Back in 1929 Walt Disney launched the Silly Symphonies series of cartoon shorts. Unlike the Mickey Mouse shorts that were growing popular at the time, Silly Symphonies did not center on just one character or even a group of characters, but rather were fairly self-contained. Some shorts that became popular, like The Three Little Pigs, would receive sequels, but mostly the series was designed to be a testing ground for the animators working for Disney in the 1930s. Techniques with sound and color were first tested in Silly Symphonies as was the famed multiplane camera.
Despite the name, there often wasn’t a ton of “silly” to be found in a given Silly Symphony. Not that it stopped them from being popular or critically acclaimed for a large amount of Disney’s Academy Award wins came from the series. And had the series not been a success we probably wouldn’t have Looney Tunes, which is basically a synonym for Silly Symphony. Warner Bros. Studios would be better at incorporating the “looney” into their Looney Tunes and today those shorts are more fondly recalled and often more celebrated while many associate the Silly Symphonies with noodle-armed characters that just smile and dance around. Not that there aren’t some that are genuinely funny or even scary, and Donald Duck famously debuted in a Silly Symphony short, but the vast majority tend to be more whimsical than anything.
The subject of today’s Christmas post is one of those more gentle and whimsical shorts. Santa’s Workshop was released in December of 1932 and depicts what the famed workshop might look like on Christmas Eve. Understandably, there’s a lot of work to be done and Santa has to rely on his elves to get the bulk of it completed in time for his big flight. The short was directed by Wilfred Jackson and was just the fourth Silly Symphony to utilize Technicolor while also serving as a testing ground for a new audio synchronization technique crafted by RCA. A couple of years ago, we actually looked at the short’s sequel The Night Before Christmas. At the time, I was trying my best not to duplicate specials and shorts already covered by the unaffiliated website, A Cartoon Christmas, but that blog has since gone dormant and most of the old posts are no long accessible so I no longer feel such an obligation.
The short begins with an original song by Frank Churchill. I couldn’t find a credit for the song’s name, but the words are “In the North North Pole in a distant land lives Santa Claus with a merry band of jolly elves who sing and dance making toys for girls and boys.” It’s sung with a choir and it just brings us into the picture which begins with an exterior shot of Santa’s Workshop and an elf can be seen hauling a sack of mail in its direction. In the background are more elves with more sacks as there’s apparently a lot of late arrivals this year.
We then see a group of four elves working on Santa’s sleigh. One is scrubbing, one dusting, one touching up the paint and the fourth is shining the runners. They pause in their work to continue singing to the same melody telling us they’re “Merry, merry, men of the midnight sun,” which makes them sound a lot more intriguing than they really are. The painter elf punctuates their little song in a baritone that tomorrow is Christmas Day, implying they have some urgency in their work despite having time to stop and sing.
We then cut to another group of four elves taking care of one of Santa’s reindeer. In the background we can see the name Prancer above a stall so I suppose this one is indeed Prancer. Prancer looks like an actual reindeer so I applaud Disney for its attempt at realism since many cartoons seems to model the reindeer after white tail deer and not actual reindeer. The elves in this shot are taking care of Prancer by brushing the fur, polishing the hooves and antlers, and the fourth unlucky elf gets to clean the deer’s butthole. He literally lifts up Prancer’s tail and wipes the deer’s ass with a brush. He seems happy to be doing it though as they’re all whistling to the same melody. We then cut to another elf brushing Donner’s teeth and yet another giving Dancer a rub down before the scene shifts to an interior shot.
