July 19, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

Disney Studios 1938

Suspended Animation Extra

Back in the late 1930s, many magazines sent writers to Disney Studios to see what Walt Disney was up to after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

I love to collect these often obscure articles because you’ll often come across a quote or a story that hasn’t already been repeated in those dozens of Disney biographies that have been published over the decades and/or are about to be published. Sometimes it is a new perspective.

Take — for example — Ruth Waterbury’s story, “What Snow White’s Father is Doing Now.” This particular piece ran in the November 26, 1938 issue of Liberty Magazine. Here is an excerpt:

Pinocchio, another Disney novelty, is getting along nicely. But it is Bambi that is dearest to Walt’s heart.

With Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the hit that it is, he could clean up if he could put out some fast, cheap product, or what the movie trade calls “cheaters.” He could, that is, if he knew how to make “cheaters.”

But his good luck is that he doesn’t know how and can’t learn. Walt can only make things in his own way, which is to make them as nearly perfect as humanly possible. That method always slows production.

Roy is the older Disney and the buffer for Walt. Roy it is who says when you visit the Disney plant, “The art is on the second floor. Just walk up one flight and lose a million.” Walt’s office is on the second floor of what used to be an old apartment house, while Roy’s is on the first. “The better to keep my feet on the ground,” Roy explains.

With the arrival of all the beautiful Snow White cash, Walt saw to it that everybody at the studio relaxed more. Before Snow White, where every other studio in Hollywood was and still is on the six-day week, the Disney studio worked five and a half.

After Snow White, Walt ordered it on a five day week. He next cut back twenty per cent of the Snow White profits to his workers, and then, feeling that perhaps even that wasn’t enough, he gave a party for the whole eight hundred of them just to celebrate. He set the studio working hours as eight to five and took out insurance to cover each individual.

Walt gets slightly abashed when he tries to explain his way of being a boss: “I like our cartoons to be put together like a symphony. You know, there’s a conductor–I guess I’m it–and then there are the solo violins, and the horn players, and the strings, and a lot of other fellows, and some of them are more stars than others, but every one has to work together, forgetting himself, in order to produce one whole thing which is beautiful. You have to cast artists as you do actors.

“Some are better at drawing characters and some are best on flowers. Some artists are funny in every line they sketch, where others are solemn. You have to know all about a man to be sure that he is doing the work he loves best.”

He hasn’t a time clock in the place. He runs a school for his artists. It is close by the studio and is free to his workers, even though it costs him $100,000 a year. The men can go to it or not, as they like. He has instructors there to teach the apprentices or to help unsnarl problems that may be puzzling the professionals.

Any aspiring youngster whose amateur drawing reveals talent can get into the school, and if he develops at all, he is sure of a job at Disney’s. Besides the school, Walt has a process laboratory, that is, a lab for creating trick movie effects, where employees may, in Walt’s phrase, just fiddle around. “You have to keep experimenting,” he explains. “In order to get a character for a cartoon, you have to keep pecking away at it.”

An example of this “pecking away” was the discovery that a fawn was due to be born at the San Diego, California zoo. Walt kept close watch on that vital statistic and on the day of the main event three animators from Disney’s were sitting close by the mother doe, busily sketching away. The birth of the fawn will become, eventually, the birth of Bambi on the screen.

If you figure that if he keeps on spending this way out of a mere two million he got from Snow White, Walt may soon be broke, let it be remarked that such an improbable happening wouldn’t greatly surprise him. It wouldn’t worry him, either, because then it would become Roy’s problem.

Roy, of course, knows just how negotiable Walt’s talent is. Yet everything they possess is still being gambled with.

The most distinctive of the gambles is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Stokowski conducted the music for it exactly as he would conduct its score at a regular concert. Walt never said a word about that, and Stokowski in turn never said a word about the animation. Probably Goethe, who wrote the original story, if he could see the result, I’m sure would be enchanted.

For a more amusing figure than little Mickey when he stands on the top of the world, making the waves splash mountain-high and moving the stars in their courses could be imagined by no man save Walt Disney. And Mickey’s agony when he can’t stop the magic he has begun is a typical Disney nightmare, too.

This animating great music is one of Walt’s fondest dreams. He isn’t being highbrow about music or trying to grow away from his public. He was as much attracted to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by its story as by its sound, which is also true of “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” of Rimski-Korsakov, which he plans to make next. Stokowski will do the score on that one, too.

Then, if Walt can find three more likely subjects, he will make them and put the whole out as a special five-reel musical masterpiece-cartoon subject. He wanted to do Debussy’s “The Afternoon of a Faun” but Will Hays wouldn’t let him. Hays said that was too naughty.

