Eddy’s voice is used in The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met sequence of this animated collection of stories and musical numbers. Original story by Irvin Graham. Directors: Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi. Story Adaptation: T. Hee, Richmond Kelsey. Music: Ken Darby. Layout: A. Kendall O’Connor, Hugh Hennesy, Al Zinnen, and John Hench. Backgrounds: Ralph Hulett, Thelma Witmer, Ray Huffine, and Art Riley. Animation: Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, Hal King, Hugh Fraser, John Sibley, and Fred Moore. Effects Animation: Joshua Meador and George Rowley. Production Superviser: Joe Grant.
Rereleased as a short, Willie, the Operatic Whale, by RKO in 1954.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking cartoon character ever created was Willie, the operatic whale, sung by Nelson Eddy. He appeared in one of ten episodes in Walt Disney’s first postwar feature, Make Mine Music. The Disney organization had gone to war with the rest of the nation, and, aside from The Three Caballeros (1944), their wartime output consisted of short cartoons and training and morale films for the armed forces including one feature, Victory through Air Power (1943).
Disney, of course, had created Jeanette’s biggest musical rival of 1937-38, the diminutive heroine of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length cartoon. The charming Florida-produced Gulliver’s Travels by the Fleischer brothers (creators of Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, and Popeye) followed it in 1939, but by then “Disney cartoon” had become almost one word.
In 1940, Disney laid permanent claim to the feature cartoon market with Pinocchio and the classic Fantasia. Make Mine Music followed the Fantasia format with a series of unrelated sequences each growing out of a particular musical idea. However, it created no chilling moments of horror, no bizarre bits of Freudian imagery, and thus has never had the appeal of its predecessor. The film is remembered mainly for the “Willie” sequence, its tragic story still guaranteed to have the children (and adults) sobbing into their popcorn. It can occasionally be seen on the Disney Channel and is well worth watching for.
Musically, the sequence is fascinating, for Eddy not only narrates but sings all the voices—bass, baritone, tenor, soprano, and hundred-voiced choir. With the tremendous advancements in home recording equipment, any tape buff today could approximate this achievement, but in 1946 it represented the summit of technical artistry. Electronically distorted voices in cartoons had frequently been done, and the speeding up of normal voices for comic effect was familiar (i.e., the Munchkins’ voices in The Wizard of Oz). But to take one single voice and alter its pitch to create separate voices singing together was an accomplishment. Eddy must have been fascinated by the project after his long sessions in his home recording studio. He later recorded a multiple-track record album.
The different sequences of the film are divided by turning title pages in a “program,” and so we first read of “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Metropolitan.” [sic] The next page tells us: “Any similarity between voices in this story are [sic] easily explainable because they are all Nelson Eddy.”
A baritone voice is heard, holding a high note and the page begins to flutter, then is blown away in a great gust of wind that also contains hats, curtains, flowers, and newspapers. One newspaper settles down in camera range, and we read the headline about a singing sea monster. The camera pulls back, and the paper is now in the hand of a newsboy who is hawking his papers on a crowded city street. The passersby sing of their disbelief.
A group of eminent voice authorities also don’t believe it, until one of them, Professor Tetti Tatti, gets an inspiration. The whale has swallowed an opera singer! What marvelous publicity, what fame, what fortune if he should rescue the singer. The professor departs with a harpoon to find the modern Jonah.
But out in the ocean there really is a singing cetacean. His name is Willie and he is happily entertaining the seals and pelicans with “Shortnin’ Bread” (Eddy’s classic concert song) while the seals clap their flippers in unison. Whitey, the sea gull, flies in at top speed with a newspaper announcing that the famous impresario Tetti Tatti of the Metropolitan Opera is looking for Willie. This is what Willie has been waiting for! To sing at the Metropolitan! “After all these years of casting his shortnin’ bread upon the waters….”
Willie finds the Professor and begins to audition. First he dazzles him with “Figaro” (actually “Largo al Factotum” from The Barber of Seville—Hollywood never discovered there is no song called “Figaro”), his rapid arpeggios delivered through a cascade of bubbles. The crew of the tiny ship are enchanted, and Tetti Tatti leaps up and down with delight.
Next, Willie launches into the beginning of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor, singing all three male voices. “He’s a swallowed three h’opera singers!” cries Tetti Tatti.
