tramp” are very much of their era. They help contemporize Lady And The Tramp, bringing it out of the rose-colored mists of nostalgia and into the present day. Today, it creates a feeling of double-nostalgia for both Walt’s turn-of-the-century youth and for the 1950s. It’s the same powerful feeling that accounts for the continued popularity of movies like Grease. We’re nostalgic for nostalgia itself, not for a specific era.

As for “The Siamese Cat Song”, it’s a bit lame to brush aside its casual ethnic stereotyping by saying that this is far from the worst example of it we’ll see in a Disney movie. Sure, they’re cats but there’s no missing the implications of the character design, music or voices. One can certainly understand why the song was scrapped from the recent Disney+ remake. Still…it’s a good song. The Asian pastiche is a pretty common type of popular song and this is one of the better examples of it.

Besides, it isn’t like the cats are singled out. It’s a long-standing tradition in animation that if an animal can be defined by an ethnic stereotype, it will be. Jock, the Scottish terrier, is very Scottish. Boris, the Russian wolfhound, is very Russian. Pedro, the chihuahua, is very Mexican. Of course Si and Am are going to be very “Siamese”, which is a word that people just took to mean generally Asian back in the day. At least they weren’t called “Oriental”. On our ongoing list of Outdated Tropes of the Past, “The Siamese Cat Song” doesn’t seem worth getting too worked up over.

Lady And The Tramp was not an immediate hit with critics. Many longtime Disney supporters dismissed it as sentimental and inconsequential. But audiences loved it. It quickly became the studio’s biggest hit since Snow White, ending up as the sixth highest grossing film of 1955.

Lady And The Tramp didn’t exactly lend itself to Disneyland attractions or toys and games beyond the usual merchandise but its popularity earned it a spin-off comic strip. Scamp, originally written by Ward Greene and distributed by King Features, followed the adventures of Lady and the Tramp’s mischievous son for over 30 years. The strip finally ended in 1988 and Scamp returned to animated form in the 2001 direct-to-video sequel Lady And The Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure.

Comic book cover art for Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp spin-off Scamp

Even today, Lady And The Tramp remains one of Disney’s most popular films. In 1987, the film was released on VHS for the first time and surprised everyone by becoming the best-selling videocassette of all time. Perhaps nobody was more surprised than Peggy Lee, who sued Disney for royalties on the video sales. She was eventually rewarded over $2 million and the case changed entertainment copyright law forever, forcing studios and unions to grapple with new media like home entertainment.

Lady And The Tramp proved that Walt Disney didn’t need a beloved book or fairy tale to deliver a heartfelt, masterfully animated feature. The studio was more than capable of crafting their own stories. But unfortunately, it came around a little too late. Walt had almost done everything he wanted to accomplish with animation. His heart and his mind now belonged to Disneyland. The golden age of Disney animated features was coming to a close.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Living Desert

Original theatrical quad poster for Walt Disney's The Living Desert

The Living Desert may appear to be a minor entry in the Disney catalog. It isn’t a cartoon, although it does open with a few minutes of animation. It’s live-action but there isn’t a single human being to be seen. But this feature-length nature documentary represents a significant milestone for the studio. To see why, we’ll eventually have to go all the way back to Disney’s very first films. But first, let’s rewind just a decade or so.

Walt Disney first got into documentary filmmaking during the war years, producing the feature-length Victory Through Air Power and assorted short subjects to help with the war effort. This opened up a little side business producing educational shorts for corporate clients like General Motors and Johnson & Johnson. These projects kept the studio afloat during the lean years of the 1940s.

An inveterate traveler throughout his life, Walt made his first trip to Alaska in 1947. He fell in love with the area and was eager to see more. A friend suggested he check out the work of Alfred and Elma Milotte, a husband-and-wife team of nature photographers. Walt was impressed with their work and commissioned them to return to Alaska and film whatever they wanted. He didn’t particularly know what he was going to do with the footage. He just wanted to see what they’d get.

The Milottes shot thousands of feet of film. Out of all this, Walt was most interested in footage they’d captured of seals cavorting on the Pribilof Islands. He assigned James Algar, an animator who had directed The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment in Fantasia and Victory Through Air Power, the job of building a narrative around the footage. The resulting half-hour short, Seal Island, was presented as the first in a series of films called True-Life Adventures.

