Secrets of the Santa Cartoons

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Happy Boxing Day! December 26, depending upon which story you choose to believe, was the day where metal boxes were placed outside of churches to collect special offerings for the poor during the holiday season, or was the day that the servants got to visit their families (since they had spent Christmas Day serving their masters) and were given a box with leftover food, gifts and sometimes coins.

Whatever the case, today is also a holiday for giving and continues the spirit of Christmas so here is one more Christmas column. Plus, this is my final pitch to hype the fact that I recently had two books published that are currently available at Amazon and hopefully, in all your Christmas stockings: Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories and The Revised Vault of Walt.

Back in 1990 when I and my then-writing partner (and still good friend) John Cawley wrote the book, The Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars, we did something revolutionary. We actually watched the animated cartoons that we were writing about for the text. As hard as it may be to imagine, other books and articles at the time often just borrowed descriptions of cartoons from other books.

By watching the cartoons, he and I often discovered that the traditional description was wrong or misleading. In addition, we found material in the cartoons that opened up a wider understanding of the characters and the story.

If you would like to read that book for free, you can go to his website and while you are there, you may want to purchase the newsstand magazine we co-edited, Cartoon Quarterly, or a copy of Disney Legend Floyd Norman's first book of cartoons. One of these days, some enterprising webmaster will offer John Cawley some money to talk about his time working in the Disney Archives, working as a costumed character at Disneyland and working in animation.

I think many Disney fans think that they can just casually glance at Disney cartoon when it is playing in the background because they know it so well. After all, how many times over the decades, have we all seen the two Silly Symphonies, Santa's Workshop (1932) and The Night Before Christmas (1933) that seem to be required to be included in almost any Disney animated program themed to the holidays?

However, suppose I asked you to tell me what character was voiced by Walt Disney? Or which cartoon showed reindeer poop being tossed out of a stall in time to the music? Or which politically incorrect scenes have been removed for modern audiences? Or who supplied the voice of Santa Claus in both cartoons? Or the name and storyline of the third Santa Silly Symphony that was never made?

Have I caught your attention? So while your copies of these cartoons are still close at hand, the Christmas tree still up and leftover Christmas dinner and dessert still waiting for another bite, here are some things you might never have known about these Silly Symphonies.

Walt Disney produced 75 animated short cartoons in the Silly Symphony series during a 10-year period beginning in 1929. The series was an opportunity for Disney to experiment with different characters and stories, introduce new techniques like three-strip Technicolor and in general train his staff in preparation for the first feature length animated feature film.

Columbia Pictures were distributing the Silly Symphony series to movie theaters but in 1932, Disney moved to United Artists (who insisted on having "Mickey Mouse Presents a Silly Symphony" on the title cards). The expanded budget in the new contract allowed Disney to use Technicolor and high fidelity RCA sound.

Santa's Workshop was released December 10, 1932.

The storyline (originally titled Santa's Toy Shop) had been approved in September with animation beginning in October. Directed by Disney Legend Wilfred Jackson, the cartoon has no storyline or conflict but just a series of progressive scenes of how Santa prepares for his big night. Santa checks his list of good and bad boys and girls while his elves (The Merry Merry Men of the Midnight Sun) finish making toys for Santa's trip.

It should probably be more troubling that just hours before Santa takes off for his annual flight that elves are still painting his sleigh, making toys and even Santa himself is still reading the letters from boys and girls around the world. In fact, the cartoon begins with elves bringing countless bags of mail to the North Pole.

Some of Walt's top animators worked on the film. Art Babbitt, Fred Moore, Jack Kinney, Nick George and others in Ben Sharpsteen's crew were involved. Norm Feguson animated Santa Claus in his office. Les Clark handled the elves singing and working on the sleigh. Clyde Geronimi worked on the toys marching into Santa's bag.

During the march of the toys into the bag, there was a short segment of a black doll riding on a cart carrying four barrells who keeps prodding a mechanical donkey pulling the cart with a stick. The donkey responds by kicking the cart. Because of the ethnic caricature, this scene has been snipped for recent showings.

