by Allan Fish
(USA 1929 6m) DVD1/2
Tonight’s the night the boney men have their picnic
p Walt Disney d Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks m Carl W.Stalling
Of all the entries in this list representing the often overlooked art of the animated short or cartoon, picking a favourite would be an unenviable task. How can one choose between the work of the incomparable Tex Avery, several of whose masterpieces are rightly included in this seclection? Or Warners’ own maestro Chuck Jones, mastermind behind Daffy, Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny and so many others? Or the Tom and Jerry cartoons of Fred Quimby that set Hanna and Barbera on their way. Those of a more eclectic animated taste might think of Canadian animator Norman McLaren, whose Begone Dull Care is at the very least, a masterpiece of the art. Or early pioneer Winsor McKay. Yet when most people think of animation milestones, they think of Disney, so it seems somehow appropriate my favourite should be a Disney short. Yet when I think of Disney’s cartoons, it’s not Mickey (even in his immortal Steamboat Willie), Donald, Goofy and co. who come to mind, but his incredible Silly Symphonies. Hence we turn to the wonderful tin DVD set presented by the irrepressible Leonard Maltin and take the plunge.
In truth, this series contains many masterpieces of the animator’s art, some included herein. Of those not included one recalls those classic mini-fables such as the moralistic but superb The Tortoise and the Hare or The Ugly Duckling. For those of a more artistic persuasion there’s the more unheralded delights of Wynken, Blynken & Nod and those with an interest in the development in animation in the thirties still amaze at Flowers and Trees (the first in Technicolor), which even now simply amazes in its incredible energy and vitality.
For me, however, there is only one winner, and there’s no colour or dialogue. Disney’s short masterpiece has to be The Skeleton Dance, an immortally surreal Halloween tale. The concept is inherently simple; four skeletons come out of their graves to play around and dance in the moonlight, but are prompted back to the earth at daytime. It might even be said to look forward to the Moussorsgky segment in Fantasia, but Dance stands up on its own. In anyone’s eyes it’s a masterpiece, not only perfectly suited to black and white (whereas nearly all other monochrome Symphonies cry out for colour), but a truly haunting work. Some children were scared of the film by all reports, but that only increases the film’s potency in the eyes of the much more knowing generation of today.
There’s true imagination at work here and yet Leonard Maltin is quite right when he observes that “there’s something disarming about its utter simplicity.” There’s nothing outstanding in this cartoon, as the entire work is incredible. Just think of the great touches that fill its mere six minutes; the skeletons dancing the highland fling, ring-a-ring-o’-roses, the Charleston and as a line in unison; one using another as a pogo stick; two combining to be a wheel; and, best of all, when one pulls two ribs out of another and starts to play his vertebrae like a xylophone. Think of the genius in the opening sequence; a storm is brewing and we see an owl perched high on a branch. The wind starts up and the owl barely stays on his perch. It turns its head around 360 degrees ultra-fast like Linda Blair on speed. Then cut to a dog inflating as he takes a deep breath to howl at the moon, then cut again to two black cats spitting at each other atop some headstones. From behind one of them comes our first dead hero, a portion of his skeleton highlighted in the shape of the skull and cross bones, and the cats literally jump out of their skin. Most magical of all, however, has to be the integration of early sound synchronisation. More than any other cartoon, Dance showed that the talkies brought more than dialogue. Music and sound effects, too, would play a pivotal role, and thus it remains the perfect representation of the aim of the Symphonies, using music as a central theme. Even now, seventy five years on in a time when cartoons are no longer made, it cannot help but enthral.