Flowers and Trees (1932). 8 minutes. Directed by Burt Gillett. Produced by Walt Disney.
Flowers and Trees broke new ground in 1932 as the first animated short to use three-strip Technicolor. Its producer Walt Disney had exclusive rights to the three-strip process until 1935, which meant that during this period, other animators had to use the two-strip process with its more limited color palette or else continue to rely on black-and-white techniques. The use of cutting-edge Technicolor in Flowers and Trees, while perhaps not as revolutionary as the use of sound in Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928), was nevertheless a considerable achievement and was undoubtedly one of the reasons that Flowers and Trees won the first Academy Award for Animated Short Subjects, the first color production of any kind to win an Academy Award.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Flowers and Trees follows the antics of two leafy green trees, one male and one female. A dried-out stump tries to appeal romantically to the female tree but is rebuffed. Out of revenge, he sets and spreads a fire that threatens to destroy the forest. But the resident flowers and animals extinguish the flames, and the stump himself catches on fire and dies. In the film’s conclusion, the leafy trees become engaged, and in the final shots they celebrate with the woodland creatures.
Probably the weirdest thing about the cartoon is the trees themselves. They walk about with bifurcated stumps like legs, wave branches that work like arms, and trail leaves that look like hair. The trees also interact with animal life in strange ways: the angry, dried-up stump has a reptile for a tongue, and the female tree wears a caterpillar for an engagement ring at the end. While these sort of playful details are typical of cartoons, which often give life to inanimate objects and use fanciful visual gags, nevertheless there is something atypical about the use of them in Flowers and Trees. The grinning plant life and repeated scenes where the bright, leafy trees sway back and forth evoke a vaguely psychedelic subtext, offering both surreal imagery and individual characters who appear as if they might be under the influence themselves. In particular, the leafy trees have eyes that appear heavily dilated, and the male tree often assumes a benevolent but demented look with hair that stands on end and long, creepy fingers; at one point he makes a harp out of another tree and plays it with a tweaked expression, reminding me slightly of the crazed marijuana-toking pianist in the later film Reefer Madness (1936).
As I watched, I was tempted to draw comparisons between Flowers and Trees and the far-out, garishly colorful H.R. Pufnstuf television show from the late 1960s. Although the world of that series is visually more exaggerated, the spacey universe of Flowers and Trees is mildly sickening in a similar way. The most headache-inducing character in the cartoon is the malevolent dried stump, who, although a forest resident, participates in none of the joyous antics of his fellow woodlanders. The stump seems to originate from an inebriated dream, but in his case it is more of a nightmare. He functions as a precursor to the snarly apple trees in 1939’s live-action The Wizard of Oz, hurling destructive fire just as those later trees would venomously hurl their own apples. If the leafy trees embody the more inviting qualities of an elevated, substance-inspired mood, the stump represents the flip side, a type of dysphoria.
This is not to say that the cartoon is impressionistic and scattered in its presentation of euphoric and dysphoric elements. On the contrary, Flowers and Trees actually establishes a coherent argument. The distinction between the leafy protagonists and the stump antagonist becomes especially important as the cartoon progresses—in part because it contributes to a kind of neat, albeit trippy, allegory that pertains to the short film’s particular moment in cinema history.
To understand how this allegory works, we must first consider some of the basics of cartoon conventions and what the film does with them. For example, Flowers and Trees engages in the familiar trope of animating the non-human with humanoid faces and bodies. As we watch the leafy trees dance and play music, we may think that they resemble ludicrous versions of ourselves, and that works to encourage our sympathies. Their movement is elegant and human, albeit a little slowed down and out there. The female tree in particular undulates gracefully and gently, using the leaves on her branches as if they were muffs or giant powder puffs in a family-friendly burlesque show.
But the dried-out stump is different. Although animated with a snarling face and granted the power of movement, he is not obviously alive in the same way as the trees. The only thing apparently fertile about him is the green lizard that occasionally emerges from his mouth as he leers and grimaces. His physical greyness is enmeshed with his morally decrepit personality, which estranges him from the other forest dwellers—notably, the female tree rejects him as an uncouth masher because of his crude and brash ways. As a result of the stump’s unusual appearance and personal antagonism, a new cartoon binary emerges: in the modern world of colorful animation that Flowers and Trees initiates, whatever is not cloaked in the bright hues of the fecund woodland setting is divergent, not ethically good, and (in the peculiar world of humanoid trees) sexually unappealing.
While this binary helps to clarify the specific relationship between the cartoon’s heroes and villain, it also has a broader, historic dimension. The dead stump, while a menace and a plot obstacle, stands for something more—he is like the whole world of black-and-white animation at this point in time, rendered less desirable and more lifeless with the advent of the new technology. Flowers and Trees is thus a kind of allegory for the coming of three-strip Technicolor, where ultimately the modern triumphs over the antique when the stump and his adjacent technology are exterminated. The young trees dance together in the end, surrounded by colorful flowers, and a rainbow emerges behind their woodland scene as the cartoon reaches its concluding effusive expression of harmony and order. It is surely not a coincidence that the color spectrum, symbol of the new technology, is used here as the unifying ornament of the happy woodland scene and the triumph of the green trees over the grey stump. Flowers and Trees thus celebrates the future of creative possibilities for animation and for Disney in particular, who, as noted earlier, would maintain exclusive rights to this color technology for years to come.
The stump’s death is a violent, symbolic end for black-and-white animation, but it was presumably not one that was originally conceived of by the animators in those terms. Flowers and Trees was initially planned in black and white, begun using that palette, and restarted in color once Disney’s contract with Technicolor was secured. But through color, a subtext that would not have existed in black and white becomes perceptible, one that hints at the possibilities for color to enhance storytelling in animated art and create new opportunities for meaning and significance. Disney cartoons would go on to use color thoughtfully throughout the great period of animated shorts and into the early feature-length productions, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), but if you want to appreciate color as a creative element within Disney’s pioneering works, Flowers and Trees is the place to start.