Suspended Animation #320
What is there left to say about Mary Blair after the outstanding and insightful books by John Canemaker? However, there are always some nooks and crannies yet to be explored.
Mary Blair had a troubled life and, in particular, had to deal with an alcoholic husband named Lee who, although a talented artist himself, seemed deeply resentful of the attention and opportunities given to his wife.
I can sense that same undercurrent of resentment in this article They Animated Fantasia by Dale Pollock, from the June 20, 1976 edition of the The Santa Cruz Sentinel.
In the full article, Lee Blair seems to dominate the conversation, focuses attention on his achievements and minimizes the work at the Disney Studio. Mary Blair comes across as very submissive and is pretty much portrayed as a housewife who has a little talent in art and helps her husband.
Once again, I am only excerpting what I feel is the most relevant information and eliminating the standard hyperbole about the magic of animation and how an impossibly large number of drawings are done for a few seconds of animation.
After meeting at art school in the depths of the Depression, the Blairs reluctantly took jobs in the earliest animation studios. “It was way beneath our standards,” confides Lee, “but we needed to eat.”
Lee and Mary worked at the MGM Studios. “Sound was in at that time,” remembers Lee, “so we had Happy Harmonies to rival Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Warner Brothers’ Merrie Melodies.”
Both Blairs continued their fine arts careers, winning prizes and competitions across the country. “It was a Jekyll-Hyde existence,” Mary recalls.
Lee picked up valuable experience that landed him a job as color director with the still-growing Disney operation. Disney had just achieved his first feature success with Snow White and Lee was rushed right into production on Pinocchio, choosing all the color layouts for the animated film.
“I remember one time we had thousands of drawings for one Pinocchio sequence that just wouldn’t work,” says Lee. ‘We tossed all of them in a big pile and since we already had the soundtrack (There Ain’t No Strings On Me), we just went through and matched up the motions to fit the music. Took us days and days.”
With over 2,000 animators working for the Disney studio (“Walt had animators to burn,” claimed Lee), Lee was transferred to Bambi. “But that was too cutesy for me, not enough fantasy. So the great Walt called me in and said I couldn’t leave, he had a new film in mind for me.”
The upshot of that conversation was Fantasia which remains the Blairs’ favorite Disney effort. Lee was assigned two crucial sequences of the film: the opening abstract drawings that accompanied the tuning of the orchestra and the classic ballet of the hippos.
Every week Disney would schedule a meeting with what came to be called ‘the wrecking crew’. “If Walt was displeased,” reminisced Mary, “he’d just raise one eyebrow and you knew it was back to the drawing board”. Mary joined her husband and went to work on additional numbers that unfortunately never made it to the screen.
The advent of World War II put a halt to animated production, although the Blairs did get in one eventful trip before Lee was drafted. The State Department sponsored a Disney junket to Latin America where Lee helped conceive one of Disney’s most popular characters, the South American parrot, Jose Carioca.
“We based him on an actual guide we had in Rio,” confessed Lee, “and he became the greatest thing down South since Mickey Mouse.”
After the war, Disney once again tried to entice the Blairs back, but Lee saw the trend going to live-action footage. Accordingly, he started his own animation company in New York, Film Graphics. With all of their past laurels to rest on, the Blairs are still in motion, much like Lee’s animated drawings.
Last year, they designed a visual presentation of Ravel’s Bewitched Child for the San Francisco Symphony, a production so successful that it toured Japan. “Animation has been good to us,” Lee says gratefully.
Joyce Carlson, who worked with Mary Blair on the It’s A Small World attraction for the 1964 New York World’s Fair and for Blair’s tile mural in the Contemporary resort hotel at Walt Disney World, told me in an interview in 1998:
I used to admire Mary from afar when I was in Ink and Paint and I would see her and Walt walking around the Studios. When I went to work at WED (Imagineering) in 1962 on the New York World’s Fair, I was assigned to work on the models of It’s A Small World with Mary Blair.
Mary was very friendly and very artistic. She had a lot of glasses. She used to have a lot of different colored contact lenses as well. She used to wear green or blue or any color to go with the outfit she was wearing that day. I’d watch her put them in and I thought, “I wouldn’t want to wear those”. Maybe that affected her colors. Her colors were always bright.
She used theatrical gels and cut them up and put them on top of her artwork. I had to match the colors she picked and that was a problem because those colors didn’t exist with the paints we had. I had to go and get some of the paints from the ink and paint department and mix them in with our paint and they didn’t always mix well. It was like painting with mud.
Mary painted very flat and it wasn’t very dimensional. We often had to cut pieces of Styrofoam for her and let her move them around. She wasn’t always happy how her artwork got translated to animation but she was happy with the finished product of Small World, I think.
Mary’s paintings are all flat. She started to learn a little dimension toward the last. But her work is charming. I only have one book of hers, the Little Golden Book children’s book that she did. That’s what we used to help us understand her design afterwards. She was a wonderful talent.
When we worked in Glendale, we didn’t have a cafeteria at WED. We had these machines for soup and coffee. So we’d go out for lunch every day and have martinis. Lee and Mary Blair would have two or three. I don’t know how I lived through that. We’d all still get our work done. It was a place called “Checks Cashed”.
Herb Ryman would come by. There was sawdust on the floor. We played pool in there. The hamburgers were forty cents and they were this big (indicates a large size) and they were great hamburgers. So we’d order a hamburger and a martini. Every day we’d go in there and have martinis but we still got our job done.