Walt Talks About the Disney Package Featuresby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
They have been called the package features, the anthology features, omnibus features, and even the compilation features.
There seems to be no agreement in terms of their official title, but Disney fans instantly recognize these pastiche placeholders in Disney animation history that contain a variety of different short cartoons gathered together, rather than a sustained single narrative.
Respected New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther spoke for many others when he wrote, in the mid-1940s, that they were “a gaudy grab-bag show in which a couple of items are delightful, and the rest are just adequate fillers-in…[they are] as disordered as a work of any artist can be…Some [of the segments] are delightful Disney fancies and some are elaborate junk. Watching it is an experience in precipitate ups and downs”.
Disney Legend Ben Sharpsteen, in various interviews, referred to them as the “vaudeville” films, referencing a series of unconnected acts or the “remnant” films as many of the segments were pieces left over from other projects.
These films began in spirit with Fantasia (1940) where several unrelated animated shorts were compiled together with a loose theme of exploring music visually and loosely held together with an educational narration providing a segue from one section to the next.
Walt Disney envisioned it as like a concert (the original tentative name for the film was The Concert Feature), where different selections were played for the audience during a single performance.
Originally, the plan for Saludos Amigos (1942) was to make up to 12 separate short cartoons using the material gathered by the Disney team during its trip to South America on a Goodwill tour. Each cartoon would have focused on one particular country.
That plan changed, thanks to memos to Walt from producer David O. Selznick, who suggested that it would be more effective to package the shorts in groups of four and release them as feature films. It was felt that a cartoon focusing on one particular country would be very popular in that country, but not as much in the other countries.
Also, since the purpose of the project was to create goodwill and understanding among the countries, by combining the cartoons together it would help introduce audiences to several different cultures at the same time and, hopefully, build that bond. Walt had to use 16mm home movie footage he had shot himself to loosely tie the individual cartoons together.
The film was so popular critically and financially that it was followed by another loose anthology of Latin America-themed cartoons titled The Three Caballeros (1944), that focused on countries not included in the original compilation and, supposedly, each of Donald Duck’s birthday gifts was the springboard for these tales.
Due to World War II, Walt had neither the staff nor the budget to make a full-length animated feature, and so these last two films were a way of still producing product at a studio that was now primarily devoted to creating training films for the various branches of the military.
After the war, the Disney Studios was still struggling to recover, especially since foreign markets had been closed to Disney films for many years, so Walt again turned to the concept of a package film because they could be done quicker and less expensively than his classic animated feature films that required highly skilled artists working over a span of several years. In addition, the variety of the subject matter would appeal to different audiences.
Walt also explored doing hybrid films that would feature less expensive live-action with three short animated segments, as he did in Song of the South (1946) and planned to do originally for Treasure Island (1950). The Disney name still meant “animation” and Walt’s contract with his distributor, RKO, specified that the films he delivered featured animation, so Walt was unable to switch over to just live-action at the time.
Walt was not pleased with the compilation films, according to author Bob Thomas, but he felt trapped.
“I wanted to go beyond the cartoon,” Walt said. “Because the cartoon had narrowed itself down I could make them either seven- or eight-minutes long -- or 80 minutes long. I tried the package things, where I put five or six together to make a feature cartoon 70- to 80-minutes long. …I had a lot of ideas I thought would be good in the cartoon form, if I could go to 15 minutes with it…but I knew I needed to diversify further and that meant live-action.”
For the animated package features, Walt picked subjects that might need more time than the length of a traditional short cartoon (that was already having a hard time recouping costs as movie theaters started eliminating them), had been developed for other projects (like the Latin American films or updates for Fantasia), or that were considered for a feature film but didn’t have enough story to support that extra length.
Walt was still sensitive to the critical and audience reaction to Fantasia’s high-brow classical music, so he attempted to graft popular tunes into the same format instead and came up with Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1948). This time he counted on the marquee value of popular singers and musicians to attract and entertain audiences. Benny Goodman, Dinah Shore, Nelson Eddy, the Sons of the Pioneers, Frances Langford, Dennis Day, Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, the Andrews Sisters and more contributed their talents to these musical mélanges.
Fun and Fancy Free (1947) as well as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) were examples of films that contained some stories that were each considered for full-length treatment before World War II and had preliminary work that had already been done on them, so that saved some development costs.
In this way, Walt was able to release a feature film every year and to bring his studio back up to full speed.
Make Mine Music (1946):
- A story of the classic feuding hillbillies known as the "Martins and the Coys";
- A mood piece set on a blue bayou in the Everglades;
- "All the Cats Join In" which was a jazz segment showcasing Benny Goodman and his orchestra that focuses on a group of lively bobby-soxers;
- A ballad of lost love titled “Without You”;
- A spirited telling of the classic Ernest Thayer poem “Casey at the Bat” about a baseball hero;
- "Two Silhouettes" with ballet dancers performing in silhouette;
- “Peter and the Wolf” an animated dramatization of the 1936 musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev narrated by Sterling Holloway;
- “After You’ve Gone” featuring anthropomorphized musical instruments romping through a surreal landscape;
- "Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet" telling the story of two hats who fall in love in a department store, are separated but eventually are reunited for a happy ending;
- "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” about Willie, a real sperm whale who can sing opera but a famous operatic impresario mistakenly believes the mammal has swallowed three opera singers and kills the creature with a harpoon to rescue them.
