I love the hidden corners of Disney history, and for many years, no corner was better hidden than the story of the Disney TV commercials. The studio’s program of commercial production operated “under the radar” even during its short lifespan in the 1950s, and after it was dissolved, the commercials themselves were quietly forgotten. In recent years, with a resurgence of widespread interest in the broad canvas of Disney history, the commercials have begun to resurface—thanks in no small part to our friend Steve Stanchfield at Thunderbean Animation, who has resurrected some of the most fascinating specimens on DVD.
Today we know that the commercials were technically produced, not by the Disney studio, but by Walt’s niece Phyllis Bounds and her husband George Hurrell, whose company, Hurrell Productions, operated on the Disney lot (at first) and drew on Disney artists and Disney resources to produce its TV spots. The new Volume 4 in Didier Ghez’s remarkable series, They Drew as They Pleased, offers a useful capsule history of the Hurrells’ operation (see also Jim Korkis’s account in Walt’s People, Vol. 9).
The Hurrells had access, not only to Disney talent, but also to the well-known Disney characters—including the best known of all, Mickey Mouse, who became a spokesman for American Motors. Tom Oreb, recognized today as one of the exponents of midcentury modern style in animation, executed new designs of the Disney characters for their TV incarnations, and no one got a more thorough makeover than Mickey. In Oreb’s hands Mickey became a new creature, scarcely recognizable as the same Mouse who had appeared in more than one hundred theatrical cartoons since 1928. He was, in fact, utterly unlike the Mickey who headlined the Mickey Mouse Club, appearing on television concurrently with these commercials. (For excellent biographies of Oreb see Didier’s Vol. 4, as well as Devon Baxter’s column here on Cartoon Research.)
One of the Hurrells’ earliest commercials started development in October 1954 with a script describing a “family man, well dressed, talking to framed picture on living room wall.” “Boy, oh boy,” he enthused, “is she a dream! What style!” The figure in the picture came to life and responded: “A good looker, eh?” Their dialogue was cut short when “she” arrived, and turned out to be the new 1955 four-door Rambler. Within a month this script had been rewritten, retaining the same dialogue but replacing the “family man” with Oreb’s newly redesigned Mickey Mouse, and the framed picture with a mirror.
MICKEY MOUSE 1955 RAMBLER COMMERCIAL
Director: Nick Nichols
Layout: Tom Oreb
Animation: Jerry Hathcock (Mickey and reflection in opening scenes)
George Nicholas (Mickey, Minnie, Marty and Morty ride in Rambler)
Assistant director: Russ Haverick
Unit secretary: Mercedes Mulhern
Needless to say, the Disney studio in 1954–55 was still capable of the full, smooth animation that had become its hallmark. The year 1955, when this Rambler commercial appeared on home screens, also marked the theatrical release of Lady and the Tramp, a traditional, lavishly mounted Disney animated feature. But the studio had also begun to experiment with fashionable limited-animation techniques, in theatrical shorts like Melody and Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom as well as animated inserts for TV’s Disneyland. Tom Oreb’s version of Mickey Mouse, all straight lines and sharp angles, was very much a part of that midcentury world—and for this commercial, Oreb’s design concept was extended to include Minnie Mouse and the two nephews as well.Studio cutting records indicate that Mickey’s voice was provided by sound-effects wizard Jim Macdonald, while Ruth Clifford voiced the two nephews, making their first animated appearance in more than a decade. (As every Disney fan knows, the nephews were named Morty and Ferdie, but internal production documents for this commercial refer to them as “Marty and Morty”!)
The Hurrells’ arrangement with the Disney studio gave them access, not only to Disney characters and animation talent, but also to the studio’s physical resources. For this commercial they took full advantage of those resources. Live-action footage was filmed on one of the Disney sound stages, “posing” the car against a black background. The parallel-parking scenes were also shot on the Disney lot; and the overhead shot, demonstrating the car’s tight turning radius, was filmed from the roof of one of the sound stages.
Hurrell Productions followed this commercial with another, featuring Mickey and Pluto, for the ’55 Nash. And that was only the beginning: Donald Duck, Jiminy Cricket, Chip ’n’ Dale, the Three Little Pigs, and even Cinderella and Alice (from Alice in Wonderland) likewise appeared on behalf of major sponsors. The Disney (or quasi-Disney) TV commercial program was not destined for a long life, but while it lasted, it produced some memorable novelties. Happily, many of them have been preserved so that we can still see them today.