The Skeleton Dance Storyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I'm still in the Halloween mood and almost every Halloween, the Walt Disney Company seems to showcase one of its earliest black-and-white cartoons, The Skeleton Dance (1929), the very first Silly Symphony.
While not specifically stated to be Halloween, merely a supernatural frolic during the midnight hour, this five-and-a-half minute innovative short cartoon certainly encapsulates the imagery and spirit of the spooky holiday.
The cartoon starts with flashes of lightning and a close-up of an owl's eyes with a full moon in the background. The owl hoots in time with the music while the wind causes a branch, shaped like skeletal bones of a hand, to reach out to grab the bird. The clock strikes 12 and bats come flying from the belfry of the nearby church in the background. They fly towards the viewer as a spider pops down from seemingly nowhere.
A dog howls. Two cats on opposite gravestones meow at each other in syncopation and tug on each other's noses. They are scared away when the first skeleton appears from behind a tombstone between them. He springs forward toward the audience and then tiptoes through the graveyard.
He takes off his skull and flings it at the owl, knocking the feathers off the animal. Four skeletons appear and start their dancing and there are a series of gags from stretching taller and shorter, playing the ribcages of skeletons with leg bones, grabbing a cat's tail to play like a cello string and more.
When the rooster crows as dawn approaches, the skeletons scramble back into a single casket. Unlike the Mickey Mouse cartoons, there is no storyline or focus on a single character. The dance sequence is full of variety from the skulls remaining still but the bodies swaying to performing a dainty pirouette to hopping on each other like a pogo stick.
The working title for the film was The Spook Dance although other suggested titles including Mysterious Melodies and Haunted Harmonies.
While working with Walt Disney on the scores for the first Mickey Mouse cartoons, Carl Stalling, who was basically the Disney Studios' first music director, had an idea for a new series of cartoons with the drawings made to fit the music that he suggested in late 1928.
He and Walt would get into arguments about the music for the Mickey Mouse cartoons. Stalling wanted the music to be more prominent and not have to force it to fit the individual actions on the screen, a musical technique that would later be called "Mickey Mousing".
Walt wanted the music to more closely emphasize each action for comic effect and to be able to lengthen or shorten a sequence and have the music adapt to the changes.
Finally the disagreements got so intense that Walt told Stalling they would do a second series of cartoons because it would allow him to do some experimentation, not be restricted by the formula of the Mickey cartoons and generate an additional stream of revenue. In the new series, the score and the animation work together perfectly, completely in syncopation.
Initially, Walt thought that Stalling was envisioning something along the lines of the sing-a-long reels that had been done by studios like the Fleischers and had some popularity.
As Stalling told researchers Michael Barrier, Milton Gray and Bill Spicer during a June 1969 interview:, "He thought I meant illustrated songs, but I didn't have that in mind at all. When I told him that I was thinking of inanimate figures, like skeletons, trees, flowers, etc., coming to life and dancing and doing other animated actions fitted to music more or less in a humorous and rhythmic mood, he became very much interested. I gave him the idea of using the four seasons, and he made a cartoon on each one of those."
Walt wrote to his brother Roy and Ub Iwerks on September 25, 1928, "Carl's idea of a skeleton dance for a musical novelty has been growing on me."
The subject for the first Silly Symphony had an interesting origin.
Stalling recalled, "The Skeleton Dance goes way back to my kid days. When I was eight or ten years old, I saw an ad in The American Boy magazine of a dancing skeleton, and I got my dad to give me a quarter so I could send for it. It turned out to be a pasteboard cut-out of a loose-jointed skeleton, slung over a six-foot cord under the arm pits. It would 'dance' when kids pulled and jerked at each end of the string."
As historians Russell Merrit and J.B. Kaufman have pointed out in their book about the Silly Symphonies:
"[The Skeleton Dance] roots are labyrinthine, stretching back at least to the 19th century phosphorous skeleton marionettes and danses macabres. One of the first films ever made (in 1898) was a 60-second Eidson documentary called Skeleton Dance, Marionettes featuring Gray's Royal Marionettes; and seven years later Melies interpolated a skeleton dance into Les Palais des Milles et une Nuits.
