Though the calendar disagrees, for the past two days it’s been spring in the northeast. Everyone is going wild. Premature sunbathing is rampant. “Spring fever,” an old man winked at me—but then, that’s what I get for sitting on a traffic island in the middle of West Broadway.
In 1936, MGM released the “Happy Harmonies” cartoon “To Spring”—a lighthearted celebration of the season, on the face of it. And it is physically beautiful. But as with so many animations of the era, there’s a serious dark side.
The cartoon, produced by the famed Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, was the directorial debut of Bill Hanna, who went on to found the eponymous Hanna-Barbera. For those who don’t have the time or inclination to watch, here’s a synopsis: a semi-hysterical elf/gnome/Old Man of the Mountain goes around an underworld hoarsely shrieking “TIME FOR SPRING! TIME FOR SPRING! TIME FOR SPRING I SAY!” while vaguely Teutonic creatures of the forest wake around him. We see a bunch of other, multiracial Nibelung laboring in a mine, knocking down ice, to what sounds like music from The Marriage of Figaro. The ice is then melted in large smelting cauldrons, turned into rainbows, and piped, via a large circulatory system, into the world to create leaves, blossoms, and sunny skies. (If you’re going to watch one bit, 5:10 is the most beautiful.) Enter an exceedingly gruckimish basso-profundo North Wind, intent on thwarting the arrival of Spring; the mine/factory overheats. There’s a flood; the main gnome nearly drowns. Don’t worry. He’s pulled to safety and the factory is saved. The world is duly covered in beautiful Technicolor flowers.
The strangest thing about this cartoon, besides everything, is how horrible the mine looks. It’s not uncommon to see racial and sexual politics play out in vintage animation, but labor issues are less common. I’m not going so far as to suggest the North Wind is some kind of stand-in for a Boss or a union-breaker—the elements are quite scary enough as it is—but in mid-Depression 1936, most Americans would have been fully aware of the hazards and potential horror of mining. And while the product here might be rainbows, the mine is still a scary site, fraught with peril. What’s more, the gnomes look grim and miserable—somewhere between Sisyphus and West Virginia. It’s a serious side to a seemingly lighthearted cartoon. And as the North Wind blows, you’re reminded of how tenuous their positions are. At best, they’ll just have to wake up and do it all over again. In other words: enjoy the warm weather!
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.