The Skeleton Dance (1929)

Skeleton Dance (1929)

The Skeleton Dance (1929). 6 minutes. Produced and directed by Walt Disney. Animated by Ub Iwerks, Les Clark, and Wilfred Jackson. Music by Carl W. Stalling.

By 1929, Walt Disney had produced and directed the Mickey Mouse shorts Plane Crazy (1928), Steamboat Willie (1928), The Gallopin’ Gaucho (1929), and The Barn Dance (1929)—all of which chronicled the adventures of the small rodent. While these early exercises may loom especially large in the Disney legend, we should not forget that Disney concurrently launched the Silly Symphonies series as an alternative to the cartoons that were in development with the Mickey Mouse character. Frequently embracing classical music in continuous or near-continuous musical soundtracks, this new line of cartoons consisted mostly of non-recurring characters and scenarios, and represents some of the best, most creative work that Disney’s team produced.

The 75 Silly Symphonies shorts released between 1929 and 1939 included the perky and upbeat Flowers and Trees (1932) and Three Little Pigs (1933), among many other notable entries. But the studio chose to inaugurate its new series with The Skeleton Dance, a cartoon that is a prime example of how the early animated form could explore less obviously cheerful (although equally fun) concepts. Both morbid and silly, The Skeleton Dance is surprisingly thoughtful as well: it does more than merely amuse us, and its take on what lies beyond this life is perhaps unexpected for a brief work of animation. Through its creative use of emerging cartoon conventions—including exaggeration, symmetry, and repetition—and even allusions to the medieval danse macabre tradition, The Skeleton Dance not only deepens our experience of the short animated form but also offers a vision of death that is oddly comforting in its rhetoric, despite the howling winds, hissing cats, and jangling bones that we hear and see.

The premise of the cartoon is fairly simple. The action takes place in a cemetery at midnight, where four skeletons emerge from their graves to dance in the moonlight. They move along side by side, then perform a jig in a circle, and finally one skeleton plays another like a xylophone. When the rooster announces the new day, the skeletons scramble back into a vault, bringing an end to their dance and the cartoon.

The Skeleton Dance thoughtfully uses emerging animation traditions to entertain us while simultaneously expanding the capabilities of the art form. Through the convention of exaggeration, the cartoon establishes its comic tone and at the same time works conceptually to divide the world of the living from the world of the dead—because whereas the skeletons dance, the living creatures of the cemetery move differently. For example, animals are shocked out of their fur and feathers: two black cats are startled and react by sending their outer layers high above their heads, revealing their nude skin; and later when a skeleton hurls its head at an owl, the bird loses its feathers in the collision and is also left naked. When animals bellow and shriek, they extend their bodies, becoming thinner and longer, then return to their rotund selves when they grow silent.

The animals’ behavior grows more significant when we consider that they are essentially stand-ins for the audience. The fact that we are watching animals, rather than people, react to the spooky scene is itself reflective of another convention: the tradition in animation of exploring non-human behavior. But as far as The Skeleton Dance is concerned, its animals might as well be living people, for they represent the only life that we see. By consistently using overstatement and amplification to flavor animal vignettes, the cartoon thus assigns a fundamental characteristic to the whole of the living world, including humans, that it does not to the skeleton world—and in the process elevates the comic convention of exaggeration into a core attribute of life within the animated form.

Furthermore, The Skeleton Dance puts conventional goofy cartoon features such as symmetry and repetition to novel structural use, building and elaborating on a cartoon fascination with movement up and down (as well as back and forth) that originates with pre-Disney animators such as Winsor McCay. In the Disney short, however, these conventions play a deeper role in organizing activity. For example, repetition is an integral part of establishing the setting via the tolling of the church bell as the midnight hour is marked. Symmetry provides a visual framework for introducing figures, starting with cats sitting on top of graves, one on the right and one on the left (both facing inwards), who hiss and spit at each other, back and forth. We see this same approach when the skeletons finally enter: skeletal heads emerge from a grave one by one, with one head on one side of the tombstone, then another head on the other side, etc. Finally, repetition and symmetry manage the overall flow of activity: when the skeletons have all fully appeared, they dance in a row, with cascading movements from right to left (and back again), and eventually they dance around while moving in a circle. These conventions may be part of what gives The Skeleton Dance its quirky charm, but they are essential to the way that it orders and presents its activity.

