When “Steamboat Willie” debuted in 1928, it was a technological marvel and a commercial smash. It was the first Walt Disney animated short featuring fully synchronized sound and it was the short that introduced the world to Mickey Mouse, who would go on to become one of the most instantly recognized characters ever. No one had ever seen—or heard—anything like it before.
And yet, Walt a restless innovator, he wanted to push the medium even further; it simply wasn’t enough that he had just created a sensationally popular and technologically groundbreaking work. This was just the beginning.
Carl Stalling, a composer at the studio, suggested the idea of a “musical novelty.” Walt sparked to the idea and had chief creative architect Ub Iwerks rush a short film into development. This wound up being “The Skeleton Dance,” a black-and-white short, equal parts eerie and clever, that ran a little over five minutes in length. “The most important innovation in ‘The Skeleton Dance’ is that the musical score and the animated action were planned, designed, and executed in unison,” wrote essayist Richard Hildreth. Despite some initial excitement (they were already talking about a twelve-short package), the spooky short film baffled prospective distributors in both New York and Los Angeles. Still, Walt was committed. “It’s hard to explain just what we have in mind for this series, but I feel, myself, that it will be something unusual and should have a wide appeal,” Walt confessed at the time. And that’s something that is still so striking about Walt sensibilities: just because an idea was unprecedented or unusual, didn’t mean Walt would abandon it.. He knew that even if it was unconventional then it didn’t have to be in the future.
And once “The Skeleton Dance” was shown theatrically—first at Los Angeles’ Carthay Circle Theater—the response it generated was just what Walt wished it would be. “Here is one of the most novel cartoon subjects ever shown on a screen,” wrote Film Daily. When the film was booked in New York, at the Roxy Theater, the theaters’ impresario Samuel “Roxy” Rothapfel, wrote Walt a note calling “The Skeleton Dance,” “one of the cleverest things I have seen,” and more importantly, “the audience enjoyed every moment of it.” It might have taken a while, but in 1929, just a year after “Steamboat Willie” debuted, Walt Disney had another groundbreaking short film in the public consciousness.
After the initial reception to “The Skeleton Dance,” Columbia Pictures became interested in distributing the series, and from 1930 to 1932 was the exclusive distributor of Silly Symphonies. While these shorts never reached the stratospheric popularity of the Mickey Mouse shorts (which were being developed and released concurrently), true to Walt’s prophecy they were unusual and had wide appeal. Some of these early shorts featured technological breakthroughs (“Frolicking Fish” introduced continuous movements; some shorts were dramatically “tinted” various colors), while others were more outwardly experimental when it came to content (“Hell’s Bells,” devilishly directed by Iwerks and released for Halloween, 1929, was set entirely in a very literal Hell). All were breathlessly entertaining.
And as the distributor for the shorts changed from Columbia to United Artists, the innovations continued. 1932’s “Flowers and Trees” was the first cartoon produced in Technicolor (in an exclusive arrangement Walt had made with the process company) and the first to win an inaugural Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. “Santa’s Workshop,” released later that same year, and was the first to be released utilizing an RCA optical sound-on-film system. 1937’s “The Old Mill” was the first time Disney used the multiplane camera. It also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short.
Film historian J.B. Kaufman noted that the shorts’ mixture of music styles and orchestration was also profoundly cutting-edge. “People may not realize what an innovation it was to mix these compositions from different sources with abandon.” The series had high profile admirers in Russian director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein and Spanish painter Salvador Dali, who referred to Walt Disney as “The Great American Surrealist.” (The two would eventually collaborate.)
But these weren’t merely intellectual exercises; 1933’s “The Three Little Pigs” (another winner for the Best Animated Short Oscar) was a commercial smash and its signature song (written by chief musical architect Frank Churchill, who had little training in terms of classical music) became a runaway success and provided inspiration for the title to Edward Albee’s 1963 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
By the end of the Silly Symphonies run, however, Walt Disney’s focus began to shift to feature films, and the shorts became somewhat more conventional in both their storytelling approach and technological advancements. Popular Silly Symphony stories were getting less rapturously received spin-offs, remakes, and sequels. The last Silly Symphony premiered in the spring of 1939.
Later, Walt Disney remarked that the Silly Symphonies were a place where the artists could play and tinker. “They started as an experiment,” Walt said. “We used them to test and perfect the color and animation techniques we employed later in full-length feature pictures like Cinderella, Snow White, and Fantasia.” The clearest through-line to the Silly Symphonies is Fantasia, released less than two years after the last Silly Symphony premiered. Both the short film series and Fantasia were built around music, had somewhat abstract conceptual cores, and featured a host of technological breakthroughs, with some shorts like 1938’s “Farmyard Symphony,” acting as direct predecessors. “The combination of animation and music culminates in Fantasia. You could say that’s the ultimate Silly Symphony,” Kaufman noted.
When the Silly Symphonies were in full swing, they inspired comic strips, comic books, and children’s books. Seven films won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and creatively, the task of creating these shorts proved invaluable for Walt Disney. Due to time constraints he had to delegate the workload to other animators and directors and trust that they could execute his vision. This made him more comfortable with the mantle producer as opposed to director, and would carry him through the most creatively fertile period of his life. And the shorts themselves pushed the medium further than it had ever dared to go before, paving the way for even bolder experiments (Fantasia included) down the line. “During the decade of Silly Symphonies, Disney and his various collaborators had transformed animated films from novelties to true cinema,” Hildreth wrote. Indeed they did.