Sunday, May 20, 2007


Here's an interesting question for Disney afficionados: when did Disney the businessman who flirted with the idea of bailing out and going into real estate, become Disney the visionary? According to Barrier's "The Animated Man" it came about as a result of a nervous breakdown sometime in 1931 at the new (well fairly new) Hyperion studio (above).

Up until 1931 Disney was a hands-on producer who did a lot of nuts and bolts jobs at the same time he was agonizing over the cost of the films. By this time he'd acquired heavy hitters like Freddie Moore, Art Babbit (actually Babbit came on in '32) (both shown below), Norm Ferguson, and the like. Thanks to guys like this and relentless pounding from Walt the whole tone of the studio had begun to change. The word got around that you had to be good to work at Disney's. This should have made made Walt deliriously happy but instead it made him miserable.

I think I can imagine how he felt. Think of the awesome pictures he must have seen on the walls, of the conversations he must have had! Everybody else seemed to have the interesting jobs. He's the guy who had to worry about quality and deadlines and the cost of paperclips. It got to the point where he'd cry on the telephone. Finally he walked out and took a trip with his wife across the continent.

Apparently the new Walt came out of what he saw and thought of on that trip. Nobody knows the details. What we do know is that he returned full of enthusiasm and energy and with a new conception of himself as a kind of coordinator and full-time visionary. He delegated everything that could be delegated and threw himself into "conducting" the artists. This meant intense sweatbox sessions which stimulated immense creativity among the artists. Rudy Zamora came up with overlapping action, Ferguson with moving holds, and Moore with big improvements on squash and stretch.

The culmination of this effort can be seen in "Three Little Pigs" (1933). To see how far Disney had come in a short time compare that film to "Steamboat Willie" which was done only four years earlier. While we're at it lets compare Steamboat Willie (1929) to Fantasia which was on the drawing boards in 1939. That's a difference of only ten years!!!!!

To be fair to Fleischer fans I have to add that Betty Boop's stunning "Snow White" was done in 1932 and was also the result of an amazing evolution of technique. Why the Fleischers caved into Disney's less funny and cartoony style is hard to understand. Was it the Hayes Office? Did the Hayes people make it difficult to use jazz soundtracks? I don't know.

Thanks to Jenny Lerew for the photo of the animators and to Fred Osmond for the caricature of Disney.


Stephen Worth said...

Hi Eddie

Could you do a post on how The Three Little Pigs is the culmination of all those advances? Because I don't see that in the film itself. It has a great theme song that is used throughout the cartoon, but the animation isn't any better than any other Disney cartoon, and it looks a lot more primitive than the Fleischer cartoons being done at the same time.

See ya

Anonymous said...

Take the song out of that cartoon and you've got a Harman-Ising picture.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Steve, Anon: The book has a lengthy discussion of this on pages 94-99.

Charlie J. said...

"Apparently the new Walt came out of what he saw and thought of on that trip. Nobody knows the details"

Maybe they finally consumated their marriage!

Gabriel said...

damn, charlie, you beat me!

Anonymous said...


Steve already knows why the 3 lil pigs usually get the cudos for breakthrough, or at least the standard hype...

It showed that character could be created from movement or action only, because all three pigs looked identical (not that no one else did this).

It was among the first to use the squash and stretch with skeleton design (that is, it was Fred Moore, rather than Ub Iwerks Rubber hose).

And as he said, it surprised everyone with the hit song, which has both cursed and supported Disney corporate thought ever since.

Fleischer would not have tried to copy the Disney style had they not thought that it had something going for it, some sort of sophistication. It was really just like everyone jumping on the CGI computer animation once Pixar showed it could be successful.

Seems like Disney actually went through several such restorative reorienting funks during his career, everytime the money pressures became too great, or everytime he thought he had little to offer creatively. Such as the beginnings of WED, whose first project was a toy train for his yard.

I'm surprised how much the Barrier book is presenting 'news' to Eddie. Has Eddie never really never read a Disney biography before? Some of this was even in Diane Disneys book, the official all ages bio (ghost)written over fifty years ago.

I'n trying to remember whose memoirs I have read that presented the side Barrier is presenting, that as told by those that worked for him. Did Art Babbit or Norm Ferguson have a memoir? I'm trying to remember a paperback in landscape format with a mostly white cover, which was among the first I read that said how much Walt smoked and cursed. The fellow had a history with Fleischer as well.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: Interesting comments! I knew some of this before but Mike's gift is that he presents the information in a way that provokes the reader to think about it.

Jenny said...

Hi Eddie!

Nice writing yourself here...and thanks for the credit!
I have the original of that picture above my desk at work--it goes to all my spaces with me(the ones I care about), since Calarts, and since Art gave it to me(1902, I think that was)...

Just back from Paris which was something else again. I'm sure you've been there--I wish you'd write about that sometime, what you thought about it.