Disney's Fantasia: Yesterday and Today

By Heuring, David; Turner, George | American Cinematographer, February 1991 | Go to article overview

Disney's Fantasia: Yesterday and Today


Heuring, David, Turner, George, American Cinematographer


"The beauty and inspiration of music must not be restricted to a privileged few but made available to every man, woman and child. That is why great music associated with motion pictures is so important, because motion pictures reach millions all over our country and all over the world. Their influence is immensely powerful and deep. We cannot measure how greatly music and motion pictures contribute toward a higher standard and enjoyment of living, increasing the well-being of each one of us, as well as our nation, by giving us not only recreation and pleasure, but stimulation and nourishment of the mind and spirit."

These words were written in 1940 by the most famous symphony conductor of that time, Dr. Leopold Stokowski, as an introduction to the program book for the Walt Disney production, Fantasia. Although this was not the first movie to present serious music visually, it is by far the biggest and became (eventually) the most successful.

Fantasia was also the first feature to be presented with a multiple track-multiple speaker sound system, thanks to Disney, Stokowski, and a recording crew headed by William E. Garity. It was called Fantasound.

That Fantasound was highly effective is illustrated by an excerpt from Time magazine's cover story of November 18,1940, which followed the Broadway premiere:

"The music comes not simply from the screen, but from everywhere; it is as if a hearer were in the midst of the music. As the music sweeps to a climax, it froths over the proscenium arch, boils into the rear of the theatre, all but prances up and down the aisles... Musicians and sound engineers who came to hear soundman Garity's gadgets perform found that such recording had never before been even approached."

Now, after a half-century, an almost exact replica of the original version is back, Fantasound and all. Thanks to modern technology plus a lot of ingenuity and hard work, Fantasia looks and sounds magnificent.

The idea of Stokowski and Walt Disney teaming up as two geniuses with but a single thought seemed to some like putting ice cream on chateaubriand. Disney's greatness lay in visuals, but his musical naivete was often evident. For years he had been combining art and music (including some light classics) in his Silly Symphony series, but he admitted to having a "tin ear" and a strong dislike of symphonic music. Although a legend persists that the 1930 ancestor of the Silly Symphonies, the Skeleton Dance, is Saint-Saens' "Dance Macabre" set to pictures, it actually has a score by cartoon specialist Carl W. Stalling and its only bow to the concert hall is a brief xylophone quotation from Grieg's "Dance of the Dwarfs." After Fantasia wrapped, Disney said "... I can listen to it now. It seems to mean a little more to me." However, his later efforts at putting music to pictures, such as Saludos Amigos and Make Mine Music, utilized mostly popular music.

In the late 1930s the great orchestras of the world were in the hands of the most colorful and lionized conductors in musical history. Their names echo even now: Toscanini, Koussevitsky, Monteux, Ormandy, Reiner. But highbrow music was epitomized for the public by Stokowski, the tall man with the elegant profile, expressive hands and mane of fluffy white hair who conducted without baton or score. He had been musical director of the great Philadelphia Orchestra since 1912 and a top recording artist since 1917. He had co-starred with Jack Benny in The Big Broadcast of 1937 and with Deanna Durbin in 200 Men and a Girl. He was Greta Garbo's frequent companion (top that, Toscanini!). Whenever a conductor was depicted in a cartoon, it was most often a caricature of Stokowski, such as Bugs Bunny's unforgettable 1949 impersonation of the maestro in Chuck Jones' Long Haired Hare, with an awed Hollywood Bowl crowd gasping, "Leopold! Leopold!"

According to Stokowski, he and Disney met by chance in a Hollywood restaurant. "I was alone having dinner at a table near him, and he called across to me, 'Why don't we sit together? …

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