Disney Goes to Hell for Halloweenby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As we celebrate another Halloween, I am going to explore a little of how Disney never avoided hellish terrors and evil darkness that are often associated with the festive season.
After Walt Disney's death, the Disney Studios produced films that invoked images of dark magic and the devil including The Devil and Max Devlin (1981) where ironically, comedian Bill Cosby plays Satan's chief henchman, Barney Satin.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) featured author Ray Bradbury's Mr. Dark's Pandemonium Carnival that wanted to claim innocent souls for damnation; and Hocus Pocus (1993), which was the story about the evil Sanderson sisters, Winifred, Sarah and Mary, who are witches that sing to the crowd that there will be "Hell to pay" that Halloween night. Winifred (Bette Midler) later states about Hell that she has "been there. Thank you. I found it quite lovely."
That's just the tip of the iceberg or the tip of the evil Bald Mountain on All Hallows Eve.
This Disney fascination with the darkness started with Walt himself. In his essay, "Deeds Rather Than Words" in the 1963 book Faith is a Star (New York E. P. Dutton and Company) by Roland Gammon, Walt wrote:
"Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows. Most things are good, and they are the strongest things; but there are evil things too, and you are not doing a child a favor by trying to shield him from reality.
"The important thing is to teach a child that good can always triumph over evil, and that is what our pictures attempt to do."
Walt often repeated his favorite quotes and this one he apparently really liked so it also appeared elsewhere including the 1959 issue of Wisdom magazine.
As a child, I was terrified at the climax of the Disney animated feature film Sleeping Beauty (1959), where the evil fairy Maleficent, frustrated by all her previous failed attempts to stop Prince Phillip, conjures her dark powers to transform into a massive, fire-breathing dragon. Artist Marc Davis has stated that the horns on her headdress were meant to represent the horns of the devil.
Having previously described herself as "the mistress of all evil", she cries out, "Now, shall you deal with ME, O' Prince - and all the powers of HELL!" However, the sound in the background partially obscures the end of the word "hell" although it is clearly obvious that is what Maleficent is saying.
I once wrote to former Disney Archivist Dave Smith if the Disney Archives had any record of complaint from audiences about the use of that word in a Disney animated film either on the film's initial release or subsequent re-releases. He responded that there was no record of any complaints.
The fact that the prince was finally able to kill the dragon with the Sword of Truth brought me some comfort but not enough to assuage the fear that Maleficent had engendered in the rest of the film or the fact that she could call on all the powers of Hell.
To create the sound of the dragon's fiery breath, Disney sound effects expert Jimmy MacDonald (also the voice of Mickey Mouse) contacted the United States Army for some training films on flame throwing. Castanets were used for the sound of the dragon's snapping jaws.
Disney had gone to Hell as early as the fourth Silly Symphony, Hell's Bells (1929). It was never shown on television nor released to videotape so many Disney fans are unfamiliar with it. However, it was finally released on the DVD Disney Treasures set Silly Symphonies Volume 2.
Ub Iwerks is credited as the director and did much of the animation along with Les Clark and Wilfred Jackson on this five minute black-and-white cartoon. The Symphonies were intended to have no recurring characters and usually ended up having little or no real plotline. Primarily, they were intended for experimentation that would later be used in Disney's first animated feature film.
Most tended to be dance numbers (as in the first Symphony, The Skeleton Dance) or lyrical, pastoral works (as in The Old Mill). In this cartoon, an imp band and dancers entertain the Devil.
The hooded Grim Reaper enters and then departs. A huge spider swings back and forth towards the audience (literally blacking out the entire screen for a moment) and then is consumed by flames. A snake-like dragon swallows a bat, sprouts the bat's wings, and flies off.
Satan's demons play instruments made from skeletons and skulls. Demons milk a goofy-looking, smiling "dragon-cow" and serve the flaming milk to Satan. Satan feeds one of the demons to Cerberus, his three-headed dog drawn to be comical rather than frightening. Satan chases another demon who refuses to be fed to Satan's hound. That demon ends up kicking Satan off a cliff ledge and Satan is consumed in a pit of flames as the film ends.
