Saturday 27 October 2012

Animation Essays - Disney at War, and the Importance of Cinderella

At the start of the year, I said that we were going to diversify here at A113Animation, namely, through more features. We've launched our Bitesized Biographies and Classic Cartoons features, and post the odd Editorial too (free time permitting of course), but as of late I've had an itching to try something else as well. Animation history being a paramount passion of mine, I thought it may be prudent to launch this intended-as-occasional feature: Animation Essays. Check out our first one - about Disney during and immediately after World War II, and the effect Cinderella had on, effectively, saving the, once-fledgling, now dominant, company - below!


Despite the creative excellence of, and contemporary reverence for, Walt Disney's first five features, only two of them were financial successes. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was an enormous success, becoming the highest grossing film of all time (before being dethroned by Gone with the Wind three years later) and earning a standing ovation from a crowd including Charlie Chaplin. But this success turned out to be somewhat counter-intuitive; Disney's semblance of success was justified, and his confidence earned, but it would be a success that wouldn't be repeated for a while, and a confidence that would soon be shaken.

Walt's trademark perfectionism meant high-budgets, and the outbreak of World War II in Europe cutting off the international markets meant low returns. Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi, three of Walt Disney's most daring and ambitious projects, failed commercially - later re-releases would recoup the losses, but this was enough to shake Disney, both the company and the man. Ironically, it was actually Dumbo, conceived as a cheap, money-maker, (with a third of the budget of Pinocchio) that was the biggest post-Snow White success for Golden Age Disney. The rising popularity of Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes also stifled Disney, as audiences embraced the irreverent, zany comedy those shorts offered, versus the charming and cute Disney animation. The lack of funds, and the constant financial grief Walt was in - a grief that seemed to plague him in one sense or another until Disneyland opened - meant that the Golden Age of Disney was coming to a close.

It was grimly ironic that, as Disney was losing a war against profits, he was soon to be thrown into the midst of another two wars: with his formerly cult-loyal animators, and with America's entrance into the Second World War.

The cut off European and Asian markets' negative effect on box-office returns meant pay began to dwindle for Disney animators, and amidst Hollywood Union movements, this proved dramatic for the studio - and traumatic for Walt. Walt had previously given out (to the chagrin of the more-level headed and pragmatic Roy Disney) generous bonuses to his animators, but reduced profits and increased staff made this infeasible. The animators, artists and other staff of the studio sought some recompense for their admittedly very hard work, in the arms of Unionism - synonymous, it seemed, in Walt's eyes, with Communism.

Disney animators were still some of the best paid in the industry though (especially when compared to rivals like the Fleischer Studio), so Walt Disney was personally offended and wounded by, what he saw as, a betrayal. Another reason contributing to the sense of hurt, was the hitherto cult-worship of Walt by artists at the studio; artists Disney was convinced had been poisoned against him by ingrates and troublemakers.

One such man, who would draw the ire of Walt Disney during the animators' strike of 1941 - to the extent that the two men never repaired the soured relationship - was Art Babbit. Babbit was actually one of the studio's highest paid animators (having worked as an animator on The Three Little Pigs and Snow White, and creating Goofy), but sided with the lower paid in-betweeners who fleshed out the majority of the strike - led by the Screen Cartoonists' Guild, fronted by Herbet Sorrell, who was since claimed to have been a Communist, even by some accounts a Soviet spy!

Animosity ruled the studio thereafter, and (after several unsuccessful attempts to fire Babbit from the studio), Art Babbit and other notable Disney artists, including Bill Tytla (who animated Chernabog in Fantastia and Dumbo in Dumbo) and John Hubley left the studio - with Babbit and Hubley joining UPA. But the exile of some of the strikers couldn't repair the damage, and the Disney Studio was never the same again; it had changed. Walt had changed.

Donald Duck salutes Hitler, in Der Fuehrer's Face (left)

The studio was about to undergo even more of a change, as it was thrown headfirst into propaganda films for the war effort. WWII's effects were soon apparent on Disney's norm; Dumbo was supposed to be on the cover of the December 1941 issue of Time magazine, but the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the US entry into the war meant more pressing news was afoot. Production on Bambi finished up, and it transpired that that would be the studio's last real feature for almost a decade.

