Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Dark and Stormy Night, 1929

Lightning crashes and the wind howls as a lone owl gives a plaintive hoot against the backdrop of a full moon.  A clock in a church belfry strikes midnight and a colony of bats fly into the night.  Nearby, a dog howls while two black cats hiss at each other atop two gravestones.  Suddenly, a bony apparition rises from the ground and leaps toward the audience.

It's time for the skeletons to come out and play.  Let's dance.

Eighty-one years ago today, Walt Disney premiered The Skeleton Dance, his first Silly Symphony cartoon.  Ripe off of the immense success of Mickey Mouse (Steamboat Willie debuted the previous November), Walt was already looking to explore new avenues in animation.  His musical director, Carl Stalling, was the first to propose the idea of a series of cartoons built on a foundation of music that starred non-recurring characters.  The first cartoon would be based on the musical piece "March of the Dwarfs" by Edvard Grieg.

It was a tough sell.  Mickey Mouse's popularity was skyrocketing and Walt's distributor, Pat Powers, was only interested in seeing "more mice."  Plus, Powers thought the subject matter was just too gruesome--the public wouldn't like it.  But, Walt persisted and eventually convinced the manager of the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles to give The Skeleton Dance a shot.  The response was enthusiastic by both audiences and critics.  Soon, The Skeleton Dance was booked into New York's Roxy Theater and became a bona fide hit.

Ub Iwerks, Disney's most talented and prolific animator at the time, drew virtually all of The Skeleton Dance and his artistry still delights to this day.  In the sequence where the the skeleton leaps toward the audience, we literally pass through him lengthwise, into his mouth, down his spine and through his ribcage.  There was no such thing as CGI trickery back then. This was all hand-drawn frame by frame--and it's significantly more difficult to animate a character coming right at you than it is to draw it moving side to side.  Iwerks was a master at it.

The dance itself is chock-full of clever bits as the skeletons move across the screen in unison and then in a ghoulish "Ring Around the Rosie."  They alternately squat and stretch and even disassemble and reassemble themselves, all in time to Stallings' catchy score.  As dawn approaches, our ghastly friends hurry back to their crypt, but we suspect they'll return again when next the clock tolls midnight.

The Skeleton Dance's impact on animation cannot be underestimated.  It set the creative tone for the more than 70 Silly Symphonies that followed, among them such classics as Flowers and Trees and The Three Little Pigs.  Its influence can be seen in other famous Disney scenes like "Night on Bald Mountain" from Fantasia and "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Dumbo.  Even Tim Burton, whose credits include The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride can give a tip of the skull to The Skeleton Dance for showing how the macabre can be fun and even whimsical.  

The Skeleton Dance stands the test of time and ranks among Disney's best short cartoons.

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