In 1932, Walt Disney had moved from Columbia (where he was very dissatisfied with the way they were handling his animated short cartoons) to United Artists where he had a mighty champion in the presence of actress and co-founder Mary Pickford.
Walt had wanted to move into producing cartoons in color and now he had the opportunity since United Artists was willing to share in the cost.
However, Walt proceeded with caution and only asked to make one cartoon in Technicolor to see how it would be received by audiences. As a back-up in case anything went wrong, he agreed he would also produce a full black-and-white version as well which he did and showed United Artists executives to get final approval.
Of course, animation legend is that after completing the Silly Symphony Flowers and Trees (1932) in black-and-white, Walt scared his brother Roy O. Disney by declaring that he was going to throw the whole thing away and start over using the more expensive process of Technicolor.
As colorful as this anecdote is and is often repeated as part of official Disney history, documents show that it was part of Walt’s agreement with United Artists to produce a black-and-white version as well. It was not a visionary after-thought to re-do the entire film in color.
The conversion the film to a color version took roughly an additional three months. Actually, to help control costs, the gray and white paint was carefully wiped off the back of the existing cels (with the black line remaining) and then a range of colors were repainted on them.
Bob Thomas wrote in his terrific book Walt Disney: An American Original: “After the first few scenes had been completed (in color on Flowers and Trees), Walt showed them to a friend, Rob Wagner, publisher of a literary magazine in Beverly Hills (Script magazine). Wagner was so impressed that he invited Sid Grauman, impresario of Grauman’s Chinese Theater to see the film.
“The film lasted only a minute, but Grauman said he wanted Flowers and Trees to open with his next attraction, (MGM’s) ‘Strange Interlude’, starring Norma Shearer and Clark Gable. Walt worked his animators overtime to finish ahead of schedule, and Technicolor sped the processing.“When Flowers and Trees appeared at the Chinese, in July 1932, it created the sensation that Walt had hoped for. No longer was the Silly Symphony the neglected half of the Disney product. Flowers and Trees got as many bookings as the hottest Mickey Mouse cartoon. Walt decreed that all future symphonies would be in color.”
Actually, it was more complicated than that. United Artists, despite the success of the film critically and financially, balked at the additional cost but begrudgingly approved three more color Silly Symphonies. Eventually, that commitment became six and then the entire series because of the overwhelming success of them.
According to the October 1934 issue of “Fortune” magazine, Merian C. Cooper, producer for RKO Radio Pictures and director of King Kong (1933), “saw one of the Silly Symphonies and said he never wanted to make a black-and-white picture again.”
However, the true gem to demonstrate the power of Technicolor was another Silly Symphony short, Funny Little Bunnies released March 24, 1934. It was the only Disney animated short cartoon about Easter made during Walt’s lifetime and some feel it should be more accurately titled “Cute Little Bunnies” since the rabbits at best induce just a smile or mild chuckle.
Directed by Wilfred Jackson, it is a simple glimpse into the magical land of Easter Bunnies and how they prepare their colorful eggs for delivery. There were no villains trying to steal the eggs or natural disasters threatening the production or any other intense issue. It was just basically bunnies coloring eggs.
The eggs were indeed colorful, especially considering that for Flowers and Trees United Artists insisted, in order to save costs, that no more than a maximum of twenty colors could be used. For this cartoon the entire palette was applied.
In fact, Technicolor used Funny Little Bunnies for several years as its example of what could be accomplished with its process in capturing the widest possible visual spectrum.
Below is the text from an address entitled “Technicolor Adventures In Cinemaland” made by Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus at the Fall meeting of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (Now SMPTE) in Detroit, Michigan on October 28, 1938.
“What Technicolor needed was someone to prove for regular productions, whether short subjects or features, what Disney had proved for cartoons. But the producers asked, ‘How much more will it cost to produce a feature in three-component Technicolor than in black and white?’
“This question is always with us and it seems to me the answer must be divided into two parts; the added cost of prints, negative raw stock, rushes, and lighting can be numerically calculated and requires little discussion. But then there are the less tangible elements about which there is much discussion.
“I have said to producers and directors on many occasions: ‘You have all seen Disney’s Funny Bunnies (sic); you remember the huge rainbow circling across the screen to the ground and you remember the Funny Bunnies drawing the color of the rainbow into their paint pails and splashing the Easter eggs. You all admit that it was marvelous entertainment. Now I will ask you how much more did it cost Mr. Disney to produce that entertainment in color than it would have in black and white?’
“The answer is, of course, that it could not be done at any cost in black and white, and I think that points to the general answer.
“A similar analogy can be drawn with respect to some part of almost any recent Technicolor feature.
“If a script has been conceived, planned, and written for black and white, it should not be done at all in color. The story should be chosen and the scenario written with color in mind from the start, so that by its use effects are obtained, moods created, beauty and personalities emphasized, and the drama enhanced.
“Color should follow from sequence to sequence, supporting and giving impulse to the drama, becoming an integral part of it, and not something super-added.
“The production cost question should be, what is the additional cost for color per unit of entertainment and not per foot of negative. The answer is that it needn’t necessarily cost any more.”