Music Land (1935)

Seven years is not that long a time. Seven years ago we got the first of the Star Trek reboot movies, Michael Jackson died and Jay Z and Alicia Keyes released Empire State of Mind. Not exactly ancient history. Go back and watch Steamboat Willie. Now watch Music Land released by Disney a mere seven years later.

shocked-will-smith

So what the hell, right? How did we get from that to that in a mere seven years?

Let’s backtrack a little. Do you know why Steamboat Willie is called that? It’s not because that’s the name of Mickey’s character, it’s because the song he whistles is the chorus to a tune called “Steamboat Bill” by Arthur Collins. Steamboat Willie carved out an entirely new niche for animation, as a visualization of music. In a way, the cartoons of this era were the first music videos, and like music videos their purpose was to act as advertisements, encouraging you to buy both the records and the sheet music. Then (as now) many movie studios were also record labels so it made sense for them to produce cartoons showcasing their music to be screened before their movies, which would then encourage people to buy their music. This was how you got cartoon series like Warner’s Looney Tunes (which would eventually become something very different) and Merry Melodies and Metro Goldwyn Meyer’s Happy Harmonies. But those series were all predated by Disney’s own Silly Symphonies, of which Music Land was the 55th. The Disney studio at this time had two regular series of shorts, the Mickey Mouse shorts which were hugely popular and which the studio cranked out a rate of around one a month in the thirties, and Silly Symphonies. The Symphonies  weren’t nearly as popular for a long time (United Artists wouldn’t even distribute the things until Disney changed the title cards to read “Mickey Mouse presents a Silly Symphony”). That all changed however when Walt Disney got a look at a new colouring process called Technicolor. Disney was able to get exclusive rights to the process for a few years, cutting out competitors like the Fleischer Brothers who had to keep making black and white cartoons like a bunch of savages. After Flowers and Trees, the first cartoon produced in Technicolor, the Silly Symphonies series suddenly exploded in popularity, eventually even surpassing the Mickey Mouse shorts.

But it wasn’t just the lush colours that set the Symphonies apart from their competitors. Whereas Steamboat Willie was recorded using the Powers Cinephone process, Music Land was recorded using the RCA Photophone.

I have no idea what either of those things were. Did they look like this? Almost certainly.

I have no idea what either of those things were. Did they look like this? Almost certainly.

These improvements in technology were why Music Land looks and sounds like it’s from a different era to Steamboat Willy, despite being almost contemporaneous. Music Land is one of the better Silly Symphonies, the music is great and well integrated into the action, and it’s largely free of the awful saccharine tweeness that this series was always vulnerable to (Tex Avery basically launched his career by mercilessly taking the piss out of the Symphonies and their Little Lord Fauntleroy-esque preciousness). But the Symphonies play a vital role in the history of animation. It was here that Disney tested numerous techniques and technologies that would finally lead to Walt Disney accomplishing his ultimate goal; world domination a feature length animated film. Watch the Symphonies and you’ll see the early rehearsals for animated sequences that would later appear in Snow White, Fantasia, Dumbo and Pinocchio. It was here that Disney first learned to animate realistic human characters that didn’t look like the bendy-armed spawn of your night terrors.

The war between the Land of Symphony and the Isle of Jazz (or, at least, the safe watered down version of jazz performed by white artists like Paul Whiteman* who is the model for the Saxophone King) takes on a rather sinister cast when you remember that a mere four years later the bombs were going to start flying for real. The next decade would bring vast changes for every area of human life, and animated shorts would be no exception. Cartoons were about to go to war.

*Yes. His name really was Paul Whiteman. The irony has been noted.

20 comments

  1. Heh – I remember my music teacher showing the class this in third or fourth grade, as a double-feature with “Peter and the Wolf” from Make Mine Music. I didn’t much understand what was going on back then, but I enjoyed it. I think.

    And lemme guess. The next short is going to begin with a D. And rhyme with Ace.

  2. Wow, I’ve never actually seen this short before. It’s cool because in high school I studied saxophone, and now I’m learning violin…I actually just learned that song that plays in the Land of Symphony in the opening (Minuet in G by Beethoven) like a week ago.

    This short was awesome, and it’s amazing to see how far Disney came so fast. It’s really hard sometimes to get a feel for the era when I watch older things like this, because anything more than a decade or two before my birth just feels like a big blob named the Distant Past. Growing up, there were New Disney Movies, and Old Disney Movies, and the old ones were just some monolithic block of cartoon that had always existed and didn’t happen in any particular order.

    One thing I love about this blog is how well you’ve done in explaining the real world events that shaped the industry over time (bonus points for doing so with sarcastic maps and communist crows), and pointing out when evolution was occurring.

  3. Wow, I usually expect this level of violence and sex from a Warner Brothers cartoon, not a Disney one. Death from the skies, people being kissed so hard their bodies fall apart (is that like kissing someone in real life and giving them appendicitis?) Also not a bad use of Wagner, although not as good as What’s Opera Doc, which yeah I’m just mentioning because it’s the best animated anything ever.

  4. I once owned a DVD boxset with this short. You know, the one with introductions by Leonard Maltin? Anyway, when he said that jazz was derided a form of moral degeneracy, back in the thirties, that came as a huge shock to me. Just the idea that anyone could think that of jazz, which to me was basically classical music.

    To be fair, I was about twelve-years-old back then.

  5. If you don’t believe Mouse about the bendy arm horrors of the earlier Silly Symphonies, I present to you “The Goddess of Spring”

  6. Good to read from you again, but I’m curious about your thoughts on “The Wild,” that was distributed from Disney. You mentioned in your earlier reviews that you would tackle that film.

    1. Wow, that takes me back. The Wild is apparently considered part of the Disney canon in Europe , (don’t ask me how that works) and it was on my original list of canon movies to review. Then I found out its not actually part of the canon and dropped it. (guess you could say I got my lions crossed). I don’t really like it, personally.

      1. Well, you did admit in your Winnie the Pooh recap that the Disney Canon was essentially arbitrary. I heard somewhere that The Nightmare Before Christmas is part of the Canon in Japan, but I suspect that’s just an urban legend.

  7. That little horn seriously has one of the most adorable noises I’ve ever heard.

  8. Darnit, why did that have to be your intro? Now I’ve got that damn Seven Years Old song stuck in my head, curses!!! I guess that’s fair payback for the comment I made in your Oliver & Company review. Anyway, I’ve got pretty fond memories of music land. That was my introduction to Ride of the Valkyries, after all (which my little sister always referred to as “very important music” when we watched it).

    I’ve got to admit, the lack of commentary on the content of these things is a bit jarring. I know these are meant to be pretty much mini-reviews, but still, reading what would normally be an intro as a whole article will take some getting used to.

  9. Now this was fun. Anthropomorphic instruments? Check. Seemingly doomed romance? Check. Wagner with guns? Check. (Seriously, is this the first time cinema used Ride of the Valkyries to embellish modern warfare? Or did some propaganda newsreel do it first?) Not much to add, apart from the observation that Disney seemed very eager to bridge the gap between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, something I’d argue they further pursued and achieved with ‘Fantasia’. (I mean, who would even recognize the name of Dukas today if it weren’t for Mickey?) This demarcation has always appeared rather arbitrary to me, having more to do with forms rather than content, and I for one am happy to see the dynastic union which concludes this delightful short. I believe George Gershwin was the heir to the throne.

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