It would be hard to overstate the importance of Cinderella to the Disney Studios of 1950. If the movie had failed, it would have been the end of the studio, according to many people who worked there at the time. While we can’t know the financials with any certainty, it was absolutely the biggest gamble that Walt had taken with the studio in many years.
After all, as the post-WWII era rolled on, Walt had established quite the niche for himself in
Between the educational and wartime shorts that he had begun producing
for the government, the continued shorts program primarily focused on Donald
Duck and Pluto, and the package features that combined short subjects into a
feature film, Walt had made a profitable if not particularly ambitious slate of
projects to keep the studio humming along.
Why, then, would he risk all of that to produce Cinderella – an
ambitious and expensive attempt to re-enter the features market?
It seems fairly obvious in retrospect that Walt was not enthralled with what his studio was doing during the World War II and the years immediately following. While you can see his guiding hand through the Good Neighbor features of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, there’s obviously less of Walt’s influence on package features like Fun and Fancy Free or The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Compare those films to the epic artistry of Bambi or the gags and details of Snow White, and you’ll see what I mean.
Still, Cinderella had to be a change in mindset for the artists as well as Walt. There were still costs that had to be incurred but they could not be on the level of previous features. The margins just didn’t work out. So on Cinderella, unlike previous animated features, there was extensive live action reference. Nearly all of the human interaction in the film was filmed with live actors then the animators drew based on that.
That gave Disney an advantage, but even more than that was the assemblage of talent that was hungry for the artistic challenge. Although they had all been around and been working on Disney films for years, Cinderella was the first film that the Nine Old Men worked on together. The assembled talents on this film and future features is probably still unrivaled in animation.
In addition, in order to create better revenue models and artistic creativity, Walt began looking for new ways to think about the music in his films. He reached out to the musicians of Tin Pan Alley, known as a musical hot spot in
New York City. This would soon become a staple of his films,
but for Cinderella it was all new. In
addition, rather than licensing out the rights to the music, Walt created his
own label, which paid off handsomely when the soundtrack became a big hit,
Released in February of 1950, Cinderella would go on to be a big boon to the studio, and usher in a new era. But at $3,000,000 budgeted, not everyone was so confident as it began to roll out. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the film itself and see how it panned out.