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Music: Disney’s Cinesymphony

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Strange and wonderful are the premieres (pronounced “premiérs”) of Hollywood: the trappings of publicity; the lights and decorations painting the gaudy lily of the Carthay Circle Theatre (where the big premieres are held); the pushing, stargazing crowds; the troops of real live stars (“I seen him! Didja see her?”). This week Manhattan sees a premiere stranger and more wonderful than any of Hollywood’s. The celebrities present, the publicity, the lights on the marquee, may be lost in the blare and blaze of Broadway. But strangeness and wonder belong to the show itself. It is Walt Disney’s latest, called Fantasia.

As the audience enters and the theatre fills with the sweet confusion of an orchestra tuning up, there are no musicians in the pit. As the curtains part, a huge symphony orchestra appears hazily, on the screen. Before it steps a thin, grinning, bald-headed man. He introduces himself as Deems Taylor, welcomes the audience, on behalf of Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, to “an entirely new form of entertainment.” When he finishes, Leopold Stokowski himself, his back to the audience, steps into the picture, raises his arms, and the great orchestra swirls into Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue.

The music comes not simply from the screen, but from everywhere; it is as if a hearer were in the midst of the music. As the music sweeps to a climax, it froths over the proscenium arch, boils into the rear of the theatre, all but prances up & down the aisles. The hazy orchestra begins to dissolve, and weird, abstract ripples and filaments begin an unearthly ballet in Technicolor.

This is the beginning of a symphony concert—but what a concert! Illustrated by Walt Disney; written by Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Dukas, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Schubert; conducted by Stokowski; master-of-ceremonied by Deems Taylor; played by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Mickey and Stokowski together put on a brand-new act.

When Stokowski’s orchestra swings into Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, the ballet on the screen turns into flowers, fairies, fish, falling leaves, mushrooms. Mickey Mouse appears in the title role of Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with silent gusto steals the bearded sorcerer’s magic cap. commands the broom to fetch water, forgets how to stop it, nearly drowns in the deluge that follows. To Igor Stravinsky’s rip-roaring Rite of Spring, a primeval world, complete with dinosaurs, bubbles up, parades by, dies down. To Mussorgsky’s spooky Night on Bald Mountain, hobgoblins and beldams ride their brooms. To Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, centaurs and centaurettes, Pegasus, Mrs. Pegasus and a nestful of little Pegasi gambol and fly; Bacchus and his crew get a good drenching when the storm comes up. The whole cinesymphony concert lasts two hours and a half (intermission included).

Containing everything from the Pierian well water of Johann Sebastian Bach to the violet-bordered stream of Schubert’s Ave Maria, Fantasia is a long succession of very large orders. Some of these orders (the flower, fish and mushroom dances of the Nutcracker Suite, the hulking, saurian epic of Stravinsky’s Rite, the eerie, fantastic Night on Bald Mountain) are so beautifully filled that they may leave callous critics whispering incredulously to themselves. Others (Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the hilarious ostrich and hippopotamus ballets) set a new high in Disney animal muggery. Others (the wave and cloud sequences of Bach’s Fugue, and a queer series of explosive music visualizations performed by a worried and disembodied sound track, posing diffidently on the screen like a reluctant wire) recall the abstract cinemovies made about five years ago by New Zealand-born Len Lye, show how musical sensation may be transferred to visual images.

It would have taken a Gustave Doré to do justice to the big beauty of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. No Dore, Disney peoples his classical Olympus with smirking “centaurettes,” smirkingly brassiered, with calf-eyed centaurs and kewpie-doll cupids, makes Bacchus’ bacchanale look like a nursery lemonade party, leaves his audience wondering whether he is serious, or merely trying to be cute by putting diapers on Olympus.

But, though Disney’s toddling cannot keep pace with the giant strides of Ludwig van Beethoven, Fantasia as a whole leaves its audience gasping. Critics may deplore Disney’s lapses of taste, but he trips, Mickey-like, into an art form that immortals from Aeschylus to Richard Wagner have always dreamed of.

Mickey Began It. The idea for Fantasia had been germinating in Disney’s mild-looking head for several years. Even before he did Snow White he had a vague notion of some day doing a serious opera in animovie style. As early as 1929 he raided the high-brow symphonic repertory to make Saint-Saëns’ bone-rattling Danse Macabre into a Silly Symphony. But the idea did not really sprout until early in 1938, when Leopold Stokowski, on a visit to Hollywood, begged Disney to let him conduct the music for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a Mickey Mouse short. Disney didn’t know what he was letting himself in for.

By the time Stokowski’s recordings were done, and the animation half finished, the Apprentice began to look too good for a short, too expensive for anything but a feature. Before it was finished, white-haired Maestro Stokowski had come out with so many other bright ideas for symphonic animovies that Disney’s ambition near went past itself. Calling ace Musicommentator Deems Taylor from Manhattan to help with advice, Stoky and Disney decided to build around Mickey Mouse’s sorcery act a whole program of cinesymphonies.

Keeping his 1,200 artists, animators, sound engineers and helpers mum, Walt Disney started work, soon got the machinery of his new $3,000,000 Burbank, Calif, studio rolling on Fantasia. Deciding to go the whole artistic hog, they picked the highest of high-brow classical music. To do right by this music, the old mouse opera comedy was not enough. The Disney studio went high-brow wholesale, and Disney technicians racked their brains for stuff that would startle and awe rather than tickle the audience.

