Disney's first acid trip (Part 1)
Hi there and welcome back to “Oof! Right in the Childhood” I’m Jen, and this is a podcast where I watch the Disney animated feature films in the order in which they were released, and react to them from a modern standpoint. I absolutely love Disney animated films. I grew up with them, and they have a special place in my heart. But as I’ve grown up, my eyes have been opened, and I’m starting to see the not-so-great messages that they inserted into my childhood.
Today, I’ll be talking about the second film from 1940 — Fantasia. At first, I was going to say “there are no words,” because I forgot there were words in this. So, instead, we’ll call this “Fantasia, Disney’s First Acid Trip.” This is probably the movie my father, a band director, and I disagree on most. In that, he loves it, and I just do not remember ever liking it one bit. It’s my hope that, through a rewatch, I’ll get a new appreciation for it, but I’m not holding my breath.
But first, some history behind Fantasia! I’m going to do my best to not mispronounce a whole lot of names, but don’t at me if I do. Also, as I’ve done the research for this film, there’s a lot of history I didn’t know, and it’s my longest history portion yet. In fact, it’s my longest episode yet. So sit down and get comfortable.
In 1936, Mickey Mouse had declined in popularity, and Walt Disney had planned a really intricate version of the studios’ shorts named Silly Symphonies to bring him back. The short was set to the music of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. While researching for this episode, I also learnt that there’s also a German Poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which details the story in the cartoon.
Walt got the rights to the music, and was looking for an orchestra and conductor when he met Leopold Stokowski who conducted the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Stokowski agreed to conduct the piece for free. A decision I’m certain he never ever regretted once.
The short, though, cost the studio $125,000. That’s 2.2 million dollars when adjusting for inflation. I mentioned in episode one that the original budget for Snow White was $250,000 and that was the same amount as 10 typical Silly Symphonies. So Walt was staring at a short that was five times more expensive than his typical shorts, and this was before he’d even released a full-length movie.
But Snow White was on the horizon, and as that movie raked in the profits, Roy O Disney, the studio’s financial manager realized they couldn’t make a profit with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice as it was, so the brothers began to plan a full-length feature film with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice as its centrepiece.
So Walt called Stokowski and inquired on his contract and its costs. His biggest problem, though, wasn’t the symphony, but the recording. At the time that Fantasia was being released, theatres had a single speaker, usually placed behind the screen, and it gave the movie a thin sound that Walt didn’t like. He wanted the audience to feel like they were in a concert hall.
So he called RCA and asked them if they could help him with a multi-channel recording of the symphony. Their first attempt was with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and it was terrible for the musicians. They couldn’t hear each other, given the way that the recording was set up, and the overall balance went wrong. Eventually, Disney scrapped the idea for the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and recorded it on a single track. But he wasn’t quite done.
When it came time for the recording sessions of the other seven pieces of music, RCA tried again. In July of 1939, with $200,000 in equipment (that’s $3.7 million in 2020), they placed 33 separate microphones throughout the orchestra and combined those microphones into eight music tracks and a “click track” for animators to draw in rhythm with the music. They called this technology “Fantasound.”
In that process, they created a lot of the technology that the program I use to record these podcasts has by default. Like noise canceling. That didn’t exist before Fantasia. In the end, according to Andrew Boone in Popular Science, approximately three million feet of sound film were used for the film’s music. Peter Van Gelder said in his book That's Hollywood: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at 60 of the Greatest Films of All Time that a fifth of the movie’s budget was just music. That budget, by the way, was 2.28 million dollars or 42 million dollars today.
Now that Disney and RCA had created a completely new way to listen to music, they had to show that movie. This provided even more problems because, again, most theatres had 1 speaker. What use was the new Fantasound if there was only one speaker?
In addition, Fantasia clocked in at two hours and five minutes. So they needed to provide an intermission to their patrons. RKO, the distribution company at the time, was afraid that movie goers wouldn’t want to attend a cartoon that was so long.
In the end, Fantasia opened at the Broadway Theatre in New York City. Walt reserved the theatre for an entire year and had his staff install Fantasound before opening day. It took a week. Then the phones started to ring as people wanted to reserve tickets. According to Neal Gabler in his Biography of Walt Disney, they had to hire eight additional telephone operators to keep up with the demand.
In the end, Fantasia played the Broadway Theatre for fifty-seven total weeks which included forty-nine consecutive weeks, and made it the longest running movie of the time.
But Broadway wasn’t the only place that would see Fantasia. Walt also organized a road show of 12 more theatres around the United States. Each of these theatres received a Fantasound setup, and played the movie twice a day. They also brought in Disney-trained ushers to show patrons to their seats and give them an illustrated program booklet.
By the time the first run had finished, the Broadway theatre had made $300,000 (5.2 million dollars today) and the other 12 roadshows had made a combined $1.3 million (22.8 million dollars today) — which sounds great, until you realize it cost $85,000 to install Fantasound in a single theatre, and that’s 1.5 million dollars today. And Walt had leased the theatres. So, the movie actually still hadn’t made any money. In fact, it made negative money.
