Saturday, 23 December 2017

He Didn't Want to Make Cartoons

What started out as publicity interview for a Christmas show turned into an attempt by Walt Disney to justify why he wasn’t making many cartoons any more.

It boiled down to a word spelled M-O-N-E-Y.

Well, kind of.

After going on about the prohibitive cost of animation, Disney admitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer in a 1958 interview that the live-action westerns he put on TV were, to be honest, money-losers. But the prohibitive cost didn’t stop Disney from making those. And then he revealed that, gosh, golly, he never really wanted to make cartoons in the first place.

In the ‘40s, it seemed Disney was more interested in technology than animation. There was Fantasound. Then there was matte work to marry live action to animation (something Max Fleischer had been doing in the 1920s). A decade later he jumped on 3D, albeit briefly. Then in the ‘60s, xerography for One Hundred and One Dalmations. By that time, he had a huge theme park that took up a lot of his interest, immersing himself in a sentimental and wonder-filled America as he wanted it to be. Oh, and he had dived into the family feature film business with nary a drawing to be seen. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Oscars for Short Subject cartoons started going to other studios during World War Two.

Fortunately for us all, despite his dream of being the next King Vidor or Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney did go into the animation business. One can wonder how many distributors might have taken a pass on releasing cartoon short subjects had they not jumped on board in the wake of the popularity of the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies (remember that neither Warners nor MGM distributed cartoons at the time Mickey came along).

The Christmas show mentioned in the story below consisted of Jack Hannah’s crew of Al Coe, Volus Jones, Les Clark and Bob McCrea supplying animation of various Disney characters to stitch together some of the studio’s old Christmas cartoons and scenes from features. The studio was adept at this kind of thing, especially when Professor Ludwig Von Drake was used as a linking device; he remains my favourite Disney character.

This story appeared on December 14, 1958.