Willie imagines himself dominating the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in appropriate costume, his gigantic voice dislodging the hairdos of the ladies in the balconies. Tetti Tatti races for the harpoon gun, but the frantic crew cling to him, trying to spare this wondrous creature.
In Willie’s fantasy, he is performing in I Pagliacci, Tristan und Isolde (both voices), and Mefistofele to ever increasing waves of applause. The sailors are transfixed and relax their hold. Tetti Tatti leaps for the harpoon gun and pulls the trigger. The light glints on the murderous spear as it hurtles toward its target. There is a terrible thrashing and a last toss of the mighty tail. Then quiet.
Whitey the sea gull sits alone as Eddy’s voice tells us: “Now Willie will never sing at the Met. But don’t be too harsh on Tetti Tatti. He just didn’t understand. You see, Willie’s singing was a miracle and people aren’t used to miracles…but miracles never die. And somewhere, in whatever heaven is reserved for creatures of the deep, Willie is still singing….”
The three voices of Willie are heard, and we see him singing happily on a celestial cloud bank. The pearly gates close softly, revealing a small sign: “Sold Out.”
All dialogue copyright MCMXLVI Walt Disney Productions, used with permission.
“The Martins and the Coys” (The King’s Men) – song by Ted Weems and Al Cameron,
arranged by Oliver Wallace NOTE: This sequence has been censored from some
prints and a black bar placed across the name of the King’s Men in the opening
credits. Political correctness gone amuck? Or a threatened lawsuit by surviving
McCoys of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud?
“Blue Bayou” (Ken Darby Chorus) – song by Ray Gilbert and Bobby Worth, with Debussy’s
“Clair de Lune”
“All the Cats Join In” (played by Benny Goodman and his orchestra, sung by the Pied Pipers)
– music by Eddie Sauter, words by Alec Wilder and Ray Gilbert
“Without You” [“Tres Palabras”] (sung by Andy Russell) – Spanish lyric and music by
Osvaldo Farres, English lyric by Ray Gilbert
“Casey at the Bat” (a poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, recited by Jerry Colonna) – The song “Casey, the Pride of Them All” by Ray Gilbert, Ken Darby and Eliot Daniel
“Two Silhouettes” (Dinah Shore) – music by Charles Wolcott, lyrics by Ray Gilbert. Ballet
silhouettes of Tatiana Riabouchinska and David Lichine
“Peter and the Wolf” (narrated by Sterling Holloway) – music by Serge Prokofieff
“After You’re Gone” (played by the Benny Goodman Quartet, with Cozy Cole, Sid Weiss
and Teddy Wilson) – song by Henry Creamer and Turner Layton
“Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet” (The Andrews Sisters) – music by Allie Wrubel,
lyrics by Wrubel and Gilbert.
“The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” (Nelson Eddy) – credits below.
“….And the finale, ‘The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,’ is as imaginative a conceit as Disney ever essayed. Audiences are set on their ears as Willie (yclept Nelson Eddy who sings all three voices, tenor, baritone and bass, and through scientific alchemy is made to sing a trio with himself) truly wows the musical world. Willie the Whale will crowd Sonia the Duck [heroine of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ segment] for popularity in the Disney stable” (Variety.)
“[It] tells of a fabulous cetacean with a triple gaited voice. No less a star than Nelson Eddy provides the sound track for this event which presents a temptation for a wise crack that we will quietly avoid.” (Bosley Crowther in the New York Times.)
Eddy recorded a 78 RPM album, “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” containing the music listed below.
Nelson’s segment is almost entirely music, a true “singspiel,” combined with the following songs, all sung by Eddy:
“Shortnin’ Bread” – American Negro folk song
“Largo al Factotum” from The Barber of Seville – music by Gioacchino Rossini, libretto
“Chi Me Frena?” [“The Sextet”] from the opera, Lucia di Lammermoor – music by Gaetano
Donizetti, libretto by Salvatore Cammarano
MONTAGE with fragments from the following operas:
Pseudo I Pagliacci passage by Nelson Eddy (Eddy as tenor).
Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner (Eddy as tenor and soprano)
Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito (Eddy as bass)
“Mag der Himmel Euch Verbegen” from Martha (Eddy as tenor and two baritones) – music
by Friedrich von Flotow, libretto by Friedrich W. Riese