Book Review: Disney animation history, this time seen through the women who made it great — “The Queens of Animation”

Writing for a newspaper in Disney Town, aka Orlando, the company’s long filmmaking history became one of my beats.

If an animated classic was being re-released or offered up in a new medium (DVD, BluRay), I’d knock out a story — often getting some of the surviving legends, suggested by the studio, on the phone for a quick chat.

The composing duo “The Sherman Brothers” Roy E. Disney and other veterans of the studio’s Golden Age, its formative years from the ’30s’ to the ’50s, would offer insights and anecdotes.

Any time one of Walt’s famed “Nine Old Men,” animator-loyalists there from the beginning, and men who crossed picket lines to stick by him during Disney’s labor disputes in the ’40s died, I’d get Frank and Ollie (Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston) to offer their memories of what made that Disney Legend special.

But the company’s history, still being peddled until quite recently, had been scrubbed of the vast contributions of women artists who were on the payroll, overshadowed, underpaid, resented when they dared to shine. Nathalie Holt’s “The Queens of Animation” is the latest book to tackle this discrepancy, and it’s an eye opener.

Others have written about the Ink & Paint Dept., overwhelmingly female, with artists there sometimes promoted into higher status jobs. Holt grabs onto the stories of a series of pioneers — stand-outs whose huge contribution wasn’t credited on screen or in their pay envelopes.

She tracks these women from “Fantasia,” “Dumbo” and “Bambi” to “Brave,” “Mulan” (the superior animated musical) and “Frozen.”

A lightly-regarded ballet by Tchaikovsky had made its North American premiere, with little fanfare, in the early ’30s. But it was Bianca Majolie who latched onto the enchanting “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” and had a huge hand in shaping the stand-out sequence in Disney’s concert cartoon, “Fantasia.” You can trace the Christmas tradition that ballet enjoys to that film popularizing the music, and right back to her.

Majolie worked on “Pinocchio,” and her work on a short about “Elmer Elephant” put her in an important position on “Dumbo.”

Artists like Majolie and Retta Scott, Grace Huntington, Sylvia Holland and Mary Blair broke into “the boy’s club” at Disney, adding grace notes, character depth and novelty to the studio’s great films during its early years.

A deer at the San Diego Zoo is about to give birth? Send Bianca down there with a sketch pad! Cinderella needs a fashion-forward “modern” look? Leave that to Mary Blair.

And on and on it went, women playing key roles in making some of the most beloved films ever released, unheralded and almost unknown, laid off and rehired, struggling to get by on vastly inferior salaries, but making themselves seen, and eventually heard.

Holt uses personal letters and access to Disney’s famous, stenographer-covered story meetings — long, hash-out the plot, problems with characters and design sessions — to build this story.

It’s not the most complete history of Disney animation. She only focuses on some of the big female names left out in “Nine Old Men” oriented accounts. But it’s hard to see how any future books on the decades of struggle, triumphs, flops and comebacks that marked what is now one of the world’s most valuable companies and brands will be able to omit these Disney Legends.

“The Queens of Animation,” by Nathalia Holt. Published by Gale/Thorndike Press, 541 pages, $15 via Amazon, eBay, online.

Here’s a short video of Disney Legend Mary Blair’s vast impact on the studio’s look, from animation to theme park rides.

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