One of my favorite experiences in writing a book on the Disney Good Neighbor films of the 1940s (published in 2009 as South of the Border with Disney) was compiling chapter 4, the chapter on nontheatrical health and educational films. Prior to starting my research, I had been focused mainly on Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros and had been only dimly aware that these nontheatrical 16mm pictures even existed. As I learned more about them, they turned out to be a fascinating part of the Good Neighbor story, a part made even more fascinating by their utter obscurity today.
In fact, the Latin American nontheatrical films of the 1940s represented an important turning point for the Disney studio. Walt had produced a few educational films in earlier years, but only in isolated instances. Now in 1943, with the encouragement of the U.S. government, he embraced a concerted educational program—producing 16mm films that were primarily aimed at rural Latin American audiences, but also designed so that they could be shown in the U.S. and elsewhere. His first move was to appoint Bill Cottrell and Jack Cutting, two of his most trusted and valuable staff members, as a two-man “educational department.” And a key film in launching their program was Tuberculosis, an unassuming little animated film that is practically forgotten today.
TUBERCULOSIS (original version)
Delivered (Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs) 5 August 1944
Director: Jim Algar
Music: Paul Smith
Story: Jim Algar, Glen Scott
Additional story: Retta Scott, Don Griffith
Voices: Art Baker (narration), Jim Macdonald, Violet Bayerl (coughs)
Layout: Don Griffith, John Niendorff
• Josh Meador (diagram man; leaves; cloud casts shadows; Mr. and Mrs. Brown at home, doctor examines Mrs. Brown; two men on chart; TB germs blowing in wind)
• Jack Boyd (pages turning in book; sick man spits)
• Ed Aardal (TB eats away lungs; germs passed from man’s lungs to woman’s lungs; X-ray scenes; germs enter the friend’s lungs; boiling water; washing hands; special drinking cup)
• John Reed (candle; Mrs. Brown coughs, walks out of scene and goes home; Mr. and Mrs. Brown go to doctor; Mr. Brown in garden)
•Sandy Strother (Mr. and Mrs. Brown watch doctor at blackboard; family in beds with woman coughing; washing dishes; dishes set apart; milk in kettle for boiling; cross-section of boiling pot)
Backgrounds: Retta Scott
Titles: Warren Williams
Assistant director: Toby Tobelmann
Working titles: Sunshine—the Plague Killer; The Disease that Lives in Darkness; The White Plague
Here is an excerpt (courtesy of Mark Kausler) from the rare English language version of this film. The complete film (in Spanish) in embed at the end of the post.
One departure in this film will be immediately evident: a severely plain style of animation and visuals. To the viewer familiar with Disney films of the late 1930s and early ’40s, knowing the lush visual extravagance of Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi, the stark simplicity of the health films (beginning with Tuberculosis) and military training films can be a bit jarring. But the Disney studio was diversifying during the war years, positioning itself as an animation studio versatile enough to produce utilitarian instructional films as well as its lavish theatrical pictures. The austere style of the health films had the obvious advantage of economy—an important consideration, given the meager budgets allotted to them—but there was another reason for it: Walt had been cautioned to make them as plain and direct as possible. He had in fact been picturing something a little more elaborate, an approach that would leaven the educational content with a touch of entertainment. The government agencies commissioning the films warned him away from this approach, insisting that a simple, no-frills style would be the most effective means of instruction. Tuberculosis carries out this idea, and is, in fact, even more plain than subsequent films in the series.
This minimalism notwithstanding, Tuberculosis was produced with the same care and attention to detail that distinguished other Disney films. In June 1943 the studio received government authorization to produce a film on tuberculosis, and story development continued, off and on, for the next seven months. The Disney story department was slow to adjust to the new no-frills idea. Their several approaches to the story included one in which Donald Duck introduced a framing story of a family stricken by TB; this story in turn led to an explanation of the disease and its causes, and a discussion of preventive and curative measures. At a meeting in January 1944, Walt eliminated all the introductory scenes, preferring to start immediately with the instructional material. Two weeks later the story team presented a treatment with this more straightforward approach, and Walt approved it. By early February 1944, production was underway.
