From 1929 through 1939 the Walt Disney studio released 75 short cartoons in the Silly Symphony series. Starting in March I began watching and featuring them all at PJ Lifestyle to learn more about the culture, history, and technology of the period. It’s really neat to see how the series evolved from beginning to end as Disney utilized it as a kind of experimental laboratory for testing new ideas that would later make it into the feature films. Fantasia — which has become one of my absolute favorite films in recent years, I’ll often have it on in the background while writing — can be understood as the ultimate Silly Symphony. So many of the themes and techniques developed over the decade would find their greatest expression there (a subject that I’ll write about more soon.)
I’ve scheduled the last two Silly Symphony cartoons for tomorrow and Friday. Now that I’ve seen them all I’ll be organizing them into a few lists and collections to highlight the good, the bad, the ugly, and the fascinating. And starting on Monday the PJ Lifestyle Cartoon at Noon feature will take a break from Disney and turn to another company and its standard bearer: Fleischer studios and Betty Boop.
But to start, so others can start to see the fascinating pattern of advancement over the decade, here’s a collection of the 7 Silly Symphony cartoons that won Oscars, along with some remarks on each.
1932: “Flowers and Trees”
This was the first color cartoon in the series and with its characters and visuals it’s also one of the best. It presents a recurring plot of many 1930s cartoons — a bully tries to break up two young lovers. Usually in Disney Cartoons it’s Mickey rescuing Minnie but here it’s a battle amongst living trees.
1933: “Three Little Pigs”
With the catchy song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” this is perhaps the most famous of the Silly Symphonies.
Like a handful of the films in the series, it also has a dark side. In the original version of the cartoon the wolf was dressed as a stereotypical Jewish peddler, animation that was replaced after criticism to make him a Fuller brush salesman instead:
Racial and ethnic stereotypes appear occasionally in the 75 Silly Symphonies — maybe a fourth have a problematic visual or bad joke.
This would later manifest too in Fantasia, though no amount of re-animating would be able to save the infamous, hoof-shining female centaurette Sunshine who was excised from the “Pastoral Sequence” in all of the film’s releases since the 1960s:
1934: “The Tortoise and the Hare”
The Silly Symphonies adapted a number of fables and myths. In a future collection I’ll organize all of them, ranking them from best to worst. This one here is one of the best.
The sequel, featuring the sultry bird caricature of Mae West cheering on the tortoise in his boxing rematch with the hare, features one of the series’ few double entendres.
1935: “Three Orphan Kittens”
This otherwise adorable cartoon is another marred by old fashioned racial stereotypes. Its sequel is a bit tamer.
1936: “The Country Cousin”
This Oscar-winner offers another moral fable. The dangers of drinking too much and the embarrassment that follows was a recurring theme in the series. The fifth, released while Prohibition was still in effect, featured a group of drunken elves.
1937: “The Old Mill”
The 68th in the series was another technological leap forward, the first use of the multi-plane camera, an innovation vital to creating the vivid, lifelike images of Snow White and Pinocchio.
1938, the one year a non-Silly Symphony Disney cartoon won: “Ferdinand the Bull”
…which rightfully won out over the Silly Symphony “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood” that includes caricatures of the period’s movie stars and some wince-inducing racial humor:
1939: the final Silly Symphony, “The Ugly Duckling”
Some of the most magical of the Silly Symphonies are the ones without any dialogue, that tell the story just with music and the great visuals. This is a fitting conclusion to the series with a timeless message: just because you think you’re an ugly duck in one person’s eyes, it doesn’t mean you’ll never find someone who can see your beauty.