For Walt Disney Christmas Is Bigger Than All of Us

TINKER BELL, who lost her weekly “hostessing” job when ABC's Wednesday “Disneyland” became the Friday (8 P. M., Channel 6) “Walt Disney Presents,” helps get things rolling again this week on Disney's special Christmas show, “From All of Us to All of You.”
The program’s emphasis has been on flesh-and-blood characters like Elfego Baca and John Slaughter lately, but on Friday night Disney's pen-and-ink people will get an almost uninterrupted inning.
Tinker, Mickey Mouse and Jiminy Cricket have major roles in a holiday hour featuring “living Christmas cards” enlisting the talents of Peter Pan, Bambi, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Snow White and other small-fry favorites.
The only human on the premises will be Disney himself, and for the occasion this big, big man in Hollywood creative circles has consented to undergo shrinking to Tom Thumb size, “because Christmas is bigger than all of us.”
As far as TV’s concerned, the Disney drawing boards haven't been getting much of a workout lately only six cartoon shows were scheduled for the entire season. In Hollywood recently we asked Mr. D. how come.
“Cartoons are darned expensive,” he said. “In the Christmas show alone, for instance, we’ve got about a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of new stuff.
“A lot of people don't discriminate between good cartoons and cheap ones, but we keep betting there’s a percentage who prefer quality. Otherwise, we’d be stupidly throwing money away.
“We’re preparing ‘Sleeping Beauty’ for theaters. It will run only an hour and 15 minutes, but it will cost $6,000,000. That’s another reason we’re going easier on TV cartoons. Everybody who draws half-way decent is working on ‘Sleeping Beauty.’
“The Duck and the Mouse aren't on the retired list. We’ve got plenty of projects for them and for Pluto for this year and later. (Disney’s original seven-year pact with ABC still has two full seasons to go.)
“It’s true we're using cartoons more sparingly in the afternoons (“Mickey Mouse Club,” cut to a half-hour last year, is now aired only three times a week, at 5:30 P. M., with the real people-peopled “Adventure Time” slotted on Tuesdays and Thursday), but how many cartoons are there in the whole business? “You can’t keep filling a program with cartoons day after day for 26 weeks.
“We had to withdraw ‘Tomorrowland’ from our schedule this season because of the pressure of getting them out in time to keep up with scientific advances. And the cartoon segments were very expensive. ‘The Friendly Atom,’ which is being used in schools and by the Air Force, cost close to $400,000.
“Some of our TV cartoons are 40 percent new. We don't ‘get rid of old stuff.’ The old cartoons are valuable. We can still sell them to theaters. In fact, we still have quite a few we haven’t used on television yet. They won’t let me have the feature films. They say, ‘Why put Snow White’ on TV, when every time we send it out to theaters it’s worth $2,000,000?’
“Our interest in cartoons hasn’t dwindled. We’re doing as much animation as ever, but we’ve diversified.
“We’re doing a lot of nature films and stories with live actors. We got into live pictures when dollars were frozen in England and the only way we could get our money out was to make pictures there.
“Actually,” Walt confided, “if circumstances hadn’t forced me into it, I’d never have gone into the cartoon business. I was interested in live films. I wanted to be a director. Only the fact that I couldn’t get a job made me go back to the drawing board.”
Disney denies that his stress on Westerns this year—six Bacas and six Slaughters are definitely set, and there may be more—was dictated by a losing rating battle with “Wagon Train” last season.
“We’ve had Westerns from the first,” he pointed out, “as part of ‘Frontierland.’
“I love Westerns and adventure stories when they’re true stories, not necessarily documentaries, but more or less based on fact American history has always intrigued me. Our country is so young. People don’t realize how young.
“My own Dad was a fiddler who played with a little trio that passed the hat in front of frontier saloons. My mother and my uncles knew people who have become legends of the old West.
“John Slaughter cleaned up the mess left in Cochise county by Wyatt Earp, and in the personal effects of his widow were shares of Disney stock.
“I think our Westerns are very good ones. And they’re expensive. The Baca and Slaughter hours cost us about $300,000 apiece, and we only get back $100,000 on the first showing and $60,000 for each repeat. And we pay residuals on the repeats.
“Profit or loss, it all goes into the pot. We’ll spend $1,800,000 this year on TV material over what we’ll get not counting ‘Zorro.’
“If you want to make a Western cheaply, you just don’t put in any action. You shoot it in front of a wagon and have your actors sit around a fire and talk. Or you shoot through a wagon wheel and have a few Indians go by.
“But if you go out on location and shoot real action, as we do, that alone costs $20,000 a day.”
He may assemble Baca and Slaughter segments for release as theater fare abroad. Zorro is definitely slated for such treatment. But in general Disney is opposed to transferring his strictly-TV characters to U. S. theater screens. Dave Crockett? “The theaters begged for Crockett,” he said.
He sees advantages and disadvantages to the switch from Wednesday at 7:30 to Fridays at 8.
“There were a lot of letters opposing Wednesdays because it interfered with Boy Scouts, Christian Endeavor meetings and various church functions.
“On the other hand, I opposed the later hour, because there's the problem of kids staying up, and the kids control the dials. But it was pointed out that, with no school next day, they can stay up later Fridays. My brother, Roy, was concerned, too, because he felt Friday was a theater night, and it wasn’t fair to theater owners.
“We didn’t try to get away from competition. There’s always competition. And sometimes it’s too bad.
“One of my favorites is Groucho Marx. I didn’t want ‘Zorro’ scheduled against him, but I had no say in the matter.
“I saw Groucho once, and he told me his daughter came to him and asked, ‘Daddy, do I have to look at you?’ Groucho replied, ‘This is a free country.’ ‘So she turned on “Zorro,”’ Groucho said, ‘and I watched it from the background myself!’”

1 comment:

  1. "And then he revealed that, gosh, golly, he never really wanted to make cartoons in the first place."

    Hmm... I wonder how true that is. I'm currently reading a LIFE magazine commemorative issue on Walt Disney and in it Disney is quoted as saying something to the effect that as soon as learned about animation, he knew he wanted to be an animator. Possibly Disney lost interest in cartoons over time and maybe came to kind of sort of wish he had gone into another line of work. But I find it very hard to believe that he never really wanted to make cartoons.

    Whatever the case may be, we are indeed lucky that Disney went into animation. As one of the sometime commenters on the Yowp blog would say, "Walter Elias Disney: May his memory be eternal."