Dinosaurs and Sound Tracks. Conductor Stokowski went to work in Philadelphia’s mellow and acoustically perfect old Academy of Music, recording his symphonic accompaniments on sound tracks. This time he worked, not with the Hollywood pickup band that had recorded

Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but with his own famed, seasoned Philadelphia Orchestra. For this recording job, no ordinary cinema sound equipment would do. So Disney’s ace sound engineer, rangy, Brooklyn-born Bill Garity, developed a whole new system of gadgets capable of catching each section of the Philadelphia Orchestra on a separate sound track. By braiding and patching these sound tracks onto a four-ply master track, he could control the faintest breath of every last bassoon. In their recording operations Garity and Stokowski used 430,000 feet of sound track, cut and patched it eventually into 11,953 feet. When the recordings were played back in a specially equipped studio in Hollywood, brother engineers were astounded to hear Soundman Garity’s sound follow characters across the screen, roar down from the ceiling, whisper behind their backs. RCA and Disney engineers, having built his equipment at a cost of $85,000, called it “Fantasound,” and crowed that it would revolutionize cinema production like nothing since the invention of Technicolor.

Meanwhile the Disney lot rang with the sound of classical music. Patient engineers who had never been to a concert in their lives listened to 35 to 710 performances of each composition, ended up whistling Bach. Beethoven and even Stravinsky at breakfast. Idea men, working on the dulcet strains of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, winced at the bedlam of Stravinsky’s Rite which other technicians were playing next door. (The Rite finally had to be quarantined in a special corner of the lot, where its boom-lay-booms could be studied without disturbing the whole studio.)

Stravinsky’s Rite, which has caused high-brow audiences to rise, shout and pound on their neighbors’ skulls in ecstasy, offered a serious problem. To match its cosmic hullabaloo, nothing less than a planetary cataclysm would do. So Disney men began studying nebulae and comets at California’s Mount Wilson Observatory, mugged up on theories of protozoic life, earthquakes and other geologic upheavals, did portraits of every prehistoric monster in Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History.

One of them, studying lightning flashes by reclining on a Los Angeles curbstone in a pouring rain, was rushed to headquarters by suspicious police. Famed paleontologists like Barnum Brown of Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History and Chester Stock of California Institute of Technology were called in for advice. A herd of pet iguanas and a baby alligator wriggled over the Burbank lot, while animators studied their lizardy movements. By the time a complete cast had been rounded up for the Rite, the Disney zoo contained eusthenopterons, brachiosaurs, brontosaurs, plesiosaurs, mesosaurs, diplodocuses, triceratopses, pterodactyls, trachodons, struthiomimuses, stegosaurs, archaeopteryxes, pteranodons, tyrannosaurs and enough plain run-of-the-Jurassic dinosaurs to people a planet. Studio cameras groaned under the burden of the whole story of evolution.

For Mussorgsky’s halloweenish Night on Bald Mountain, Disney went outside his own studio for talent, got famed Fairy-Tale Illustrator Kay Nielson (East of the Sun and West of the Moon) to design graveyards and ghosts, ended with a Walpurgis nightmare calculated to turn little children’s hair white. But Illustrator Nielsen’s jagged scenes, plus a new high in animation technique, made it by far Fantasia’s best act. As Fantasia took shape, a whole new troupe of Disney comic characters appeared: Hop Low, the self-thwarting little mushroom, who tries to do the Chinese Dance from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, but can’t keep up with the big mushrooms; Ben Ali Gator, premier danseur of an ostrich ballet set to Ponchielli’s corny Dance of the Hours; Susan, the hippopotamus ballerina whose blimplike cavortings in a pas de deux with Ben Ali Gator literally bring down the house in a wreck of flying plaster; Bacchus and his donkey Jacchus, who trip and roll through the Grant Woodland scape of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

Long before Fantasia was finished, expenses began to mount, and fellow Hollywoodians began to whisper again about “Disney’s Folly.” With $200,000 spent on Stokowski’s fancy recordings, and a technical bill that overtops Snow White’s, the total figure for the production amounted to $2.250.000. Because Engineer Garity’s new sound mechanism is so complicated and expensive, only twelve theatres at a time will be equipped to show Fantasia, and RCA sound-equipment manufacturers figure that it will take several years before small-town cinema houses can get the gadgets to perform it. For the present. Fantasia will not be distributed like ordinary films, but will tour the U. S. like twelve road-show companies. But Walt Disney expects Fantasia to run for years, “perhaps even after I am gone.”

An imposing list of top-flight contemporary composers (Paul Hindemith, Serge Prokofieff, William Grant Still, Deems Taylor, et al.) have vowed that they would spend their lives working for Disney if he would give them the chance. Composer Igor Stravinsky himself has signed a contract to do more music with Disney, has blandly averred that Disney’s paleontological cataclysm was what he had had in mind all along in his Rite of Spring. Musicians and sound engineers who came to hear Soundman Garity’s gadgets perform found that such recording had never before been even approached. Music lovers crowed that more ears would be saved for Beethoven by Fantasia than by all the symphonic lecture-recitalists in the U. S. The New York Academy of Sciences asked for a private showing of the Rite of Spring because they thought its dinosaurs better science than whole museum-loads of fossils and taxidermy.

Meanwhile sharp-faced Cinemartist Disney just crossed his fingers. Said he: “Art is never conscious. Things that have lived were seldom planned that way. If you follow that line, you’re on the wrong track. We don’t even let the word ‘art’ be used around the studio. If anyone begins to get arty, we knock them down. What we strive for is entertainment.”

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