"By the 1920s, skeleton dancing acts, like comic skeleton and ghost songs were staple as as novelty entertainments."
Stalling said, "Ever since I was a kid, I had wanted to see real skeletons dancing and had always enjoyed seeing skeleton dancing acts in vaudeville."
The idea was given to Ub Iwerks who was the primary animator working for Walt and the two of them developed the ideas for gags as they did on previous cartoons with Stalling contributing some ideas as well.
Stalling used a bit of Edvard Grieg's March of the Dwarfs (1893), but primarily composed an original fox-trot piece so it seemed lively and a little jazzy in keeping with the times.
Stalling recalled, "It wasn't Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, although some writers have said it was. Walt couldn't get copyright clearance so he asked me to compose something similar, but my music wasn't similar at all to the Danse Macabre. It was mostly a fox trot, in a minor key. Walt never wanted to pay for music; he wanted me to just make up something. In one picture, he wanted to use the song School Days, but he would have had to pay for it. So he said, 'Carl, can't you write something that sounds like School Days but isn't?' For a name or title for the series, I suggested not using the word 'music' or 'musical', as it sounded too commonplace, but to use the word 'symphony' together with a humorous word. At the next gag meeting, I don't know who suggested it, but Walt asked me: 'Carl, how would Silly Symphony sound to you?' I said, Perfect!'"
Iwerks went to the local library for inspiration. He found pictures drawn by the English cartoonist Rowlandson of skeletons dancing. In other books, he found photographs of skeleton dances depicted upon the walls of Etruscan tombs.
It was Iwerks who came up with the idea of the skeletons not rising from their graves to threaten people but just have a playful night of partying with each other. Iwerks experimented with different perspectives as well to provide an experience not previously seen by movie audiences.
Animation under Ub Iwerks began in January 1929 with it taking almost six weeks to finish. The soundtrack was recorded at Pat Powers' Cinephone studio in New York in February 1929 along with the fifth Mickey Mouse short cartoon The Opry House. According to Roy O. Disney's records, the total cost for the film was $5,485.40.
Walt wrote to Ub from New York where he was meeting with theater exhibitors on February 9: "I am glad the spook dance is progressing so nicely – give her hell, Ubbe. Make it funny and I feel sure we will be able to place it in a good way. I have them all worked up and raring to see it – so we can't disappoint them. We have a score to it. The music sounds like a little symphony. I feel positive everything will fit the picture properly. If it doesn't, it is possible we might fix the cartoon action to fit, judging by the way The Opry House fit. I feel positive it will be great."
On February 10, Walt wrote to his wife Lillian, "I feel positive the 'Spook Dance' will make a real hit when shown. Everyone praises Ubbe's art work and jokes at his funny name."
The Skeleton Dance was completed in March 1929 and a preview was held on March 20.
Stalling remembered, "It was a late show at the Vista Theater down on Hillhurst and Sunset in Hollywood; a small theater. Walt was disappointed in it. There were very few people there, no house. We saw Steamboat Willie in New York at 8 or 9 o'clock, with a full house. But here in Hollywood, at 11 o'clock, there were only a few stragglers.
"There wasn't any reaction, and Walt didn't think it went over at all. He said, 'What the hell's the matter with the damned thing?'"
In a June 12, 1929 letter to Powers' company, Walt wrote, "It's hard to explain just what we have in mind for this series but I feel myself that it will be something unusual and should have a wide appeal."
As Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller recalled:
"Father wasn't easily discouraged. He took The Skeleton Dance to a friend who ran the United Artists Theater in Los Angeles and asked him to look at it. 'We're looking at some other things this morning,' the man said, 'and I'll have my assistant look at it. You go with him'.
"Father sat beside the assistant while the film was run. It was just before the first morning show; a few customers had drifted in and it was obvious they liked The Skeleton Dance but the assistant didn't listen to them. 'Can't recommend it,' he said. 'Too gruesome'.
"Father got a hold of another friend and asked him if he could put him in touch with Fred Miller who managed the Carthay Circle, one of the biggest and most important theaters in town. Father's friend sent him to a salesman on Film Row. 'Maybe he can get him to look at your skeleton film'.
