SILLY SYMPHONIESOriginal Medium: Theatrical animation
Produced by: Disney
First Appeared: 1929
Creator: Carl Stalling
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Mickey Mouse, in his third outing (Steamboat Willie, 1928), became the first cartoon character to speak.
That same year, Carl Stalling joined the Disney staff, becoming animation's first musical director. It was Stalling (best known for his later work on Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester Pussycat and the rest of the Warner Bros. crew) who suggested a cartoon where sound was the entire point — one built around a music score. The cartoon, titled Skeleton Dance, was made, and released on May 10, 1929. Although it contained no continuing characters, it launched a series that lasted a decade and sparked a half-dozen imitators. The title "Looney Tunes", by which the Warner Bros. cartoons are known today, was inspired by "Silly Symphonies".
The earliest Silly Symphonies were mostly mood pieces, with titles like Springtime (1929) and Night (1930). But some sported plots with beginning, middle and end, as well. Within a year or two, the series had become the most diverse in the history of animation up to that point.
Before long, Disney was ready for another innovation — color. Against advice from advocates of the Bottom Line (including his brother, Roy, who served as Walt's business manager), Disney signed a three-year exclusive contract with the Technicolor company in 1932. Once again, he was proven right. Aside from being both a critical and a popular success, that year's Silly Symphony Flowers & Trees, the first Technicolor cartoon, won the very first Academy Award ever given in the category of animation.
The Silly Symphonies utterly dominated the animation Oscars during the 1930s. Subsequent winners were Three Little Pigs (1933), The Tortoise & the Hare (1934), Three Orphan Kittens (1935), Country Cousin (1936), The Old Mill (1937), and The Ugly Duckling (1939). (The 1938 winner, Disney's Ferdinand the Bull, was, for some reason, not included in the series, but was very similar to the Silly Symphonies in content and spirit.) Non-winning nominees were Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935) and Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938).
Other Silly Symphonies considered classics today include The Grasshopper & the Ants (1934), Music Land (1935) and The Moth & the Flame (1938). Silly Symphonies that introduced continuing characters include Little Hiawatha, who had a series in the back pages of the comic book Walt Disney's Comics & Stories until well into the 1950s and is still occasionally seen in European comics, and The Wise Little Hen (1934), in which Donald Duck appeared as a supporting character. Mother Pluto (1936), the first cartoon in which Pluto starred without Mickey, was a Silly Symphony.
In 1932, Silly Symphonies became a Sunday newspaper comic strip, distributed by King Features Syndicate. There, however, at least for a time, they had a continuing character — Bucky Bug, the only Disney character up to that time to make his first appearance in comics. But within a few years, the Sunday strip took to adapting such cartoons as The Robber Kitten (1935) and Elmer Elephant (1936). Later on, José Carioca made some of his earliest comics appearances in the Silly Symphonies strip.
During the 1950s, the title was used by Dell Comics for a series of 100-page comic books containing adaptations of the Silly Symphony cartoons and others that didn't fit readily into one of the regular Disney series. There were nine issues of the Silly Symphonies Giant, spread out between 1952 and '59.
As for the cartoons — by the end of the 1930s, the Disney Studio was concentrating mostly on its animated features. Short cartoons were still being made, but these mainly concerned the more profitable continuing characters, such as Donald Duck and Goofy, which could be licensed as toys and other products, for additional revenue. The last Silly Symphony was The Ugly Duckling (1939). In 1943, the studio again started making occasional non-series cartoons, but instead, called them "Specials".
The Silly Symphonies can still be seen from time to time on The Disney Channel, where they appear side-by-side with Donald, Mickey, et al. Other than that, they remain just a fond memory.