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The Genesis of Disney Music: 1920-1950

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

Where Does the Music Come From?

For almost eighty years, people of all ages have enjoyed the music of Walt Disney films. From “When You Wish upon a Star” to “The Bear Necessities” to “You’ll Be in My Heart”, Disney music holds a special place in many hearts. But what most people today don’t realize is the fascinating history of this genre of music. Many people take it for granted, but when it first started, music in any kind of film was a strange new experience to movie goers. It is a history of importance not only to Disney fans of all ages, but of film lovers and music lovers alike. Walt Disney was at the front of a lot of firsts in entertainment, and music played an important part.

As an avid fan of animation history, in particular anything and everything Disney, it seemed logical to bring together a history of a very exciting time in animation and music history. In this paper we shall discover the roots of Disney music, its role in the Disney "Empire," and learn a thing or two about the time period it came from and the people that gave it life. At the top of this list is Walt Disney himself, as well as, men like Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline, Paul Smith and Ned Washington, who wrote the first Disney song books that would later guide future Disney composers and song writers like the Sherman brothers, George Bruns, Howard Ashman, Allen Malkein, Elton John, and Phil Collins. Disney understood how a good story and characters can make or break a film. He also knew how important good music was to film as well. Music has been an important part of Disney works from the very beginning.

Frank Churchill

Frank Churchill

From Mickey to Snow White

Movies are a rather new invention. They have only been around a hundred years or so. So for that matter have cartoons. In the early days of animation, cartoons were more about gags and cute little characters with little depth.[1] They also lacked something else that we take for granted now in the 21st century: sound. That meant no dialogue and no music. But in 1927, Walt Disney changed all of that with his first Mickey Mouse short, Steamboat Willie.[2] Willie became the first animated feature that was released to the general public to incorporate sound, something that was new and exciting to the movie goers of 1927. And right from the start, music played a very important role in Disney animation. For most of the middle of the short, Mickey and his sweat-heart Minnie Mouse, are leading an all animal band in a simple little 1920’s style dance tune on this small tugboat. While the music is not that sophisticated on this outing, it was a sign of things to come. For the next few years, the Disney people perfected their craft in story telling, animation, and music. Simplistic little tunes were a common part of most early Mickey Mouse shorts. Then in 1929, Walt started up a new series of shorts to join the very successful Mickey shorts, simply called Silly Symphonies.[3] These shorts were entirely based around music and were really the beginning of what ultimately would lead to Walt’s masterpiece, Fantasia. After almost a full decade, Disney decided it was time to take the next step, a full length animated film.

The first ideas for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came in 1934, but production would not start until 1935. Walt realized that the odds were against him, as many people in the 1930’s thought a full length animated film could not be done, or that no one would want to see it. Walt pushed on and literally put his livelihood on the line when he had to get loans from The Bank of America to be able to finish making the film after the studio ran out of money. Walt knew though that the key to making the film a hit would be a good story, characters that an audience would care about, and a strong film score to hold it all together. For the music of the film, Walt turned to an up and coming composer/ song writer named Frank Churchill[4] and Leigh Harline to write the score and Larry Morey to pen the songs. Churchill would end up being a legend in Disney and film music history.

After joining the studio in 1930, he soon gained successes after writing the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” for the short The Three Little Pigs. Harline, like Churchill, would go on to be a legend in his right. Haline joined Disney in 1932 and started off working on music for Disney’s Silly Symphonies. Snow White opened in 1937 and became an instant hit. With the money the studio earned, Walt would be able to work on more animated films and shorts. The music of Snow White, would go on to produce five hit songs and the year later, would become the first recorded soundtrack album. Before Snow White, movie music wasn’t available to the general public, but Snow White changed that. The term “Soundtrack” would later be coined off of the music for Walt’s next animated film, Pinocchio.

Leigh Harline

Leigh Harline

Pinocchio and "The Concert Feature"

Opening up in 1940, Pinocchio would further set the standard for Disney music. Once again Harline was asked to work on the film music. After winning an Oscar for his work on Snow White, Harline went on to write the center piece song for Pinocchio, “When You Wish upon a Star.” This song would lead to another Oscar for Harlne as well as becoming the first sort of official theme song for the Disney brand as a whole. In the same year, Walt released his most ambitious film ever, Fantasia. Walt was interested in making a “concert feature” [5] as he called it. He had an idea to bring animation and music together. The original idea called for not a full motion picture, but rather a simple short set to Paul Dakas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Walt wanted a master conductor to add further prestige to the project. He settled on Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

After approaching Stokowski about the project, Stokowski agreed and they were off and running with Walt’s concert short. Story boards started in late 1937 and a year later when it was finished, it was discovered that it cost three to four times more than a regular Disney short. Realizing that he needed to make it a full motion picture to cover costs, Disney soon turned the project into a full on film and started the task of finding other musical pieces to add to the project. Walt’s idea soon grew much bigger and his idea became that just as in a music hall the performances would always be changing, so would the performances for Fantasia, meaning that they would keep making new Fantasia films with different works. Walt had a love for classical music that he shared with his wife, Lillian, and wanted to make this idea a reality. This love of classical music would also one day lead to Lillian Disney’s major contribution to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA.

