This is the first of a series of podcasts we’ll be releasing about Fantasia. In this episode, you’ll get an introduction to the history and context of the movie, why it is so important, and who the major players are.
Fantasia was Walt Disnye’s second theatrical release, and the first movie to ever pair music and motion with the deliberation to create an ‘art’ experience. It might actually be the first ever art flick! It’s significant because it’s the first appearance of the modern version of Mickey Mouse, and some of the things that went into the making of Fantasia laid the groundwork for the the setup of Buena Vista, the Disney distribution company in 1953, but also because if you look behind the scenes a little bit, you get a fantastic look into the scope of Disney’s vision.
Additionally, since we’re taking such a close look at Fantasia throughout this podcast series, we want to plug our sources. There’s a book called Fantasia, written by John Culhane, which is probably the definitive work on the movie, but we also referred to Disney’s art of Animation by Bob Thomas and The History of Animation by Charles Solomon and the Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters by John Grant.
The Major Players!
Walt Disney: Disney reminded Stochowski of Diaghilev – the founder of the incredibly important Ballet Russe in early 20th century Russia. Remember that comparison, it’s going to be important when we get to the ‘Rite of Spring’ podcast! Disney was 36 when he started working with the conductor, Stochowski. He met the man (according to Stochowski) when they were seated in nearby tables in a restaurant, and Disney invited the conductor to join him, and pitched the idea of animating ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ to a very favorable response.
Leopold Stochowski: 56 at the time of starting work on Fantasia. He had taken up a casual orchestra based out of Philadelphia in 1912, and turned it into what was referred to by the NY Times as “the greatest virtuoso orchestra in America and, most likely the world.” It’s hard to imagine in modern times, when there really isn’t a modern equivalency to what popular conductors were at that time, but Stochowski was famous not just for his accomplishments in the musical world, but was also a public figure — he starred in ‘normal’ movies as well as films made of concerts he conducted. He even dated Greta Garbo! Culhane (author of Walt Disney’s Fantasia) called him flamboyant, and Yehudi Menuin said “Stochowski epitomized for most Americans what the symphony conductor should look like, how he should behave …”
Deems Taylor: was a prominent music critic and composer in his own right – ending up in the brain trust of development for Fantasia. He’d also the narrator.
We’ll talk about animators and story artists on each piece when we discuss those pieces.
The movie consists of 7 pieces of classical music, each artistically interpreted through the medium of animation, with music conducted by Leopold Stochowski, who also helped to adapt the music to shorter versions to keep the movie at two hours.
Fantasia was made in a new studio that Disney had bought with the money from Snow White. In context of history, it was made in the early era of WWII, so everything that was affecting the country also affected both the day-to-day running of the studio and the reception of the movie. Production began in 1937 — the same year Disney won an Academy Award fro the multi-pane camera system he had invented for Snow White. It’s creation was finished before the Disney workers strike and subsequent unionization that occurred in 1941. Disney’s rules on the production of the feature was that there had to be visual clarity, simplification of complexity, and a reason for everything that existed on screen.
The movie premiered on November 13, 1940, which is really early considering the content, two days after
the last frames for the Ave Maria sequence were completed, two weeks after Hitler’s unsuccessful attempt to u=invade Britain in the Battle For Britain air strike, and 13 months before the US entered the war. It was intended to revolutionize animation as an art form (Disney’s original vision included pumping the smell of flowers into the theater, showing sequences in 3D, and making the sounds of the movie themselves really surround the audience). While it’s easy to see that now, it was critically received and the subject of quite a bit of controversy when it was actually released. The movie also lead to some landmark events in Disney history — Disney’s distributor at the time wasn’t all that enthused with the project, so he was allowed to hire a man called Irving Ludwig to do it, personally reporting to Disney. This is significant because Ludwig would go on to found Disney’s distribution company – Buena Vista – a little further on down the road. Ludwig personally installed dimensional sound systems in theatres (at the cost of $30K each in 1940s money) and hired trained staff for each theatre so that they could be sure that a trip to see Fantasia would mean a very specific audience experience. Now, the multidimensional sound system that Disney developed for Fantasia was called Fantasound, and it has a really interesting history of it’s own, but we won’t really be covering it on these podcasts because that side of the technological advances aren’t really a priority interest for us.