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Seal Island

Both Walt and Roy Disney felt that Seal Island was a winner. But RKO, their distributor for over a decade, didn’t want anything to do with it. Only after Seal Island won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject did they agree to put it in theatres.

Over the next few years, Disney, Algar, the Milottes, writer/narrator Winston Hibler and producer Ben Sharpsteen made half a dozen more True-Life Adventures. Four of them, In Beaver Valley, Nature’s Half Acre, Water Birds, and Bear Country, won Academy Awards. The series was an unqualified success. As far as the Disneys were concerned, a full-length feature seemed like the next logical step.

The Living Desert was inspired by the work of photographers N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Robert Crandall. Kenworthy was a graduate student working on a short film for his thesis project. He’d made some amateur 8mm films of insects and had read about Pepsis wasps, a large desert insect that preys on tarantulas. Nobody had ever filmed a wasp/tarantula battle before, so Kenworthy contacted Crandall, an entomologist based out of Arizona. Crandall’s scientific knowledge and Kenworthy’s skill with the camera allowed them to capture the entire event on film.

Kenworthy brought his footage to Disney, thinking it might make for a good True-Life Adventure. Walt loved it, bought the footage immediately and hired Kenworthy and Crandall to head back to the desert to get more. This also meant that Kenworthy had to start over on his thesis project, since he’d sold the rights to his film, but it seemed to work out all right for him.

The Living Desert was ready for release in 1953. But this time, RKO flat-out refused to distribute it. They had begrudgingly released the other True-Life Adventures shorts but a feature-length documentary was not what they wanted from Disney. This would be the last straw in the long-simmering feud between Disney and RKO.

Walt and Roy had struggled with their distributors from the very beginning. Their relationship with their first distributor, Margaret Winkler, fell apart when she stepped away from the busines and put her husband, Charles Mintz, in charge. Walt created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Mintz. When the character became popular and Walt pressed for a better deal, Mintz went behind his back and hired virtually his entire staff away from him. Mintz also kept the rights to Oswald, inspiring Walt and Ub Iwerks, the only animator who remained loyal to him, to create a new character, Mickey Mouse.

Walt didn’t have much better luck with his next distributor, Pat Powers. Disney had originally signed with Powers to use his Cinephone recording system while making Steamboat Willie. But the terms of the arrangement were heavily in Powers’ favor. Once again, Walt tried to negotiate a better deal only to have Powers poach his key men. This time, he even lost Ub Iwerks, as well as composer Carl Stalling. As a result of the strain, Walt suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931.

Once he was able to extricate himself from the Powers deal, Walt signed up with Columbia to distribute the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons. That relationship soured in 1932 when Walt moved over to United Artists. By 1937, UA was pressuring Walt to sign over the television rights to his cartoons. TV was still very much in its infancy and Walt, having been burned repeatedly in the past, wasn’t about to commit to a long-term contract for something that wasn’t yet fully understood. So Walt left the studio and signed up with RKO.

The relationship between RKO and Disney had its ups and downs. RKO had been reluctant to release some of Disney’s earlier films, including Dumbo (too short), Fantasia (too arty) and Victory Through Air Power (which they also turned down entirely, leading Walt to release it through UA). For their part, Roy and Walt had been unhappy with RKO’s lackluster promotional efforts.

In 1948, multimillionaire and movie dabbler Howard Hughes took control of RKO. Hughes proceeded to run the studio into the ground, releasing a mix of expensive flops and low-budget B-movies. During these years, Disney provided some of the few hits RKO had. At one point, Hughes even offered to sell RKO to Disney. Walt passed, supposedly saying something like, “I already have a movie studio. What would I want with another?” I can honestly not imagine any of Disney’s current executives expressing this sentiment.

By 1953, Disney was doing more for RKO than RKO was doing for Disney. After giving the studio a string of huge hits like Treasure Island and Peter Pan, Walt and Roy felt they’d earned the right to release whatever they saw fit. When RKO passed on The Living Desert, they decided they’d had enough of outside distributors. Roy proposed creating their own distribution arm. Walt liked the idea but didn’t want to be too involved, busy as he was with plans for Disneyland and his TV show. So Roy ran point on the new venture and established the Buena Vista Film Distribution Company, named after the Burbank street where the studio stood.

