Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dance, Skeleton, Dance!

(Note: I had previously published this in another blog called "Monster Memories," but since creating "Sweet Skulls," it fits even better, so here it is for those that missed it on the other site.)

Disney's "Skeleton Dance" cartoon is a favorite of mine. Released in 1929 as the first of the "Silly Symphonies" series, this short set the stage for the concept, which featured animation set to musical pieces. In this regard, the series was the precursor to "Fantasia" which would come later.

Directed by Walt Disney and animated by the legendary Ub Iwerks, with a memorable score by Carl Stalling, the film portrays a group of lively skeletons who boogie the night away in an atmospheric graveyard. In 1994, members of the animation field voted it to be #18 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time, so it ain't just me that's crazy about it.

What is it about dancing skeletons that makes them so much darn fun, anyway?

The notion of the decomposed deceased having a good-natured and high-stepping shindig is nothing new. During the Dark Ages the theme was commonly portrayed in artwork. The medieval woodcutting below portrays cavorting cadavers (with one losing his innards) in a scene that could easily inspire a modern comedy-horror movie. Indeed, the idea resurfaced as recently as Tim Burton's "Corpse Bride," in which there was a scene directly inspired by the "Skeleton Dance" cartoon.

The internet abounds with examples:
A hilarious Skeleton marrionette
CGI Example #1 and Example #2

Danse Macabre: The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut. The oft-portrayed Dance of Death is a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the dance of death unites all.In the drawing above, we learn that even south of the border, the simple bony folk love to cut the rug and party hearty. Although one wonders exactly where the food and drink end up after they down it.
Yep, it's an old tradition to show the unliving shake a leg. Perhaps it helps take the edge off of the horror of death, or maybe it's just a way of saying that the fun doesn't have to end just because you no longer wear the flesh. Whatever the attraction, the scene was conjured up on the screen for the first time in the Silly Symphonies film. And what a scene it was!

'Twas the night before Walpurgis, and all through the crypts...
Opening in a spooky moonlit churchyard at the stroke of midnight, the flamboyantly ringing church tower bell bothers the bats in the belfry, which swarm out and fly toward the viewer. Don't you hate it when that happens? Bat guano is so hard to get out of clothes.

A sight a mouse prays never to see.
After a big hairy spider descends on a web, the fun gets underway as an owl hoots menacingly and avoids the finger-like branches of a tree blown by the wind. Every movement in the animation is synchronized to the music, so it is truly a dance macabre, and not merely a cartoon with some silly music under it. The background artwork of the decrepit burial ground is beautifully painted, forming a wonderfully creepy backdrop for the action.

These unlucky black cats are scared spitless.
A couple of black cats yowl and hiss at one another on a tombstone, each striving to out-do the other with the amount of spit they can produce. (They are obviously in a Southern cemetery; one might expect to see a rusted coffin up on cement blocks behind the skinny howling hound-dog.) Suddenly their conflict is interrupted by the appearance of a living skeleton, which scares their fur clean off for a moment before they flee, being 'fraidy cats after all.

The skulking skeleton silently slips, sans skin, from the secluded sarcophagus.
Said skeleton then leaps toward the camera, which goes through his jaws, his ribcage and out his bony behind! One can only imagine the nightmares this caused for the tender tots in the audience. Going through the alimentary tract of a reanimated dead person? I can see little George Romero crying his eyes out in the theater. Gathering himself up, our hero proceeds to sneak around the deserted cemetery, until startled by the screeching owl. For a permanent citizen of this creepy country bone yard, he is one jumpy dude.

The dead have no regard for an endangered species.
Angrily, he removes his own head, tossing it at the owl and defeathering it! Personally, I feel his violent reaction was to cover up his embarrassment at being found to be such a wuss. If it ever got out he was chicken, the other dead people would make his existence an unliving hell. With the hapless owl now denuded, and ashamed to show his face, ol' Bone Daddy's secret is safe and his over-compensatory bad attitude intact.
Didja hear about Scared Skully? Pass it on!
Once head and body are reunited, he is joined by three others of his kind and they proceed to kick up their bony heels in an extended and comical dance number. This calcified chorus line puts on a good show, proving that being dead is no handicap to real talent. Though they dance as a team, even at one time holding hands and cavorting in a circle, a couple of the more versatile members take the solo spotlight several times. One loose-limbed cadaver demonstrates his ability to rapidly break apart his bones and put them back, in time with the music. It may be assumed that this was an early example of break dancing.

