Marc Davis was called by Walt his “Renaissance Man” because of his contributions in so many areas from animation to Imagineering. He joined the Disney Studios in 1935 as an assistant to Grim Natwick on Snow White.
The last time I saw him was in September 1998 when he and his wife Alice came out to Walt Disney World for an official Disneyana convention.
They also dropped by the Disney Institute where I was working as an animation instructor. In one of the small classrooms, Marc squeezed behind one of the animation desks and turned to page twelve in the Chanticleer book I had given him to autograph. (Chanticleer and the Fox: A Chaucerian Tale published by Disney Press in 1991 and featuring concept art by Marc Davis for the unproduced animated feature.)
“You know what’s wrong with this picture?” he asked, and I froze because I was looking at the page that featured his character concept sketch of Reynard the fox and could only see the brilliant work.
Marc took a pen and sketched in a cigarette and a cigarette holder in the outstretched hand of the fox.
“They left that out. Politically incorrect, I guess,” he said and then autographed the book to me.
Surrounded by a half dozen other animation instructors from the Disney Institute, I began to informally ask Marc some questions.
Jim Korkis: Let’s start by talking about the Chanticleer project.
Marc Davis: It had been around the studio for a long time and Ken Anderson and I thought we could develop it as the next animated feature after 101 Dalmatians. At the time, Walt was thinking about not doing any more animated features and we felt if we had this thing done up, it might get him excited and change his mind. I think the concept art is some of the best work I did at the studio.
A vain rooster who believes that crowing makes the sun rise. It takes place in France. He ruled the roost, was a favorite with all these hens. He becomes mayor and abuses his authority. Of course, it is eventually discovered that the sun comes up even if he doesn’t crow and that takes some of the wind out of his sails.
There was a con man fox named Reynard who preyed on the hens so he has to get Chanticleer out of the way. He’s going to run for mayor and take over the place. He has his night people who are like carnival performers, jugglers, strolling bands but unsavory types and they seduce the townspeople into voting for him. I did many different versions of the fox.
We had all the artwork up on the walls and we went through this presentation and they were all quiet and some bookkeeper says, “You can’t make a good character out of a chicken.” And that’s all it took to kill us and it is nonsense. But because this idiot said that, other people started saying it as well.
You can make a good character out of a push pin if you want but it was too late. We thought this had tremendous possibilities. We could have brought this off with interesting characters.
JK: But even though this story never got made, the Disney Studio still continued making animated features.
MD: Why we continued with animation was Walt finally decided, “Hell, I’ve got all these people and they know how to make films and they don’t need me there all the time.”
This went on for a long time and many films were made like Robin Hood and I can’t name them all. These things are terribly difficult to do, to approach a feature cartoon under such a strict budget and deadline. Woolie (Reitherman) didn’t have the strength of Walt to say “yes” or “no”. That was the power of Walt and the respect that you had for him that when he said “yes” or “no” that was it. Sometimes we thought he was very wrong.
JK: Did you want to be involved in those films?
MD: From early 1960s, I guess, until I decided to retire in 1978, I was at WED and I really enjoyed doing that work. 101 Dalmatians was the last piece of animation for me. I felt lucky to do Cruella and that’s the last animation I did.
JK: When it came to Disney feature animation, many people give you the title of the Man Who Did the Disney Girls like Tinker Bell, Aurora, Maleficent and many others.
MD: When they say, ‘this was the man who did the Disney girls’, it really was this was the man who was GIVEN the Disney girls to do. Let’s put it that way. It wasn’t necessarily my choice or my favorite. It was a lot more difficult to do a human. A human in any cartoon if it is not fairly believable, then the whole picture goes to pot. That’s the end of it.
The human has to be believable one hundred percent because we look so closely at one another. We look for things like a funny tick or a jittery move. We protect ourselves by observing people closely and we look at these characters for the same clues as to who they really are and how they are behaving.
JK: Did you feel stuck that they always seemed to assign you to the females?
MD: In one way, you could say you got stuck doing a certain thing. Milt Kahl felt exactly that way about having to do the prince in so many of our films. He made it come off and I think I made the girls come off.
It was fun to be given something like Cruella DeVille because she was so thoroughly different. She was villainous for one thing but she was a very quixotic individual and she was crazy.
Maleficent was very difficult to do became she’d sit around and made speeches. It is difficult to do somebody who just makes pronouncements like I have been doing here. That’s why I gave her that raven to talk to. When you take two characters and put them together characters can come to life.
I would have liked to do the funny characters every now and then like I did on the Song of the South. I worked on the scene with the Tar Baby and had so much fun. (Storyman) Bill Peet is the one who deserves the credit for doing a tremendous job in developing highly animate-able cartoon situations and vivid personalities.
JK: Thank you, Marc. It’s always an education to listen to you talk.
Editor’s Note: We strongly recommend the recently released hardcover tribute book Marc Davis: Walt Disney’s Renaissance Man now available on Amazon.com