The package films are uneven. Even Fantasia has sequences that some people like more than others, though of course it’s the strongest of the bunch. I’m of the opinion that the only one of the lesser package films that fully holds up is probably The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which has two sequences, both strong. And understand I’m someone who happily bought Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros on DVD as soon as they were available. I haven’t bought this one, for reasons we’ll get to soon, but it’s definitely Some Parts Hold Up Better Than Others.
This film, as released in the theatres (we’ll get back to this), had ten segments. “The Martins and the Coys” is a short song by the King’s Men about a feuding rural family. “Blue Bayou,” by the Ken Darby Singers, is a light enough song with some truly beautiful scenic animation. “All the Cats Join In” is Benny Goodman and a tribute to teen culture of the late ’40s. “Without You” is a love ballad by Andy Russell. “Casey at the Bat” is a classic poem rendered here by Jerry Colonna. “Two Silhouettes” is sung by Dinah Shore. “Peter and the Wolf” is told by Sterling Holloway and the instruments of the orchestra. “After You’ve Gone” is back to Benny Goodman. The Andrews Sisters give us “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet.” And finally, Nelson Eddy tells us the story of “Willie, the Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.”
“The Martins and the Coys” has been removed from current releases. This is why I haven’t bought the movie. The segment, which is just a few minutes long, is the story of a pair of feuding rural—presumably Appalachian—families. The feud starts when Grandpa Coy steals eggs from the Martin chicken coop for Sunday breakfast; in time, the only surviving members of the family are Grace Martin and Henry Coy, who “carry on the feud” by fighting through their marriage. The segment has alcohol, gun battles, and domestic violence, and despite Disney’s promise that it would be on the DVD, it is not.
Honestly, “Blue Bayou,” “Without You,” and “Two Silhouettes” are mostly equally forgettable. Oh, the animation on “Blue Bayou” is really beautiful. And the ballet on “Two Silhouettes” is lovely, and fully rotoscoped—not something Disney actually did very often. However, all three come across pretty much as “Fantasia without the charm.” The animation of “Blue Bayou” is worth watching, goodness knows, but you can feel free to listen to other music while you watch it, because the music is not the famous song “Blue Bayou” but a different, less interesting one.
“All the Cats Join In” is one of the few Disney attempts to be topical in what the youths of today are watching. As such, it was doubtless just immediately dated; such things usually are. But it’s Benny Goodman, so who cares? The girls are also definitely inspired by ’40s pin-up art, and since they’re teenagers, that’s a little uncertain. Which is probably the other reason this film is the only Disney animated feature not on Disney+, after the “Martins and the Coys” issue. One of the girls is body-shamed because she’s drawn with a larger backside than she likes, and that’s also not great, but overall, this has long been my favourite section of the film.
“Casey at the Bat,” meanwhile, is one of the most commonly clipped segments, appearing in any number of anthology shows and just by itself many times over the years. It’s also the only one of the lot to get a sequel, which is definitely a weird idea. Jerry Colonna would go on to be the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland; he also narrated “The Brave Engineer.” It’s surprising to me he didn’t do more Disney, not least because this segment is so iconic.
“Peter and the Wolf” is one of those bits that are strange in a historical context; this movie, after all, was just after World War II. These films were in no small part because of the studio’s manpower shortage. But the point is, the US was still seen as an ally of the Soviet Union, at least for a little while longer, and having a segment about a kid who’s basically the Soviet equivalent of a Boy Scout is not that surprising. It also features my favourite sight gag in the movie, when Sterling Holloway reads out “W-O-L-F,” but the word is rendered in Russian, including using the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s also amusing to discover that the changed ending was apparently a response to people unhappy about Bambi.
“After You’ve Gone” is a piece by the Benny Goodman quartet, and it’s mostly just enthusiastic jazz music with anthropomorphized musical instruments. It’s got a really weird bit with pairs of fingers in tutus that I could do without, but mostly, it’s pretty good animation in support of some fine music. Benny Goodman was doing good work in those days, and it was a wise choice to include two segments of it here.
“Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” may well be the weirdest love story in Disney history. Because it’s the love story between two hats. This sort of thing is why I was probably one of the only kids around who knew who the Andrews Sisters were in my ’80s childhood, so there we are. It’s a delightful segment, but it’s also strange. Are all hats in this universe sentient? Do humans know that? Does Johnnie feel pain? I have many questions that the short is not interested in answering.
And then there’s Willie. Among other things, it’s got the best line in the movie, wherein Nelson Eddy tells us that Willie was no ordinary singing whale. But it is a full-blown tragedy. Tetti-Tatti is so convinced that Willie has swallowed an opera singer—eventually three opera singers—that he is unable to see the wonder that is before him. The harpooners can, and he won’t listen to them. He is both a villain and the tragic figure. Willie gets a Heaven and even more voices, and Tetti-Tatti gets nothing. He has killed a greater beauty than he will ever know.
It’s a strange series of shorts. The package films always are. Seldom do they have much of a real connection to one another. It seems to me that this one is better off by not trying too hard to ape Fantasia and let itself be more modern. More, it’s best when the shorts have at least something approaching a story. “All the Cats Join In” doesn’t have much of one, but other than that, the best bits are all when there’s narrative. That’s specifically to do with the music they chose, it’s clear, because “After You’ve Gone” is also pretty solid. Benny Goodman or a story; take your pick, I guess?