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.
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.
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.