Subscribe to Christianity Today
Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series
La Cineteca del Friuli, 2006
256 pp., $44.95
John H. McWhorter
Not Silly Enough
Into the life of every diehard Warner Brothers cartoon fan a little rain must fall. One can spend a lifetime seeking the holy grail of seeing all 1,000 shorts and have a grand old time with each one—except when it comes to a certain group, the first Merrie Melodies of the early Thirties. Even the true fanatic can only take two or three in a row: animals and plants dancing, goods in shops after closing time coming to life and dancing, the inevitable arrival of a glowering villain handily thwarted via a Rube Goldberg-style chain of events.
The strange thing about these insipid little concerts is that at the same time, the studio was producing the Looney Tunes series starring a vaguely Negroid little Mickey Mouse knockoff named Bosko, which, while hardly for the ages either, had a snap and even edge rarely on view in the Merrie Melodies. Aficionados have long collected Bosko on video and DVD, while there has never been a collection of the Merrie Melodies, even bootleg. Where did the idea come from to devote equal time to a series about tap-dancing beetles and soup cans?
The answer is the Disney studio's Silly Symphonies. Merrie Melodies existed in the relationship to them that television's The Munsters would to The Addams Family: that is, they were a shameless ripoff, in fact by ex-Disney workers. This has traditionally been obscure to all but historians and cartoon buffs. Until some Silly Symphonies were released on video in 1990s, they had rarely been seen since airings on the Mickey Mouse Club in the Fifties, and only with their release in newly restored versions with commentary in the user-friendly format of DVD in 2001 have they been truly engaged by a wider public again.
Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman's Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies is a handsome study-cum-picture book on the whole series, released in conjunction with a museum exhibition of materials from the cartoons' production. The text is useful in charting just why so many early Hollywood cartoons were ...