Published on July 13, 2016
Silly Symphony is a series of 75 animated short films produced by Walt Disney Productions from 1929 to 1939. As their name implies, the Silly Symphonies were originally intended as whimsical accompaniments to pieces of music. As such, the films usually had independent continuity and did not feature continuing characters, unlike the Mickey Mouse shorts produced by Disney at the same time. (Exceptions to this include Three Little Pigs, The Tortoise and the Hare, and Three Orphan Kittens which all had sequels.) The series is notable for its innovation with Technicolor and the multiplane motion picture camera, as well as its introduction of the character Donald Duck making his first appearance in the Silly Symphony cartoon “The Wise Little Hen” in 1934.
Silly Symphonies won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film seven times.
The series also spawned a Disney media franchise which included the newspaper comic strip Silly Symphony, the Dell comic book series Silly Symphonies, as well as several children’s books, many of which were based on Silly Symphony cartoons.
Within the animation industry, the Silly Symphonies series is most noted for its use by Walt Disney as a platform for experimenting with processes, techniques, characters, and stories in order to further the art of animation. It also provided a venue to try out techniques and technologies that would be crucial to Disney’s plans to eventually begin making feature-length animated films. Among the innovations developed and/or improved upon in the series are Technicolor film-making, true and believable character animation, special effects animation, and dramatic storytelling in animation.
Shortly after the switch to United Artists, the series became even more popular. Walt Disney had seen some of Dr. Herbert Kalmus’ tests for a new three-strip, full-color Technicolor process, which would replace the previous, two-tone Technicolor process. Disney signed a contract with Technicolor which gave the Disney studio exclusive rights to the new three-strip process through the end of 1935, and had a 60% complete Symphony, Flowers and Trees, scrapped and redone in full color. Flowers and Trees was a phenomenal success, and within a year, the now-in-Technicolor Silly Symphonies series had popularity and success that matched (and later surpassed) that of the Mickey Mouse cartoons. The contract Disney had with Technicolor would also later be extended another five years as well. The shorts began to have stronger plots too, and the success of Silly Symphonies would be tremendously boosted after Three Little Pigs was released in 1933 and became a box office sensation; the film was featured in movie theaters for several months and also featured the hit song that became the anthem of the Great Depression, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”. Several Silly Symphonies entries, including Three Little Pigs (1933), The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934), The Tortoise and the Hare (1935), The Country Cousin (1936), The Old Mill (1937), Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (1938), and The Ugly Duckling (1939, with an earlier black-and-white version from 1931), are among the most notable films produced by Walt Disney. Due to problems related to Disney’s scheduled productions of cartoons, a deal was made with Harman and Ising to produce three Silly Symphonies; Merbabies, Pipe Dreams, and The Little Bantamweight. Only one of these cartoons, Merbabies, ended up being bought by Disney, the remaining two Harman-Ising Silly Symphonies were then sold to MGM who released them as Happy Harmonies cartoons. Disney ceased production of Silly Symphonies in 1939.