In addition a segment where a black doll in the style of "Topsy" slides down a chute and cries out "Mammy!" (in a reference to the Al Jolson's blackface act) instead of "Mama!" has fallen victim to the censor's scissors.

That scene shows that Santa has two stamps for the dolls. One says "OK" while the other says "NG." "NG" was a term used in animation at the time for "no good," meaning the work would not be used. If you look carefully at the two shelves behind Santa, they are filled with toys marked "NG."

The voice of Santa Claus was done by Allan Watson, who would also provide the voices in other Silly Symphonies, including Old King Cole in Mother Goose Melodies (1931) and Old King Cole (1933), King Neptune in King Neptune (1932), and Papa Noah in Father's Noah Ark (1933).

Watson was an early radio and film session singer who was often uncredited in the films he appeared in like The Great Ziegfed (1936) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Interestingly, he also provided the baritone voice for the knife in the Disney animated segment included in the live-action film Servant's Entrance (1934).

The voice of Santa's grumpy elf male secretary was supplied by Pinto Colvig. It has been rumored that this elf was one of the inspirations for the dwarf Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Of course, Grumpy was voiced by Colvig, as well.

As Santa reviews letters from children, the name of Billy Brown comes up who hasn't washed behind his ears for seven years. So, Santa tells a nearby elf to include a cake of soap with Billy's present of a Noah's Ark. The elf responds "OK, a cake of soap!" That voice was supplied by Walt Disney himself doing his famous falsetto.

Where the elves are cleaning the reindeer, in the upper-left-hand corner, one unseen elf is using a pitchfork to toss out reindeer poop from a stall in time to the music. It lands right next to the hay. That elf nearby who is shoveling hay into another stall was animated by the legendary Art Babbit, who most likely also did the unseen elf and reindeer poop.

For those who love Hidden Mickeys, look closely at the scene near the end of the cartoon where Santa stands on his sleigh and sings to his elves. On the top of Santa's sack there is a partially hidden Mickey Mouse toy. This is only one of two cameo appearances that Mickey made in the Silly Symphonies. The second time? Why, it was in the unofficial sequel, The Night Before Christmas.

The Night Before Christmas was released December 9, 1933.

While Walt was not fond of doing sequels (nor of producing holiday-oriented cartoons because it would limit their options for a re-release except at the holiday), Santa's Workshop was hugely successful. In fact a year later, it was booked into a first-run movie theater in New York.

So, it was decided to follow up that success with a continuation of the original story.

The storyline (originally with the working title Christmas Story) is an unofficial sequel to Santa's Workshop. At the end of the former cartoon, Santa has taken to the skies to deliver gifts to the children of the world. The start of this cartoon begins with Santa in the air arriving at a house to deliver toys.

It was very loosely based on the famous Henry Livingston poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" better known as "The Night Before Christmas" and previously credited to Clement Moore. A few short lines from the famous poem at the beginning and end of the cartoon are sung by Kenny Baker to the original music of Leigh Harline. The story work was done by Bill Cottrell, Webb Smith and contributions from others.

On Christmas Eve, eight small children sleep together in one large bed supposedly dreaming of sugar plums dancing in their heads. After an awkward landing on the roof, Santa comes down the chimney, sets up a Christmas tree, and directs a parade of toys out of his bag to trim the tree while he fills the stockings with care…and a plethora of toys. They all celebrate their efforts with a musical chorus of "Jingle Bells" that awakens the children. The toys rush into place as Santa hurriedly leaves.

One small child, Junior, animated by Les Clark, is so curious he has to try to look up the chimney to catch just a tail end view of Santa, but gets a faceful of soot as a reward. But he sees one present under the tree addressed to him, which he finds contains a Scottie puppy who licks his face clean. The soot on the face was a "blackface" gag, common in animated cartoons of the period but considered politically incorrect today, so this scene is cut from recent re-releases. This missing footage is then compensated by a longer scene of Santa flying away taken from the end of Santa's Workshop.

Another scene cut that is long forgotten today was a toy version of the popular radio comedians Amos and Andy pulling a black doll that says "Mammy."