Walt liaised with the army and the US government, and Disney created several propaganda films, including Victory Through Air Power, and the Donald Duck-starring Der Fuehrher's Face, which were well received. Propaganda became the business of Disney for many years, and by 1942, 90% of the studio were working on war-based films. However, lessened audiences, and the government trying to keep payment to Disney down, meant that the studio was making no more money than before the war!

Chanelling Looney Tunes: the zanier, less refined, animation of Saludos Amigos (1942).

In those and subsequent years, Disney's output was far from its previous golden standard. Far removed from an honourary Academy Award and seven Dwarf-sized ones, Disney's post-Golden Age era was the, much less impressively named, package film era. A collection of short films, with more quirky and less refined animation, making up a feature - providing audiences with fun, but little remembered, films like Saludos Amigos and Make Mine Music. If the box-office returns and the critical responses to these films were nowhere near Snow White's levels, then the critical responses from the head Disney honchos, namely Walt, were equally unenthusiastic. He only saw the imperfections, and the compromises he'd been forced to make to keep the company afloat - compromises which were only just working.

So, in the 1940s, Disney was in a downward spiral, well on its way to being done (or at least out of the feature animation game), and it very well might've been if it wasn't for one film. Cinderella was the figurative Prince Charming to Walt Disney's Cinderella, rescuing the company from its toil and turmoil, and riding off into the sunset - the figurative sunset here being that it set the stage for The Walt Disney Company becoming the largest media conglomerate in the world!

Cinderella was the studio's first full feature in 8 years, and, if things didn't go well, it would have likely been their last. Things were different, the animation here wasn't as refined as that of Snow White, nor as realistic as that of Bambi, and a high proportion of the film's animation was done with reference to live-action models. Walt was never as pleased with it as audiences were, still seeing only the shortcuts and compromises money problems had forced him to make.

Nonetheless, while Walt may have not been ecstatic with the film, he surely was with its reception. Critically praised, but, perhaps more importantly at the time, a commercial hit too! High (certainly higher than the preceding films) profits from the film's box-office run, as well as from the rights and sales of Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo and other popular songs from the film, gave Disney a recently only dreamt-of cash influx; a cash influx that proved paramount.

The profits from Cinderella gave the studio the money (and confidence) to pursue future features, launching Disney's Silver Age - including films like One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Alice in Wonderland -  as well as later making way for live-actions hits like Mary Poppins. Perhaps most importantly though, it gave Walt Disney the money to set up the company's own distribution company, start their work in television, and begin construction of Disneyland - Cinderella gave Walt the confidence, and the means, to take the Disney Studio from a fledgeling animation house, to a global juggernaut and media conglomerate.

A point of personal gratitude for Cinderella, also, is that, if Disney hadn't bounced back, had gone under, then they never would have been able to finance and distribute Pixar films, and it's unlikely we'd have seen Toy Story - as well as the omission of later Disney films like The Lion King and Tangled. Without Cinderella, there'd be no Pixar (as we know it) - continuing that chain of causality: Steve Jobs would never have been able to make his triumphant return to Apple after his success with Pixar, meaning the iPod may never have came to be. Without Cinderella, the landscape of Disney, and much, much more, would be far different.

A Disneyland cast member as Cinderella.

As well as being a damned important film, Cinderella is also a very good one! A charming story, solid animation and memorable songs, it's a film that, while not as much of a classic as Snow White, remedies a lot of the problems of that film - a far more fiery heroine for one. The classic love-story and its eternal optimism undoubtedly connected with post-War audiences en masse, with newer sensibilities of growing female strength factoring in.

There are no two ways about it: following the War, and indeed, ironically, following its Golden Age, Disney was on the ropes, it had enough funds and enough enthusiasm for one last shot, one last hurrah, and, thankfully, it worked. Cinderella not only saved Disney, it made it what it is today.

    1 comment:

    1. This is a great story! Good job! I like that the facts matched back to some of the story at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Many things written seem to have more fantasy than what really happened.