ANIMATION ANECDOTES
January 20, 2018 posted by Jim Korkis

In His Own Words: Floyd Norman on Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone”

At the Disneyana Fan Club Merlin’s Magical Breakfast event at the Disneyland Hotel Magic Kingdom Ballroom on September 30, 2017, I got to interview Disney Legend Floyd Norman for forty-five minutes on stage about his work on the neglected animated feature film The Sword in the Stone (1963).

Here is a short excerpt from that interview.


“As work was wrapping up on Sleeping Beauty (1959), I received my draft notice and served in the United States Army in Korea. I returned to the Disney Studio in 1960 and some people didn’t realize I had even been gone. I guess they thought I had taken a long vacation or something. Of course, animators were always coming and going and after Sleeping Beauty there had been a major downsizing of staff.

“I ended up getting to work a bit on the very end of production on 101 Dalmatians on the car chase scene. While the next feature was being developed, most of us shifted over to working on the television show and introducing the character of Ludwig Von Drake whose final design had been done by Milt Kahl.

“Milt Kahl was not simply a presence in D-wing; he was a force. He was known as the Dragon of D-wing or The Terror of D-wing. His arrival every morning was evident by the sound of the wing’s hallway door slamming open and the sound of heavy footsteps as the tall Dutchman stomped down the hall to his office. Not much was heard from Kahl until coffee break when Stan Green fetched coffee and a select few joined the boss as he held court in his spacious office.

“I was chosen to be one of Kahl’s assistants on the feature. The key assistant was Stan Green. Kahl was responsible for much of the major animation on Merlin and Mim.

“Despite my initial fears, during my nearly two years on The Sword in the Stone I didn’t have one falling out with the Disney Legend and working for Milt proved to be a delight. One of the ways I managed to stay on Kahl’s good side was by drawing wacky cartoons about his D-wing colleagues that made him laugh.

“Kahl’s assistants were no longer doing clean-up. Rather, a new animation term had been created for the film. It was called, ‘touch-up’. Instead of putting a clean sheet of paper over the animator’s rough sketches, we simply ‘touched-up’ the sketch itself. It was rather a daunting task should your animator be Milt Kahl and you ran the risk of screwing up one of his masterful drawings.

“I don’t know if this was supposed to save time and money or simply keep the drawing truer to the animator’s original. Just the thought of touching Milt Kahl’s drawings struck fear in my heart.

“Kahl was well-known for venting his displeasure on his assistants. Kahl did not mince words when he felt you had done a shoddy job. Milt never once admitted he was the best. ‘I just work harder than the rest of those lazy bastards,’ he would often reply.

“I still gleefully remember a confrontation with little Joan Drake and Milt Kahl. Kahl was intent on bawling out his young assistant, and he read her the riot act. The young woman looked at him and laughed in his face. The fearsome animator simply wilted on the spot. His face dropped and he turned and stomped back to his office clearly defeated.

“One of my most delightful assignments was cleaning up the wonderful character, Madam Mim. Actually, Mim was so much fun that I honestly wish there had been more of her in the movie. I think audiences agree with that feeling.

“We had been working on the film for a number of months before we finally got around to this remarkable character that would be a scene stealer. Mim turned out to be a very engaging character that audiences loved.

“While we had our fair share of fun sketching Merlin the Magician, Archimedes, Sir Ector and Kay, this new character was a delightful change of pace. Working from Bill Peet’s inspired story sketches, Milt Kahl embellished this zany female wizard in his own special way. The animated scenes were filled with zany fun and delightful bits of business.

“In a final bit of animated fun, the less than attractive Madame Mim transforms herself into a sexy babe. It was no accident that the ‘sexy Mim’ bore a remarkable resemblance to a tall, leggy redhead who worked upstairs in the layout department on the second floor.

“I seldom spent time with Milt going over his scenes on the Moviola, but the Mim scenes were an exception. Kahl actually seemed to get a kick out of viewing his own animation. He would run his animation of her over and over laughing his head off. Perhaps Milt was amused by his own special jokes and the personal stuff he added to his animation.

“You had to admit, it was very funny stuff. During a song sequence in Mim’s cottage, the female wizard turns herself into a tall, shapely young woman. Since I was cleaning up the scenes I couldn’t help but be aware the sexy character reminded me of a co-worker.

“Milt never said he based his drawing on the young woman on the second floor, however after drawing her remarkable attributes day after day it became pretty obvious. At least to me, anyway.

“It was obvious it was inspired by layout artist Sylvia Roemer. Sylvia had started in Ink and Paint and worked her way up into layout. Others recognized the resemblance immediately as well but Sylvia either didn’t notice or just never said anything.

