Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Disney Studio - 1940-1950

It’s been a struggle lately to get the blog updated on time, and for that I apologize.  But as we speed through 1950, it seemed relevant to me to take a moment to pause and catch up to where Walt and his studio stood on the precipice of the release of Treasure Island, the first official full live action Disney film.  So Dear To My Heart and Song of the South had featured large chunks of animation, but Treasure Island would be the first Disney film comprised entirely of live action.  We’ll discuss the reasons for that tomorrow.

Fantasia was creatively successful, but not financially.

The 1940s were probably the worst decade at the Disney Studio since it’s founding.  After the great successes with Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons, Walt’s empire grew to new heights with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  That film alone provided the capital to build the new studio in Burbank that still stands today.  It also allowed masterpieces like Pinocchio and Fantasia to be made.

But the onset of success and World War II brought strife to Walt’s life unlike any he had ever experienced.  Now, rather than struggle to get things done, Walt and his team was struggling to keep what they had earned and have enough money to continue on with new projects.  It had to be the most frustrating time for a creative man that sought only to improve constantly.

Think about the succession of events.  In 1940, Fantasia launches and is a failure financially.  For the first time, Walt’s vision of creative success did not achieve financial gain.  Then, in 1941, the “family” he had built around the studio turned on him when key animators went on strike.  As pressure increased on Walt to figure out ways to settle the strike, his health deteriorated to the point that his brother, Roy and his wife, Lillian, both were very concerned.  Couple this with the fact that the studio didn’t have the money or time to produce the kinds of films Walt clearly wanted to make.

Dumbo turned a profit, but wasn't the kind of film Walt was hoping to make.
I love Dumbo as a film, and can’t imagine it being different, but it’s not the kind of film Walt wanted to make in 1941.  He was more interested in Fantasia.  You see more of his efforts and publicity behind Victory in Air Power than you do in things like The Reluctant Dragon.  Then you have the package features, with short features being combined together.  Sure, Saludos Amigos is interesting, but it’s not a full film.  There’s more of Walt poured into The Three Caballeros or some sequences in the other package features, but the lack of time and money to make these films more feature length clearly was not his preference.

Part of the cause of this inability to make feature films was World War II.  The war dried up European markets, depriving the company of desperately needed cash flow.  Films like Pinocchio or Snow White had done well overseas, but now future films were not able to premiere in Europe or Asia.  Or, if they did, the money received had to stay in those countries.  That conundrum led to the situation that created Treasure Island, which we will talk more about tomorrow.

Little things like the "Baia" sequence in The Three Caballeros showed where Walt wanted to go.
But look back at the films of the 1940s, the time that Walt spent away from the Studio on the Good Neighbor tour, the time he took off to recover his health, and the way the films were produced.  You can see a clear pattern of Walt trying to find ways to break new ground, but being unable to do so except in small bursts.  A little bit of Baia from the Three Caballeros, a fun bit in the Sleepy Hollow sequence or some live action & animation combinations in So Dear To My Heart and Song of the South – these were places Walt could do new things. 

So, in retrospect, it should not be surprising that the 1950s saw a burst of creative energy from the Disney Studios.  The creative geniuses had been somewhat bottled up, but would soon unleash with new animation, live action features, a theme park, television shows and much more.  The 1950s really created what we know as Disney today, and a lot of it starts with Treasure Island.  More tomorrow…  

1 comment:

  1. Wait, what about "Bambi"? I can't believe you din't mentioned that noteworthy film.

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