Here we get our first look at the big man himself, Santa Claus (Allan Watson), as he sits among a mountain of letters and goes through each one with a smile on his face. He reads them aloud and as he does his secretary to his left (Pinto Colvig) consults a ledger and lets Santa know if the kid has been good or not. Little Molly asks Santa for a dolly (everyone is going to speak in rhyme so the requests from the kids need to rhyme too) and his secretary informs him that Molly is okay because she eats her spinach every day. Santa gives a belly laugh in response and tells another elf to get her a doll. The next kid, little Billy, wants a whole bunch of stuff including various animals which prompts Santa to laugh to himself as he suggests he just get the kid Noah’s Ark. We then find out little Billy hasn’t washed behind his ears in seven years, but Santa just instructs an elf to toss in a cake of soap and resumes his laughter. The helper elf says, “Okay, a cake of soap!” and he’s clearly voiced by Walt Disney since he sounds almost exactly like Mickey Mouse from that era.
The little elf runs off with Billy’s massive list into another room and we get to see the actual workshop in action. The elves are banging away at all manner of toys and we get to see how they build a rocking horse. First is a shot of a massive log getting cut to size so an elf can shove a horse head onto it. We then see an assembly line of elves inserting the runners into the bottom via hammer. Then we get to see an elf very cheerfully drill holes into the backside of each horse which moves along to the tail elf who grabs a tuft of straw, or fur, dabs it in glue and then tosses into the newly drilled hole. Lastly, we see the elf who applies some black spots to each side of the horse. Pretty conventional stuff here which leaves me wondering, “Where’s the gag?”
Now that we know how to assemble a rocking horse we move on to see a group of painter elves coloring up some blocks and doll heads. It’s at this point it feels like we’re seeing a lot of this just so Disney can show off its Technicolor exclusive license it held at the time. The next elf is painting checkerboards and the gag here is he has checkered paint that does all of the work for him since it goes on as a checkerboard. It’s a gag that I’ve seen used a fair amount in cartoons over the years, though for all I know, this was its origin (but probably not). We then see some elves sewing doll clothes before moving onto an assembly line for doll hair. A shaggy looking doll comes down the conveyor belt and an elf dangles a spider in front of its face. This frightens the doll so its hair stands up on end and a bunch of curlers fall from the ceiling to do its hair up nice and pretty. A second doll comes through and there’s a quick animation error as the color of its dress changes from blue to pink as the gag with the hair is repeated.
We then rejoin Santa Claus and it’s here we have ourselves a bit of controversy. If you’re watching this short on Disney+, Santa will appear to just be fiddling with a toy airplane which amuses him greatly. He comes off as a goof who is just playing with the toys while the elves do all of the work. If you’re watching the uncensored version though, then you know he’s actually testing the products. A doll comes down a chute and he asks her to say “Mama.” She says “Mom,” at first and Santa has to correct her until she says it right, then laughing heartily once more, he stamps an “OK” on her backside. As the doll walks off another one comes down the chute and this is the offensive one. We’re talking about a 1930s cartoon so you can probably imagine what the doll looks like, but in case you can’t it’s a blackface doll. It pops up on its two feet and in a raspy voice says “Mammy!” which makes Santa laugh. It does a “butt stomp” on Santa’s stamp and struts off and Santa doesn’t stop it so he apparently approves of this racist doll. After that, the airplane comes down the chute and the edited version picks up with Santa testing that one out. Should Disney have cut it? Eh, I don’t know. It’s been released so many times by the company uncut that it feels like it’s trying to hide something by not putting it on their service. They already have a disclaimer before the short, so might as well leave it, I guess. Or just put both up. The gag is definitely dated and doesn’t exactly add much, I just don’t like how it’s edited because the new version doesn’t make it obvious that Santa is testing product and actually doing something.
Anyway, with Santa laughing at the airplane the thing flies into his mouth and he pulls it out and sends it off into the workshop where it just starts knocking a bunch of toys off various shelves (see why the edit makes him look like an unhelpful boob?). The toys land on the floor properly arranged and we basically go into a parade of toys segment. Here we get more racist depictions of toys, these ones are left in the Disney+ cut, as a blackface marching band leads some white toy soldiers in a march. They’re followed by some penguins, a clown, an elephant, and a donkey. Behind the donkey comes some “China dolls” that look at the camera and have their hair shoot up for some reason. Is it racist? Maybe, they definitely shouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt. Behind those dolls comes a Charlie Chaplin inspired toy with a police officer chasing after him. I’m guessing that was a pretty big hit in 1932.