It certainly is a cartoon filled with disturbing images but is merely an excuse for unconnected gags timed to music that included Mendelssohn's Spring Song, Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette (best remembered as the theme song for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show), Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave and Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King.
Night on Bald Mountain
Another appearance that Disney fans assume was Satan and Hell actually wasn't, but did take place on Halloween.
In the Fantasia (1940) segment "Night on Bald Mountain," it recounts the tale of an immense dark demon who awakens on Walpurgis Night to summon a bevy of supernatural spirits from the local graveyard. This living horror also invokes harpies, witches, strange beasts, and other unholy beings to join the fearful ceremony.
All these horrible creatures gather on the sharp, angular face of Bald Mountain that looms over a nearby sleeping town to pay homage to the huge winged devil who toys with them and tortures them in the fiery gorges and the rough hewn rock strata of the forbidden mountain. His evil reign of terror is only ended by the sounds of church bells and the singing of a holy choir that accompany the dawn.
"Night on Bald Mountain" is a musical composition by Modest Mussorgsky that is most familiar for its re-orchestration by Rimsky Korsakov in 1886. Leopold Stokowski did his own arrangement of the piece utilizing elements from both of the previous composers for the film Fantasia. All versions were meant to depict a witches' sabbath held at a foreboding mountain peak.
The word "bald" comes from a literal translation of the original Russian word that was used to indicate that the mountain was barren of trees. Some performances have referred to the piece as "Night on Bare Mountain" instead, which is an alternative translation.
Most viewers, including myself when I was younger, assumed that the menacing figure was meant to be Satan, especially since Walt once referred to the character as "the devil himself." Mussorgsky was actually inspired by Slavonic mythology of a horned demon named Chernabog. The adjective "cherny" means "black" or "dark" and the word "bog" roughly translates as "god."
So, Chernabog was a dark god who dwelt on a terrifyingly high mountain and who might actually be merely concealed during the daylight as part of that deadly mountain itself.
The enormous, heavily veined black wings of Chernobog are easily mistaken for the highest point of Bald Mountain when they are wrapped securely around the evil fiery-eyed monster as they are at both the beginning and end of the sequence. The crafty Chernobog is always there, but has merely blended back into the outline of the hilly silhouette.
Bald Mountain was inspired by a real life counterpart, Mount Triglav, meaning "three-headed." Mount Triglav is the highest mountain in Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia) and the highest peak of the Julian Alps.
The name does not come from the topography of its summit, but from the fact that the ancient people of the region felt the massive rock outcropping was the connection between the three elements of the sky, the earth and the underworld. That belief made it a perfect location for supernatural ceremonies.
Actor Bela Lugosi did some live-action reference for Chernabog posing while wearing his original Dracula cape for animator Bill Tytla the first week of November 1939.
Tytla later found the pictures taken from those sessions unusable for his purpose so he had animator Wilfred Jackson strip to the waist and pose following Tytla's directions. However, for publicity reasons, it was promoted that Lugosi was the model and that little anecdote has appeared for decades.
From Modern Screen magazine February 1940:
When Bela Lugosi had a call from the Walt Disney studios the other day, he proceeded over there considerably perplexed about what kind of role the cartoonist had dreamed up for him. The actor was met by Disney and Leopold Stokowski. Mr. Stokowski will direct his orchestra in music symbolizing the eruption of a volcano, Disney explained, and will you please interpret the volcano?
Lugosi admitted it was something of a shock to be called on for anything of this nature, but, being of the old school, he launched into the assignment. So successful was his interpretation that moving pictures were taken of him. These will later be used as models by the Disney artists when drawing the erupting volcano for the animated cartoon. "Guess I'm one actor," said Lugosi, "who doesn't have to worry about being typed."
I am sure Lugosi's confusion came from being told he was the top of a mountain and perhaps Tytla encouraging him to make strong dramatic movements like an erupting volcano.
