Silly Symphonies And Serious Dreams
A Brief History of Disney: Part 2
WORDS BY RICHARD OUZOUNIAN | LIGHTHOUSE IMMERSIVE
Walt Disney, like the animated projects now pouring out of his ever-growing studio, was always in motion. The staff that launched Steamboat Willie in 1928 was a lean, hard-working group of about a dozen. Within two years, it had increased to 30, and in five years it had reached 100. But not even in their wildest dreams did anyone at the studio think that, a mere decade after Mickey Mouse had made his first appearance, Walt Disney would be leading a workforce of over 1,000 employees and have received the first eight of the 22 competitive Academy Awards® he would earn in his lifetime.
At first, the growth was technical in nature, with the addition of sound being followed by the embrace of the three-strip Technicolor process that
gave Disney projects their dazzling look. That use of technology combined with unmatched creativity led to Disney winning the first Academy Award® for “Best Short Subject, Cartoon,” for the vibrant Flowers and Trees (1932), which offered clean, bright, dazzling color that audiences had never before seen, as well as animation from two men who would continue as Disney personnel in the ensuing years: David Hand and Les Clark.
But if all of Disney’s growth had been technical, things would have soon run into a brick wall. Walt’s ultimate strength would prove to be his belief that what you put on the screen was more important than how you put it there.
At heart, Walt was a born storyteller, and although he had feature-length dreams that he wasn’t quite ready to share, he next developed a clever way to climb up to that level. Carl Stalling, a theater organist Walt knew from Kansas City. became one of his strongest musical resources as a composer, arranger, musician, and voice actor. Stalling suggested that Walt begin a series of musical shorts that could give him the chance to balance his love of technical experimentation with an ever-growing interest in storytelling.
Less than a year later, the fruits of that suggestion were visible when The Skeleton Dance (1929), the first of the 75 pieces that would be known as the Silly Symphony series, premiered to great critical acclaim and popular interest. Walt’s old friend and colleague Ub Iwerks shared the animation with the aforementioned Les Clark and another Disney stalwart, Wilfred Jackson. The music was from the man who had inspired the series, Carl Stalling, with a bit of an assist from Edvard Greig’s “March of the Trolls.”
In the next three years, 27 more Silly Symphonies were released in rapid succession, each one displaying more technical expertise and an increased command of storytelling. Frolicking Fish (1930) was the premiere of animator Norm Ferguson’s “follow-through” technique, which inspired other artists to instill more natural movement to their characters.
But Walt was restless at the constraints of black and white photography. When he finally struck the deal for the three-strip Technicolor process, the success of Flowers and Trees (1932) proved him right. 1933’s Three Little Pigs was the biggest hit of the series, grossing over $250,000 on a budget of $22,000 and winning an Academy Award®. It was directed (as was Flowers and Trees) by Burt Gillett and the animation team included Fred Moore, Jack King, Dick Lundy, Norm Ferguson, and Art Babbitt.
It also marked the first (but definitely not the last) time that a song created for a Disney cartoon production became a popular hit in its own right. The number, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” written by Frank Churchill with additional lyrics by Ann Ronell, became a cult favorite song across America following its release. Many people suggested it echoed a feeling of national optimism following the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president and the arrival of his New Deal programs. In the decades since, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” has been covered numerous times and by numerous vocalists, most notably by Barbra Streisand and LL Cool J.
There were three sequels to the animated short and, while they were successful, they failed to capture lightning in a bottle the same way. This led to one of Disney’s most famous quotes: “You can’t top pigs with pigs.”
Walt wasn’t interested in repeating past successes. He wanted new ones. And so, one night early in 1934, he gathered all his animators together and held them entranced for hours while he acted out a tale filled with laughter, tears, suspense, and romance. He had the entire staff in the palm of his hand when he finished and said, “You’ve just heard the story of our first full-length feature.”
It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.