The toys all march into Santa’s sack while their overlord/creator looks on approvingly. The racist band is slightly less racist now since the red lips have been removed basically leaving them looking like Bosko. We cut to another Bosko-like toy steering a carriage pulled by a donkey towards Santa’s sack and the donkey pauses to kick the carriage every few seconds to bounce the black-face toy into the air. Some wooden ducks go by in the background and we then see Billy’s Noah’s Ark go “sailing” past on wheels with various animals poking their heads out. More mechanical toys continue their march which include some flamingo-like birds, a rolling teddy bear, and some wind-up pigs. Santa stands the now overflowing sack up and the last toy to jump in is a Jack-in-the-Box because every Christmas cartoon from this era requires one be present. Santa laughs and then lets his elves do all of the work in carrying the sack outside to place in his sleigh.
All of the elves are waiting for them outside and they cheer at the sight of Santa Claus. He takes a stand in the sleigh and a rare, serious expression, is painted on his face. If you look closely, an off-model Mickey Mouse toy is present in the sack of toys. Santa then bobs and sways as he sings “Goodbye, my merry little gnomes,” and the elves respond in kind with “Goodbye! Goodbye! Goodbye!” Santa then boasts that he’s bringing joy to a million homes and after the elves respond with their goodbye cheer once again he sits down and cracks his whip over Dasher’s rear. The reindeer are lined up single-file in front of the sleigh and there are actually 9 of them. They take off to thunderous applause and we get to see Santa and his sleigh pass in front of the screen a few times before they head off towards a really creepy moon. It’s our first moon shot of 2022, and it’s certainly memorable and might haunt your dreams later.
That’s all she wrote as this one is a tidy 6:40, and even shorter if you’re watching on Disney+ due to the removed content. This one is a fairly conventional Silly Symphony as it’s all set to music and there’s basically no conflict. It’s just a bunch of characters cheerfully doing stuff, in this scenario making toys and getting ready for Christmas. It’s fine, and I do like this very jolly depiction of Santa as a guy who is just tickled by his profession. He does come across as a bit of an overlord since we don’t see him do much. He’s basically king of the elves and they just do his bidding, but the song makes sure to tells us that they’re very happy with their lot in life. Does that make it better? No, not really, but whatever.
Obviously, the censorship present provides for some talking points and it might be the most interesting aspect about the short. That type of racial depiction was unfortunately very common during this time period. It’s so common that I’m actually surprised when one of these “parade of toys” cartoons doesn’t include some type of blackface gag. Apparently white audiences just loved that stuff in the 30s. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. If not for that, this would just be a fairly benign Christmas cartoon that’s also forgettable. It doesn’t really add anything to the Santa lore and the gags are fairly pedestrian. Still, of all of the shorts that are like this, I might like this one the most? I don’t love it, but the music isn’t tiresome and the visuals are pretty nice. The elves are a bit more noodle-armed than I like, but the character designs are pleasant and I really like this rounded Santa.
Being that this one is on Disney+, Santa’s Workshop should be a fairly easy cartoon to find if you wish to view it this year. It’s been released on Christmas DVDs and was included in the Walt Disney Treasures line of DVD releases that are now long out of print and quite expensive. I actually don’t have that set as I really couldn’t see myself sitting down to watch a marathon of Silly Symphony shorts, but if you fancy yourself a cartoon historian then it might be worth tracking down. And if you don’t have access to any of those things there’s always YouTube which is where you’re most likely to encounter the uncut version. Disney is a pretty litigious company when it comes to protecting its brand, but when it comes to the old shorts it’s surprisingly lax with YouTube.
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