Tag Archives: Walt Disney

They Drew As They Pleased: the 1930s

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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spin to a familiar subject, shedding light on four particular artists with mini-biographies and a host of previously unpublished artwork.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.

Tenggren artwork for Ballet de Fleurs (L) and The Old Mill (R).

Tenggren artwork for Ballet de Fleurs (L) and The Old Mill (R).

Foreword spread with Horvath studies for The Fox Hunt (1938).

Foreword spread with Hovarth studies for The Fox Hunt (1938).

Majolie character studies for Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Majolie character studies for Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Hurter studies for a seductive hippo, possibly for Fantasia.

Hurter studies for a seductive hippo, possibly for Fantasia.

Tenggren concept art for Little Hiawatha.

Tenggren concept art for Little Hiawatha.

Horvath at the easel, from his biographical section.

Horvath at the easel, from his biographical section.

Each artist profile has a beautiful opening spread - here's part of  Tenggren's.

Each artist profile has a beautiful opening spread – here’s part of Tenggren’s.

Majolie ideas and drawings for the abandoned short Japanese Symphony.

Majolie ideas and drawings for the abandoned short Japanese Symphony.

Back cover, sporting some great Pinocchio concept art from Tenggren.

Back cover, sporting some great Pinocchio concept art from Tenggren.

Look What I Found: The Fairest One of All

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With 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney took a gamble that audiences would sit still for a feature-length animated film – he won, magnificently. What showed up on screen as a sweet, pleasant fairy tale involved massive amounts of labor, second-guessing, fine-tuning, and pruning away of excess story. All of this is detailed by Disney historian J. B. Kaufman in his 2012 book The Fairest One of All, which satisfies as both a thorough production history and a lovely, large-format tribute to this still-influential animated icon.

Snow White certainly had a huge impact on my young mind when I saw a reissue screening in the ’70s (maybe the earliest movie I remember seeing?). In that darkened theater, I swooned to Snow White’s untouched beauty, cowered in terror at the Wicked Witch, and laughed along with Dopey and the other dwarfs. Being a little kid, when it was over I wanted more. Later on, my mother indulged me with the Disney storybook record album (the one with the purple cover), which got heavy play on the family turntable. To this day, the sound of Adriana Caselotti’s trilling makes me smile. The movie pretty much turned me into an artist, an old movie buff, and a full-on Disney freak – three in one!

Since Snow is so personally dear to me, I had extremely high expectations for The Fairest One of All. Surprisingly, the book ended up outdoing those high expectations – Kaufman truly knows his Snow White history, and it’s efficiently laid out in this beautifully designed volume. After a few chapters detailing the history of the Grimm Brothers’ source tale and the various pre-Disney stage and film renditions, Kaufman comprehensively goes through the film, scene-by-scene, explaining how they came to be. As a straightforward chronological history, having it arranged in the order the story is told reveals a ton of fascinating episodes which might have been lost the other way. It may even be too detailed for all but die-hard Snow White buffs. Kaufman’s research is so incredible, however, and it’s written in an accessible style. I devoured sections discussing scenes that were significantly tweaked (such as the prince’s introduction), painstakingly re-animated (the dwarfs coming home from the mine), or eliminated entirely (scenes with the dwarfs eating soup and building a bed for Snow White; a dream sequence meant to accompany “Someday My Prince Will Come”). Every single frame in this film got analyzed to a degree that’s never been attempted before or since. If anything, this book is a tribute to Walt Disney’s high standards and attention to detail.

J. B. Kaufman recently published another, similar comprehensive history on Disney’s follow-up film, Pinocchio. You can bet it’s on my wish list. The Fairest One of All was published by the Walt Disney Family Foundation Press in 2012. It can be purchased here at Amazon.com.

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Fantasy Project: Disney on Criterion, 1937-1950

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Every now and then I like to indulge in “What if?” scenarios, as in “What if the folks at Criterion approached me to design the covers for a series exploring the Disney studio’s earliest feature films?” Hey, it might happen.

What I’d do are the ten hypothetical “Disney on Criterion” releases seen here. The 1937-50 period was a crucial time for the Disney studios. Despite the arrival of World War II and a turbulent studio employees’ strike, Disney produced lots of stuff during that time – some classics, others not no much, all of it risky in some way (try saying that about today’s Disney). The idea of this era done in expertly annotated, lavish Criterion Collection sets makes the animation geek in me drool. Although Walt Disney and the other participants in these films are long gone, there’s enough archival material around to provide for added commentaries, supplementary shorts and interviews. Of course, minor films like The Reluctant Dragon and Victory through Air Power would be included as extras, as well.

This project came about while I was attempting to watch these films, in chronological order. When it came to 1946’s Song of the South, however, I hit a roadblock – Disney hasn’t reissued that one in the U.S. for nearly 30 years (and counting). The attempt to get a decent copy through illegal means proved fruitless, as well. Obviously, a lovingly crafted Criterion disc putting this controversial film in its proper context would be ideal – and I’m sure millions of Disney fans would eagerly snatch it up – but Disney would prefer to keep it locked in the vaults indefinitely.

I just want kids to appreciate these movies as culturally important, as opposed to tinsel-dusted product to be trotted out every seven years.

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A Few Weird Cartoons

Trade advertisement for Walt Disney Studios' "The Story of Menstruation," 1959.

Trade advertisement for Walt Disney Productions’ “The Story of Menstruation,” 1959.

Out of all the zillions of things we watch on television every night, the vintage animated short is our constant, our go-to, the bedrock of our home video collection. Besides turning to our DVDs (the Looney Tunes Golden Collections get constant play), we’ve been checking out a lot of stuff though streaming and the internet. In particular, a great Roku channel called Pub-D Hub sports a lot of terrific, obscure vintage shorts which went into the public domain. While they carry the usual stuff like Popeye and Betty Boop easily found on YouTube and other places, you kind of have to dig deeper to find the truly strange, forgotten cartoons. Like, perhaps, the following three films:

The Story of Menstruation was an educational film sponsored by Kotex and produced by the Walt Disney studio in 1946. Yep, that’s right, Disney had a hand in helping young girls understand what’s happening with their bodies down there. Sanitized and ultra-campy as it may appear, the film conveys this delicate information in a startlingly simple and effective way. Not surprisingly, it was shown in schools for decades. Personally, I loved the elegant narration by Gloria Blondell (Joan’s sister) and the big-headed, footless vintage ’40s design on the cartoon girls in the middle of the film. A good, concise history of this film is included in the book Who’s Afraid of Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories by animation historian Jim Korkis.

1945’s Cap’n Cub, a strident, surreal bit of wartime propaganda from independent producer Ted Eshbaugh, does its best to combine cuteness with gross stereotypes and startling violence. Eshbaugh is considered one of the overlooked figures in the world of vintage animation. By the time Cap’n Cub came out, he’d been kicking around in some capacity for some time, mostly in the area of advertising and industrial films. His best-known work is probably 1935’s The Sunshine Makers, an intricate Silly Symphonies-esque production done for the Borden milk company.

Finally, a visual “Pow!” of a film – the short, surreal Russian feature Chipollino! Although Pub-D Hub’s version had no subtitles, we sort of understood that this film was about a boy with an onion head (the title character) who lives in a kingdom full of vegetable-shaped people under the rule of a cruel Tomato King. Chipollino saves the day by freeing the kingdom’s prisoners and casting the king and his bodyguards out into the ocean. For a film that came out in 1972, the character design and fluid animation harkens back to Disney’s Technicolor output from the 1930s. Very out-of-step with the times, and fascinating to watch.