During the Second World War, many of Walt Disney’s animators were conscripted to serve in the US armed forces. Those who continued to work at the studio were more often than not required to animate propaganda films, including a series of comedic shorts and the feature Saludos Amigos (1942). With Disney having expanded his studio’s operations immediately before the outset of war, and the European market closed, there was a need to keep costs low while continuing to generate healthy profits. The solution was a series of ‘portmanteau’ films: stringing together multiple short works together to feature length. Saludos Amigos had been the first, and was followed by another five such anthology works. The fourth of these was Melody Time, released in 1948. It is credited to directors Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronomi, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson.
Melody Time copies the format of Disney’s legendary film Fantasia (1940), in which animators created sequences based on classical music. In the case of Melody Time – like fellow portmanteau film Make Mine Music (1946) – sequences were based on more contemporary and popular work. The film also featured performances by famous singers and musicians of the time, including Roy Rogers, Buddy Clark, and the Andrews Sisters.
A general observation of Melody Time is that, due to the conditions in which it was developed and produced, the animation quality feels retrograde to Disney’s earlier and more famous animated films such as Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). It may be slightly disappointing, but it is also understandable. The other note is that the length of each of the seven included shorts is inverse to its general quality. Those that are shorter and snappier inevitably feel more entertaining and involving than those that stretch on; the two longest segments, “Johnny Appleseed” and “Pecos Bill”, are also arguably the weakest.
There are two absolute stand-outs. The first is “Bumble Boogie”, which is an energetic jazz take on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” in which a bee frantically navigates a surreal visual rendition of the music. It is not a surprise to discover that this sequence was first developed as a segment in Fantasia, as more than any other part of Melody Time it resembles that original portmanteau film.
The other is “Blame it on the Samba”, which utilises the characters of Donald Duck and South American parrot José Carioca from Saludos Amigos as they meet an excitable Aracuan Bird inside a samba-themed nightclub. The characters are appealing, the music builds a rollicking atmosphere, and the particularly strong animation both masterfully uses colour and includes a combination of animation and live-action with Hammond organist Ethel Smith.
It seems almost inevitable that portmanteau films emerge as ‘curates eggs’: a combination of both good and bad elements. There are, in all, eight portmanteau films in Disney’s theatrical canon: two Fantasias, Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad. It is unfortunate that Melody Time is, almost certainly, the least creatively successful of the set. Some excellent sequences do still outweigh the drudgery of “Pecos Bill” – a tedious half-hour chore that is not half as entertaining as it purports to be – and salvage a reasonably entertaining time. This is very far from a perfect film, but in fits and starts it still provides that old-school Walt Disney magic.