All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
In the eyes of many, myself included, Fantasia was the pinnacle of Disney animation. It is a miracle that this film ever happened. It was certainly not for the kiddies, and generated no toy products, whatsoever, with one notable exception, “The Fantasia Cut-out Book.” As someone who protests that nostalgia plays no role in his collection, I stand corrected! I have to make an exception for this item. It was, quite possibly, the cardboard key that, ultimately, unlocked the world of great music to me. And if I was to ever manage to step through that elusive silver screen, to live in the enchanted World of Disney, the Mythological countryside, portrayed in Disney’s vision of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, is where I’d choose to be. This elysian paradise was amazingly well represented in one of the most wonderful things I ever got my little hands on, for a dime, the Fantasia Cut-out Book.
The year had to be 1940. I was three; too young to punch out the images, on my own, so my parents helped me. It was called a Cut-out Book, but the images were perforated to be be punched out. And, in my exuberance, I tore the head off the tiny black centaurette, trying to extract her from the page. I cried and cried, traumatized by sadness and shame. I never forgave myself for that act of ineptitude; even now, I still regret it. Ironically, that tiny figure is the one that makes the book desirable to some, today, because she is now seen as politically incorrect, and was completely excised from the film. Being pictured in the Cut-out Book, gratuitously eating a piece of watermelon, added insult to injury. But she’s gone, now, and the music didn’t even miss a beat. The fact that some at Disney try to deny that she was ever there, makes this evidence, in the form of a Whitman Cut-out Book, even more rare.
The most wonderful part of the Fantasia Cut-out Book is its beautiful background, with the mythological countryside of "Beethoven's 6th", and a Maxfield Parrish-like blue sky.
Zeus himself, King of the Gods, peers over a fluffy cloud. Stars twinkle in the cardboard sky. I still have one, today, a Fantasia Punch-out Book, exactly like that first one, all set up and complete in a showcase of its own, downstairs. It is one of the few things from my childhood that still holds magic for me now.
Looking at the book, before it is punched out, it would hardly lead one to believe that true magic hides inside.
But punched out, and put together, carefully following the diagram, the results are Wonderful. The artist who created this completely “Got It!” The entire scene is composed as a perfect whole. It wasn’t me, who set this up. I followed the artist’s carefully drawn out instructions, to the letter. What you see is, exactly, what he intended it to be. From the placement of the moon, the sweep of the elephants trunk with the pink balloon, to the slant of Mickey’s broom, everything in this complex scene exists in perfect harmony.
There was an English version of a Fantasia Cut-Out Book, as well. This one, published by Deans Rag Book Company was intended to be “cut out”. It is perhaps as beautiful as the Whitman one, in its own way, but completely different in feel and effect. It pushes its interpretation into areas of romanticized mythology that are hardly Disney-like. The art says more about the person, who drew it than it does about the movie. Nonetheless, there is a certain magic to it, a kind of candy colored beauty that is suggested by the cover. It presents the viewer with a whimsical scenario that was never in the film, but is intriguing, as Mickey floats through a kind of Fairyland.
Here are two Bacchus’s, compared. The English version, on the left, is definitely the hornier of the pair. The unicorn is named, "Jacchus," a play on the word Jackass.
I got this book, many years ago, and, although, it was complete, it had been partially cut out. Whoever undertook the task never finished it. What they did accomplish wasn’t bad, but even the carefully cut out figures were never scored and folded. It seems like they just stopped mid-stream. All these years, I have considered completing it. But the background scene is on the reverse of the cover, so to do so would destroy the cover art, on the other side.
I recently obtained a second copy, uncut. And, once again, I’m tempted, and still dying to give it a try. I just realized that I could actually finish cutting the few remaining pieces of the first copy, which would actually improve them. And, then, with the aid of the computer, trim the excess away from the background, “visually” by using Photoshop, and nothing would be harmed! Thus, we could actually see what this set looks like assembled for the first time in, possibly, half a century.
Well here it is! Unlike the Whitman version, there is no diagram to show where the creator of this scene imagined the figures should be placed. Although, the background is all planned out and locks together, I suspect that his thinking did not extend to the figures; and they are a bit of a jumble, of various scales and sizes. I dont think there is any right place to place them, or, for that matter, anyplace where they look “right”.
The Mighty Zeus does not appear in this version, but Cupid is here, clearly labeled, holding his bow and Eros, as is Bacchus with a wineglass in his hand, sitting on his unicorn, actually an ass, endowed with a well-positioned horn. And, the central structure, and focal point that rises over the entire scene, appears to be a monumental tribute, erected to the Greco-Roman Deity, Priapus.
