As Cinderella is now playing at The Walt Disney Family Museum throughout the month of April, Disney historian and author J.B. Kaufman has written this piece on the making of this classic film, exclusively for Storyboard.
Disney fans know that Walt Disney’s animated feature Cinderella was released to theaters in 1950, more than a decade after his breakthrough feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. What is less well known is that Walt turned his filmmaking attention to the Cinderella story—on two separate occasions—beforetackling the story of her fairy-tale cousin Snow White.
The first Disney version of Cinderella was produced in 1922, at the beginning of Walt’s career, when he and his friends were producing their earliest animated cartoons at the Laugh-O-gram studio in Kansas City. The Laugh-O-grams were silent one-reel cartoons, “modernized fairy tales” that used traditional children’s stories as a springboard for satiric gags, Jazz Age references, and intertitles that indulged in puns and other verbal humor. By the time Walt and his pals had given a story the Laugh-O-gram treatment, it usually bore scant resemblance to the traditional version. Cinderella was a good example. In the Laugh-O-gramCinderella, the Prince (“who was a wonderful fellow”) was introduced on horseback, hunting bears—and rudely interrupting a party, where the bears were seen listening and dancing to hot jazz. Cinderella herself, wearing a short flapper skirt, went to the ball in a Tin Lizzie, chauffeured by her pet cat.
But even in this satiric adaptation, the Cinderella story retained some of its inherent romance. At the ball, while the other guests descended in a mob on the free eats, Cinderella and her Prince ventured out to the balcony for a romantic interlude in the moonlight. Walt and the other artists, even working in the simple graphic style of their earliest films, took pains to provide the young lovers with a charming atmosphere. The moon, observing their silhouetted forms with a smile, winked knowingly at the camera. Cinderella’s cat and the Prince’s dog, too, fell under the romantic spell of the moment. At film’s end, when the Prince relocated Cinderella and declared his love, the couple’s pets were likewise reunited.
In fact, it’s worth noting that most cartoon producers, even when mercilessly poking fun at the Cinderella story, have allowed some moments of sentiment to remain in their versions. (Even that inveterate prankster Tex Avery included a tender interlude in his 1938 short Cinderella Meets Fella.) Something about the tale seems to have inspired the most fun-loving artists to respect the romance at its heart.
In any case, by the time Walt returned to Cinderella in 1933, he had gained enough experience and confidence to attempt a cartoon version that openly pictured the beautiful and romantic aspects of the tale. By 1933, of course, he had traveled a long road from his Laugh-O-gram days. Relocated and now well established in Hollywood, Walt had pioneered the use of sound, and later Technicolor, in animated cartoons, and had gone on to achieve a sensational worldwide success with Mickey Mouse and a parallel cartoon series, the Silly Symphonies. The Symphonies, in particular, had dramatically expanded the scope of animated cartoons on the screen. Audiences, long conditioned to expect only slapstick and wisecracking humor in cartoons, were now treated to a delightful series of pictures that offered beauty, charm, subtle wit, and appealing characters along with the comedy.
In December 1933 the Disney story department announced that it was starting work on a new Silly Symphony: Cinderella. Following standard practice, the department circulated a story outline throughout the studio, inviting the entire Disney staff to contribute ideas for story and gags. The director would be Burt Gillett, who had directed the smash hit Silly Symphony Three Little Pigs earlier in the year; the music would be composed by Frank Churchill, who had written “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” for Pigs and who would contribute so much memorable music to other Disney films. The outline made its priorities clear: this cartoon Cinderella would exploit “every possible opportunity for comedy, provided it will not disturb the main thread of the story.”
The main thread of the story was unmistakably romantic. One of the devices suggested by the writers is particularly striking today: at the ball, as Cinderella danced with the Prince, the palace background would fade away and the lovers would appear to be dancing on the clouds, oblivious to their surroundings. Studio artists responded enthusiastically to this idea; effects-animation wizard Cy Young offered some ambitious ideas for effects that would transform the dream cloudscape into a spectacularly beautiful setting for the dance. Other writers and artists chimed in with ideas of their own, rich in cartoon gags but also long on charm and atmosphere. Today these suggestions are preserved in a thick file at the Walt Disney Archives.
In the end, this Silly Symphony version of Cinderella was abandoned. We don’t know precisely why, but we do know that by December 1933 Walt was seriously thinking about a feature-length animated film, and that he had already selected Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as his story. During the course of 1934 he would start working with his writers to develop the story of Snow White, and some evocative story ideas, so recently suggested for Cinderella, would find their way onto the Snow White storyboards. In turn, story development for Snow White continued over the next several years, and generated such a wealth of inspired ideas that only a fraction of them could be used in the feature. When Walt turned his attention back to Cinderella after the war—this time as a feature film—these unused story ideas were still available for use, and some of them turned up in the new feature.
This month, then, as we revisit the classic Disney feature Cinderella, we may reflect that the story has deep roots in Disney studio tradition—roots that go back to the beginning of Walt’s career, and are inextricably intertwined with some of his other classic films.
J.B. Kaufman is a film historian on staff for the Walt Disney Family Foundation, staff writer/researcher at The Walt Disney Family Museum, and a leading expert on Disney animation and silent film.
On Sunday April 15 at 3:00pm, join Oscar®-winning director and Disney expert Ralph Eggleston for Cinderella Style: The Evolution of Disney Animation, where he will discuss the evolving design sophistication of Disney animation--and specifically the post-war streamlining and innovations brought to the fore with the production of Cinderella. Not simply focusing on the art, Eggleston will also provide an understanding of the cultural context that helped shape Cinderella, and its impact on Walt's subsequent animation production. Illustrated with rare art, photos, and film clips, this program offers insight into Walt's effort to again make his Studio the reigning force in feature animation.
Walt Disney’s Cinderella screens daily through April at 1:00pm and 4:00pm (except Tuesdays, and April 14, 15, and 28). Further program information and tickets are available at the Reception and Member Service Desk at the Museum, or online by clicking here.