Saturday, February 12, 2011

Saturday at the Archives: Symposium of Popular Songs
Editor's note:  The passing this week of Disney Legend Bill Justice put us to mind of this post from December of 2006.  Justice directed this innovative film and was also credited for the stop-motion special effects work. 

A Symposium on Popular Songs
By Jeffrey Pepper
Originally published December 19, 2006

A Symposium on Popular Songs sits in a relatively unvisited corner of Disney animation history. Rarely seen since its release in 1962, it was finally made available a few years ago on the Walt Disney Treasures Disney Rarities DVD set. It’s interesting for a number of reasons and, and it has some especially notable names in its credits.

Disney’s marketing department released this short article as a part of promotional material sent out to theaters:
With $3.88 worth of groceries, a pipe cleaner, a spool of yarn, a box of toothpicks, 500 sheets of colored paper and their whimsical imaginations, Walt Disney artists Bill Justice and X. Atencio created a symposium of comical characters that make "A Symposium on Popular Songs" one of Disney's funniest featurettes.

The star of the Technicolor production, however, is that expert on everything, the man who invented jazz, Professor Ludwig von Drake. Making his motion picture debut, the Professor introduces a brand new cast of "animoted" stars—made of movable paper cutouts—to trace the history of popular music from ragtime to the twist. Whenever possible, "Pops" von Drake steals the spotlight by sing ing one of the tuneful melodies composed by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman.

Ludwig's modest home is vaguely reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. He greets his guests at his massive double doors and leads them into the parlor. He explains how, when he was a starving musician at the turn of the century, he was in rags. So he invented ragtime. As the Professor sings and plays "The Rutabaga Rag," a group of "animated" oranges, apples, rutabagas, string beans, and other vegetables and fruits dance the ragtime.

Since ragtime was soon worn to shreds, the Professor decided to write a new song about the roaring twenties. He introduces Betty Boopie Doop to sing "Charleston Charlie," and a group of flapper era characters to do the Charleston.

Ludwig's next great song hit came after he had lost all his money in the depression. To cheer everyone he wrote, "Although I Dropped a Hundred Thousand in the Market, Baby, I Found a Million Dollars in Your Smile." To sing it, the Professor introduces Rah, Rah Rudy and his Megaphone Boys.

During the late 1930's and early 1940's, a new type of singer called "crooners" captured the imaginations of the American public. Ludwig brings on Fosby Crooner to sing his love ballad, "I'm Blue For You, Boo-Bo-Bo-Bo-Boo." Fosby makes it easy for the audience to join in by bouncing from word to word as he sings.

While everyone was cutting "Boo-Boo" records, Ludwig was cutting out paper dolls. By "shear" accident, he cut out three talented look-alikes called the Sister Sisters. The girls introduce the Professor's new boogie woogie rhythm with "The Boogie Woogie Bakery Man." During the 1950's, the beat that put American youth back on its feet was Bop. To sing his new bop hit, "Puppy Love is Here to Stay," Ludwig introduces Freddie Babalon and his Babalpnians.

In his Hi-Fi studio—"Dot means Hi-Finance," says the Professor— von Drake brings his "Symposium on Popular Songs" to a swinging climax by singing and twisting to his latest hit, "Rock, Rumble and Roar."

In color by Technicolor, Walt Disney's cartoon featurette, "A Symposium on Popular Songs," was written and styled by Xavier Atencio, directed by Bill Justice, with words and music by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, and arranged and conducted by Tutti Camarata. Animation was by Eric Larson, Cliff Nordberg, Art Stevens, Ward Kimball, Les Clark and Julius Svendsen. Buena Vista releases.
Justice and Atencio previously employed the studio-dubbed “Animotion” stop motion animation process on the 1959 release Noah’s Ark, and in a number of opening title sequences of live action features, most notably The Parent Trap in 1961. Both Noah’s Ark and Symposium earned Oscar nominations. The results of the process in Symposium are both clever and creative, but can be a shock to those expecting traditional hand-drawn, cel-produced Disney animation.
The music and lyrics by the Sherman Brothers are a lot of fun, but sadly have been largely forgotten, even by the Disney company itself. I’ve only come across one song, “Although I Dropped a Hundred Thousand in the Market, Baby, I Found a Million Dollars in Your Smile,” on a CD compilation. Surprisingly, The Sherman Brothers CD that the company released back in 1992, did not include any of the seven numbers from SymposiumThe original soundtrack for A Symposium on Popular Songs, entitled Tinpanorama was first released on LP in 1965 and was recently made available for download in iTunes music store.

The highlight of A Symposium on Popular Songs for me personally is Ludwig Von Drake, as performed by Paul Frees. Von Drake is one of the most underrated of all Disney characters. He is nothing short of hilarious in all of his appearances, of which Symposium is no exception. An especially great example of Frees’ voice and comedic talent with Von Drake is the vintage 1961 vinyl LP Professor Ludwig Von Drake, which is also available on iTunes.  

Likely one of the reasons Symposium remained locked away, especially in recent years, was a fairly extreme caricature of a Chinese character in the Boogie Woogie Bakery Man sequence. Thankfully, Disney has moved away from a juvenile-centric only method of marketing its classic animation, and now allows viewers to evaluate these films, and their occasional controversial elements, for themselves.


Anonymous said...

They used to show this film quite a bit on The Disney Channel in the eighties, although I'm not sure if it was the full movie or as part of the anthology series. When I went to the iTunes album link, I remembered how the song "Rutabega Rag" would get stuck in my head, and how Ludwig introduced the various musical segments. As a kid, I was a bit confused by Ludwig's version of events, not always realizing that he was making up history. He was quite the storyteller.