Disney at the Movies – Day 10

  1. Cartoon Shorts    The Wise Little Hen and Donald’s Cousin Gus
  2. Main Feature      Melody Time
  3. Live Action          The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin         

Melody Time (1948) owes much to Make Mine Music and the Silly Symphony series.  It is a collection of vignettes, each with a distinctive visual and musical style.  Disney engaged some of the most popular music artists of the time to perform the music and narration, most notably for me, The Andrew Sisters.  After the general release, the vignettes were frequently broadcast as individual shorts on television or repackaged with other material for home video.  The subjects are grounded in American folklore, contemporary and historic, but one segment, Blame it on the Samba, is more culturally diverse. This features our friend from Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, Jose Carioca, teaching Donald Duck how to Samba.  While this isn’t the most groundbreaking Disney film, and admittedly the format is getting tired, the stories are gems that should have broad appeal for children and adults with a penchant for nostalgia.

Since Donald Duck is the biggest Disney star in the main feature, I thought it would be fun to infuse our cartoons with a heavy dose of “The Donald.” Donald Duck made his debut in a supporting role in The Wise Little Hen (1934).  This charming fable tells of a hen and her chicks who must plant corn.  It’s a big job so she entreats her neighbors Peter Pig and Donald Duck, self-proclaimed members of the Idle Hour Club, to assist. Peter and Donald feign belly aches to avoid work.  The wise Hen and her chicks are not daunted by their neighbors’ sloth and get to work planting and ultimately harvesting the corn.  The animators do an excellent job creating the plausible engineering process and tools used by the chicks to plant the crop. What a bountiful harvest it is, and the wise Hen wastes no time preparing corn on the cob, corn chowder and corn bread so vivid that you can almost taste it yourself.  The family enjoys the feast and exacts an appropriate revenge on Peter and Donald.  This is a delightful piece in its own right, but it will be forever remembered because it launched the career of Donald Duck, who rapidly moved from bit player to headline star. 

The next short will be Donald’s Cousin Gus (1939).  As Donald sits down to an impressive dinner, he is visited by his cousin Gus Goose who appears to be Harpo Marx in goose form. Gus presents a letter of introduction from Donald’s Aunt Fanny with an ironically prophetic postscript: “He don’t eat much.”  News flash:  he does.  With atypical graciousness, Donald welcomes Gus, who in the most delightfully passive aggressive way, proceeds to literally eat Donald out of house and home.  Note: this is not currently streaming on Disney+, but we’ve enjoyed it for years from The Chronological Donald Volume 1 1934-1941 dvd collection (which also contains The Wise Little Hen).

Both of these were cartoons of the Great Depression and give us a window into life during that time.  In the context of a global pandemic, they may very well resonate with more immediacy then in recent times.

Our live action feature today is The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967).  My first viewing of this gem was courtesy of Disney +, and I am most grateful to the new streaming service.  At the time of the California Gold Rush, young Jack Flagg flees to San Francisco to save his Boston Brahmin family that has fallen on hard economic times.  Griffin, the loyal family butler, catches up to Jack at Boston harbor to bring him home, but in the first of a series of delightful misadventures, Griffin and Jack inadvertently stowaway to the west coast.  Griffin (played to perfection by Roddy McDowall) is a butler extraordinaire, much in the tradition of P. G. Wodehouse’s marvelous Jeeves.  Griffin meets every obstacle with elegance, dignity, and a preternatural abundance of excellence that will eventually earn the nickname “Bullwhip,” true love, fame, and fortune.  There’s much to like in this film, a good story, fine acting, effective music, but I think what I like best is the care and affection rendered by the artists. George Bruns provides an excellent score and some quality songs written with the Sherman Brothers.  The theme song provides the framework and recurs from time to time to bring the audience along this picaresque adventure. The song is accompanied by outstanding graphics by Disney legend Ward Kimball. Kimball’s sequences firmly place us in the period and are suffused with charm and humor.  Together, song and sequence guide us through the film, like placards at a vaudeville show, or title cards at a silent movie.  Terry Gilliam of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame, would take this to the next level with his animations that connected the eclectic sketches in each episode.  I have no way of knowing if Gilliam is familiar with Bullwhip Griffin, but I’d like to think he enjoyed Ward Kimball’s work as much as I did.

I’ll share an observation for film nerds.  Early in the story, there is a scene where a portrait of the late patriarch of the Flagg family hovers, stern in judgement, over the family at the reading of his will.  His demeanor in the portrait changes during the scene, suggesting he was such a domineering figure in life, that his essence continues to be felt, even in death.  It’s an amusing conceit that establishes the whimsy of the film early on, but it also reminded me of the Coen brothers’ remake of The Lady Killers.  In that film, there is also a portrait of a stern patriarchal figure that looms over the characters, and throughout the film, his demeanor changes to suit the enfolding action.  As I am a film enthusiast and not a film scholar, I can’t say if this technique was used often or elsewhere, but I will say its application in The Lady Killers is astonishingly similar to Bullwhip Griffin and I’d like to think  a young Joel and Ethan Coen enjoyed this film as much as I did.

The corn is popped, and we are ready to embark on Day 10 of Disney at the Movies.  Hope you enjoy this! #meolodytime #sillysymphony #disneymovienight #thewiselittlehen #gusgoose #theadventuresofbullwhipgriffin #terrygilliam #thecoenbrothers

Sources:

Disney A to Z The Official Encyclopedia Fourth Edition Dave Smith c. 2015 Disney Editions

The Disney Films Leonard Maltin c. 1978 Popular Library

c. Martin Blanco, Kathryn Blanco, and Disney at Home September 29,2020

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