Original theatrical release poster for The Living Desert

The Living Desert was the first Buena Vista release and it was an immediate success. It raked in millions at the box office, both domestically and internationally, and had only cost about $300,000 to make. Buena Vista was off to a very profitable start.

Watching The Living Desert (or indeed any of the True-Life Adventures) today, it’s immediately apparent that this is the work of animators, not seasoned documentarians. Winston Hibler, who cowrote the scripts with James Algar and provided the narration, had been a story man. Beginning with the Johnny Appleseed segment in Melody Time, he contributed to The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad, Peter Pan and several other animated features. Algar had been with Disney since Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

Algar and Hibler imbue the animals in The Living Desert with distinct personalities, giving them names like Skinny and Mugsy. That isn’t too difficult when you’re showing a bobcat get chased up a cactus by a pack of wild boars. But it’s quite another thing to anthropomorphize more alien-looking creatures like wasps and scorpions.

The biggest weapon in their arsenal is the omnipresent use of Paul L. Smith’s music. Disney pioneered the use of music in animation and that influence extended over into live-action films. So much so that the technique of exactly synchronizing music to the action on-screen is referred to as “Mickey Mousing”. In general, that term is not considered complimentary.

The Living Desert is guiltier of Mickey Mousing than most actual Mickey Mouse cartoons. When a couple of cute baby coatis (kind of a desert cousin to the raccoon) fall asleep in their nest, you can be sure that Smith will cue up “Home Sweet Home”. The most extreme example is the mating dance of the scorpions, which Smith and Hibler turn into a full-on country jambaroo complete with square dancing calls and manipulated footage to make it look like a nearby owl is also getting down.

Critics and naturalists cried fowl at obviously staged sequences like this but audiences at the time certainly didn’t mind. They also shouldn’t have been surprised. Walt had already proven that he wasn’t above creating an entirely fictional narrative to get across some broad facts in the studio tour feature The Reluctant Dragon. At least he didn’t try to make it look like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were on a desert safari.

Despite the somewhat dubious educational value of such tricks, The Living Desert went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It was a big night for Disney. Even though none of his animated or live-action features were even nominated that year, Walt cleaned up in other categories. Bear Country won Best Live-Action Short Subject (Two-Reel). The Alaskan Eskimo, the first entry in a sister series to True-Life Adventures called People & Places, won Best Documentary Short Subject. And the great Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom won Best Short Subject (Cartoons). The four Oscars Walt won set a record for the most taken home by an individual in a single night.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Living Desert and Bear Country double feature

The Living Desert has had a much longer shelf life than most documentaries from the 1950s. It was re-released theatrically a few times over the years. I remember watching it and other True-Life Adventures in school, a good 25 years after its original release. Today, it’s available on Disney+ and I can vouch for the fact that kids are still watching these vintage True-Life Adventures. Just this past July, we went to visit my girlfriend’s family. Her young nephews cycled through at least three of them one afternoon and, near as I could tell, that was all their idea.

By treating nature like a cartoon, Walt found a way to give documentaries a timeless appeal. The studio continues the tradition today with the Disneynature films. Celebrity narrators have replaced the friendly, folksy voice of Winston Hibler and sometimes they get an IMAX upgrade. But the spirit of the True-Life Adventures lives on. We will see more of them in the weeks ahead.

VERDICT: This is one of the few films I’ve ever watched that completely captivated my cat. Any movie that can hold a cat’s attention for over an hour has to be considered a Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Melody Time

Original teaser poster for Melody Time

Walt Disney was unquestionably one of the most imaginative figures of the twentieth century. His expansive vision went well beyond animation, transforming feature films, television and, of course, theme parks. So when he sat down to assemble Melody Time, Disney’s fifth package film of the decade, you’d think Walt could have come up with a more interesting theme than, “Let’s just do another music one.”

On the face of it, Walt’s commitment to musically themed package films is almost quixotic. He had hoped that Fantasia would be his crowning achievement and had taken its financial and critical disappointment personally. It seems as though he almost viewed it like a warning against letting his ambitions run away with him. He played it much safer on Make Mine Music. Most of the animation was done in the more traditional, cartoony style. The music was contemporary. And most of the segments could stand on their own as individually released short subjects in case the feature version tanked.

