Walt Disney and his tiny-hoofed lady-girls

My latest deep interest (or short-lived obsession) is the life and times and creative output of Walt Disney and his team of artists.

Having never actually knowingly watched any of his feature animations, I found a number of them streaming for free (public domain) on Vimeo, so, last night I settled down on my sheepskin padded cradle-bed to view Sleeping Beauty (1959).

My interest was ignited by the two-part documentary currently streaming on SBS on Demand about Walt. (I was able to view episode one before my current hardware/software obsolescence set in) but then, thankfully, before my head exploded from episode 2 withdrawal, found the entire 3 hour ad-free documentary on YouTube.

Walt Disney’s first cartoon to make it BIG time was Steamboat Willy (1928) featuring an early incarnation of Mr Mickey in a joyous romp. What made the cartoon so endearing was the brilliant use of sound in the slapstick, gag-filled action. Disney was also the first to maximize profit with toys and merchandise, and, after the 6 million dollar box-office smashing caused by the full-length animated feature, Snow White (1937), Walt and his long-term partner and brother built the Walt Disney studios in Burbank, a highly stratified collection of buildings housing the various departments.

D-wing was the home of the big men, Walt’s boys, the animators who, in the early days (before conditions got tighter) were paid five dollar bonuses for each visual gag they came up with. These were the folk who decided that Cinderella’s foot should be a tiny little morsel, so small that it would fit the daintiest slipper imaginable.

When the work had been okayed by Walt’s famously praise-free ‘That’ll work,’ then the ‘girls’ in the paint and ink department could do their job, the painstaking, eye-straining task of outlining and coloring the men’s heroic output onto celluloid sheets. There were 24 sheets required for every second of animatiom, not to mention the extra celluloid required for the multi-plane camera technology that enabled layering of backgrounds, a technique already in use by the German animator, Lotte Reiniger, a pioneer of silhouette animation whose feature film, The Adventures of Prince Ahmed was made in 1926.

For the most part, the women at Disney (or ladies with tiny feet) were deemed unfit for the manly task of animation. Walt explains why in a quaint letter to an aspiring animator, and the gist of his reasoning goes like this: there are no women in the animation department, therefore, we don’t employ women in the animation department..Hmmm. Also women’s tiny little handies were far better suited to the task of colouring in Walt’s firm opinion. At least the applicant received a response, a politeness seemingly lost in today’s world.

But gender roles were a hell of a lot less fluid back in 1930/40’s America. For example, a woman wearing pants whilst appearing as a witness in court in Los Angeles was sent home to change. She returned. Still in pants, and was sentenced to 5 days in to jail for contempt of court. Women did find their way into the boys club at Disney, especially after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the USA joined WWII. The draft created instability in the work-force, and women were invited to apply for more artistically fullfiling positions, a move that disgruntled male employees saw as a cynical ploy to pay lower wages.

By the way, the paint and ink girls got $18 per week, while a top (male) animator could earn up to $300 per week.

And back to Sleeping Beauty. I didn’t like it much, but the Princess Aurora sure does have tiny feet.


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