Once again directed by Wilfred Jackson and utilizing Ben Sharpsteen's crew, there is an evident leap in animation quality from the first film. Roy Williams, best known as the big Moosketeer on the original Mickey Mouse Club, animated some of the children, assorted toys and tree decorations. Ham Luske worked on Santa at the fireplace and Dick Huemer was responsible for the animation of Santa at the piano hitting a sour note and him leaving later. Hardie Gramatky animated the children around the Christmas tree.

Ed Smith who was Clark's assistant did the animation cycle of the children sleeping in bed. Ugo D'Orsi did the opening effects scenes of the exterior and interior of the house.

Santa's laugh (he never talks in this short) was reused from Allan Watson's voice in Santa's Workshop. It never seems to bother anyone but me that in both Santa's Workshop and The Night Before Christmas, the jolly old elf only laughs "Ha. Ha. Ha." and never "Ho. Ho. Ho."

Like in the animated feature, Toy Story, the toys in this cartoon seem to have a life of their own until human children appear. The parade of toys was a popular Disney sequence, including appearances in Silly Symphonies like Midnight in a Toy Shop, the live-action Babes in Toyland and the Disney theme park parades.

Santa Claus Symphony (alternately known as The North Pole during development) was proposed as a Silly Symphony short for Christmas 1937.

Walt Disney in a December 1936 memo wrote, "We are planning a Silly Symphony around a Christmas theme. It will include the character of Santa Claus and perhaps show something of his workshop at the North Pole. We have several stories with this theme, but the picture will definitely have Santa Claus as the leading character. We plan this subject for a 1937 Christmas release."

The storyline became more focused by February 1937, spotlighting a little boy who somehow was able to shrink to just a few inches and was delivered to the North Pole along with his Christmas wish list. The size of a toy, he has many comical adventures before he runs into good St. Nick and gets restored to full size and hitches a ride home with Santa on Christmas Eve.

Animation director Graham Heid sent out a memo with this story during February 1937. "The problem is to create situations that will allow for the development of good, cute comedy action growing out of the little kid's adventures with the toys and his meeting with Santa Claus…a human reduced to the size of a toy creates an enjoyable illusion that nearly everyone with imagination has felt at one time or another."

The memo stressed that "the toys should not be 'humanized' and movement should be restricted to the action of real mechanical toys. Naturally, a reasonable amount of exaggeration can be used provided it seems plausible."

Remember that the Silly Symphony series was used as practice training for the animated features and at the time production was being done on Pinocchio that featured mechanical toy clock movements in Gepetto's workshop.

Animation artists submitted sketches of a variety of toys and Santa's elves, some of whom look similar to the famous Seven Dwarfs, possibly in the hopes of being able to reuse some of the animation from the feature film to help out new animators.

As animation scholar Charles Solomon wrote, "Inspirational artist Ferdinand Horvath sketched some charming toy characters, including a line of Dutch dolls who tap-dance in wooden shoes for a 'xylophone effect.' Designs for a mechanical peddler and a windup caricature of black actor Stephen Fetchit reveal the contemporary taste for ethnic humor in cartoons. The preliminary drawings have the kind of pop-eyed good humor usually seen in the cartoons Disney's old associates Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising were making at MGM during the 1930s."

There is no official documentation of why the cartoon was never produced, but several factors were probably involved, including the entire Silly Symphony series starting to wind down, the need for animators who could draw this type of movement needed on the feature Pinocchio and, most likely, the fact that not enough good story ideas and gags were generated to fill a seven-minute cartoon that was holiday-oriented. There had also been plans for a Silly Symphony based on an Easter theme, but that was also dropped.

For some of the information in this article, I am deeply indebted to the original research done by Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman, especially in their out-of-print Italian published book Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series (La Cineteca del Friuli 2006). Also while you are searching on Amazon, any Disney book by J.B. Kaufman is deserving of being in your Disney home library.



  1. By carolinakid

    Great article, Jim! Can these shorts be found uncensored on the Walt Disney Treasures sets?

  2. Discuss this article on MousePad.