I wonder how much the existence of this short stems from the whole “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” thing. 1929 seems early to be concerned about not resting the Disney Studios on the success of Mickey Mouse, given he was created in 1928, but Walt had been burned before. He’d put a lot of work into Oswald, not that I’ve ever seen an Oswald cartoon, and Oswald was taken away from him. So, at the suggestion of Carl Stalling, he made a cartoon with no characters whatsoever.
The short is simple enough. A bunch of skeletons dance around a graveyard, mostly to original music by Stalling. (Contrary to popular belief, the music is not adapted from Saint-Saëns. However, there is a brief segment with music adapted from Grieg’s “The March of the Trolls.”) Probably the most notable bit is when a skeleton strips leg bones from another skeleton and uses its ribs as a xylophone. There is also a brief appearance of a silhouette of a dog not unlike Pluto.
This is the sort of thing that appears a lot in Halloween specials, because you don’t even necessarily need to include the whole thing. As early as that same year, Walt borrowed a bit of it to stick in a Mickey cartoon. It appears in a number of Halloween specials and histories of animation, and it’s parodied on a Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy cartoon. A second or two of dancing skeletons is enough to evoke the eerie humour of the whole of the original.
The tradition of Silly Symphonies began here, however. They don’t get talked about as much as the shorts with the various characters we’ve all been exposed to all our lives, but I plan to do more of them over the months, because they’re severely underrated. I think this is where Walt and company started trying out the techniques that would be used for the features; as I mentioned in my Attention Must Be Paid tribute to Stalling, he developed a predecessor of the click track to synchronize the sound and animation for this cartoon. Some of the shorts are of really impressive artistry. This one is a bit for-its-time that way, but it’s not bad.
Western culture has long been fascinated with the skeleton. My son is just at the point where he’s coming to terms with the idea that a skeleton is inside him and that a dinosaur skeleton and a dinosaur are not inherently different things. He didn’t watch this cartoon with me, I’m afraid, so I don’t have his reaction to share. But given he ran screaming out of a Halloween store last year and this year simply refused to set foot in it, this is just not currently his bag anyway.