Mickey's Music Box: Fantasia - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Mickey's Music Box: Fantasia

Christopher Morley takes on a musical apprenticeship...

Having started out our Mickey's Music Box series looking at the Silly Symphonies, time now to press forward into the then new, at least to Disney, world of feature-length films. The third of these endevours for Walt Disney was in a sense a return to the tried & tested format of the Symphonies in an attempt to address a decline in popularity for Mickey Mouse.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice, as set to the classical piece of the same name by Paul Dukas, was nearing completion by 1938 as a stand-alone short film...

But having decided he wanted to go far beyond mere slapstick to where...
"...sheer fantasy unfolds... action controlled by a musical pattern has great charm in the realm of unreality"
...Walt Disney had a stroke of luck - a chance meeting with conductor Leopold Stokowski in a Hollywood restaurant. Following their initial chat, during which the maestro had responded favourably to the idea of picking up his baton, terms were agreed - made easier by the fact old Leo offered to take on the job for nothing, which Disney marvelled at!

One of Walt's representatives reported back that Stokowski had indeed been...
"...really serious in his offer to do the music for nothing. He had some very interesting ideas on instrumental coloring, which would be perfect for an animation medium."
Predictably Walt was chuffed, writing back that he was...
"...all steamed up over the idea of Stokowski working with us... The union of Stokowski and his music, together with the best of our medium, would be the means of a success and should lead to a new style of motion picture presentation."
But there was a snag. Production costs alone eventually reached $125,000, which Walt's brother Roy warned that, even with a budget around three to four times bigger than what had been spent before on the Silly Symphonies, the short film could never hope to make back that figure at the box office.

Production supervisor Ben Sharpsteen would note his employer;
"[Walt] saw this trouble in the form of an opportunity. This was the birth of a new concept, a group of separate numbers, regardless of their running time, put together in a single presentation. It turned out to be a concert. Something novel and of high quality."

Having extended the conductor's contract, Stokowski was called back to help select further pieces of music & having whittled down the eventual contenders Bach's Toccata & Fugue In D Minor, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Ponchielli's Dance Of The Hours and Mussorgsky's A Night On Bald Mountain eventually made the cut for the finished Disnified answer to the Proms.

Next on the to do list was sort out the sound, Walt setting out his stall in wanting his paying punters immersed in the orchestral performance having decreed that...
"Music emerging from one speaker behind the screen sounds thin, tinkly and strainy. We wanted to reproduce such beautiful masterpieces... so that audiences would feel as though they were standing at the podium with Stokowski".
The old monophonic system was out, then. In its place came Fantasound!

Put simply, the desired effect was that it would...
"Fantasound creates the illusion that the actual symphony orchestra is playing in the theater."
As the Disney brothers told RCA.

Having initially held firm in his refusals, RCA head David Sarnoff eventually relented on the condition that Disney could meet his estimate of $200,000 in costs & so work began in July of 1939 on the new stereophonic surround sound system. But then once Fantasound's development process had finished, after taking up about a fifth of Fantasia's overall production budget, it was the film itself which led to distribution difficulties as RKO.

Previously Disney's exclusive distributor, they refused to do so citing concerns over Fantasia's running time of two hours & five minutes plus intermission. To get around that Walt organised a roadshow release for his latest fusion of cinema & classical music - meaning it was unleashed upon only selected audiences in certain states of America - beginning on November 13, 1940 at New York's Broadway Theatre, which had been supplied with Fantasound equipment painstakingly installed over the course of just a week!

Given the hard work involved it must have come as a relief that anticipation proved so high a team of eight operators manned the phone lines while a shop next door was rented as extra space for the handling of the box office side of things.

Disney audio engineer William Garity, who had worked on developing the Fantasound technology, wrote for the August 1941 edition Journal Of The Society Of Motion Picture Engineers that...
“The public has to hear the difference and then be thrilled by it, if our efforts toward the improvement of sound-picture quality are to be reflected at the box-office.
Improvements perceptible only through direct A-B comparisons have little box-office value. While dialog is intelligible and music is satisfactory, no one can claim that we have even approached perfect simulation of concert hall or live entertainment.”
Following Fantasia's success in the States, the Second World War prevented a wider European run, and so all bar one of the £85,000 Fantasound systems were disassembled & handed over to the war effort. RKO then picked up the distribution rights but opted to keep costs down by showing Fantasia in mono. They also shortened its running time to an hour & twenty minutes by removing the whole Toccata & Fugue sequence & cutting out the commentary as provided by Deems Taylor between pieces.

A September 1946 re-edit restored the commentary & raised running time to an hour & fifty-five minutes. It's this cut that went on to become part of every subsequent re-release of the original film, which Walt Disney had originally intended to update every few years with new pieces of music to keep things fresh.

A few of the sequences intended for these sequels made it into other similar films - Debussy's Clair de Lune soundtracking the flight of two herons through Florida's Everglades later appeared in Make Mine Music, & Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight Of The Bumblebee surfacing in Bumble Boogie from Melody Time.

The new milennium would give us Fantasia 2000...

Keeping hold of just The Sorceror's Apprentice from its predecessor, James Levine is at the podium with celebrities including Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn & Teller, and Angela Lansbury introducing each segment in live-action scenes directed by Don Hahn.

2019, leading up to the launch of Disney Plus, the announcement of a new linked project meant it would seem we could soon be seeing & indeed hearing a Fantasia trio - watch this space.

Next time, we'll move from the concert hall into consideration of the composer/lyricist pairing, an equally important strand of Disney's musical DNA.

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