In 2015, Disney announced it was developing a live-action feature film starring the character of Chernabog with Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless writing the script and executive producing the film.
Disney sent Adolf Hitler to Hell in Stop That Tank! (1942), a wartime educational short Disney did for the National Film Board of Canada also directed by Ub Iwerks.
At the end of the film, an animated version of Hitler gives a hysterical gobbledy-gook pep talk to his troops while he is in a tank. His tank is hit by the Anti-Tank Rifle and goes toppling over a cliff straight to Hell where the frustrated Fuehrer is welcomed by an amused red-suited, overweight Satan. It can be seen here.
Pluto went to a fiery Hell ruled by cats but it was merely a nightmare in Pluto's Judgment Day (1935) where he was put on trial for his many crimes against the feline population and found guilty on all counts. Of course Pluto had his own little devil who tempted him in cartoons like Mickey's Pal Pluto (1933) and its remake Lend a Paw (1941).
Donald Duck also had his own little devil on his shoulder in Donald's Better Self (1938) but actually turned into a real devil with a pitchfork in Soup's On (1948) complete with red suit, tail, horns and pitchfork in the last minute of the cartoon short as he chases his three nephews.
I couldn't let this column end without mentioning the one Disney cartoon other than Legend of Sleepy Hollow that is always associated with Halloween even though it has no hellish references.
Actually, Walt took quite a risk with this cartoon since other countries do not celebrate the American holiday tradition or not in a similar fashion so it may not have made much sense in foreign distribution.
Released October 10, 1952 (just in time for the Halloween season) and directed by Jack Hannah from a story by Ralph Wright, the theatrical short Trick or Treat was nominated for, but did not win, an Academy Award. Animation was provided by Bill Justice, Volus Jones, Don Lusk and George Kreisl; effects animation by Dan MacManus; layout and background by Yale Gracey (yes, the Imagineer responsible for some of the ghost effects in the Haunted Mansion).
A very mean Donald Duck plays tricks on his nephews, the trick-or-treating Huey, Dewey and Louie, instead of giving them treats. The boys are befriended by a real witch named Witch Hazel (voice by June Foray) who uses some special spells to pry the treats from a reluctant Donald.
She finally enchants his feet with a magic spray so that Donald is involuntarily used as a battering ram to smack into the locked closet of goodies. Witch Hazel flies off as the night comes to a close and the kids enjoy their treats.
Two years later, Warner Brothers released a short titled Bewitched Bunny directed by Chuck Jones featuring a witch called Witch Hazel, also voiced by June Foray. In this cartoon, Bugs Bunny must rescue Hansel and Gretel from a rather more naughty witch than the Disney version who was physically designed much differently.
Foray related in 1995:
"I did Witch Hazel as a short at Disney. She was a very funny character that I created the voice for. Chuck Jones loved it so much that he called me over to Warner Brothers to do her again. I went over there and they said, 'You're going to do Witch Hazel.' And I thought, 'how in hell are they going to do that?' Disney owns it and they're so litigious. But we did it.
"Chuck just went ahead and did it! So I asked him, just a couple of years ago, 'How the heck did you ever do that and get away with it, taking a character out from Disney's nose?' And he said, 'Because it was an alcohol rub! He didn't own the name!' So Disney couldn't capitalize on that or stop Chuck because it was already a copyrighted name."
Jones was probably referring to a North American shrub and the herbal medicine derived from it, witch hazel. This is probably the reason that cartoonist John Stanley was also able to use a Witch Hazel character in his Little Lulu comic book stories.
Disney's Witch Hazel has a broom named Beelzebub that acts as both her servant and her method of flying transportation just like a traditional witch. She is, essentially, a good witch, although quite a crackpot, and has been used fairly frequently in Italian comic books where she struggles to convince Goofy, not Donald, that witches are indeed real.
Interestingly, the same time the cartoon was released, Dell comic books produced an adaptation written and drawn by Hannah's old Disney story department partner, Carl Barks.
