This month, we present Fairy Tale February for the animator breakdowns! The first entry this week is Disney’s first serious fairy tale adaptation in one of his early color Silly Symphonies.
As a young animator and producer in Kansas City, Disney used fairy tales as a template for his cartoons at the Laugh-O-Gram Studio. The films that transpired from the studio, such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Puss in Boots, were modernized for the boundless social and cultural boom of the early 1920s. Disney continued to satirize fairy tales when he moved to Hollywood with his early Alice Comedies—Alice and the Three Bears and Alice the Piper, both released in 1924.
After sound emerged in the Disney films, fairy tales materialized as a source with the early black-and-white Silly Symphonies, on occasion. Examples, such as The Ugly Duckling (1931), bore scant resemblance to the story beyond its title alone. Disney’s contract with United Artists affected his cartoons in 1932, with the new usage of three-strip Technicolor and an increase in budget, so it seemed fitting to adapt a fairy tale story at its core. Babes in the Woods, the studio’s third film in color, is based on the 1595 ballad “The Children in the Wood”, with vital additions from the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel”, first published in 1812.
In the ballad, two children, bereaved of their parents, are alone in the woods after their uncle planned to have them killed by two murderers to gain their inheritance. After one is slain by the other assassin promises the children refreshments before he leaves, but is never seen again, leaving them unaccompanied, and they perish in the end. The Grimm version occurs during a great famine, and the two children are left astray in the woods by their caregivers to starve, until they discover a house made from confectionary sweets owned by a witch, who plans to fatten and devour them.
Besides the omission of callous parental figures, the Disney studio altered the sources from their grotesque elements. The European origins of the source material lend an overall dread and horror, which resonates within the film. As the frightened children wander adrift in the dark forest, they are easily frightened by the formidable sights on the trees, which are revealed to be small birds and butterflies. The witch who lures the two children away from the colony of dwarves who welcome them in their village, tempts them with the treats outside of her cottage, but inside is a prison where small boys and girls have been turned into repulsive vermin. A few moments later in the film, a screeching cat protests against the witch harming the children. Annoyed, the witch hurls a molten sludge on the cat, which turns him into stone, and cracks as it lands on the floor.
No record has been found when the story meeting for this film occurred. The earliest date known for production on this film is around August 6, 1932, when the animators received their assignments for scenes. The steady artists of the studio—Norm Ferguson, Jack King, Les Clark, Dick Lundy, “Frenchy” de Tremaudan and Hardie Gramatky—handle much of the first half of Babes in the Woods. Tom Palmer’s animation is seen in the second half of the film, when the witch hurls the molten concoction at the noisy cat. The draft indicates Gramatky worked on some of his scenes with King, likewise for Palmer and Eddie Donnelly with Ferguson.
Newer animators, under Ben Sharpsteen’s supervision, primarily animate on the second half of the film, but are given no credit in the original production draft. Exposure sheets reveal the animators as Fred Moore, Ham Luske, Bill Roberts, Fred Spencer, Ed Love, Louie Schmitt, Joe D’Igalo and Bill Mason. One of Art Babbitt’s earliest scenes for Disney, after arriving from Paul Terry’s studio in New York, occurs when the witch chases after a taunting dwarf. In the scene, Babbitt’s analysis of movement is evident, as the enraged witch swats and misses the dwarf with her broom, along with the flow of her black cloak throughout. The animation for Babes in the Woods finished three months later, on October 20th.
Eddie Donnelly, who animates the witch offering the children to ride on her broomstick, previously animated for Van Beuren in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. Donnelly didn’t remain long at Disney. Based on speculation from a letter by Ferdinand Horvath, Donnelly might have been laid off, along with other new staffers, on March 1933, after Disney offered a 10% salary reduction—instead of a proposed 25%—that would take effect if Donnelly and others were terminated, so the other employees could benefit from the cutback. He went back to Van Beuren shortly after, as an animator/director.
Babes in the Woods was released on November 19th, 1932. This film, along with a few subsequent adaptations of children’s stories in the Silly Symphonies, served as a guideline for Disney’s early feature-length films, particularly Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940), with similar ominous tones, more rich and foreboding as their films advanced. This film was also one of the last Disney cartoons recorded with the Powers Cinephone process. The studio would record their films in the RCA Photophone sound system, which provided more expansive sound fidelity.
I know some of you readers have been anxious for these animator breakdown posts, so I hope you all enjoy!
(Thanks to Mark Kausler, J.B. Kaufman and Didier Ghez for their help.)