An earlier column in this series was devoted to the Disney film Tuberculosis (1945), produced for nontheatrical distribution in Latin America as part of the government’s Good Neighbor program during World War II. Tuberculosis inaugurated a series of health-instruction films, and was produced, by request, in an extremely simple style—representing an absolute minimum of animation movement and detail, and eschewing any kind of entertainment or “personality” touches. In this post I thought it might be interesting to look at an earlier film that represents the other side of the coin.
In 1942-43 Walt Disney was already involved in producing theatrical films for the Good Neighbor effort (starting with the feature Saludos Amigos), and was eyeing the nontheatrical field as well. The office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs strongly encouraged him to produce a series of educational and health-related reels to be shown to rural Latin American audiences. This type of production was unfamiliar territory for Walt and his artists, but in 1942 he contracted for a provisional group of films. The first four of these titles to be completed, within a few months of each other, assumed the unofficial role of “sample” productions—films in which Walt made a special point of putting his best foot forward and demonstrating to the government what his studio could do in this unaccustomed field. This gives the films an added fascination for today’s viewer. Later efforts would be tempered by experience and by the demands of the market, but these four films can be viewed as Walt’s own original vision for the nontheatrical program.
The Coordinator’s office had suggested a range of subjects for these pictures. One of the subjects was agriculture—but, ultimately, the only agricultural film produced was one of those first four pictures.
THE GRAIN THAT BUILT A HEMISPHERE
Delivered (Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs) January 1943
Director: Bill Roberts
Music: Paul Smith, Ed Plumb
Layout: Hugh Hennesy, Leo Thiele
• Bill Tytla (all of Indian animation)
• Josh Meador (ear of corn; corn god temple; corn picker and husker)
• Ed Aardal (corn breeding process; hand affixing stamp and pouring syrup; stream of syrup; car)
• John Reed (corn “wedding” and offspring)
• George Rowley (salad, donuts, ice cream and pudding; clothes dummy; bill poster’s brush; surgeon’s shadow; streams of sugar)
• Frank Thomas (steer with cuts of meat outlined on side; boy eyes pie)
• Milt Kahl (woman feeds baby; distorted image of chemist)
• Franklin Grundeen (quail [from Bambi])
• Milt Kahl (deer [from Bambi]; sow and piglets; cow and nursing calf; frantic piglet looks for food [all from Farmyard Symphony])
• Lynn Karp (animals at trough; animals stampede for food [from Farmyard Symphony])
• Eric Larson (hens fly out of henhouse [from Farmyard Symphony])
Backgrounds: Warren Williams
Assistant director: Mike Holoboff
Secretary: Dorris Pugsley
The idea of a picture on “Corn and Corn Products” was in development by the early months of 1942. Writer Leo Thiele was assigned to develop the continuity. But Disney story work was a far different affair, with the involvement of the Coordinator’s office, than it had been during the prewar years. Now a team of government-sponsored experts were, in effect, part of the story crew. Some of these consultants actually did travel to Burbank and take active part in story conferences; others based in Washington weighed in on scripts and storyboards, checking them with a critical eye and asking for changes in details.
By May 1942 this laborious process had produced a tentative shooting script, and Roy Disney wrote to the Coordinator’s office asking for final approval so that production could begin. Roy was tasked with developing a budget that would meet with the government’s approval, but would still allow for Walt’s standards of quality. Although the “Corn” picture would ultimately be distributed in 16mm Kodachrome prints, it would be produced, following the studio’s usual procedure, in 35mm and in Technicolor. “We wish to point out,” Roy wrote, “that this picture contemplates approximately 1,800 feet at a top cost of approximately $40 per foot. This footage is nearly the equal of three of our regular short subjects, and compares with our expenditure for our regular short subjects of an average of $70 to $75 per foot.” Indeed, in this letter Roy was describing a two-reel picture, with a running time of 20 minutes. After reviewing his budget, the government loved the film’s concept but asked to have it scaled down to a single reel.
Saddled with this tension between costs and results, the Disney studio proceeded with work on “Corn and Corn Products” (the title The Grain that Built a Hemisphere was not decided until December 1942, when the film was almost finished). The result is, in effect, a new kind of educational film. Walt was well aware of the need to communicate facts and to conserve expenses. Much of this film’s footage is devoted to simple charts and sliding cels—the most basic kind of work for an animation studio, concisely conveying information while holding down the cost per foot. The still paintings and diagrams of evolutionary strains of corn, the world map showing historical distribution of the plant, the pie chart showing farmers’ uses of corn, all are relevant to the subject and all contribute to an economical production. So do such comic touches as the “wedding” of two strains of corn and their resulting offspring—a simple scene consisting of minimal animation and sliding cels.
But it’s clear that Walt was intent on balancing these plain graphics with others that were more appealing. By mingling these utilitarian images with a few strategically placed embellishments, the film gives the overall impression of a modest visual luxury—and effectively holds the viewer’s attention. Most obviously, The Grain features an extended sequence by one of the great Disney animators, Bill Tytla. All of the Indian animation in the historical section is Tytla’s work, and it’s a star performance. To be sure, the Indian scenes are simply executed and never overwhelm the picture—but Bill Tytla on a budget is still Bill Tytla. In particular, his opening cycle of a native rolling corn is simple but memorably eloquent. Director Bill Roberts must have been impressed with the quiet dignity of this image; after appearing under the main title, it recurs three more times in the course of the film.
Another reusable cycle was the closeup of two hands, again rolling corn. After their initial appearance, inked and painted in the usual way, these hands return in the form of a white outline over a montage of corn products. (Apparently some viewers in the Coordinator’s office were unhappy with the inclusion of one of those byproducts, a bottle of bourbon. A 1945 memo from the studio to the CIAA refers to the possibility of a retake, eliminating the bottle—but it remains today in all known prints of the film.)
Along with Tytla’s animation, The Grain includes isolated contributions by two other top animators, Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl. But visual enhancements are drawn from other sources as well; this is a film that makes ingenious use of the resources of the Disney studio. When Tytla’s indigenous hunter goes hunting in the early scenes, he encounters quail and a deer that had originally been animated by Franklin Grundeen and Milt Kahl, respectively, for Bambi. The industrial montage at the end includes effects animation of planes, guns, and ships recently created for the special tax short The New Spirit. The animation of the farm animals’ stampede, to enjoy a meal of corn, bypasses even the formality of re-inking and painting. Instead it’s taken directly from the negative of the 1938 short Farmyard Symphony, and transfers some of that film’s lush visual elegance to this new production.
Editing was completed in late December 1942, and The Grain that Built a Hemisphere was officially delivered to the Coordinator’s office early in 1943. Distribution in both the U.S. and the Latin American republics duly followed, and by May 1944 the CIAA could report to the studio that the film had been seen by more than a million viewers. It was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Today it exists as a fascinating document, a prototype for a series that never materialized. But it also represents Walt Disney’s vision, at a key moment in his career, for educational films that could be both economically produced and visually compelling.