Apart from these two items, I know of no other Fantasia objects, made at the time, other than two series of china figurines by the American Pottery Company, and Vernon Kilns, of which I had a few, as a kid. Even then, I found them unattractive. There was also an attempt to generate a series of children’s books based on the movie. A curious venture; but they actually featured drawings, generated by the Disney Studio, in the process of planning the film.
The one, simply called, “Pastoral” contains a handful of preliminary studio sketches and an attempt to relate the Pastoral Symphony in story form. The effort is light weight, with one exception. There is a Powerful painting of the Great God Zeus, parting the dark storm clouds and looking down from Mount Olympus on the “bedlham” he had caused, below.
The rest of the book is mainly pleasant pencil sketches of the cute, and, oh, so 1940s looking teenaged centaurettes. I believe one of these sketches became the direct inspiration, upon which the work of art that is coming next was based. Here is the sketch, quick and direct, and a little daring. But in1940, youth made toplessness OK. Being underage was considered sweet and innocent, in those days. As quick and spontaneous as this sketch is, I am convinced that it was the origin of the one extraordinary Fantasia item in Mouse Heaven.
In the days before plastic, there was a display firm in Chicago, called, W.L. Stensgaard & Associates Inc. They used wood as a medium to create beautifully sculpted displays. I remember one enchanting Christmas Window that carved its image in my brain, when I was small, and would do the same, today. It consisted of scenes form Snow White and Pinocchio, entirely carved in wood, and made, I now realize, by this company.
They also produced a series of figures from Fantasia that were intended to sell that hugely popular pre-war rage, nylon stockings. Picture this exquisitely carved and painted centaurette from Fantasia with a nylon stocking draped dramatically over her upraised leg.
I discovered this dynamic carving at my local flea market, 40 years ago. It was completely painted gold. In those days, most gold paint was created by mixing bronze powder with banana oil. Hooray! Banana oil is easily washed away! The process took all of half an hour, and not a speck of gold remains. It has been completely and harmlessly removed from even the deepest crevices on the intricately carved base. A brass label on the back of the base is also intact. The bottom of the base reads: “This unit is the property of Davenport Hoisery Mills and is loaned for the exclusive showing of Hummingbird Nylon Hoisery and is to be returned upon request or any time that you may want to discontinue its use...”
I have often fantasized an entire scene of these. The centaurettes did come in a variety of different colors. There is evidence of other characters as well. I would love to see, centaurs and satyrs, and drunken Bacchus on a donkey.
W.L. Stensgaard & Associates Inc.also created this stylish display figure of a gentleman, trying on a pair of trousers that someone, not me, converted into a lamp. Although, that adaptation is essentially a travesty, my original intention, when I acquired it at an Atlantic City, many years ago, to remove it, never took place. It shed such a warm and friendly glow, on the trunk beside the bed in the bell tower that I have left the lamp in place.
The sculpture is quite fascinating. It represents a mustached gentleman of the Esquire Magazine era, captured for all eternity, in wood, mid-way in the process of putting on, or taking off, a pair of pants. He is wearing an undergarment that I always associated with my Dad, a pair of “BVDs.”
Surely, these sophisticated woodcarvings must have been created by some kind of a pantograph machine. Even if that is the case, there is evidence of extensive hand finishing.
Please, forgive me, for that diversion, and also for the following “rant” about Fantasia: No film in the history of the movies has been more used and abused than Fantasia. The Disney Company has sliced and diced and reheated this repast, and served it up, again and again, in so many diverse ways that the original might no longer exist. In the psychedelic 70s, they stretched the movie into the cinemascope format, the width of the screen, taking precedence over the integrity of the imagery, thus, rendering the already fat hippos wider still, as they frolicked among bubbles that were now elliptical. Wow Man! Whatta Trip! Apparently, a new generation saw it as a “trip, without drugs” (and often with). And, for the first time, the movie made money!
But, the worst transgression came when the Disney Company entirely redubbed the historical performance by Stokowski, which, by the way, was already on the cutting edge of stereo technology, at the time the film was made, and replaced it with the almost ad-libbed efforts of a little-known modern conductor, solely to improve the “sound quality”! That was the equivalent of redubbing historic performances of Caruso to replace his voice with that of a modern tenor, so they would be in stereo. How low can the misunderstanding of the historic and artistic integrity of this movie go?
History aside, the original animation was drawn to match every beat of Stokowski’s performance. But it proved impossible for a live orchestra to match every frame of animation. Therefore, in the end, the frustrated new conductor just winged it, and that’s what Disney went with.