I’ve been following Disney historian Didier Ghez since the mid-2000s, when he first started writing about old-style Walt Disney Studio goodness on his blog, Disney History. It was delightful to find that his labors have brought forth a fancy coffee-table-style book of vintage Disney studio art – the first of a series! The handsome 2015 hardback, They Drew As They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age – The 1930s pays homage to overlooked artists who worked at the Disney studio in its prime.
They Drew As They Pleased gives a new spin to a familiar subject, shedding light on four particular artists with mini-biographies and a host of previously unpublished artwork. Even for those well-versed in what the Disney studio was working on in the ’30s – Mickey Mouse cartoons, Silly Symphonies shorts, the features Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia – there’s a lot of surprises within. Although the idea of using “concept artists” in film and TV production is pretty common today, back in the ’30s it was pretty rare. Indeed, Walt Disney was the first animation producer to realize the potential of hiring imaginative artists strictly for the purpose of inspiring the look and feel of the final product. The projects that these artists worked on included not just the classics listed above, but also films not released until much later (Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella) and shelved projects (Ballet de Fleurs, Streubel Peter, Japanese Symphony).
The artists profiled in They Drew As They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age – The 1930s are pretty fascinating, especially given that I was familiar with just one (the brilliant Gustaf Tenggren). They are –
- Albert Hurter (1883-1942), Disney’s first story artist. Hurter’s imaginative, spontaneous pencil drawings provided visual flair to many a Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoon. Some of his stuff reproduced here pushes the limits, going in a surreal, Dr. Seuss-like direction. Hurter’s life story was as unique as his talent (Disney kept him on the payroll, even as failing health had him in a convalescent home).
- Ferdinand Horvath (1891-1973) lent his wide-ranging abilities to layouts, animation, gag drawings, illustration at the studio over a period of several years. Horvath had had a tempestuous relationship with Disney, although it doesn’t show in his whimsical, kinetic and polished work.
- Gustaf Tenggren (1896-1970). Like Hurter, Gustaf Tenggren was an eccentric European expat whose visual flair left its mark on a variety of Disney productions. Most significantly, his gorgeous production art brought an immersive Old World sensibility to Snow White and Pinocchio. That celebrated art is reproduced here, along with some fascinating storyboard art and production studies. Tenggren’s bio, like Hurter’s, reveals a fascinating, quirky life (will someone do a long-form bio on this guy? I’d snap it up.).
- Bianca Majolie (1900-1997). Besting Mary Blair by a few years, Majolie was Disney’s first female concept artist. A classmate of Walt’s from Chicago, Majolie endeared herself to Disney by contributing a feminine touch to a handful of short subjects (a few of which went unreleased) in the late ’30s. Unfortunately, the overtly macho atmosphere in Disney’s story department prompted Majolie to resign in 1940. Too bad – based on this book, her work was delightful.
They Drew As They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age – The 1930s was published in 2015 by Chronicle. A follow-up volume, the first of two covering the 1940s, just came out last month. Ghez himself told me that there will be six volumes published, in total (yeah!). Both current volumes can be purchased at Amazon.com here and here.