Walt’s compromises paid off. Make Mine Music was a modest success, at a time when the studio needed all the successes it could get. With their next full-length animated feature still on the horizon, Walt needed to release something to theaters in 1948. Another hodgepodge of contemporary songs must have seemed like as good an idea as any.

But Disney’s team had already had a more interesting idea. Perhaps inspired by the success of the Casey At The Bat segment in Make Mine Music, the animators were keen to develop an entire compilation of American folk heroes, tall tales and legends. Two segments were completed: The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill. But for whatever reason, Walt decided not to pursue the idea and instead filled the rest of the film with an odd assortment of completely unrelated cartoons.

Perhaps it was Johnny Appleseed that soured Walt on the project. Performed by radio star Dennis Day, the segment mines all the excitement it can from the story of the peace-loving gardener who roamed the countryside planting apple trees. Which is to say, not much. It’s pleasant enough but it is completely bereft of dramatic conflict. Johnny walks, plants, befriends animals, walks, plants, naps, walks, plants, dies peacefully beneath a tree, then is escorted to heaven where he presumably walks, plants, and so on.

But The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed is slightly unusual for Disney in that it’s one of the most explicitly Christian projects the studio ever produced. We’re introduced to Johnny singing “The Lord’s Been Good To Me” and he carries his Bible with him everywhere. It’s hardly radical but it may have been too much for Walt, who was never a churchgoer and tried to keep religion out of his creative work.

About ten years after Melody Time, Walt’s brother Roy came to him with a potential live-action project: a religious epic called The Big Fisherman based on the life of Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter. Walt wanted nothing to do with it but Roy backed it anyway, releasing the independent production through Buena Vista. Today, The Big Fisherman remains virtually impossible to see.

At any rate, it’s possible that Johnny Appleseed‘s fairly innocuous religious content, coupled with its overall sleepy tone, helped put the kibosh on the tall tales and legends concept, at least for the time being. Disney would eventually get back to it in short form. In 1950, Casey Jones starred in The Brave Engineer. The Oscar-nominated Paul Bunyan followed in 1958. Finally in 2002, the studio got around to compiling most of these, along with the new short John Henry, in the direct-to-video package film Disney’s American Legends.

DVD cover art for Disney's American Legends

Still, it’s unfortunate that Walt didn’t have enough faith in the idea at the time, especially since the second folk tale, Pecos Bill, is easily the film’s highlight. In the live-action framing sequence, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers (and Trigger, the Smartest Horse in the Movies, of course) tell the story to young Disney contract-buckaroos Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten (reunited after Song Of The South). It’s a classic Tall Tale of the Wild West, with a pioneer boy raised by coyotes and growing up to shape the Great State of Texas alongside his trusty horse, Widowmaker.

Pecos Bill is just a breezy, fun cartoon. It’s the longest segment in Melody Time but it’s never in danger of overstaying its welcome. The animation is a treat and the music is delightful, especially the cowboy classic “Blue Shadows On The Trail”. That song is not to be confused with Randy Newman’s similar “Blue Shadows” from Three Amigos!, although I’m guessing Newman wrote his song because Disney wouldn’t let them use the original. In fact, the original title of Three Amigos! was actually The Three Caballeros. Disney probably had a thing or two to say about that, too.

The rest of the segments run the usual gamut of highs and lows. Singer Frances Langford performs the charming and nostalgic Once Upon A Wintertime. This cartoon would find a more receptive audience later after it was released on its own and included in various Christmas-themed compilations.

Bumble Boogie is a jazzed-up version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee. A presumably more traditional performance of the piece had been considered as a potential Fantasia segment a few years earlier. The music, performed by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra with Jack Fina killing it on piano, is great but the animation is disappointing. An insect that frankly doesn’t look all that much like a bumblebee has to maneuver his way through various musical backgrounds. Compared to the more ambitious abstract segments in Fantasia and even Make Mine Music, this comes across as a little pedestrian. It feels like Disney wasn’t all that interested in challenging himself anymore.

