I feel like I've discussed the WWII era Disney often enough that everyone knows the basic state of the studio of the time, but just in case: for most of the 1940s, as WWII drained the studio of both talent of money, Disney turned to the “package film” format. Instead of a single full-length feature, various animated shorts would be slapped together until the movie was long enough to pass muster. Melody Time came toward the end of the stream of these package films. It was followed by The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which was thankfully the last of these package films until The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was released nearly thirty years later.
Melody Time has many of the classic symptoms of a package film: a very loose storyline/plot device holding the various shorts together, inclusion of live action scenes with entertainers popular at the time, and shorts largely driven by music a la Fantasia. The animation pieces are of varying quality, as I'll describe in a minute.
The movie opens with one of those drippy, generic songs that are found in so many of these package films. A chorus of female voices chimes, “MELODY TIME....MELODY TIME!!!!” while the solo male vocalist croons, “It's time to swing along to a happy land of song-” Jeez. I mean, I get that this was the sort of music that was popular at the time, but it's so dull and the lyrics so bland that I don't know how anyone could stand it. (If any of my grandchildren dare to say anything like that about The Little Mermaid I will SMACK THEM.)
The film segments are loosely tied together by the device of a paintbrush that appears between stories and paints the titlecard or some other aspect of the animation. It's abstract, yes, but I think it works a lot better than Jiminy Cricket did in Fun and Fancy Free.
Once Upon a Wintertime: With a song about how wonderful winter is in the background, this short follows two couples – one human, one rabbit – as boys set out to impress pretty girls. When the girls, in a fit of stereotypical pique, skate out onto thin ice, the boys have to rescue them...but when they fail to do so, it is up to the woodland animals to save the day. It looks like a 1950s holiday card come to life.
This is really all you need to know about 'Once Upon a Wintertime'.
Bumble Boogie: A strange, abstract piece that would have been perfectly at home in Fantasia, this film follows a little bee around as his world goes haywire. Flowers try to eat him, blast him with waves of sound, and turn into piano keys that try to eat him. It's like Pink Elephants on Parade, very bizarre and WTF????-inducing. The music is a variation of Flight of the Bumblebee, and is very well-suited to being animated.
Sweet little bumblebee...DIE!!!
The Legend of Johnny Appleseed: This is a short that I remember seeing many times as a kid – I think it must have been repackaged with other “tall tales” and sold as a VHS in the 80s or 90s, because I remember it being accompanied by stories about Paul Bunyan and John Henry. It's easily the best film in Melody Time for several reasons. The animation looks a step above the other stories, with beautiful backgrounds that look just like the colorful naïve oil paintings of early colonial artists. It really helps set the mood and tone of the story. The characters themselves are simple looking, but very expressive.
This Disney version of the Johnny Appleseed story doesn't follow too strictly to the life of the real John Chapman, but it celebrates the folksy virtues of men like Walt Disney, who grew up believing that the westward expansion of the white man was a good thing and that God had truly blessed this country, and with hard work anyone can make a difference, whether big or small. It's funny, I look at it now and think, “Gee, that Anglo-Protestant work ethic sure is being celebrated here!” but even so, I enjoy this little film.
Oh, the Lord is good to me...
Little Toot: Maybe this little story about a child tugboat who wants to be a big, grown-up tugboat like his father would work a little better if Disney hadn't just told the same story a few years earlier in Saludos Amigos. using an airplane instead of a tugboat. Really, watch the two shorts back-to-back and you'll be annoyed by how similar they are, too.
The story wasn't even that good the first time around...boats and planes with human features freak me out.
Trees: Condense Bambi down to about four minutes and set it to an extremely boring song, and your end result will be Trees.
Blame it on the Samba: Dude, where's Panchito? We have Donald Duck and Jose Carioca, but the rooster representing Central America is nowhere to be found in this short. Maybe it's because he lacks the other two birds' habit of checking out human women...anyway, at the beginning of this song-and-dance number Jose and Donald are utterly depressed, but the Aracuan Bird comes along to cheer them up with the music of the samba. Or is it with booze? At one point, the three birds are swimming around in giant glass of alcohol while Ethel Smith plays an organ. I'm pretty sure they're all drunk by the halfway point. Just when you think Disney's all about those good ol' Christian values, they throw this short at you.
There's always room for a pretty lady...
Pecos Bill: The build-up to this story involves following two children (live action) across a Western set until they find Roy Rogers, who tells them the story about Pecos Bill. I honestly don't remember much about this one, which is a bit sad since I just watched it. Something about Pecos Bill is raised by coyotes or wolves, something canine, and grows up to be the best darn cowboy the West has ever seen. I don't know how that works – where would he learn to shoot a gun or work a lasso if he was raised by a lupine mother? Also, he and his horse have a very disturbing relationship. Gotta love all the “Chuck Norris”-style bragging, though. “Pecos Bill got thirsty, so he grabbed a stick and dug the Rio Grande” and so on.
Pecos Bill and Widowmaker.
I don't know why I like Johnny Appleseed so much more than Pecos Bill; they're both the same sort of superinflated American hero story.
So as you can see, the stories don't really go together in a truly coherent way. I mean, there's two 'folk' stories, but there's also drunk birds and bumblebees being attacked by piano keys. It's all over the place. While I like the odd short here or there, for the most part I can't wait to be done with them. (I think the only one I have left is Make Mine Music, which is going to be problematic since Netflix hasn't got it.)
Most of these are on the level of Saturday morning cartoons, which isn't bad per se – but I expect better in the average Disney film!