Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sixty-Eight Years Ago Today

... the animated fairy tale Cinderella*, produced by Walt Disney, went into theatrical release.

The 1940s were not kind to Walt Disney Productions. In the early years of the decade, its survival was a close thing. First there was a lengthy strike, then World War II closed a boatload of lucrative overseas markets, and all of a sudden long-form cartoons were a good way to lose money. (Among Walt's pre-war features, only Dumbo went into profits, and that because it was a lower budget production.)

Just as Dumbo hit theaters, Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, and the Disney studio, almost overnight, became a busy part of the war effort. WDP turned out training films, intelligence films, and propaganda shorts for the federal government. (Imagine! The Walt Disney Company, saved by socialism!)

After V-J day, the studio went back full-time to animation, but it struggled. Larry Clemmons, a veteran of the studio from the early Hyperion days, was a writer for Bing Crosby, the hottest star in show biz, and returned to the studio for the first time in five years. He found morale on the lot at a low ebb:

"It was a sad place. People I'd known for years came up to me and said, 'Gee, you're working for Crosby?! That must be great. There's not much going on around here. We're back to doing shorts and featurettes. We don't even know how long we'll have jobs.'"...

The studio was deep in debt, and the "package ilms" (Fun and Fancy Free, So Dear To My Heart, Song of the South, Ichabod and Mr. Toad, among others) were not making enough to hoist the studio from its sea of red ink. Disney decided that the company should return to single-narrative features, and started development on Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.

Cinderella, being the farthest along in story, was the first to be released. Produced for $2.9 million (less than any pre-war feature except Dumbo), the picture ended up as a box office smash, becomin the sixth highest-grossing film of 1950.

So here's to you, Cindy! Your animators might have griped about all the rotoscope they were forced to follow, various production corners might have been cut, but you were the woman who revived the studio, and started Walt Disney Productions on the road to the multi-media powerhouse it's become six decades later.

* Thanks to Professor Tom Sito for pointing out that today was the anniversary of "Cinderella's" release.

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