“Of course, grumpy Merlin was clearly based on Walt Disney himself and he never noticed or commented on the obvious similarities.

“Sadly, The Sword in the Stone never enjoyed the box office success of other Disney films. It was one of those rare Disney films that went off without a hitch. The animated film moved smoothly through production without a hiccup and perhaps that’s the problem.

“Most successful films seem to move in and out of disaster throughout production. Perhaps our kiss of death was because we never experience any trauma during production and that’s why the finished movie appears to be so bland.

“Considering all the fuss made about the radical contemporary styling of 101 Dalmatians we seldom heard much from the Old Maestro, Walt Disney, concerning the styling of this particular animated motion picture.

“Ub Iwerks and his team had made improvements to the photocopy process by this time and we continued to use the Xerox line much the same way we had in the previous film. After all the turmoil it would appear the Old Maestro had finally accepted the Xerox process of ‘inking’ cels as a ‘necessary evil’ to save costs.

“Looking back on The Sword in the Stone, it remains a pretty darn good Disney film even if it was not one of Walt’s best, and has actually improved with age, warts and all.

“The film had a certain charm even though it never connected with audiences. I certainly have nothing but fond memories working on it and still love the characters of Merlin and Mim. Walt Disney still walked the hallways at that time and animation was the best job in the world.”

Read more of Floyd’s wonderful true-life adventures on his blog, Mr. Fun’s Journal.

And don’t miss the fantastic documentary about Floyd Norman – Floyd: An Animated Life.

7 Comments

  • The Sword in the Stone deserves more credit than it receives. It’s a very compelling story, competently told, with engaging and memorable characters. The fact that Wart’s voice keeps changing places him at the awkward age of early adolescence and is a reflection of his change in circumstance from lowly kitchen apprentice to king. Merlin’s comic buffoonery serves as a counterpoint to the awesome magical power that he actually wields. And Mad Madam Mim is truly one of Disney’s most memorable creations. She went on to have a long existence in comic books, often teamed up with the Beagle Boys or Captain Hook.

    Granted, the film’s ending line is weak and the plot is repetitious. There is even a dialogue exchange between Merlin and Archimedes that is twice repeated almost verbatim, where Merlin gives over the Wart to be the owl’s pupil. Someone wasn’t watching the dialogue continuity. Also the relationship between Kay and Wart is never really explored. And since the wolf never poses an actual threat or really plays a part in the story line, his bits seem terribly extraneous, and tedious, because we’ve seen it done better between the coyote and the road runner.

    But the scene where Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone is very well presented, as is the storybook opening that sets the stage for the tale to follow.

    One of the many merits of the film for me was that it led me to read the book on which it was based–“The Once and Future King” by T. H. White. It’s a great book for an adolescent who is transitioning out of children’s books and into adult reading, because White sort of bridges that gap–elements of the tale are like something out of a children’s fantasy while there are very adult themes woven into the narrative as Arthur grows older. White in his turn makes frequent references to Malory, which inspired me to read “Le Morte D’Arthur” and got me hooked on the King Arthur legends.

    Thus “The Sword in the Stone” is an amazing gateway to the whole world of the Arthurian Legends. It’s truly a shame that Disney never tackled a sequel such as “The Queen of Air and Darkness” or “The Ill-Made Knight”. It would have been a kick to see the grown-up Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table rendered in classic Disney animation.

    • Agreeed, I’ve seen it many times. Martha Wentworth was the witch voice, not June Foray as understandably might be implied, showing Wentworth’s infloeunce (she’d done the voice on radio and a handful of different thirties voices for WB, Disney and MGM at least..)

      Don’t forget the cranky but wise owl, Archimedes. The voice changing of Wart was due to the cracking voiced boy who played him, so Disney and the staff brought in other boys to play him.

    • Nicely said.

  • Joan Drake later became a animator and animation director at a variety of studios including Disney TV, Bakshi, Sanrio, Hanna Barbera, and Murakumi Wolf.

  • Fascinating interview! I’ve said this elsewhere but I actually prefer the Disney animated films from the 1960s over the earlier ones. “The Jungle Book” in particular is one of my all-time favorites.

  • This was the first Disney movie I ever saw in a theater (and I think it was the first time my parents took me to a movie in theater), and so I have an especial fondness for it. I do agree that it remains seriously underrated today, which I think may be because of its “anecdotal’ nature (lots of great set-pieces and sequences, but the overall story-arc is not so strong). It also occurs to me that this would actually be a good candidate for a “live-action” remake, given that modern CGI and mo-cap technology could make the magic and transformations really work.

  • That’s an interesting story behind the “sexy version” of Madame Mim. But I wonder if an artist tried to do that now without asking for the woman’s permission first it might be considered a case of harrassment.

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