Saturday, 4 August 2012

Disney’s Rivals

One of the sidelights of hype around—and success of—the release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was that it gave some attention to cartoon studios other than Walt Disney.

Here’s a local story in the Syracuse Herald of March 13, 1938. It relies heavily on a feature piece done by Paul Harrison for the National Enterprise Association, but gives a good lay of the animation land at the time.

I suspect the studio with the open cheque-book being referred to is MGM, as history has shown producer Fred Quimby built his studio by making offers to people at Harman-Ising, Schlesinger, Disney and the studios in the East. As for the Fleischer feature, Max Fleischer announced on June 14, 1938 that he would make “Gulliver’s Travels” in his studio being constructed in Florida. And the story gives us a tale of the happy Disneyites drinking the Uncle Walt Kool-Aid with no hint of the bitter strike three years away.

Disney, Fleischer and Schlesinger seem to be the ‘A’ list studios in this story, with the rest deemed on the lower rungs. The latter part of the ‘30s was a period of flux in theatrical animated shorts. The Van Beuren and Iwerks studios closed, Mintz would be taken over by Columbia, Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry were on the verge of making their first films and Betty Boop would go into retirement.

Disney’s ‘Snow White’ leads Trend Toward Feature-Length Cartoon Films
Rival Studios Will Compete In New Field
Fleischer and Schlesinger Units Plan 7-Reel Cartoon Films
‘Bambi’ Disney’s Next
Six Studios Produce Cartoon Output for American Moviegoers
By Hayden Hickok
Cinema Critic of the Syracuse Herald
It was inevitable that Walt Disney should be the one to discover the rich feature material buried in the animated cartoon with his “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” And it is equally inevitable. Hollywood being Hollywood, that all the other major studios hope to cash in on Disney’s success.
In the short period of a month after “Snow White,” began making box office history from coast to coast practically every one of Disney’s competitors announced plans for a feature-length production for 1938.
All this amounts to practically a revolution in the animated cartoon industry. For, after all these years, during which the little comic-strip characters have been bouncing and skidding their modest ways through miles of one-reel shorts, the great discovery is finally being made: Feature-length cartoons are both practical and profitable.
Disney invested $1,600,000 of his own money and kept a staff of artists and animators busy three years to prove this in “Snow White.” Moviegoers all over the country are backing up Disney’s judgment by making the cartoon drama the biggest box-office phenomena since Shirley Temple.
The next Disney feature will be either “Bambi,” a story of the deer to whom all humans were villains, or the celebrated folk tale, “Pinocchio.” Story difficulties have held up the start of “Pinocchio,” and it is understood that “Bambi” will precede it. With his huge production organization working smoothly, Disney hopes to have one or the other completed by next Christmas.
Max Fleischer, creator of the “Popeye” and “Betty Boop” cartoons, will enter the feature-length cartoon field with an untitled production in color, Paramount, his releasing company, announced this week.
Other Disney rivals are ambitious enough to expect to have animated features in the theaters by next December—yet none of them has a story, nor anything resembling the staff and equipment that Disney has assembled.
Only Warner Brothers have a man who seems capable of competing with Disney. He’s Leon Schlesinger, maker of “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies.” And Schlesinger doesn’t want to make features.
One powerful studio, Paul Harrison reports, has set out with check-book and blandishments to lure away all the Disney animators and directors who can be hired.
The response has been astonishing and to Disney, if he knows about it—heartening Confronted with fat orders from the big studio, his artists and technicians have answered with raspberries. Such a demonstration of mass loyalty is without precedent in the whole history of movie-town, the double-crossroads of creation.
Most folks who go to the movies more or less casually are nor immediately aware or any other major productions in the animated cartoon field than those of the Disney studios—the famous adventures of Mickey Mouse, Pluto and Donald Duck, the Silly Symphonies and now Snow White and her little pals.
But the fact of the matter is that at least five other studios are regularly turning out as many releases per year as the Disney organization, while several of these popular series find equally wide distribution in competition with the Disney products.
The Disney studio, in Hollywood, is the largest in the business, now that it is scheduled to produce one feature-length film a year. It is likewise maintaining its schedule of 18 short cartoons per annum—among them will be a Disney version of “Ferdinand,” Munro Leaf’s celebrated bull who wouldn't fight.
Second largest unit in the field is the Fleischer Studios in New York, home of “Popeye,” “Betty Boop,” “Screen Songs” and “Color Classics.” Fleischer employs a staff of about 250 artists and technicians, who work like a hive of bees in a building at 1600 Broadway. Business has been so good, thanks to Mr. Disney, that Fleischer is building a new studio down at Miami, which will be ready in October.
Up in New Rochelle, N. Y., there is the Paul Terry studio which produced 26 “Terry-Toons” a year. One of the original movie animators, Terry features no particular character, although Farmer Alfalfa and Puddy the Pup are the most popular this season. He employs a staff of 60 men, and works entirely in black-and-white.
Rounding out the Disney competitors are the aforementioned Mr. Schlesinger of Warner Bros.; Walter Lantz, a Hollywood unit which turns out 26 cartoons starring Oswald the Rabbit; the Charles B Mintz studio which does the “Krazy Kat,” “Scrappy” and “Color Rhapsodies” series, and the appropriately named Harman-Ising (Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising) outfit which produces M-G-M’s “Happy Harmonies.”
Metro has set up its own unit for making a new series of “The Captain and the Kids,” based on the comic-strip characters of Dirks.


  1. What an exciting and up and down period in animation..
    it shows how good Disney were at getting the feature just right with Snow White..and not producing a Gulliver’s Travels type which was alright But no would of been very different if Gulliver’s Travels was a classic and a big hit..and real competition..

  2. It's also interesting the respect the article gives Leon's studio, even though it was just deciding once and for all by March 1938 what type of studio it wanted to be (the 1937-38 season was when Warners' units all became united in the idea they would do what Walt wasn't doing in terms of story, though that process took a bit of a step back when Jones replaced Tashlin). Hickok was either good at seeing the future in this case, or more pedestrianly, he was just looking and ranking the non-Disney studios based on their total number of releases per year, where Schlesinger/Warners and Fleischer/Famous/Paramount would be the field leaders, pretty much all the way into the 1960s.