The film soon took flight as different pieces were picked and then stories were crafted to go with the music. To further add to the elaborateness of the project, Disney and Stokowski early on talked about experimenting with new sound techniques to add to the depth of the film. This lead to the first stereophonic sound system, appropriately called Fantasound. Theaters would have to be specially equipped to show the film, which lead to few theaters showing the film in its first run. In November of 1940, Fantasia opened to the general public, but at first was a box office disaster. Audiences did not understand the ideas behind the film and wanted more story-oriented film like Snow White and Pinocchio. The other problem it had was that it made very little money from overseas markets as a result of World War II. It would not be until 1969 that Fantasia would finally make up its initial production costs and be recognized for the ground breaking film that it was. As a result of its disappointing box office numbers, Disney had to abandon his idea for future Fantasia films. Fortunately, his original vision would be upheld many decades later in the year 2000 with Fantasia 2000. But sadly, he would not be alive to see it.

Paul Smith

Paul Smith

The Effects of World War II

With Fantasia in the past, Disney looked on to his next two films, Bambi and the inexpensive Dumbo. Churchill and Ned Washington came back to work and while not much musical advancement was seen here, they did earn many Oscars, in particularly for the song “Babe Mine” from Dumbo. But then in late 1942, World War II hit the United States of America and soon the US government would take over the Disney studios to make training videos for the troops and factory workers and propaganda shorts for the folks at home.

With WWII, Disney was forced to cut back his animation work and from 1943 to 1949 would release his “package films”. [6] This would mean that instead of a full on single story like with Bambi or Snow White, his films would consist of a group of short films stuck together. They were kind of like Fantasia, but not nearly as elaborate. His first of many “package films” would come from his good will trip for the US Government to South America. Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros were released. These films brought a “South of the Border” music style to Disney films with music from places like Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. Paul Smith mostly worked on the music for Amigos and Caballeros.

Later, Disney came out with Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Now long time Disney composer Ned Washington came on with Paul Smith and worked on Amigos and later worked on Fancy Free. But one thing the package films would do with Disney music was for the first time bring in popular artists of the day to create and perform songs. Artists like Aurora Miranda, Ethel Smith, Dinah Shore, Andy Russell, The Andrew Sisters, Bing Crosby, and many others. The package films were designed to keep the Disney films going and earn money for the then war torn studio. The pop star appeal did its work, and Disney left the 1940’s back on track. Disney was now ready to go back to making the kind of films he started out making.

Ned Washington

Ned Washington

Back on Track/ Happy Endings

In June of 1950[7], Disney released his first full length film since Dumbo in 1942. Critics and audiences a like fell in love with Cinderella much the same way they did in 1937 with Snow White. It brought the studio back to its glory days and led to the final grand era of Disney films under Walt himself. Many of the best know and most popular Disney songs would be yet to come, and Cinderella got the ball rolling. “Bibbidi Boobbidi Boo” became a very popular song in the 1950’s and “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” became the second unofficial Disney anthem. With Cinderella released, it was clear that Disney film and music was still very much alive.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, most folks may take for granted the rich history that Disney music has. But the fact is that it has had a major impact on modern music today and society as a whole. Who hasn’t caught themselves whistling some Disney tune at work, or found themselves singing along out loud a classic Disney tune while watching one of the many films that have come from the Mouse House? Disney has brought us all kinds of music, from simplistic melodies, to serious masterpieces. Many film makers and composers still use many of the ideas and techniques that Walt and his team developed all those many years ago. When Disney music is at its best, it will normally do one of two things. It will either make us think about the music in front of us, much like a complicated Beethoven or Bach piece, or it will, touch the child inside all of us.

For the music, just like the films, when at its best, is not for kids, but rather the inner child in all of us. Walt knew the importance of music; he knew how important it was and still is. His respect for the art form has led to much joy to people all over the world. Truly, men like Disney, Churchill, Washington, Smith, and Harline are some of the unsung heroes of music in the 20th Century.

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Disney Animated Films 1937-1950

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - 1937

Pinocchio – 1940

Fantasia – 1940

Dumbo – 1941

Bambi – 1942

Saludos Amigos – 1943

The Three Caballeros – 1945

Make Mine Music – 1946

Fun and Fancy Free – 1947

Melody Time – 1948

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad – 1949

Cinderella – 1950


[1] Thomas, Bob, Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules, 1997, pg 27.

[2] Bendazzi, Giannalberto, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, 1994, pg.62.

[3] Bendazzi, Giannalberto, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, 1994, pg 63.

[4] Disney Legends <>

[5] Disney Magazine, winter 1998-99, pg. 69.

[6] Thomas, Bob, Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules, 1997, pg. 99.

[7] Thomas, Bob, Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules, 1997, pg. 70.

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