In addition to serving as a structural basis for the film, symmetry and repetition actually help to shape the rhetoric of The Skeleton Dance and its perspective on death, which are both enhanced when the skeletons begin to move in sync with each other. As they perform for us, they embark on a celebration of the medieval danse macabre: a dance of skeletons representing people from all social strata, as captured in European art dating from the Middle Ages and onward. Growing out of the bubonic plague epidemic, the danse macabre always argued implicitly that death is a leveler of human status and achievement, with the skeletons it depicts joined in fellowship while bearing the withered markers of their stations in life—burial artifacts that indicate people who had been kings, laborers, and children. The skeletons in The Skeleton Dance do not present any worldly accessories that indicate their status in life, so this element of the danse macabre is not found in the cartoon. However, the sense that the skeletons are all essentially equals is confirmed by the fact that they appear and move alike, standing alongside each other at equal heights and moving harmoniously in lines and circles.

And yet while Disney’s dancers share the fact of their equal status with the skeletons of the traditional danse macabre, the organized synchronicity of Disney’s skeletons’ performance paints a somewhat different picture of death. While the medieval danse macabre uses the tattered clothing and decoration of its skeletal images to impart what can be an unsettling truth related to death (i.e., that there are few personal distinctions beyond the grave), The Skeleton Dance’s visual rhetoric is actually soothing in its recurring, almost hypnotic action. There is something pleasurably repetitive about the tidy, well-organized formality of the skeletons’ appearance—movement to the right will be duplicated on the left, and what we see one time will be repeated a second time. The cartoon uses the skeletons’ repetitive movement to suggest an attractive idea: it implies that there is a kind of order in the nighttime world of churchyards and the afterlife that is reliable, comprehensible, and even reassuring. And because there is some latent predictability in the dance and in the skeletons’ environment, the skeletons’ grim appearance (and, by extension, death itself) lacks the power to effectively frighten us. That the Silly Symphonies take the convention of limited movement found in early animation and use it to diminish the effects of death underscores the depth and creativity of the early Disney studios.

The Skeleton Dance subtly deprives death of its sting through those rhetorical moves, it is true, but it also deflates death through two particular vignettes. While the circle-dancing—with skeletons holding their hands to the tops of their heads, as if they are performing an English country dance—is silly and amusing, the apex of the cartoon’s silliness occurs in a vignette when one skeleton removes the leg bones of another skeleton, who then crouches down and allows himself to be played like an instrument while the music of Edvard Grieg is heard. The moment is reminiscent of the sequence in Steamboat Willie in which Mickey and Minnie Mouse interact with a goat that has swallowed some sheet music; they crank its tail and prop its mouth open, with the result that the naughty goat is played like a gramophone. But here the grinning xylophone skeleton is personally more invested in his musical interlude: he actually seems to enjoy being played by the other skeleton, even when he is smacked on the backside with his own bones. The vague suggestion of a sort of skeleton kink working itself out in this vignette further diminishes the potential for death to truly frighten us, and additionally is part of what makes this cartoon possibly more comprehensible to adults.

Even when The Skeleton Dance brings us into close contact with its skeletons, the result is bathetic rather than frightening. There is a strange moment in a second vignette when a skeleton opens its mouth and appears to swallow the camera; we emerge anti-climactically from its pelvis. This moment, in its willingness to bring the audience into a direct interaction with a skeleton, reminded me of the final image from The Great Train Robbery (1903), in which an outlaw shoots a gun directly at the camera. That image was so scandalous that the subsequent Hollywood Production Code, enforced in 1934, explicitly prohibited including images of people shooting into the camera.

While the skeleton who swallows the audience does not generate the same level of discomfort, nevertheless the act of passing us through its bones brings us close to death in a way that even being shot at by someone in a live action film cannot do. For through animation, we are forced to assume intimacy with the skeleton in these moments, and the vision of being engulfed by bones is unsettling in its own way. Our surprise is only momentary as we soon spill back out of the skeleton; it is merely bones after all. But in those few seconds of disappearing into the skeleton we are united with death in a way that simply looking at bones from a distance cannot equate to. However, even this exposure shows us that there is nothing to death: the skeleton can swallow us, but we simply fall right out of it. There is no body to contain us, no gut to digest us or otherwise harm us. And so even in bringing us close to death, the cartoon minimizes the power of death to intimidate us.

The Silly Symphonies series would grow to encompass a wide range of animated shorts, and all of them would present some form of musical silliness—but we should be careful not to let the name of the series diminish the latent refinement and creativity of these early Disney endeavors. In fact, when we reflect on the significance of the series, we would do well to consider that the English word silly is related to the word soul. The skeletons of The Skeleton Dance may lack actual souls, but as they dance, they are tinged with a special kind of silliness that is more than just fun. If you are looking for a good fright, it is better to go elsewhere; but considering that The Skeleton Dance packs more ideas about death into its six minutes than many feature-length horror films, you may find it an inspired alternative to the blood and gore of standard seasonal fare.