This is not what it looks like.... we swear!
During the course of the frolics, it seems that someone spiked the punch with formaldehyde, because things start to get freaky. One skeleton yanks off the femurs of another and plays the spine of the now-shortened friend like a xylophone. The de-legged one seems not to mind, as if this is par for the course, which may certainly be the case. The tune-player goes to town on his backbone, finally during the crescendo smashing him down to a broken pile of bones, which he then discards! What looks like an abusive relationship may not be, though... it's possible they switch roles on other nights.

Lay down your arms and prepare to be boarded!
What we are seeing in an unlawful act: the mutilation of a corpse. But when both parties are willing, who's gonna report it? The mutual abuse of bodies continues, as one flips another over with a fist to the head, and, jumping his bones, rides the upside down victim like a pogo stick. (This brought back unpleasant memories of a similar incident involving a 5th grade bully.) Then they reverse positions and the other hops on, bouncing the ridden fellow's cranium repeatedly into the ground. As any drunk will tell you: what fun you can have when you can't feel pain!
Playing with a cat can be fun!
Sadly, the same can't be said for the unlucky cat that gets grabbed and used for a bass fiddle, as a musically-inclined skeleton pins the feline's neck down with a foot and plays his stretched tail with a bow. This would never fly in today's PC world, as the PETA would object to this mistreatment of an animal, even an animated one. Imitable action, you know. Some kid might decide to do this to his cat. What could be wrong with that, I ask?

Said the night wind to the living dead, "Do you hear what I hear?"
The morbid merry-making comes to an end all too soon, though, as a rooster heralds the coming of the dawn. Frantically scrambling for their own tombs, the action resembles a teenage keg party when the parents suddenly pull up. Confused, the gaunt group collides and collapses into a disjointed pile of loose remains.

John Carpenter has a nightmare.
This quickly reassembles itself into a mutated mega-skeleton, which gallops over to dive heads-first into an open sepulchre. One little pair of skeletal feet, left behind in all the excitement, runs up and kicks desperately at the stone, until a hand reaches out and yanks them in at the last second. (Still missing is the other pair of arms not included in the composite creature. Perhaps they got left behind in the arms race.)

What we don't see is the real reason for the hasty retreat; the patrol car that comes cruising through, in response to a complaint by the crotchety old lady living next to the church. The dead may not rest in peace, but they can at least keep down the noise so others can!
Heralded on the original poster as "A Laugh Riot From Start To Finish" the cartoon went on to haunt the collective memories of several generations since. Referenced in numerous movies and TV shows, such as the afore-mentioned "Corpse Bride," The Skeleton Dance was also paid homage to in the episode "Hill Billy" of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, where Grim, having been turned into a 1930's era cartoon character, leads several other skeletons in dance, and even mimics the actions seen in the original classic. A clip shows up on a TV in the recent movie "Ghost Rider."

"We're back! And this time IN COLOR!"
What many fans don't know, is that artist/animator Ub Iwerks went on to remake it in color for another company a few years later! Although more of a remake than a sequel, it is different enough to warrant it's own place in silly spook history. A future blog entry will take a look at this little-known gem, titled "Skeleton Frolic."
Bits of the animation from "Skeleton Dance" were re-used in the Mickey Mouse short "Haunted House," also released in 1929. Mickey, having taken shelter from a storm in a Haunted House, is pressed into service by the Grim Reaper to play music for a wild party of spooks. This cartoon is great in it's own right, holding a place in my heart as one of the great vintage spooky cartoons, with many great gags and comic bits involving Mickey's frightful foray into the house. After I gets some screen grabs I'll devote a blog post to it in the near future.

Till next time, when your bones feel like dancin' the night away, it might be best to go ahead and let them have their way. Otherwise, they might do it after you are finished with them.

Monstrous dreams! "Hey! You want a piece a me? DO YA?"
YouTube posts of this (or any Disney) cartoon are usually short-lived due to Disney's diligence in having them removed. But here's one I found on there, so till it's gone, enjoy. Be warned, the quality is low, it looks as if it came from an old vhs tape.


Halloween Spirit said...

I love The Corpse Bride, but somehow didn't make the connection with Skeleton Dance. Ub Iwerks got a lot of use out of his animated skeletons - in addition to Haunted House and Skeleton Frolic, they showed up again with Flip the Frog in Spooks. I guess when you have a great concept, you make the most of it.

hailey said...

this was an awesome blog! i just found it when searching for a skeleton picture, but im definitely going to save your link and check out some other entries. i forgot abt this cartoon, im not that old but i still remember it being played around this time of year. i miss all the good cartoons like this around halloween, its kind of gone downhill i think.

- hailey