The story appeared in the comic book "Donald Duck" No. 26, November-December 1952 and has been reprinted several times.
Western Publishing did a lot of seasonal comic books from special Back to School issues to of course, Christmas specials. So it was not unusual for them to come up with a comic book themed to Halloween.
"I was sent the storyboard stats and told to make the stuff into a feature-length story. I soon found that the material wouldn't fill 32 pages that were then the length of a feature. So I ad-libbed some extra stuff. I didn't see the movie until long afterward," Barks said. (The artwork on the boards that Barks saw was by Ralph Wright.)
Some of Barks' changes were minor, like a nephew carrying a pumpkin on a pole instead of balancing it on his head. Other changes were more major.
The Donald Duck of the animated cartoons was limited by what he could say since the audience had difficulty understanding Clarence Nash's "duck speak" clearly. The Donald Duck of Carl Barks' stories was much more eloquent. So this adaptation is atypical of the work that Barks was doing at the time with Donald Duck when it came to dialog.
Barks did borrow some of Witch Hazel's lines from the animated cartoon, as well as some of the staging from the storyboards and poses from Witch Hazel's model sheet.
Barks' scripting emphasizes the reason for Donald's meanness when it comes to giving out treats. He sees it as an unwelcome violation of his privacy. Barks also reinforces that Witch Hazel's efforts on behalf of the nephews is to remind people that witches do still exist and the nephews belief in witches needs to be rewarded.
Barks included some additions to the story, including a short segment with a billy goat and another where Hazel disguises herself as a beautiful blonde duck bombshell to get candy from Donald.
However, not all of Barks' changes and additions were welcomed by the editorial staff at Western. To flesh out the thin story, Barks added an episode with Smorgie the Ogre, a six-armed Cyclops wearing a derby hat who had been conjured up by Hazel, and that sequence ran for several pages.
The editor was so angry that those pages deviated so wildly from the original cartoon that they were deleted from the original printing of the story and Barks was refused payment for those additional, unwanted drawings.
To replace those missing pages, Barks wrote and illustrated a nine-page story, "Hobblin' Goblins" to fill out the rest of the comic book. The story recounts how the nephews get a "Goblin Foiler" device from Gyro Gearlose that only makes their lives worse when dealing with their Uncle Donald.
The editors also felt that Barks opening panel of a graveyard in the foreground to Duckburg was too gruesome even though it was based on the opening shot of the cartoon itself and Barks replaced that splash panel with a page and a half more clearly explaining why Donald felt he had to lock up the treats from the nephews because they had already made an attempt to steal the goodies.
The ending to the comic book story version is more uplifting that the final pumpkin "Boo!" scare in the animated cartoon with Donald coming to the realization that he enjoys Halloween and will dress up as a goblin next year.
The complete version, including all the missing pages, were pieced back together and re-colored by Marie Severin, and published in the Carl Barks Library.
When it comes to the supernatural, there are Disney cartoons like The Goddess of Spring (1934), where Pluto from the underworld kidnaps Persephone and takes her to Hades; and The Haunted House (1929), with Mickey dealing with skeletons in a haunted house with some re-used animation from The Skeleton Dance (1929).
Having skeletons in The Mad Doctor (1933) caused that film to be banned in the United Kingdom because it featured "the living dead" (an item on its censored list because of the influx of live action horror films) and not because the mad scientist was going to mess with Pluto's brain or slice Mickey Mouse in half. Of course, the favorite Lonesome Ghosts (1937) with Mickey, Donald and Goofy as The Ajax Ghost Exterminators has long been a Halloween favorite and has always been rumored to have been one of the inspirations for the live action film Ghostbusters (1984).
And don't forget Ub Iwerks' loose remake of The Skeleton Dance in color titled Skeleton Frolics (1937) for the Columbia Color Rhapsody series while he was away from the Disney Studios. While it lacks the spooky charm of the original, it is an interesting oddity.
Happy Halloween and beware because your Disney nightmares just might come true and you may end up in Disney Hell.