"Father found the salesman in a pool hall shooting a little Kelly (a game played on a standard pool table with 16 pool balls where each player draws one of 15 numbered markers called peas or pills at random from a shake bottle which assigns to them the correspondingly numbered pool ball, kept secret from their opponents, but which they must pocket in order to win the game). 'Leave your picture here, Disney,' the Kelly player said. 'I'll look at it. If I like it, I'll get in touch with you'.
"It sounded like a stall but he actually did look at the film. When he looked he said, 'I think Fred will like this. I'll take it over to him myself'. As a result, Miller showed The Skeleton Dance with a feature picture he was running. It went over big.
"Father clipped the local press notices and mailed them to Powers with a note: 'If you can get this to Roxy (the nickname of Broadway showman Samuel L. Rothafel who ran New York's prestigious Roxy Theater), he'll go for it the way Miller did. Powers got a print to Roxy and Roxy liked it. He ran it in his huge New York theater."
It ran at the Carthay Circle theater along with the feature Four Devils starting on June 10, 1929. It was the first cartoon ever programmed there and the theater would later host the Hollywood premieres of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia. Walt attended the screening with Iwerks and scratched his head. "Are they laughing at us or with us?" he asked Iwerks.
Walt and Roy also arranged for it to be shown at the Fox theater in San Francisco on June 28, 1929 with the feature film Behind the Curtain starring Boris Karloff.
It ran at the Roxy theater on July 16, 1929 with Pleasure Crazed. Rothafel wrote, "without exception, one of the cleverest things I have seen and as you know the audience enjoyed every moment of it."
In early August, Columbia Pictures signed a contract to distribute the Silly Symphonies nationally and made the short available in late August. Its first playdate was again at the Roxy on September 7 shown with Big Time. It was the first time in history that a cartoon had had a second engagement at the theater.
The review in the July 17, 1929 issue of Variety stated:
"Title tells the story, but not the number of laughs included in this sounded cartoon short. The number is high. Peak is reached when one skeleton plays the spine of another in xylophone fashion, using a pair of thigh bones as hammers. Perfectly timed xylo accompaniment completes the effect. The skeletons hoof and frolic. One throws his skull at a hooting owl and knocks the latter's feathers off. Four bones brothers do a unison routine that's a howl. To set the finish, a rooster crows at the dawn. The skeletons, through for the night, dive into a nearby grave, pulling the lid down after them. Along comes a pair of feet, somehow left behind. They kick on the slab and a bony arm reaches out to pull them in. All takes place in a graveyard. Don't bring your children."
The review in the July 21, 1929 issue of The Film Daily stated:
"Here is one of the most novel cartoon subjects ever shown on a screen. Here we have a bunch of skeletons knocking out the laughs on their own bones, and how. They do a xylophone number with one playing the tune on the others spine. All takes place in a graveyard, and it is a howl from start to finish, with an owl and a rooster brought in for atmosphere."
It had an effect on animators, as well. Art Babbitt who had been working at the Paul Terry animation studio told an interviewer that when he saw The Skeleton Dance "I knew that was the place I wanted to work" and quit immediately and left New York to go to Los Angeles.
Joseph Barbera who would later go on to worldwide fame with his partner William Hanna recalled that he saw the film from the third balcony at the Roxy Theater, "I saw it about seventy miles from the screen, but the impact on me was tremendous nevertheless. I saw these skeletons dancing in a row and in unison, and I asked myself: How do you do that? How do you make that happen?"
Les Clark recalled that Ub animated all of The Skeleton Dance except for the first scene which Clark animated. Years later Clark claimed he had done a scene with a pair of skeletons playing the spines of other skeletons like xylophones. Wilfred Jackson supposedly animated the crowing rooster at the end of the cartoon.
At the time Jackson and Clark were members of the Disney staff but were basically still considered in-betweeners and clean-up artists working with Iwerks. Iwerks was a mentor to the new animators and also served as a "go-between" for the animators and Walt.