A glance at the credits above will reveal that the film was cast entirely with effects animators, not character animators. This is telling. The effects animators were highly skilled artists, but their training was specialized. The fine points of conveying personality on the screen—the details of technique that were second nature to a character animator—were precisely what was not wanted in the educational films. By entrusting animation of the human characters to effects animators, the studio could be more assured of plain, unadorned movement, movement that would convey the necessary point without distractions. And for scenes that did qualify as effects animation—boiling water, a flickering candle—the same artists were in their own element. Animation proceeded under Jim Algar’s direction through February and March 1944, and by the end of March was substantially complete.
Like later films in the health series, Tuberculosis was produced to an English script, but designed for interchangeable alternate soundtracks in Spanish and Portuguese for separate editions of the film. Actor Art Baker recorded the English narration in February 1944. It’s worth noting that production of this film reflected one of the wartime working conditions at the studio: women performing some of the functions that had formerly been assigned to men. Eloise “Toby” Tobelmann, previously a unit secretary, now became the assistant director of Tuberculosis.
Much has been made in recent years of Retta Scott’s distinction as a woman who worked as an animator at the Disney studio, animating the hunting dogs in Bambi. It’s less often recognized that Scott was a versatile talent who made other contributions to Disney films during this period. For Tuberculosis she painted both the backgrounds and the still images of vegetables and other healthy foods that were recommended to combat the disease. In addition, it’s clear that she played a role in character design. Jim Algar’s sweatbox notes show that he rejected several finished scenes of the human characters, asking to have them animated again after Scott redesigned the characters. Returning one scene to its animator, he wrote: “Add this scene to Retta’s list for model exploration for the husband, wife, and doctor.”
Algar’s review of scenes continued into mid-April 1944, and here again, his sweatbox notes reveal that Tuberculosis was animated with as much attention to detail as other Disney films. Watching Ed Aardal’s scene of the coughing shopkeeper, Algar asked him to reanimate the scene and “try to get anticipation into the cough.” As the shopkeeper’s infected customer approached her house, Algar asked John Reed to “ease in a few inbetweens on the ‘plant’ of the girl’s step.” Some of the changes were based on simple practicality, ensuring that the film would make its points clearly when projected in the field under less-than-ideal conditions. For one of Sandy Strother’s coughing scenes, Algar warned him: “Strengthen some of the little specks when the woman coughs, so they won’t be lost in 16mm.”
The changes completed, Tuberculosis moved on through production. By late May it had arrived in the camera department, and post-production was completed two months later. The first prints were delivered to the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) on the 5th of August, and Tuberculosis was officially complete. (As noted above, all of this account refers to the original version of the film. A second, revised version was released in 1945.)
Being, in some ways, the first of its kind, Tuberculosis served as a sort of trial run, or rough prototype, for later films in the health series. It represents a baseline in the simple, no-frills style that had been urged on Walt, establishing an absolute minimum for character movement and visual detail in Disney films. In fact, later health films would relax this prohibition ever so slightly, allowing some slight touches of personality and entertainment value. This was made possible partly because some scenes, animated for Tuberculosis, were designed to be reused in the later films, easing the strain on those films’ production budgets. Jack Boyd’s scene of the turning pages of a book turned out to be an extremely useful piece of animation. It recurs numerous times, not only in this film but in later entries in the series, lending a touch of movement to what is essentially a series of static drawings. Ed Aardal’s closeup of a woman washing her hands became another valuable resource. Cleanliness being an important principle in any discussion of health, Aardal’s hand-washing scene turned up again and again in later films as the series progressed. By building a stock library of these “salvage” scenes that could be recycled indefinitely, the studio facilitated production of further health-related films, continuing where Tuberculosis left off.
Below is the complete film (in Spanish)