The Andrews Sisters perform the epic story of Little Toot, which is essentially the same as Pedro from Saludos Amigos but with boats instead of planes. A little tugboat who wants to be a big tugboat saves the day after he gets in a world of trouble. There isn’t much to this and it goes on a bit too long but I like the Andrews Sisters, so at least the music’s good. If you don’t like the Andrews Sisters, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Just about everyone is gonna have a bad time with Trees, in which Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians perform Joyce Kilmer’s poem set to music by Oscar Rasbach. Trees is one of the most famous poems ever written and I don’t know a single person who likes it. It’s the kind of thuddingly obvious poem that gives poetry in general a bad name. It’s one of the easiest poems to parody but Disney plays it completely straight. But the animation is certainly pretty, so if you mute your television, you might be able to appreciate it.

The penultimate segment, arriving just before Pecos Bill, is the third and final entry in the Saludos Amigos/Three Caballeros saga, Blame It On The Samba. Donald Duck and José Carioca are back, along with that damn Aracuan Bird, but Panchito Pistoles sits this one out. This time, Donald and José have lost their pep until the Aracuan Bird spices things up with the samba rhythms of the Dinning Sisters and organist Ethel Smith, who appears in live-action footage.

This segment only adds to the sense that Melody Time is primarily scraps and leftovers. Any pretense of introducing audiences to authentic Latin American music is out the window. Donald and José don’t even get a chance to speak. It all feels like half an abandoned idea from The Three Caballeros that nobody bothered to flesh out.

Walt Disney’s years of penny-pinching and piecemeal package films were finally drawing to a close but he wasn’t completely done with them yet. By the early 1950s, Disney’s relationship with long-time distributor RKO was coming to an acrimonious end. Roy didn’t feel RKO was doing enough to publicize the Disney films, while RKO had problems of its own with Disney. A particular bone of contention was the series of True-Life Adventures nature documentaries, which RKO had no interest in distributing. This column will get back to those soon enough.

In 1953, Roy decided to break from RKO and created his own distribution company, Buena Vista. But the studio was on the hook to deliver one more animated feature to RKO. So in 1955, Walt re-edited a handful of segments from both Make Mine Music and Melody Time, added the bare minimum of new introductory material, and delivered Music Land to RKO.

Original theatrical release poster for Music Land

Music Land is without question the rarest of all Disney features. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a greatest-hits album or a clip show. After it fulfilled Walt’s contractual obligation, it was locked up in the Disney Vault, never to be heard from again. I’m not advocating for its release. You could put together a YouTube playlist and have roughly the same experience. But it’s an interesting footnote to both the musical package films and Disney’s long relationship with RKO.

In the end, Melody Time didn’t do much for Disney. It failed to find much of an audience and critics received it with a shrug and a yawn. After years of package films and odd experiments, there were plenty of people who assumed that Walt Disney had lost his touch, perhaps for good. Unfortunately, it would be another few years before he’d prove them wrong.

VERDICT: Only Once Upon A Wintertime and Pecos Bill can really be considered winners here, so it’s another Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Victory Through Air Power

Original theatrical release poster for Victory Through Air Power

World War II affected every single Hollywood studio. But perhaps no one was hit harder than Walt Disney. After the US formally entered the war in December of 1941, Walt put virtually every one of his projects on hold to focus on the war effort. This was not entirely by choice. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Army troops moved into Disney’s Burbank studio, which was strategically close to a Lockheed aircraft plant. The studio remained under military occupation for eight months.

With the Army already enjoying Disney’s hospitality, it was only a matter of time before the armed services and other branches of the government asked Walt to join their propaganda effort. For the Office of War Information, Disney produced animation for Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. He produced short subjects urging citizens to pay their taxes, buy war bonds, and conserve grease. And in 1943, he released his most ambitious wartime effort and one of the most unusual films of his career: a feature-length animated documentary based on a book arguing the theoretical applications of aviation in wartime. Sounds like a real crowd-pleaser, doesn’t it?

Surprisingly, Victory Through Air Power was not a government commission. This was all Walt’s idea. Like a lot of people, Walt had read the best-selling book by Major Alexander P. de Seversky and was completely won over by his ideas. Walt felt the book had a message that needed to be heard. He believed in it so much that he financed it personally, fast-tracking the film’s production. When RKO, Disney’s regular distributor, refused to release the decidedly uncommercial project, Walt brokered a deal with United Artists to get it into theaters. RKO’s instincts turned out to be correct. Victory Through Air Power was another money-loser for Walt, although to be fair, he wasn’t really looking to turn a profit on this one in the first place.