The title card for the cartoon says "Drawn by Ub Iwerks," which is a bit different than the Mickey cartoons which said only "A Walt Disney Comic By Ub Iwerks."
Iwerks started having minor run-ins with Walt in 1929. Walt would take Ub's drawings at night and prepare exposure sheets for them, timing them the way he wanted but sometimes it was not the timing that Iwerks visualized. On The Skeleton Dance, Walt relented and deferred to Iwerks' timing. Timing is very important to an animator so this was not considered a casual intrusion
Iwerks yelled at Walt, "Don't you ever touch my drawings! These are my drawings and this is how I solve the problems. Keep your hands off them!"
In addition, during work on The Skeleton Dance, Iwerks worked on every drawing sometimes drawing the skeletons "in rough" letting Jackson and Clark fill in the ribs and other black areas like the eyes and noses.
Walt felt having Iwerks do all that work was a waste of his valuable time. He wanted Iwerks to just draw the key drawings/poses and allow the other animators to fill in the between action but Ub argued that he would lose the flow of the action and the rhythm if he did it that way.
He preferred animating "straight ahead" as it was called, leaving only minor details to be filled in. He felt he would lose control over the movement if he only drew some static poses for reference. Walt was trying to streamline the process to save time and money but Iwerks knew what worked best for him.
Animator Mark Kausler told Iwerks' granddaughter that Iwerks "created more of a dance. The characters move their arms…and they move across and around in perspective. He really figured out how to give a dance-like rhythmic quality to his animation."
In an interview done years later, Iwerks stated, "[The Skeleton Dance] was a different type of film from the Mickeys. I did all the animation but I did it rough, in line form. Other guys put in the rib cages and teeth and eyes and bones."
Walt sent a print to New York for his film distributor to promote the new series. But after getting poor reactions from exhibitors who felt the film was grotesque, Pat Powers wrote back tersely: "They don't want this. MORE MICE." As a compromise, Walt added the title "Mickey Mouse Presents a Silly Symphony".
Walt said, "The whole idea of the Symphonies was to give me another street to work on, you know. Getting away from a set pattern of a character. Each Symphony, the idea would be a different story based on music with comedy and things."
In addition, Iwerks was attracting more and more attention and getting credit on the title cards of the theatrical cartoons and a byline on the Mickey Mouse comic strip. Walt felt it was diverting attention away from the Disney brand he was trying to create. Walt became more insistent and critical of Iwerks' work.
Ub finally went in to see Roy O. Disney on the morning of January 21, 1930 while Walt was in New York. He told Roy he was leaving the studio and gave as his reason the personal differences between himself and Walt. He went on to set up his own animation studio called Celebrity Productions financed by Pat Powers who had distributed the early Disney cartoons.
Released in December 1929, the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Haunted House has Mickey hiding from a storm in a deserted house. Actually, the house is filled with skeletons who force him to play an organ while they dance. Some of the animation from The Skeleton Dance was reused, especially the skeletons dancing in a circle holding hands and moving in a line back and forth across the screen. However, there is a new punchline as wind from an open window blows away the upper bodies but the legs and feet keep dancing.
Iwerks himself revisited the concept when he directed The Columbia Color Rhapsody entitled Skeleton Frolic (1937). It is very similar to The Skeleton Dance in tone and action but in full, rich color and with much more use of extreme perspective and detail. There is an owl, a spider, pumpkins and more.
In the dark of night in a cemetery, a gnarled, tiptoeing tree knocks on a gravestone and wakes up some skeletons. A yowling black cat frightens them and they throw their skulls at the animal splitting it into six smaller cats. More skeletons pop out of their graves and form an orchestra with instruments and play music.
One skeleton loses its skull and makes several attempts to steal another skull from another skeleton. A male and female skeleton dance but the female skeleton keeps losing the lower half of her body. There is a similar dance with multiple skeletons as in The Skeleton Dance. A crowing rooster alerts them that night is ending and in a panic they rush back to their graves.
Stalling said, "If it had not been for Walt Disney then in all probability there would never have been a Mickey Mouse. This makes me wonder sometimes, would there ever have been a Silly Symphony or who would have suggested The Skeleton Dance—if…?"