Desperate to recoup his costs, Walt finally allowed RKO to distribute the film on their own terms. They cut it down to 1 hour and 20 minutes and released it to regular theatres in mono sound. The film has gone through several re-edits through the years, but in 1946, RKO restored most of the portions they’d cut and re released it (again) at one hour 55 minutes. But it still hadn’t turned a profit.
If that wasn’t enough in 1955, they discovered the original recordings had started to deteriorate. Quickly, they transferred the recordings over to a three-channel recording to make sure as much as possible could be saved.
Walt Disney died in 1966 without Fantasia ever making a profit.
But that isn’t the end. In 1969, Fantasia returned to theatres with a new ad campaign that focused on psychedelic imagery. And it is with this release that the film began to make a profit for the first time — 29 years after its original release.
Unlike most of the Disney movies, there’s no compiled number for how much money the movie’s made over its time. But when it was re-released for its 50th anniversary, coincidentally, when I saw it the first time, that release alone brought in 25 million dollars, or 49.3 million dollars today.
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All of the following is commentary on the film as I see it now, in 2020. My views are not that of the Disney company.
It appears that I am watching the original release as it says it is 2 hours and 6 minutes long.
The movie starts with a real orchestra going to its seats and tuning. Our narrator introduces the whole concept of music. And e’ll be starting with “music for the sake of music.”
The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Okay, so as I mentioned, my dad was a band director, so I have literally grown up with instrumental music. And Toccata and Fugue, though Bach just wrote it because Bach liked writing really complex things has never been “abstract” to me. It’s very much a dark and stormy castle. We’ll blame that on the movie industry’s likelihood to use it as a scary backdrop.
I do want to know how this sequence was filmed though. Were there screens that the orchestra was backlit from? Is there a special technique for creating the silhouettes this way? I didn’t see anything about the filming of the live action sequences in my web searches.
We move onto murmurations of violin bows flying through the clouds. It’s a cool way of integrating them into the “abstract” portion. Though the strings are our main section for this portion, I feel sad the other instruments didn’t get animated.
Now we’ve moved to chem trails in the clouds. And furrowed fields and dizzying furrowed fields.
And at one point we have rock or cloud formations that very similar to the shape of Triton’s Castle in The Little Mermaid. What’s it called when something is reminiscent of another thing that was created decades later? Probably happenstance.
The Nutcracker Suite
Our Narrator talks about how Tchaikowsky hated the Nutcracker Suite. It’s worth mentioning that Tchaikowsky also hated the 1812 Overture. So maybe he had to hate his own work to make it popular?
We start with the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy and we have — fairies! Fairies that I’m going to pretend are not naked. They’re naked.
They make the world beautiful at night. And then end up decorating a spiderweb. The Dew falls down on toadstools who dance to the Chinese Dance or Tea.
And Oof! Right in the childhood, they are absolutely racist depictions of Chinese people with their wide brimmed hats, slanted eyes, and their hands put together as they walk. And they bow! Holy crap. Well, at least it’s over quickly.
Onto the Dance of the Flutes which is made up of — flowers — dancing. But then they turn inside out and they are all wearing ballgowns! And from a botanist’s point of view, they’re sticking their reproductive organs up in the air, but I’ve decided to just be okay with that.
The Arabian Dance [Coffee] starts underwater. Some of the most beautiful goldfish reside here. They wear a lot of eye makeup and have transparent fins, and I wonder if these are inspired by stereotypical belly dance wear. According to my research, they did bring in an Arabian dancer for them to study her movement for the fish. All in all, they’re less offensive than the mushrooms, but that’s not a high bar.
Thistles! They dance the Russian Dance [Trepak]. Aren’t Thistles traditionally Scottish? My daughter did point out that their tops look like Kosac hats. And that’s — valid?
We’re back to the fairies for Waltz of the Flowers. Now it’s Autumnal fairies that turn the world gold for the fall. Tthey release little cotton dancing girls onto the air, and they’re so cute. They even have lil arms and they do that Swan Lake fall down thing that ballerinas do. And now it’s time for winter fairies! They’re snowflakes!
As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, this ended up being my longest recording yet, so I’ve decided to break it into two parts. Join me next Monday as we start with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
This episode’s cover art is provided by ShaSha. You can find more of her art on her Instagram. I link to that over on the show’s website at oofmychildhood.com. If you’d like to provide cover art for a future episode, head over to the website. We have a form to submit art as well as the details for what the requirements are. Just click “Submit your art” to have your piece considered for a future episode.
Our theme music was composed and played by Shawn Rudoph of Let Music Be. For more information on that studio, you can visit their website at Letmusic.be or visit my website for a easy link
Transcripts are edited and finalized by Melissa Willmott. You can find transcripts for each episode on my website, and if you check out my YouTube Channel, I have captioned video versions of each episode as they’re published. I do my best to provide YouTube videos and transcripts at the same time as each podcast episode is released, but if this one isn’t up yet, you can always check on my website for an update and a link to the appropriate video.
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