For our latest exhibition in the Anderson Room, we are celebrating that most festive of ballets, The Nutcracker, with two selection cases of items, including an edition published to commemorate the inclusion of The Nutcracker in Disney’s 1940 classic Fantasia; alongside other works which celebrate the favours that are celebrated in the ballet including tea, coffee, and chocolate.
The Disney edition is particularly fascinating coming at a crucially important point in the history of the film company.
Founded in 1923 by Walt Disney and his brother, Roy, Disney Studios had become well known for its cartoon shorts, particularly those featuring Mickey Mouse, who first appeared on film in 1928. By 1940, Disney Studios had won eight Oscars for short animations, and had been nominated for seven others. Animated shorts were popular in the film industry despite the amount of work, and sometimes money, that went into making them. Most featured music as an integral part of the cartoon, from Disney’s award winning Silly Symphonies to Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies, soon to become the home of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
Walt Disney had bigger plans though, and was set upon making a feature film that would depend solely on animation. The film industry was not convinced that this would work, but Snow White (1937) based on the classic fairy tale, and in essence, an animated musical, was a huge success. In common with The Nutcracker, it was premiered in the run-up to Christmas, and was both a critical and commercial success. Nominated for Best Musical Score at the Academy Awards of 1938, it lost out to One Hundred Men and a Girl (I suspect that despite this, you will know more songs from Snow White than you do from the latter film!). Walt Disney was awarded an honorary Oscar for his “significant screen innovation” in 1939.
By 1939, several new full length animated movies were in the pipeline. Among them were to be some of Disney’s most iconic works including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, and Dumbo.
Bambi was originally intended to be the second in the sequence, but ongoing problems around the animation of the central animal characters, meant that Pinocchio, the tale of a little wooden boy, was bumped up the sequence, and went into production in September 1938.
As Pinocchio went into sequence, another project that had been a passion of Walt’s for some time also went into production. In contrast to Pinocchio, Fantasia was a project that really enthused Disney, and he was delighted to get the eminent conductor, Leopold Stokowski, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, involved in the project. (Stokowski had also been involved in the making of the aforementioned One Hundred Men and a Girl).
The original inspiration for Fantasia was surprisingly prosaic. Disney had been working on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a complex short involving Mickey Mouse, as part of the Silly Symphonies series. The short was soon running way over budget, and it was decided that it might be more profitable to use it as part of a longer film, and so the idea of making an animated film with music at its centre, was born.
Walt Disney, along with his brother Roy, had a series of meetings with story writers, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, who made an inital selection of music with potential for the feature; and the meetings were swiftly extended to include Leopold Stokowski, and music critic, Deems Taylor, who would go on to narrate the film.
Early possibilities were Stravinsky’s Firebird, which was soon discarded in favour of The Rite of Spring (though Firebird did make a comeback in Fantasia 2000). Debussy’s Clair de Lune was also dropped at an early stage. Works that did make it through included Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565), and selections from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.
The film was as much an experiment with animation as it was with music, with many of the sequences confounding audience expectations of animated film, most notably the abstract opening sequence to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, and the short intermission midway through inspired by the graphics of sound waves.
Despite being such a different film, there are clear indications that Pinocchio and Fantasia were in production at the same time, and this can be spotted in Disney’s edition of The Nutcracker.
For example, have a look at this little chap, a member of the Bug Orchestra in Fantasia …and his near cousin (or could it be the same cricket all dressed up?) in Pinocchio.
Pinocchio went on to win both Best Original Score, and Best Original Song (When you wish upon a star) at the Academy Awards of 1941; and there was an honorary award the following year for Fantasia, specifically for the sound technicians involved in the creation of the film. Fantasia was critically acclaimed, but did not fare particularly well commercially until videos and DVDs were released in the 1990s.
Despite this, many children’s first introduction to classical music will have been via the antics of a certain murine Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Other animators continued to be inspired by classical music, most notably William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, the creators of Tom and Jerry, and their iconic producer, and music director, Fred Quimby and Scott Bradley. Indeed the Oscar winning, Cat Concerto, inspired a young Lang-Lang to learn to play the piano. The clever juxtaposition in the video below, shows how well the animation was integrated with Liszt’s music.
With the Christmas season soon upon us, there will be time to curl up with a DVD of a good cartoon, and admire the skill of the musicians involved in the making of it.
Meanwhile, our Sweets from the Suite exhibition may be viewed in the Anderson Room cases until the middle of January.