After Walt Disney created the Alice cartoons, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and Mickey Mouse, he did something that no other studio was doing at the time. He decided to use animation to tell a story that was not focused on one primary character, like Betty Boop or Mickey Mouse, to use a couple examples. These stories became what were known as Silly Symphonies and though often funny, their chief focus was not to tell jokes or make silly gags, but to tell a compelling story with the use of music. This philosophy of animation was innovative at the time and also inspired his animated feature films such as Snow White, Pinocchio and, perhaps most of all, Fantasia. In his Silly Symphonies, Disney proved he could teach a lesson or present a message to his audience that often didn’t exist in his, or other, earlier cartoons.
During these first years of making cartoons, the only way to do them was in black in white. It wasn’t until the Technicolor process became available that doing cartoons in color was even thinkable. When Disney was able to get ahold of this technology, he wanted complete control of it in these first few years. After paying a huge sum of money, he secured the exclusive use of this method for his studio. The first cartoon created with this process was the 1932 Silly Symphony called Flowers and Trees.
The most striking thing about Flowers and Trees is the sense of community within nature that is presented so effectively. The setting is simple: it begins in a forest at dawn and all of the flowers, trees, and mushrooms are waking up. This is, of course, all presented in beautiful Technicolor: bright green bushes and grass, lovely brown mushrooms, and blue birds. The colors pop and and even now, it is visually interesting. As the creatures wake up, the mood set before us is cheerful and merry. As an audience member, we expect it to continue in this happy manner but it takes a turn as we see another member of this community wake up. He another tree, clearly the outcast of the bunch. He is ugly, with harsh branches and a gruff face. However, one of the most noticeable differences between him and the other trees is in the color of his bark. This tree’s bark is darker and the only one in the cartoon who has this shade is him. It is hard to ignore the parallels between this and the rejection of people with darker skin in our culture.
Though this tree is not the only depiction of racism in the cartoon (the dancing daisies, anyone?), I find it to be the most compelling. This particular tree is all alone, in contrast with the trees we see at the opening of the cartoon. Those trees are not alone, but rather are living with other trees that we can assume are friends or family. This lone tree with the unpleasant face has gotten used to be isolated from the other trees and so all he has are bats and a snake who lives in his trunk. We can see that this rejection is at least partially due to the way he looks. As a bird attempts to wake him up, this bird is only met with anger from the tree. His isolation and rejection continues as he tries to pursue a lady tree, and gets rejected. She, of course, has her eyes on the handsome tree, one of the ones who lives in community with the others. Clearly, he is more popular and embodies the stereotypical male ideal of a tree, if there is such a thing. This makes the other tree angry which leads to a fight between him and the lead tree. This fight would not be interesting if not for what happens next. The evil tree decides to use fire to fight the rest of the forest. Fire, which as we know, kills trees. All trees, whether light or brown bark. Though this was before mass shootings were as common as they are today, looking at this cartoon with a contemporary viewpoint, we can see the tree taking a dramatic response to his rejection.
My philosophy is from all of this built up anger he suffers from his constant rejection and marginalization, he decides to destroy a whole community with the potential of harming himself, which is exactly what happens. This is where the theme of community becomes so prominent. Rather than letting this action break the community apart, every member becomes a part of stopping the tree. The flowers act as bells to warn everybody, the birds make sounds, other flowers act as hoses to try and put the fire out. At this point, it is not just good tree vs. bad tree but bad tree vs. community. Here, the artists have personified the fire excellently as little people. Rather than one big fire, there are many little fires running around on two legs. This is an example of taking something that is not living like fire, and making it a character, which increases the tension throughout the community. When the birds allow the water to fall from the clouds, they are not simply putting out a fire, but they are destroying this little life form which makes it much more personal. Ultimately, the bad tree is killed by the very thing he released. What started out as a friendly cartoon about nature became a very real fight with some important themes such as discrimination, murder, and community.
When this cartoon was released, it received an Academy Award for best short subject. Of course, upon its release, I am not sure it was looked at and examined in the way that I have; people were just entertained by it. However, it is to this cartoon’s credit that 86 years later, it can be looked at in depth with something new brought to it. Because of this, I believe it is an extremely well made cartoon, not only from a technical standpoint, but also from the perspective of story.
Merritt, Russell, and J. B. Kaufman. Walt Disneys Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series. Udine: La Cineteca Del Friuli – Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto, 2008.
Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies. Walt Disney Home Video, 2001. DVD