Disney Cartoon #42: "The Skeleton Dance" (August 22, 1929) - published October 22, 2011
by Albert Gutierrez
Today is National Nut Day. Seems odd, doesn't it? To celebrate, I ate a bowl of Peanut Butter Crunch for breakfast. Of course, immediately afterwards, I felt rather foolish. A peanut is a legume, not a nut. Then I felt guilty, because I realized that folks with nut allergies can't exactly celebrate National Nut Day. And what about things that look like nuts, but are really seeds? I'm looking at you, Brazil Nut; you're more boring than Monica's boyfriend! (Five bonus points to the reader who correctly identifies the reference I just made.) To be fair to everyone, we'll not celebrate National Nut Day here. Instead, I declare today to be National Skeleton Day, not to be confused with Mexico's skeleton-heavy Dia de los Muertos. We all have skeletons, so we can all celebrate! So strike up the band, because it's time to join "The Skeleton Dance."
It is midnight dreary at a cemetery. A lone owl hoots amidst the pale moonlight. A dog joins, bats fly out of the belfry. Two cats sit on two headstones, only to be joined by a skeleton. They shriek in horror and run off, and the skeleton walks the grounds. He is then joined by three more, and all agree on one thing: it's time for a dance! The four showcase their talents for the audience, as they dance in a row like a chorus line, have their own Ring Around The Rosies, then split up to do their own thing. One skeleton uses another as a xylophone. A third sways in time and eventually does the Charleston. The fourth skeleton takes a black cat to use its tail as a violin. The four are having loads of fun, until a rooster begins to crow. Daylight! The four skeletons run away quickly, and all jump into a tomb for another day's sleep.
"The Skeleton Dance" was the first cartoon in Disney's "Silly Symphonies" series, and set the bar for cartoons to come. Animated entirely by Ub Iwerks, the short succeeds in being both frightening and comedic. The beginning offers ominous imagery, setting viewers up for what they expect to be an experiment in terror. Owls, bats, spiders, cats, something scary must be happening, right? Instead, we get dancing skeletons. They do move about rather menacingly, but at the same time, there is a jovial and lighthearted nature to them. They're having fun. This goes against everything that the beginning suggests, and it works. Then again, I would expect nothing less from Disney. They have the ability to take scenes that should frighten - and likely still will for some - and turns them on their head. There's a build-up for the audience, setting them up to particular expectations. Rather than give it to them, the short changes directions, and gives the audience something better.
The dancing skeletons would return again in Mickey Mouse's "The Haunted House," released December 2, 1929. In that cartoon - which I'll definitely analyze in more detail at a later date - features Mickey stumbling across a haunted house. He is forced to play music for skeletons who want nothing more than to dance. Mickey obliges, but escapes the first chance he gets. Personally, if I were Mickey, I would have used this opportunity to sign up the skeletons with some sort of talent agency. Surely I'm not the only one interested in seeing skeletons dance. While the majority of the animation in "The Haunted House" is original, they cleverly borrow the "Ring Around The Rosies" bit from "The Skeleton Dance." It's my favorite part of both shorts, if only because it shows the skeletons at their most childlike. This shows just how fun they are, and that there is more to them than the macabre nature people expect.
"The Skeleton Dance" was sometimes included in several Disney Halloween specials, none of which are on DVD. However, it is available in two Walt Disney Treasures sets: Silly Symphonies (2001) and The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (2007). "The Haunted House" can be found on "Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White, Volume Two" (2004), where it unfortunately resides in the "From the Vault" section. I have a sinking feeling the short was vaulted because Mickey Mouse proclaims "Mammy!" in his best Al Jolson impression. Either that or I missed the memo that said dancing skeletons are offensive to dead people.