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Wednesdays with Wade: A fond look back at Disney Studios circa 1938

Wednesdays with Wade: A fond look back at Disney Studios circa 1938

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When one looks at how slickly the Walt Disney Company now promotes its motion pictures and TV shows ... Well, it really makes me miss the 1930s. Back when Disney Studios was still such a mom-and-pop operation that there was no publicity person there to carefully sculpt Walt's words for him.

Mind you, Walt was quite the gifted self-publicist. He loved to portray himself as this Mid-Western farm boy who just loved to draw cartoons, who -- through luck and hard work -- had created this brand-new art form. And while there certainly a lot of that Mid-Western farm boy left in Mr. Disney, many folks in Hollywood suffered the consequences of seriously underestimating the Disney brothers. Mistaking Walt & Roy for simple Kansas City farmers.

Anyway ... Getting back to the good old days when Walt acted as his own publicist ... Back in the 1930s, many of the magazines from this period sent writers to Disney Studios to see what Walt was up to. And I love to collect these articles because ... Well, while reading them, you'll often come across a quote or a story that hasn't already been repeated in those dozens of Disney biographies that have been published over the years and/or are about to be published.

Take -- for example -- Ruth Waterbury's story, "What Snow White's Father is Doing Now." This particular piece ran in the November 26, 1938 issue of "Liberty Magazine." And it offers Disney historians this amazing window into what was really going at the studio at that time. (" 'Pinocchio,' another Disney novelty, is getting along nicely. But it is 'Bambi' that is dearest to Walt's heart.")

Now when Disneyana fans debate whether it's right for the Walt Disney Company to make sequels, the quote that invariably gets trotted out is Walt's old saw about how "You can't top pigs with pigs." But Waterbury's article offers some additional insights about Disney's attitute toward follow-up films:

With "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" the hit that it is, he could clean up if he could put out some fast, cheap product, or what the movie trade calls "cheaters." He could, that is, if he knew how to make "cheaters." But his good luck is that he doesn't know how and can't learn. Walt can only make things in his own way, which is to make them as nearly perfect as humanly possible. That method always slows production.

Disneyana fans have also often heard about how Roy reportedly grumbled about Walt's spending. But here -- in this "Liberty Magazine" article -- is a direct quote from Roy himself about the matter:

Roy is the older Disney and the buffer for Walt. Roy it is who says when you visit the Disney plant, "The art is on the second floor. Just walk up one flight and lose a million." Walt's office is on the second floor of what used to be an old apartment house, while Roy's is on the first. "The better to keep my feet on the ground," Roy explains.

Waterbury's article also offers great insight into how Walt actually ran Disney Studios during its first Golden Age. And in this "Liberty Magazine" piece, we find the origins of that oft-quoted notion that Walt was the conductor of an orchestra of artists:

With the arrival of all the beautiful "Snow White" cash, Walt saw to it that everybody at the studio relaxed more. Before "Snow White," where every other studio in Hollywood was and still is on the six-day week, the Disney studio worked five and a half. After "Snow White," Walt ordered it on a five day week. He next cut back twenty per cent of the "Snow White" profits to his workers, and then, feeling that perhaps even that wasn't enough, he gave a party for the whole eight hundred of them just to celebrate. He set the studio working hours as eight to five and took out insurance to cover each individual.

Walt gets slightly abashed when he tries to explain his way of being a boss: "I like our cartoons to be put together like a symphony. You know, there's a conductor--I guess I'm it--and then there are the solo violins, and the horn players, and the strings, and a lot of other fellows, and some of them are more stars than others, but every one has to work together, forgetting himself, in order to produce one whole thing which is beautiful. You have to cast artists as you do actors. Some are better at drawing characters and some are best on flowers. Some artists are funny in every line they sketch, where others are solemn. You have to know all about a man to be sure that he is doing the work he loves best."

He hasn't a time clock in the place. He runs a school for his artists. It is close by the studio and is free to his workers, even though it costs him $100,000 a year. The men can go to it or not, as they like. He has instructors there to teach the apprentices or to help unsnarl problems that may be puzzling the professionals. Any aspiring youngster whose amateur drawing reveals talent can get into the school, and if he develops at all, he is sure of a job at Disney's. Besides the school, Walt has a process laboratory, that is, a lab for creating trick movie effects, where employees may, in Walt's phrase, just fiddle around. "You have to keep experimenting," he explains. "In order to get a character for a cartoon, you have to keep pecking away at it."

An example of this "pecking away" was the discovery that a fawn was due to be born at the San Diego, California zoo. Walt kept close watch on that vital statistic and on the day of the main event three animators from Disney's were sitting close by the mother doe, busily sketching away. The birth of the fawn will become, eventually, the birth of Bambi on the screen.

The late Thirties was a very exciting time at the Disney Studios. Besides, "Pinocchio" and "Bambi," Walt was also working on another project that would soon evolve into "Fantasia":

If you figure that if he keeps on spending this way out of a mere two million he got from "Snow White," Walt may soon be broke, let it be remarked that such an improbable happening wouldn't greatly surprise him. It wouldn't worry him, either, because then it would become Roy's problem. Roy, of course, knows just how negotiable Walt's talent is. Yet everything they possess is still being gambled with.

The most distinctive of the gambles is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Stokowski conducted the music for it exactly as he would conduct its score at a regular concert. Walt never said a word about that, and Stokowski in turn never said a word about the animation. Probably Goethe, who wrote the original story, if he could see the result, I'm sure would be enchanted. For a more amusing figure than little Mickey when he stands on the top of the world, making the waves splash mountain-high and moving the stars in their courses could be imagined by no man save Walt Disney. And Mickey's agony when he can't stop the magic he has begun is a typical Disney nightmare, too.

This animating great music is one of Walt's fondest dreams. He isn't being highbrow about music or trying to grow away from his public. He was as much attracted to "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by its story as by its sound, which is also true of "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" of Rimski-Korsakov, which he plans to make next. Stokowski will do the score on that one, too. Then, if Walt can find three more likely subjects, he will make them and put the whole out as a special five-reel musical masterpiece-cartoon subject. He wanted to do Debussy's "The Afternoon of a Faun" but Will Hays wouldn't let him. Hays said that was too naughty. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" cost around $200,000 to make, for all its one-reel length and the others will probably be similarly costly. So you see the risk involved, since nothing like them has ever before been created.

And while Walt certainly cared for his family, even his wife realized that work came first in his life as indicated by the closing paragraph of the article that also predicted a bright future for "Bambi":

His great loves, in case you want to know, are his work and a very delightful wife and two handsome children. When Walt started drawing cartoons, the only emotion he knew how to create in them was laughter. Later he learned how to make audiences shiver with fear. When he watched the showings of "Snow White," he realized with a thrill that he had discovered how to produce another emotion. He could make people cry. Only he knows what emotion he will stir with "Bambi," but of this you may be reasonably sure: No matter how else he moves us, "Bambi" will leave the world a gayer and more tolerant place than it was before.

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