Fun and Fancy Free (1947): Jiminy Cricket hosts this film that contains two stories.
The first story is Sinclair Lewis’ tale of Bongo, a performing circus bear who dreams of being out in the wild but when he escapes, he finds it is very much different than what he imagined. He encounters a beautiful girl bear named Lulubelle and he is forced to use his skills to battle his enormous rival bear Lumpjaw to win her.
The second story is narrated by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy sidekicks, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, telling young actress Luana Patten the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy. When Willie the Giant steals the singing golden harp, Happy Valley is not so happy anymore. The desperate trio trades their beloved cow for a handful of magic beans that grows a beanstalk to a land in the clouds where Willie has a castle. Comic misadventures ensue and Mickey, Donald and Goofy are able to return the singing harp, and happiness, to Happy Valley. The cartoon ends with Willie the Giant (having survived the fall from the beanstalk) stomping through Hollywood looking for Mickey Mouse and surprising the live-action storytellers.
Melody Time (1948): Another package film containing seven segments.
- "Once Upon a Wintertime" featuring two young lovers who are rescued from an icy river by clever animals;
- "Bumble Boogie" which is a swing-jazz piano version of the famous Rimsky-Korsakov composition “Flight of the Bumblebee” with a frantic solo bee avoiding peril;"
- A fanciful retelling of the legend of John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman who spent his life roaming Illinois and Indiana planting apple trees during the pioneer days;
- A segment based on Hardie Gramatky’s children’s story about a little tugboat named Little Toot who grows up from playing pranks to saving the day;
- Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem “Trees” set to music;
- “Blame It On the Samba” reunites Joe Carioca, Donald Duck and the Aracuan Bird as they are engulfed in the rhythm of the samba;
- The most prominent segment has young actors Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten listening intently as Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers tell the colorful story of the legendary "Pecos Bill" and how he met and almost married Slue Foot Sue.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949): The film is a compilation of two stories that at one time Walt Disney had considered developing into separate feature films: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” inspired by Washington Irving’s classic story; and “The Wind in the Willows,” based on Kenneth Grahame’s novel.
In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Ichabod Crane is the superstitious and awkward new schoolteacher in town who has taken a fancy to the wealthy Katrina van Tassel, much to the dismay of her oafish suitor Brom Bones. At a late night Halloween party, Brom frightens Ichabod with the tale of a headless horseman who roams the land looking for a new head. On his ride home, Ichabod encounters the horseman and a wild chase ensues ending with the disappearance of Ichabod from Tarrytown.
In "The Wind in the Willows," J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq. is a happy-go-lucky wealthy gentleman who is obsessed with having fun and new adventures to the determent of his financial responsibilities. His mania for an automobile gets him in trouble, including being arrested for theft and losing the deed to his mansion to some weasels and an unscrupulous bartender named Mr. Winkie. His sensible friends Ratty, Moley and MacBadger, as well as his horse Cyril Proudbottom, help Toad reclaim his rightful heritage.
While these features generated modest income to keep the Disney Studio in business, general audiences considered them as merely somewhat entertaining appetizers and longed for the satisfaction of a full meal.
Many felt that Walt had lost his vision and direction. It was during this time that intellectuals abandoned Disney as an artist in droves. They considered that his early brilliance had all but disappeared if it had ever existed at all and he had become a sentimental, mawkish, callow, hack filmmaker. Writers used all those adjectives and more to describe Walt and his films at this time.
Walt’s production of Cinderella (1950) more than met that desire of audiences for a return to the full length classic fairy tale that would define Disney animated feature films for many people. It was one of the year’s top grossing films, Disney’s biggest money-maker since before the war, and generated an additional bonanza in merchandise.
The film spelled the end for further animated package features during Walt’s lifetime. From then on, audiences wanted a full story and not an anthology of disjointed individual stories with different characters and styles, no matter how entertaining some of the stories were.
These package features included many segments that are considered beloved classics today. Individual cartoons from these features like Mickey and the Beanstalk, Pecos Bill, Peter and the Wolf and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and others still hold up well today and are often shown separately from their original feature.
An interesting oddity is that the last package film released during Walt’s lifetime was Music Land (1955) that only played in theaters once and was never released on home video. This film should not be confused with the 1935 Disney animated short titled Music Land, that has no connection with this feature at all.
The Disney Company had created its own distribution company, Buena Vista Distribution, but still owed its former distribution company, RKO, one more release under its contract.
So, Disney took four segments from Make Mine Music and five from Melody Time. “The Big Parade of Mirth and Melody!” was released October 5, 1955, and never shown again except for a 1970 “Tribute to Walt Disney” retrospective at the National Film Theater.
