Colour and Meaning in Disney’s Flowers and Trees
On the 30th of July 1932, Flowers and Trees, a Silly Symphonies cartoon produced by Walt Disney and directed by Burt Gillett, was released to American theatres by United Artists agency. It was the first commercially released movie to be produced in the full-colour three-strip Technicolor process after several years of two-colour Technicolor films. Flowers and Trees was a commercial and critical success, winning the first Academy Award for Animated Short Subjects, as a result of which, all future cartoons of this series were produced in three-strip Technicolor, which saved the series’ previously low ratings and takings. Introducing colour was a shrewd business move by Disney.
Disney, however, had a very well-formed artistic eye as well and was a master of narrative: “one of the twentieth century’s most potent storytellers, he found his storytelling voice in the early 1930s while reworking fairy tales and nursery lore in a series of Silly Symphony shorts. Although he had been making cartoons since 1921, and had been riding the wave of his colossally successful Mickey Mouse one-reelers since the end of the 1920s, his interest in reviving fairytale classics only started in 1932, amidst vague ambitions of some day making a cartoon feature. Building on his success with animated dance routines and slapstick comedy gags, he turned his three-year-old Silly Symphony series in a new direction, and in so doing laid the foundation for the narrative formulas that would make him the country’s most influential fairy-tale entertainer.” (Russell Merritt, ‘Lost on Pleasure Islands: Storytelling in Disney’s Silly Symphonies’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 1, Fall 2005).
The story of Flowers and Trees unfolds in an idyllic woodland setting amidst the dance of the spring flora: flowers, mushrooms, and trees do their rhythmical exercises, stretching and enjoying the sunshine. Some trees play a tune, using vines for harp strings and a chorus of robins. All is jolly harmony until a wretched old tree stump tries to cut in the dance and break up two young trees in love. The ugly old hollow tree battles with the much healthier young tree for the attentions of a female tree, and being rebuffed, it proceeds to set the woods on fire! Ultimately, when the fire clears, the evil tree is dead, and the good trees join together in a mock “wedding” complete with a ring made of a caterpillar. The final scene even features a rainbow, which makes the most of the new colour technique.
This classic tale of bravery, good, and evil, Flowers and Trees may allude to the current political issues of immigration in American society at the time. Film critic Russell Merritt wrote that, “Ethnicity, particularly in the 1930s, involved complicated relations between the outsider and the center, the immigrant and the mainstream, an aspiring lower class and a complacent middle. And this is precisely the theme of most Silly Symphonies. Dyed-in-the-wool Disney villains are predators (cats, wolves, lions, hawks, alligators, anthropomorphic flames, and swarms of bees) that want to consume the protagonist. The female hero is often—with surprising frequency, in fact—threatened with sexual consumption, as in Flowers and Trees, where a decrepit, ugly tree stump pursues a female sapling and literally burns up with self-destructive passion.” (Russell Merritt)