Suspended Animation #267
Today, the exaggerated stereotypes of Native Americans in Disney’s animated feature film Peter Pan (1953) sparks outrage.
John Darling discovers a single barefoot print and exclaims, “Indians! Ah! Blackfoot tribe.” Even as a kid, I knew it was just an obvious gag. However, “Blackfoot” is the English translation of the word siksika, which literally means “black foot.” It refers to the dark colored moccasins the tribe wore.
The Blackfoot lived in buffalo-hide houses called teepees (just like the Neverland tribe). Men wore buckskin tunics and breechcloths with leggings (just like the Neverland tribe). Blackfeet chiefs wore tall feather headdresses and wore paint on their faces (just like the chief of the Neverland tribe).
The Blackfoot didn’t fight over territory but rather to prove their courage, and so they rarely fought to the death. Instead, they preferred to “count coup” (touch an opponent in battle without harming him), steal an enemy’s weapon or horse, or force the other tribe’s warriors to retreat. It was more like a game.
All of that reminded me of Foxy, the Lost Boy, who tried to reassure John by saying: “Sure. When we win, we turn them loose. When they win, they turn us loose.”
Animator Marc Davis recalled, “The Indians were Ward Kimball’s stuff. Beautifully done. The Indians could not have been done that way nowadays. I like them. Very funny. Very entertaining, especially the big chief.”
The Indian Chief for Peter Pan was designed and animated by Kimball. Originally concept art depicted the solemn Indian chief as bare-chested with a more sinister realistic face and crooked nose. The unidentified tall actor hired for the live-action reference was photographed standing on a box to seem larger in proportion to the other characters. Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to locate the name of the actor.
“There was the Indian chief in the film,” animator Kimball remembered. “They had a sort of a chief on the storyboards. I made him a little heavier and changed the angle so you looked up to him like he was huge. It turned out pretty good and certainly he was funnier than the Lost Boys.”
That final design was influenced by the original voice of the character done by talented performer, Jonathan “Candy” Candido who had a trick voice that he was able to change from soprano to alto to tenor to even a bass that was a few keys lower than the lowest keys on the piano. Candido worked as a voice actor on several Disney projects.
“When I recorded [the song What Makes The Red Man Red?], I sang it with ten bass singers from around Los Angeles. And if you hear the song, you’ll notice my bass voice is almost twice as low as theirs” laughed Candido who later supplied the voice for the character of the stately Indian chief in the Peter Pan’s Flight attraction at Disneyland.“You know, when you see the Indian chief, he’s fat. I’m not fat. And he’s real tall, and I’m kind of short. But you notice he looks like me. Also, he has the same dark eyebrows, and he plays with his hands like I do when I perform,” noted Candido who was known for constantly twiddling his thumbs even when he was out eating with friends.
One of the things that amused Candido was that he kept receiving regular royalty checks for his work on the film, but in later years they would be for the amount of 52 cents. He joked that it cost more to prepare the check and mail it than what the check was worth. He never cashed these small checks but kept them in a homemade scrapbook.
“Ward Kimball’s animation of the chief is full of the little visual gags that he always threw into his work, oftentimes just to keep himself amused,” noted animation historian John Canemaker when I asked him about the film. “I especially love seeing how wildly exaggerated the chief’s mouth shapes become, yet always manage to work well within the frame of his face.”
The chief’s adorable daughter, Tiger Lily, is indeed a true Indian princess (unlike Pocahontas), although the Walt Disney Company hasn’t utilized her in their popular princess franchise.
The defiant Princess Tiger Lily fearlessly endures being lashed tightly to a heavy anchor that will guarantee she will drown in the dark recesses of Skull Rock as the tidewater slowly rises to a threatening level.
An earlier storyboard, done in the 1940s, shows the little princess put in an even more dangerous peril in Skull Rock where she is shackled up against a wall in the cave, surrounded by the rotting skeletons of past victims in chains as the waters begin to engulf her.
As a princess, the royal Tiger Lily has special privileges, including being the only female allowed to participate in the dance celebration of Peter Pan being made an honorary member of the tribe.
A young unidentified actress was used for live-action reference for the character by the animators, especially for her energetic dancing on the large drum. That dance was based on an authentic Indian mating dance called the “Moon Dance” that is “characterized by circling, facing one another, forming crescents by bending, rising suddenly with a shout and sinking down” according to a book on Native American customs.
“Tiger Lily’s dance for Peter has always had, for me, an amazing fluidity and grace,” Canemaker said. “The animation of that section is just beautiful in the way her form moves and is accented by a flowing flow-through of her garments and hair.”
The principal credit for Tiger Lily’s animation goes to a skilled but relatively unpublicized Disney character animator, Ken O’Brien. He was a close friend and one-time assistant of the legendary Fred Moore, renowned for his skill at drawing attractive animated female characters. Animator Hal Ambro also did some animation on Tiger Lily.
“Hal Ambro specialized in animating the female figure. He brought a delicate charm to the character and his draftsmanship of the character was superb,” Canemaker said.
“Hal Ambro’s scenes with her were good. He animated the early scenes with Tiger Lily in the Indian Camp with her father. But Ken O’Brien was the animator who got the most scenes of Tiger Lily and the principal credit for the character should go to him,” noted animator and long time friend Mark Kausler when I talked with him.
O’Brien animated Tiger Lily helplessly trapped in Skull Rock, including animating the only word that she says in the entire film, a gurgling cry for help as the rising water almost drowns her. However, she proves very adept at using body language to communicate her emotions without speaking.
It is important to remember that Peter Pan was supposed to represent a young boy’s impression of pirates, mermaids and Indians and, as a result, these fanciful creations bore more of a relation to popular culture storybooks than reality.