In August 1929 Walt Disney’s first ever “Silly Symphony” was released. It is the perfect cartoon to watch at this time of year, capturing the combination of fun and fear that Halloween represents, and it’s called The Skeleton Dance.
We start with an owl on a stormy night, being menaced by a tree branch. The branch becomes a hand, our first indication of the fluidity of reality in this cartoon. Not everything is going to be what it appears to be. Bats fly towards the camera; in the best horror traditions, the camera is involved in this narrative, making the viewers jump. The year before his introduction, a dog that looks a lot like Pluto howls, and then a comedy cat fight is interrupted by the first skeleton, emerging from its grave, terrifying the cats. Once again, the viewers are drawn into the narrative, with the skeleton swallowing the camera. This idea goes back as far as 1901, with the short silent comedy film The Big Swallow, but here it’s swifter and scarier. The image that accompanies this article is from that sequence.
From here on in the cartoon is in the business of making us laugh rather than frightening us. The skeleton is scared of an owl at first and then gets angry and throws its head at the bird. Then we are into the dance routine with four skeletons. My favourite moment is the Charleston crazy legs move. This is definitely an indication of the era the cartoon was made, and in the real 1920s dance move, also known as the bee’s knees, the dancer’s hands hide the knees as they cross, creating an illusion of the knees actually moving through each other. But in the cartoon, the “crazy legs” move doesn’t need to be achieved as an illusion, because these skeletons can do anything, so instead it happens for real, with the thigh bones crossing each other just below the pelvis in a way that would be anatomically impossible for a human. Probably the most iconic moment of the cartoon is one skeleton using another’s spine as a xylophone, having stolen his thigh bones to use as sticks.
Keep that moment in mind, as we fast forward just four months to December 1929, for the 14th Mickey Mouse cartoon, oddly missing Halloween that year by a couple of months, for The Haunted House. The similarities are striking, recycling many of the same ideas. The prelude to the main action is different, of course, with Mickey taking refuge in a haunted house on a stormy night, when his flimsy umbrella disintegrates. Once again we have bats flying at the camera, and the viewer is drawn into the action, with Mickey retreating behind the camera while a ghostly figure approaches. But again the scares give way to comedy, with Mickey commanded by the ghost to play the organ, and skeletons emerge to dance again!
This time we have two skeletons using the pelvises of another two as drums, and a radiator becomes a xylophone and then an accordion, impossibly bending the metal. In a strikingly similar moment to The Skeleton Dance, a skeleton uses his own bones as a xylophone, and then the joke is extended this time round, as his ribs become a guitar. Then we have an exact copy of some of the Skeleton Dance moves, with identical wavy legs sweeping the ground. But it’s such a fun idea that we can hardly begrudge Disney having a couple of goes at it, and this one is even funnier than the first effort, complete with a skeleton using the outside toilet.
So beware this Halloween, in case the skeletons dance again, and watch out for that skeleton on the loo! And if you do disturb him, ask him to play you a tune. Happy Halloween! RP