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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Fantasia" (1940) [Series] - "A Nazi Abuse": A 1940 New York Tribune Movie Review

As series of postings of "Fantasia" items in the Cowan Collection...

On November 25, 1940 Dorothy Thompson wrote a movie review for the New York Tribune after watching "Fantasia." The article posted here was a reprint of that review, probably in a West Coast paper.

"A 'Nazi' Abuse"
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I'm certainly no film critic, but I thought "Fantasia" broke new ground on a number of fronts: introduction of multi-channel audio, a segmented film concept that could be re-released with new and updated segments, and a significant effort to use classical themes rather than relying on typical cartoon "slapstick." What was interesting was that the film received recognition with two Special Awards -- innovation with Fantasound and the unique visualization of music in the film.

From a financial perspective, the film was not very successful. The full stereo version was only shown in 12 theaters and only 16 complete copies of the film were ever made. People that were expecting a traditional cartoon literally walked out of the 125-minute film and RKO's editing to 81-minutes didn't seem to help much. I was surprised to learn that the film didn't achieve profitability until 1969. However, today the film is viewed very differently. In 1998, it ranked 58 on the AFI's list of the Top 100 films.

Wikipedia has a good summary on "Fantasia":

Fantasia is a 1940 American animated feature produced by Walt Disney and the third film in the Walt Disney Animated Classics series. Fantasia features animation set to classical music and no dialogue—only spoken introductions by host Deems Taylor before segments. The music was recorded under the direction of Leopold Stokowski and seven of the eight pieces were performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Animated artwork of varying degrees of abstraction or literalism was used to illustrate or accompany the concert in various ways. The film also includes live-action segments featuring Leopold Stokowski, the orchestra and American composer and music critic Deems Taylor. Fantasia was notable for what were then considered its avant-garde qualities and for being the first major film released in stereophonic sound—using a process dubbed "Fantasound".

Fantasia was originally released by Walt Disney Productions itself rather than RKO Pictures, which normally distributed the Disney films, and exhibited as a two-hour and twenty minute roadshow film (counting the intermission) with reserved-seat engagements. The film opened to mixed critical reaction and failed to generate a large commercial audience, which left Disney in financial straits.

Fantasia was eventually picked up by RKO for release in 1941 and edited drastically to a running time of 81 minutes in 1942. Five subsequent re-releases of Fantasia between 1946 and 1977 restored various amounts of the deleted footage, with the most common version being the 1946 rerelease edit, which ran nine minutes shorter than the original 124 minute roadshow version. A 1982 reissue featured a newly recorded digital soundtrack conducted by composer Irwin Kostal, but was taken out of circulation in 1990 after a restored version of the original Stokowski-conducted soundtrack was prepared. The original version of Fantasia was never released again after 1941, and although some of the original audio elements no longer exist, a 2000 DVD release version attempted to restore as much of the original version of the film as possible.

Disney had wanted Fantasia to be an ongoing project, ideally with a new release each year. The plan was to repeat some of the scenes while replacing others with different music and animation, so that each version of the film would include both familiar material and new segments. However, the film's disappointing box-office performance prevented such plans from being realized.

After the successful release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney decided to produce more features. The film was produced on a budget of $2,280,000 [roughly $33.7 million in 2007 dollars], to which $400,000, nearly a fifth of the budget, went to the musical recording techniques.

By the late 1930s, Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse was losing his popularity with movie audiences. The Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts series had spawned the spin-off Donald Duck series, which was proving to be more popular and profitable than the former, but Walt Disney wasn't ready to give up on his favorite character and devised a special short that would be produced as a "comeback" film for Mickey Mouse. The Sorcerer's Apprentice, based on Goethe's balladic poem Der Zauberlehrling (1797), was planned as a special Mickey Mouse short and would be completely silent save for the program music by Paul Dukas, L'apprenti sorcier (1897). The story artists who developed The Sorcerer's Apprentice originally suggested Dopey from Snow White for the title role, but Disney insisted upon using Mickey.

As work began on The Sorcerer's Apprentice in 1938, Disney happened to meet famed conductor Leopold Stokowski at Chasen's, a noted Hollywood restaurant. Stokowski offered to serve as conductor for The Sorcerer's Apprentice at no charge, and assembled over one-hundred professional musicians in Los Angeles to record the score for the nine-minute cartoon.

The animation department worked to make The Sorcerer's Apprentice one of their most ambitious works. Animator Fred Moore redesigned Mickey to give his figure more weight and volume in keeping with the modern efforts at the studio, and to give him eyes with pupils for greater expression. The film's color styling, pacing and layout, character animation, and effects animation were done with an increased attention to detail. The unnamed sorcerer in The Sorcerer's Apprentice was nicknamed "Yen Sid" in the department ("Disney" spelled backwards).

All of this excess came at a high price: $125,000, a price Walt Disney, and especially his brother and business partner Roy, knew they could never make back from the release of one short film. In comparison, most Disney shorts at the time averaged a cost of $40,000, which was $10,000 above the average budget for an animated cartoon made outside the Disney Studio. Disney's most successful short cartoon, The Three Little Pigs (1933), had made $60,000 in revenue. Following a suggestion by Stokowski, Walt Disney decided to expand The Sorcerer's Apprentice, originally intended as simply a regular Silly Symphonies cartoon, into a concert feature with several animated sequences set to music of which The Sorcerer's Apprentice would be one. To provide continuity and explanation, the composer and music critic Deems Taylor was recruited to provide live-action narrative introductions at the beginning of each segment. Stokowski suggested the title Fantasia, which literally means "A medley of familiar themes, with variations and interludes", which became the film's final title. A working title for the film was The Concert Feature.

----- DATABASE NOTES -----

A review of “Fantasia” by Dorothy Thompson, copyright New York Tribune, November 25, 1940. Based on the copyright notice, this was probably an article that was reprinted in a California publication. “A ‘Nazi’ Abuse” The negative review notes that “Altogether Mr. Disney’s later films, and above all the films in Fantasia, are a caricature of the Decline of the West. They are cruel, and in the latest work brutal and brutalizing.”


  1. Wow, that's a fascinating review! Her negative reaction was so visceral, as if the film actually kind of frightened (or revolted) her. She had to shut her eyes at times, and flee the theater. Interesting also that she complains about the "unbearably clean, pure sounds", of all things.

    I think that Fantasia is an amazing experiment. Not all of it works, but I still watch it today and marvel at the craftsmanship and imagination.

  2. Major P -- This article was stuck inside an envelope and part of a group of items that I picked up at auction "blind" -- I didn't know it was there. To me, it was such a fantastic piece. Given the period, the say that a film had ANY Nazi element was significant! Sometimes it is difficult to put ourselves back in the environment of the time...

  3. Hi:

    A friend of mine told me about your blog, because we both are huge fans of the Disney early works. Is really great the work you have done here. Hope more people follow your example.

    I will wait for the Fantasia cells you promess. Also, i´m searching for the complete layout of The RIde of the Valkyries and the other numbers who cannot made it in the film.

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