The segments in this feature were "Trees," "All the Cats Join In," "After You’ve Gone," "Once Upon a Wintertime," "Pecos Bill," "Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet," "Bumble Boogie," "Casey at the Bat" and "Blame It on the Samba."
F. Maurince Speed, a British film critic, contacted Walt Disney to write about Disney's latest animated feature film in his 1948-1949 volume. Speed was a British film critic who decided that “What the ordinary moviegoer lacks is a more or less complete annual record, in picture and story, of his year's filmgoing.” So, in 1944, he created the book Film Review for primarily U.K. film fans, which still continued on after his death in 1998. The book was not just composed of reviews but short articles, celebrity profiles and more all related to film.
Many articles in magazines and books, like this one, featured the byline of Walt and it is doubtful whether Walt himself actually wrote most of them. However, he did have to approve anything that went out under his name that it reflected his perspective about the topic, even if it was crafted by Joe Reddy and his publicity department at the Disney Studio. Often, they would use Walt’s actual words but formatted in a more formal context.
James Bacon, a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, wrote frequently about Disneyland and said, “I once asked Eddie Meck, Disneyland's longtime publicity director, what made Disneyland the greatest man-made tourist attraction of all time. I fully expected him to give me a long spiel. Instead, he said: ‘I can give it to you in two words: Walt Disney. We don't even mail a postcard out of here without his OK’.”
Here is that essay from that volume of Film Review on Walt’s thoughts about the compilation films:
As this particular section of Film Review goes to press (and, rather unfortunately in the circumstances, it happens to be one of the earliest) neither Walt Disney nor distributors R.K.O. Radio have any idea whether the maestro’s only new full-length effort Melody Time, is likely to be released, or even premiered, in England his year, or whether we shall have to wait until early 1949 to see it.
In any case, no stills or pictorial matter of any kind are available at this moment to give you a preview of the kind of picture it is. So I thought, in the circumstances, the only alternative—other than ignoring an important cinematic event—was to ask Disney to himself describe his production. And this is what he has done for you on this page. Should later news come in about the release of Melody Time before the last section of this volume goes to press. I shall give in somewhere in the Stop Press pages at the end. — The Editor
Some Facts About Melody Time by Walt Disney
An important period in the history of Disney product will be marked by the release of our new feature-length fantasy Melody Time, and, since it may seem to signalize a departure from such productions as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi and other similar features already announced for our forthcoming program, our new film musical prompts an explanation as to its origin and technique.
In the first place I want to stress that the multiple-episode cartoon fantasy will not replace the classic fable picture on the Disney schedule. From our standpoint the Melody Time formula is as essentially “Disney” as any other kind of screen entertainment associated with our name, the one type merely offering a change of pace from the other, and keeping our products from crystallizing around a set specification.
The literary archives of the world are filled with screenable riches, with tale and anecdote, fable and fantastic folklore. Wonderfully amusing and dramatically potent, they are often so concentrated in form as to be entirely unsuited for feature-length film treatment.
After the war, when once again we could think about entertainment films, we had in mind a number of these titles such as “Peter and the Wolf” and “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” which we were eager to make, but which didn’t seem to fit into the usual screen pattern. Urged on by the times and circumstances we decided to assemble several of these in a novel presentation, and Make Mine Music, the finished product of our initial experiment, showed us we had discovered something very important for our bill of fare.
By all the evidence we were convinced that we had enlisted a new segment of habitual movie-goers, and we now know that the variety of important names from screen, radio and the realms of music who have enthusiastically adapted their gifts to our cartoons have proved a definite asset in enlarging our younger audience.
We followed up with Fun and Fancy Free, a combination of two distinct tales, and our latest feature along these lines has seven episodes woven around the core of American mythology.
Take, for example, the legendary figures of Pecos Bill, tall-tale hero of the cowboys, and Johnny Appleseed, the more modest but nevertheless colorful frontiersman, central characters in Melody Time. These two mighty men of folklore are a compound of anecdotes and prodigious deeds, but neither of them has more than the most sketchy “life story” with which to occupy the full seventy minutes of the feature picture.
Yet, by letting them share time and honors with other cartoon performers, together with the living actors who sing and speak through the animations, we are able to keep them vividly alive for all kinds of audiences each and every moment they are on the screen.
On the basis of advance tests and polls for this our “myth-musical” we are confidently proceeding with another combinations of fantasy in Two Fabulous Characters, wherein Ichabod Crane from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow will cavort with Mr. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.
Again, I want to emphasize that the effective use of material otherwise denied to the motion picture is what appeals to me chiefly in making the kind of entertainment represented by Melody Time.
Ordinarily, changes in form and material come slowly in popular diversion, this applying to screen and stage alike, but occasionally there are circumstances which dictate swift innovation, and then we discover, to our amazement, that the public has been ready and waiting for some recipe we have been too timid to propose.
It pleases and encourages me to learn that 'Disney' style is not so fixed and limited in the public mind as to preclude further exploration in the field of entertainment.