The Flying Mouse is a fan favorite, though I’d venture to guess that it’s for the great character animation and catchy themes than the story. In short, it’s about a mouse who wants to fly, is given wings by a magical fairy, and is shunned by his family, the birds he wanted to emulate, and the bats (who have the best song in the short). Eventually, the fairy restores him to his wingless, original self with the admonishment “Do your best. Be yourself.” The human form that the fairy takes is another example of a proto-Snow White (or perhaps the Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy), and the bats and spider hearken back to the characters in the first few years of the Silly Symphony series.
The Silly Symphonies were such a rich and important series for Disney in the 1930s, yet many fans today remember them only for their benchmarks: The Skeleton Dance for launching the series, Flowers and Trees for technicolor, Three Little Pigs for “Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”, The Old Mill for the multi-plane camera… These are all worthwhile facts, but they often reduce these great works of animation art and entertainment to a footnote. Most Disney fans know of The Goddess of Spring as the short where the Disney animators experimented with a realistic-looking character, in preparation for Snow White. While that may be true, The Goddess of Spring is so much more. In an operetta (with a demonic jazz interlude) by Leigh Harline, the story of seasons is beautifully animated – with the Disney animators pulling out all stops and delivering images that continue to resonate in animation today.
One of the best Silly Symphonies. One of the best cartoons ever (according to me). The Tortoise and the Hare perfectly encapsulates what Disney did best. From the very first (silent) Disney cartoons to the biggest “Princess” movies, Disney used classic stories as a jumping-off point and made them exciting, fun, and relevant. Disney veteran Wilfred Jackson handled direction and the memorable score is by Frank Churchill. But it was animator Ham Luske’s animation of Max Hare that still resonates. Was Max an inspiration for another studio’s Bunny? Did that bunny appear in another take on The Tortoise and the Hare 6 years later?
The Golden Touch is a lesser Silly Symphony – with a decent song by Frank Churchill (sung by Billy Bletcher) and some fun a weird animation by Norm Ferguson and Fred Moore. Where the cartoon falls short is the story, which is odd because as an adaptation of a classic story, this should have been a shoo-in for the director – one of the best storytellers of the century – Walt Disney. Where Nathaniel Hawthorne showed Midas losing his beloved daughter as a victim of his greed, Disney presented the comedic Midas panicking because he couldn’t eat, eventually trading his golden touch and everything he owned in exchange for “one hamburger sandwich”.
The Robber Kitten, directed by David Hand, is another rarely-seen Silly Symphony gem. Ambrose the kitten decides to avoid his bath and run away to become a highwayman. He renames himself Butch and almost immediately runs into Dirty Bill, a real-life bad guy, who has the best theme song ever – written by Frank Churchill (who also composed the score) and sung by Billy Bletcher (aka Pegleg Pete and The Big Bad Wolf).
Water Babies definitely falls into the “cute & charming” camp of 1930’s shorts. Watch it for the cool special effects animation, the often bizarre gags, and Leigh Harline’s score. It’s definitely “of its time” – perhaps cherubic water sprites don’t carry the same weight today as they did 80 years ago. It was popular enough to merit the Merbabies follow-up.
Rags to riches. True love. Makeovers. Musical numbers. Cookie and candy gags. With four out of five of those, you’d have one of any number of successful musical comedies from the ’30s and ’40s. But add the last, and you’ve got Disney magic. Ben Sharpsteen directed this 8-minute short which finds a gingerbread hobo helping a poor sugar cookie become Miss Bonbon so she can compete in the Cookie parade, where a Queen will be chosen. Leigh Harline’s musical numbers propel the story forward (of particular charm are the short vignettes when the suitors present themselves to the Cookie Queen), and the animators make full use of their dazzling technicolor palette.
Who Killed Cock Robin? is a mini-operetta that delighted 1935 audiences. The Academy Award nominated short highlights several caricatures of popular movie stars (particularly “Jenny Wren” as Mae West) and a wall-to-wall Frank Churchill score featuring a hysterical libretto. Some of the characterizations and humor that were considered acceptable at he time are no longer appropriate today, and consequently it’s become more difficult to view this short. However, as an example of storytelling, music and animation style, Who Killed Cock Robin? is still a worthwhile view.
Music Land is a masterpiece. The original concept of the Silly Symphony series was to present music-driven stand-alone stories. By 1935 (and ⅔ of the way into the series) the Disney animation team was hitting their stride – the Silly Symphony shorts were untouchable. But where the preceding shorts told stories using music, Music Land told a story about music. The gap between the two most different types of popular music – Classical and Jazz – was presented, explored, and bridged (quite literally), using a Romeo & Juliet theme. Director Wilfred Jackson and Musical Director Leigh Harline’s vision was a resounding success – and their work on the Mickey Mouse short The Band Concert that same year proved it was no fluke. This is Disney doing what it did best – and it’s still beloved 80 years later.