The movie starts with the History of Aviation, an entertaining sequence that continued to be screened on its own for years after the rest of the film fell into obscurity. It is astonishing to realize that the Wright Brothers’ first flight had only happened 40 years prior to this movie’s release. Walt himself was actually two years older than the first airplane. That’s a lot of change in a really short time and this sequence does an admirable job condensing it into a fun, easy-to-understand animated short, even as it glosses over and oversimplifies some of its information.

With the background established, it’s time to turn to the themes and ideas in Major de Seversky’s book. And who better to convey those ideas than Major Alexander P. de Seversky himself? In live-action footage helmed by journeyman director H.C. Potter, de Seversky addresses the camera directly, using giant maps and oversized globes to help illustrate his points. The props help a little but the movie unavoidably swerves into sleepy lecture-hall territory whenever de Seversky pops up.

The animation in the second half is somewhat simpler than what had become the norm for Disney, with less detailed backgrounds and more abstraction. But the work is still striking, especially since we’re seeing the Disney style applied to some very atypical subject matter. The Dunkirk sequence is a grim and starkly beautiful standout.

But here’s the thing. Victory Through Air Power is unquestionably an interesting film, especially if you’re a Disney historian, a student of animation or a World War II buff. But “interesting” is not the same as “entertaining”. Even at just 70 minutes, this can be a long sit. Watching someone painstakingly explain strategies and theories from over half a century ago may be fun for some Monday morning quarterbacks but I suspect that most people would rather watch just about anything else.

Victory Through Air Power opened on July 17, 1943, six months after the mini-movie Saludos Amigos. Hardly anybody went to see it but it did at least get in front of people who mattered, like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score (although the music categories were essentially participation ribbons at this point) and quietly faded back into the fabled Disney Vault. Disney would not release another feature film until 1945.

But the work the Disney studio produced during these lean years would end up having a lasting impact. His government contracts not only kept the studio afloat, they resulted in some truly innovative and daring short films. Education For Death: The Making Of The Nazi is a radical departure, following a young German boy named Hans as he grows up and is indoctrinated into the party. It’s beautifully animated and one of the most serious, somber films Disney would ever produce.

On the other extreme is one of Disney’s wildest cartoons, the Oscar-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face. Donald Duck wakes up in “Nutzi Land”, jarred out of bed by a band (whose members include Mussolini, Tojo, Himmler, Goebbels and Göring) playing Oliver Wallace’s memorable title song. Spike Jones and his City Slickers had a big hit with their rendition of the tune. After breakfast (one-bean coffee, a slice of bread-shaped wood, a bacon-and-egg-scented mist) and a little light reading of Mein Kampf, the band hustles Donald off to his job at a munitions plant. The job and the constant “heil”-ing of Hitler sends Donald off the deep end…at which point he wakes up in his own bed (and his own stars-and-stripes pajamas) back in the good old U S of A.

Disney's Donald Duck enters World War II in Der Feurher's Face

Even though the whole thing is just a dream, it’s more than a little jarring to hear the words “Heil Hitler” coming out of Donald’s beak. Of course, that was the whole point. Donald Duck became Disney’s go-to wartime character, even doing a hitch in the Army in a whole series of cartoons. But Der Fuehrer’s Face stands out as one of Disney’s most effective and entertaining pieces of anti-Nazi propaganda.

Perhaps the most important legacy of films like Victory Through Air Power was the discovery of a new source of income for the studio: educational films. In the years that followed, Disney and his team would produce dozens of short films for use in schools. Some would use familiar characters like Donald Duck and Jiminy Cricket. Others would be more straight-forward, on topics ranging from The ABC Of Hand Tools to The Story Of Menstruation.

Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother and business partner, had also learned a valuable lesson from movies like Saludos Amigos and Victory Through Air Power. Live-action sequences were a lot cheaper to produce than fully animated features. At his urging, the studio would start incorporating a lot more live-action footage into its features moving forward.

VERDICT: It’s certainly not without interest but for most people, Victory Through Air Power is far too specialized and frankly dull to be considered anything other than a Disney Minus.