Walt’s great loves, in case you want to know, are his work and a very delightful wife and two handsome children. When Walt started drawing cartoons, the only emotion he knew how to create in them was laughter. Later he learned how to make audiences shiver with fear.

When he watched the showings of Snow White, he realized with a thrill that he had discovered how to produce another emotion. He could make people cry. Only he knows what emotion he will stir with Bambi, but of this you may be reasonably sure: No matter how else he moves us, Bambi will leave the world a gayer and more tolerant place than it was before.


  • “Stokowski conducted the music for [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice] exactly as he would conduct its score at a regular concert.” Oh no, far from it! Compare the recording of it that Stokowski made with the Philadelphia Orchestra for the Victor Red Seal label in November 1937. The Red Seal recording is of the complete work, while the Fantasia version is full of little cuts (most apparent when Mickey is training the broom, and during the dream sequence). The introduction, and the passage where the splinters come to life over the contrabassoon solo, are much slower in the Fantasia version, whose total length is fully half a minute shorter than the Red Seal (which, in view of those slower tempi, gives you an idea of the extent of the cuts). The only possible explanation for these differences is that they were made at the behest of Walt Disney and his story men, and that Stokowski had the good sense to realise that the music had to serve the story. Interestingly, some of Stokowski’s eccentric changes of tempo toward the end of the work (where Mickey is engulfed in the vortex), which are not in the score and which no other conductor does, are common to both the Red Seal and Fantasia versions.

    Bambi is the most emotionally stirring of Disney’s features, and I consider it his greatest achievement. I don’t watch it all that often; I need to be in the right mood, and to set aside a time when I know I won’t be disturbed. It made a very powerful impression on me when I was a little boy. I remember crying my eyes out on the way home from the movie theatre, not because it was so sad, but because it was so beautiful. When I was older I read the Felix Salten novel, and its sequel “Bambi’s Children”, many times over. Later they would be the first full-length novels I read in German. The prose is straightforward and economical, but with a poetic sense of cadence, and Disney’s adaptation suits it perfectly.

    Many parts of the novel were not included in the film. There’s a chapter in which a feral cat gets loose in the forest and wantonly kills every small creature it can catch. The animals don’t know what it is, so in the text it comes across as a sort of demon or monster, actually quite a frightening passage. Also, in the novel Faline has a brother named Gobo, who is injured by a hunter, rescued by a gamekeeper, nursed back to health and released. The other deer are distressed to find that he has lost his fear of man, and the next time man is in the forest, Gobo approaches him openly expecting to be fed. Of course, he is killed.

    Thanks for sharing this snapshot of a moment when the Walt Disney studio was at a pinnacle of artistic achievement that it would seldom approach, and never surpass, in all the years to come.

  • “Will Hays wouldn’t let Walt do Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Hays said that was too naughty.” … So, did Walt & Co. take this as a cue to put those fauns and satyrs into Pastoral Symphony instead?

    • Prelude would appear as the opening piece in Bruno Bozzetto’s Fantasia tribute/parody Allegro Non Tropo. Being made in Italy in the seventies, it would have no qualms about going “naughty.”

    • I’m sure Walt was just making a joke. If he had ever seriously considered making a cartoon out of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun”, the project would have been abandoned long before ever coming under the scrutiny of the Hays Office — though as you suggest, some of the concept art may have found its way into the Pastoral Symphony segment of Fantasia.

      I strongly suspect that Deems Taylor, a composer himself and an advocate of modern music, brought the Debussy to Disney’s attention, just as he recommended Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The problem with “Afternoon of a Faun” in this context is not so much the “naughtiness” of the French poem that inspired it, but the fact that the music is atmospheric rather than dramatic, slow and soft and serene throughout, without a strong pulse to govern the timing of the animation.

  • This article catches Disney at a time when their future look unlimited. War would break out in Europe a year later, cutting off a key source of revenue; America’s entry into the War two years after that, coupled with the bitter animators’ strike, would cull Disney’s ambitions for most of the forties, or at least redirect them to other fields. Both Pinocchio and Bambi would be delayed due to Walt’s perfectionism. Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the proposed Flight of the Bumblebee short are the beginnings of the “Concert Feature” that would eventually be named Fantasia, but as of this article still unformed. (A modernized take on the latter piece would appear in Melody Time as “Bumble Boogie”.) No mention of Dumbo, which would be fast-tracked after it would become clear that Pinocchio and Fantasia wouldn’t turn in a profit. Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Lady and the Tramp would have been in the planning stages at this time as well.
    The line about the studio going broke being “Roy’s problem” got a chuckle from me. But the truth is, many of their riskiest endeavours – producing feature films, going into television at a time when other movie producers considered it the enemy – were actually suggested by Roy as calculated risks.

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