It was released to only 14 theatres, but stayed in rotation on Broadway or a year – which was record breaking at the time. The cost of the music installations that Ludwig had taken care of drove the ticket prices up, which made it harder for the average person (who Walt firmly believed would be able to appreciate the film) to go to see it. Music critics declaimed the movie for the editing down of the various pieces of music, for the attempt to pair classical music with any kind of visual medium, and Stochowski’s editing choices. Movie critics said that the general populace wasn’t smart enough to appreciate the highbrow classical music at all. But Fantasia was neither attempting a big-screen concert, nor attempting to make the music itself more accessible – they were trying to push animation through to the next level of artistry. There was a lot a of great critical response as well! The LA Times called it “An Earthquake in motion picture history, and the New York Times said “Terrific as anything that ever appeared on the screen,” and “Motion picture history was made …” One critic even compared it to the early works of the Ballet Russe under Diaghilev. (Remember the name Diaghilev – he’s going to be coming up again throughout the Fantasia podcast series.) Other critics went so far as to compare the advancement in conceptualism of the movie to being as great as the inclusion of sound in the movies. But despite all this positive response, it just wasn’t a big hit. Some have said that the reason was that the critics took a purist attitude and trashed it, but others have said that the general populace couldn’t really think about art when they were more worried about a genocidal dictator that was slowly but surely conquering Europe. Others think that people just weren’t ready for what Fantasia was bringing to the screen.
In response to pressure stemming from the lack of immediate popularity of the movie, it was cut by 50 minutes and put through general distributions, where it continued to not make much money. It was restored and released again in 1946, and still did not produce a positive return on it’s cost — but Disney never regretted making it.
It finally succeed upon it’s release in 1956 – 16 years after it’s original release. It was a hit, then, but nobody seems to know why it was a hit at this time specifically rather than before. Perhaps we were all just finally ready for music and moving pictures together. It was released for theatres again in 1963 and 1969, and began to gain a popularity with the psychedelic set. Animator Ollie Johnson said in a 1990 Herald Journal article of that release: ”They thought we were on a trip when we made it … every time we’d go to talk to a school or something, they’d ask us what we were on.” The 1969 release was advertised with posters designed in the psychedelic style of the time, which either deliberately or coincidentally tapped into that market.
In 1981 (41 years after the original release), the original sound recordings of Fantasia had so deteriorated that Fantasia became ANOTHER first in film by giving it the first ever digitally recorded motion picture score. Conductor Irving Costal, who had supervised music on West Side Story and The Sound of Music was brought in to re-record the original music, but took great care to remain faithful to the Stochowski (who passed away in 1976) interpretations. Now if you have SOMEWHERE a recording of the Fantasia soundtrack – perhaps on record or on a laserdisc or betamax or something around your family home that predates that year, it might be the original Stochowski recording. If you do, PLEASE let us know, we would LOVE an opportunity to hear the original version.
In retrospect, it became the turning point for the design of Mickey Mouse. It was the first movie to ever merge sound and music in such an artful and abstract way.
The seven pieces in the movie are as follows:
1 – “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by Bach, interpretively animated to create a scene that looks an awful lot like an impressionist painting brought to motion.
2 – “The Nutcracker Suite” by Tchaikovsky. Various sections of the ballet that we now think of as holiday music is reinterpreted to scenes of nature, filled with dancing plants, goldfish, fairies, and depictions of the changing of the seasons. Pieces from the ballet include Dance of the Flutes, Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, Waltz of the Flowers, Chinese Dance, Arabian Dance, and Russian Dance.
3 – “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Dukas. Illustrates the story of an apprentice who takes on more than he can handle, with the role of the appretice played by Micky Mouse! Perhaps the most important of the pieces of Fantasia to the personal history of the Walt Disney Company, this was the first appearance of the Mickey Mouse that we know and love today.
4 – “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky. Disney set this already controversial ballet to scenes of dinosaurs and comets, interpreting ‘spring’ to be the early history of our planet, rather than the season of spring. This is the most controversial section of the mivie, probably because it is the only section in which the composer was alive at the time of filming.
After this section was an intermission where the audience gets to meet the soundtrack in a cute animated sequence.
5 – “Pastoral” (or 6th) Symphony, by Beethoven. Set in a scene of greek mythology, this was Suzannah’s favorite scene – the colors, the flowers, the ponies, it was tailor made of a little girl. It also features some pretty racist imagery that has since been cut from the movie, and the only frontal nudity in a Disney film. OBVIOUSLY in a Dinsey film, lol.
6 – “Dance of the Hours” by Ponchielli. The blatant comedy scene of the piece, this features ballet being performed by the most unlikely of creatures – ostriches, elephants, hippos and crocodiles.
7 – “Night on Bald Mountain” by Mussorgsky & “Ave Maria” by Schubert. The movie is wrapped up by the only spiritual or religious section of the piece, showing the antics of the giant demon Chernabog (often perceived in the move as the devil) followed by a piece depicting the tranquility and rest offered by faith.
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