Posted by David Kalat on January 26, 2013
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I had the privilege and pleasure of attending a rare screening of a more-or-less unique version of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. The venue was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Riccardo Muti and the conducting of Ludwig Wicki, performing live to a screening of selections from both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.
It was, in a way, a realization of Disney’s original ambition back in 1940. He had cooked up the idea that Fantasia would remain in a state of perpetual flux, with musical selections being rotated out and in continually. One such alternate selection was prepared, but not used, or at least not used for its originally intended purpose, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s version of Fantasia presented this scene, re-integrated in amongst Mickey the wanna-be Sorceror and the dancing alligators.
To chart the history of Fantasia, we should properly start with Walt Disney the starving artist, forced into selling his shoes to pay his bills. He was suffering from some misfired ideas, poorly chosen collaborators, and the inevitable travails of any innovative artist trying to carve out a new niche for themselves. Eventually, he found success with a cartoon mouse called Mickey, and marked the happy occasion by retroactively erasing all his previous years of professional disappointment from his authorized history. The history of Disney was the history of Mickey, and everything else was jettisoned from the official account.
As Disney started to conquer new frontiers with feature films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Disney fretted he was allowing his signature character to languish. So in 1938, he set his sights on giving Mickey a groundbreaking showcase vehicle: The Sorceror’s Apprentice.
Using the full suite of music by Paul Dukas meant the ‘toon would run far longer than usual, and bringing in Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra to perform the music meant it would cost more than any short subject could hope to recoup.
So, faced with these facts, Disney and his collaborators allowed their ambitions to expand—filling out Sorceror with additional musical selections to become a complete feature in itself. Most stories told of this decision attribute the grand plan for a “fantasia” (and the title) to Stokowski himself—which is a bit odd, since the idea of marrying music to animation was almost the default expectation of the form. But consider this: Fantasia was Disney’s third feature length cartoon. In 1938, when work began, they were just two years out from the release of Snow White, which was widely expected in Hollywood to fail. Having stuck his neck out so audaciously in 1935, here was Disney going not just one step further, but going thousands of miles further: you think a feature length cartoon is daring? How’s about one that doesn’t have a plot and is full of snooty music? Take that, world!
And Disney faced dissention and objection even within his own ranks. At a staff meeting in December, 1938, he got exasperated with his own writers: “We’ve got an hour and forty five minutes of picture and we’re doing beautiful things with beautiful music. We’re doing comic things, fantastic things, and it can’t be all the same—it’s an experimental thing and I’m willing to experiment on it. We’ve got more in this medium than making people laugh… Excuse me if I get a little riled up on this stuff, because it’s a continual fight around this place to get away from slapping somebody on the fanny or having somebody swallow something.”
Simply getting the thing made took an outlandish effort—and some ideas fell by the wayside along the journey. Shooting it in widescreen—well, that didn’t happen, nor did the idea of spraying perfume into the theater to correspond scents to images—but he did produce it in a proprietary new sound system using seven tracks and thirty speakers. Convincing theaters to outfit themselves for “Fantasound” was a challenge, and cut into sales by limiting theatrical venues. The onset of WWII deprived Disney of access to crucial European markets, which also decimated box office receipts. In the end, it was a financial disaster and didn’t achieve the critical or popular support that Disney had desired.
The studio had intended to keep the film in roadshow release for two years, swapping in additional musical selections as it went, was now summarily abandoned, and the company retreated into the hasty production of Dumbo on the cheap to stop the bleeding.
But… by that point one of those “swap-ins” had already been made.
Clair de Lune by Debussy featured scenes of a Louisiana bayou and its elegant wildlife. Some accounts of the history of Fantasia claim that it was actually intended to be included in the original cut but was dropped when the film ran overlong—this is a bit hard to believe, given that the film consists exclusively of music, whose running time was known in advance, linked together by introductions by Deems Taylor, the radio announcer for the Metropolitan Opera’s broadcasts. Taylor shot several introductions for sequences that didn’t even get to the storyboard stage, so it’s more likely that the filmmakers knew all along that Clair de Lune didn’t fit in the original cut, but were teeing up that first variant edition.
This was the sequence added by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the November 24, 2012 performance—and it was gorgeous. But even though it had never been used in Fantasia, I had seen it before. You see, even though the plan for a perpetually evolving Fantasia came to naught, Disney did not easily give up on his idea of animated movies that celebrated and illustrated music—he just accepted, reluctantly and unhappily, that Americans don’t like pointy-headed classical music, they like pop music instead.
During the war years, much of the studio’s staff was drafted, which made it hard to pull together the massive amount of coherent creativity and coordination required to make a conventional feature—but they retained enough resources to make scattershot shorts. And so, to keep the lights on, they took to stringing together a bunch of random ideas into package films—with Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1948) more or less pop-music oriented “sequels” to Fantasia. For Make Mine Music, the studio efficiently recycled the Clair de Lune footage with a new soundtrack (now set to the Ken Darby Singers singing Blue Bayou).
Disney wasn’t the only one who found it a tough go convincing American mass audiences to flock to classical music. Sandwiched between the releases of Make Mine Music and Melody Time came Edgar G. Ulmer’s live-action take on Fantasia, Carnegie Hall. Clocking in at a butt-wearying 144 minutes, it was one of Ulmer’s more earnest and heart-felt works, full of love for great music. Which fell on its face.
And back before Disney even first sat down with Stokowski, producer Joe Schenck (Buster Keaton’s erstwhile boss) and director William Cameron Menzies created a set of live-action short subjects illustrating various works of classical music, in which Menzies brought his gifts for visual poetry and special effects to the task of visualizing the lush music. The most celebrated of these was—wait for it—The Wizard’s Apprentice.
It no longer matters if or to what extent Fantasia fell short of Disney’s wildest dreams. He bequeathed to us a timeless classic. While, I enjoyed seeing it in a reconfigured version with bits of Fantasia 2000 and Clair du Lune subbed in, I’m also glad those experiences are one-offs. Fantasia is perfect as it is. It doesn’t need any changes.
(And by the way—for those of you interested in the unused Fantasia sequences, I recommend the book The Disney That Never Was, which is full of storyboard sketches and concept art for all manner of unmade projects, including Fantasia sequences for The Ride of The Nibelungen, Invitation to the Dance, The Swan of Tuonela, and more)
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