Saturday, August 29, 2015

188. Mother Goose Melodies

SERIES: Silly Symphony

A procession brings Old King Cole to his throne, where he calls for his pipe, his book, and his fiddlers three. The book arrives, being a collection of Mother Goose rhymes, and we are treated to humorous musical vignettes with some famous characters.

These are still the early days for the Silly Symphony series, but already we can see a bit of growth. Mother Goose Melodies continues the tradition of animated characters cavorting to recognizable musical motifs, but using nursery rhymes was a clever choice because so many are associated with singable tunes. For each section, the music score accompanying is usually identifiable, even when the rhyme isn't being recited. When the blackbirds fly out of Jack's pie, for example, we can hear "Sing a Song of Sixpence" underneath. You can literally sing every rhyme throughout the short. I like the use of "Baa Baa Black Sheep", in which the sheep actually bleets on the "baa baa" parts.

The short features a lot of the standard tropes of the early Silly Symphony era, such as three figures dancing in unison, a goofy sun, and toothy grins. But there's actually a lot of new ground being broken in this short that will carry into future projects for the company. The most important first in this cartoon is the appearance of Old King Cole. His design, along with his booming jovial voice, would feature throughout the 1930s, both recurring as Old King Cole and serving as a prototype for both King Neptune and Santa Claus. They are all essentially the same figure, and they make their first appearance here.

This is also the first appearance of Mother Goose, both as a character and as a concept. This is the first time the studio has gone to the nursery rhyme well for inspiration but it certainly wouldn't be the last. There would be multiple future Silly Symphony projects, including at least two very similar shorts involving Mother Goose characters. There would even be a short in the 1960s exploring the truth behind certain popular rhymes. The idea of the storybook, and the characters that live in it and pop out of it, would become a standard feature of these cartoons. But more than that, the storybook trope would ultimately become a defining cliche of Disney animated features, beginning with the book that opens Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The interactions inside the pages would also be put to great use in the Winnie the Pooh features. It all begins with Mother Goose Melodies.

The opening parade animation processional that brings Old King Cole in would be re-used in several other projects over the years. For the Academy Awards ceremony several years later, the studio redid the sequence in color, presenting the acting nominees for that year. Instead of Old King Cole, the procession brings in caricatures of the Hollywood stars. During the 1940s, they used the animation again for a Standard Oil commercial.

The design work is interesting in this cartoon because there's a pretty clear distinction made between the "real" people of the kingdom and the ones who live in the book. Characters like Jack and Jill or Little Bo Peep are drawn with a much more juvenile art style. It is very simplistic, almost like stick figures, evoking something more childlike. Meanwhile, character animation and design for Old King Cole, the Three Blind Mice and others is showing a definite progression up from some of the earlier cartoons. There are still holdovers, like the look of the spider, which remains of the sort that we've seen in earlier shorts, but there's definitely progress being made.

I would be remiss if I didn't speak about some of the amusing moments in the cartoon itself. It's all well and good to discuss it's place in Disney history, but it's also on this list for its own merit. While not as major a figure as Old King Cole, this is also the first appearance of the Simple Simon design that remains fairly unchanged throughout the Mother Goose shorts. They'd never get away with something like that today, with this ridiculous fool who's "simple" (read: retarded), and therefore easily mocked. He's always depicted as fishing for some reason, even though that has nothing to do with his rhyme. I have no idea why he has an N on his hat either (if anyone knows, please let me know in the comments!). But I love the bit where he pulls an octopus out of the bucket. It seems so incredibly random and it makes me laugh. The moment when Little Jack Horner pulls out the plum and says, "What a big boy am I" is great because he now has this deeper, booming voice. It makes sense for the character, but it's also part of the humor of the unexpected. And that's where this short works well, in taking these very well known stories and finding ways to surprise us.

Something else it does well is when it connects several rhymes together. It's a surprise to have Jack and Jill turn up at the top of the hill only to find Simple Simon there. But they also smartly blend "Little Bo Peep" and "Little Boy Blue", both of whom are tasked with looking after sheep and doing a lousy job of it. This pairing will usually feature in other Disney cartoons. That whole sequence with them and "Black Sheep" is well thought out. For a cartoon that's fairly simple, the story department did a good job. It's also rather unique in that this one doesn't have a big chase sequence and isn't too reliant on dancing. While it's fairly light on actual story, they found ways to find little stories and make it all work nicely.

One thing I've always wondered though is why so often these characters are depicted in clogs, as if they are little Dutch children. This kind of motif carries over into later cartoons too, and I don't know why. The rhymes aren't Dutch in origin. I wonder if there was some popular illustrated collection at the time and they were referencing those pictures.

Mother Goose Melodies on the surface is a fairly trite, mildly amusing five minute cartoon. And yet it has a legacy in the characters, ideas, and actual animation, that continued in the decades to follow. The Silly Symphonies of the 1930s would not have been the same without it, and that's worth celebrating.

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