Suspended Animation #341
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 The Little Prince novella has been translated from the original French into more than 250 languages and continues to sell almost two million copies every year. It has inspired films, sequels, a Japanese museum, an opera, a ballet and more. The deceptively simple story is about a pilot who meets a child from another planet.Filmmaker Orson Welles was twenty-seven years old and had just finished making Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
After problems with making the Latin American documentary It’s All True, Welles decided that his third film would be The Little Prince where he would portray the aviator and do the narration. He had already started auditioning child actors to play the title role.
Supposedly, when he got a copy of the manuscript, he stayed up half the night reading the story and bought the film rights the next day. Over the decades, he wrote five different screenplays, each averaging about fifty pages, and they all still exist in the Lilly Library.
He wanted to make a hybrid film of live action and animation with him and a young boy in live action but the backgrounds and other effects done in animation.
In 1943, that concept meant going to the premiere animation studio that had great success with animated feature films, the Walt Disney Studio.
According to Welles, he needed animation “to show the tricks of getting from planet to planet” and “The people that (the title character) saw weren’t going to be drawn. They were going to be real comedians. Joe E. Brown was going to be the drunk and so on. There weren’t going to be cute cartoon people on those scenes. But the special effects, which are now in a regular way used as scenery by science-fiction people, were going to be drawn.”
Jackson Leighter was a new business partner of Welles. Having been with the Office of Inter-American Affairs, he knew Walt Disney who had also been recruited by Nelson Rockefeller, the co-ordinator, to make a good will tour of South America that resulted in the film Saludos Amigos (1942).
Of course, Welles was not interested in working with Walt Disney himself. He has been quoted as saying that “(Walt Disney) had such horrible taste and was so ineradicably German that I just couldn’t bear it. He was very right wing. For Rockefeller who was worried that he was being thought of as too much of an Eastern liberal, Disney was a welcome sunbelt neo-Fascist. Rockefeller was planning on running for president so that made him look good.”
At one point, he discussed with RKO and wrote to Rockefeller about releasing a double bill of his still unfinished It’s All True with Saludos Amigos since they covered similar territory including the Carnival in Rio and the samba. He was greatly disappointed when Saludo Amigos was released seperately and became a huge hit.
But Welles was very interested in working with the Disney animators. He admired their work and considered them true artists.
A lunch meeting was arranged at the Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Welles sat at one end of a long table and Walt sat at the other end. Between the two men were Leighter and the Disney animators.
Once Welles began to speak, he was completely captivating. All heads turned to him as he explained the film with his seductive storytelling. As Welles was creating these word pictures, a member of the Disney staff tapped Walt on the shoulder to inform him he needed to take an important call in an adjoining room.
After Walt left, the same person tapped Leighter on the shoulder that he was also needed on another important call. When Leighter left the room, he found neither he nor Walt were wanted on the phone. Walt had given a discreet signal to the staff member to pretend Walt was needed on a phone call so he could leave the room.
Walt was fuming and Leighter described it as “shaking with rage”. Walt did not hesitate. He was angry that Welles had usurped the attention of his animators who always focused their attention on Walt and his reactions. Walt exploded at Leighter, “Jack, there is not room on this lot for two geniuses!”That ended any possible participation by the Disney Studio in the project. Welles temporarily abandoned it because without Disney’s help, the technical aspect of mixing animation and live action in a feature film would be next to impossible.
However, in 1941 Hugh Harman who had previously worked on Disney short cartoons had started his own studio with Mel Shaw in Beverly Hills at the old Ub Iwerks studio and was interested in doing a feature film especially one about the legend of King Arthur. Harman did eventually work on a film that included King Arthur that was part of an educational short made in the early 1960s for Coronet.
In 1943, Welles made an arrangement with Harman and they were to be co-producers. Welles showed up daily for several months at Harman’s studio where artist Mel Shaw designed a complete color storyboard for the film.
Harman believed he had the financing and distribution set up because of the involvement of Welles but Welles got ill in 1943 and almost died.
Welles flew to New York for work on his radio show and live “Wonder Show” performances but his back problem and jaundice resulted in his being sent to Florida to recuperate. During this time, many of Welles’ proposed projects simply died including The Little Prince.
In July 1947, Harman told the trade papers: “I also have releasing deal with UA, and currently are busy on The Little Prince.”
In 1973, animation author and historian Michael Barrier along with Mark Kausler and Bob Clampett interviewed Harman.Harman: “I’ve often wished that we had gotten Orson Welles into this business. What a find he would have been! What the business has needed is minds. With all respect for Walt and his vast achievements—he was the world’s greatest promoter—to me he never had ideas for stories as, say, Chaplin did. I can imagine what Orson would have done.
“I had occasion to work with him for quite a few months at our studio. He and I went into partnership on a deal to make The Little Prince in 1943, ’44. I developed the greatest respect and regard for that guy; he wasn’t, as the film business had him, a temperamental type; he wasn’t that way at all.
‘He was going to play the lead in it, the aviator, and we were going to get a boy for The Little Prince. Our sets would have been a combination of drawn and live. There would have been animated characters within the scope of the picture playing with these live people.
“We studied and studied and studied that book. We didn’t take it in its transparency; we took it for its deeper meanings. We read Wind, Sand and Stars, another one of the author’s creations (it’s a thing of such magnificent beauty) and after reading that I thought I knew what The Little Prince was about. It is juvenile fiction, and yet there is a depth to it that is amazing.
“We had it all set and were ready to go when Orson became tremendously ill. We couldn’t say a word about it, but he nearly died. He had a bad liver at the time; he went to Florida to recover and was gone for months. We didn’t revive it after that and we lost the whole deal.”