As one very wise cinephile once put it, “Every Disney film is someone’s favorite movie.”
Editor / author Daniel Kothenschulte tried to keep that in mind over the past two years as he worked on “The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921 – 1968” (TASCHEN America, October 2016). But given that he only had so many pages to work with as Kothenschulte tried to cover this massive chunk of Mouse House history, Daniel began the pruning process almost as soon as he entered Disney’s Animation Research Library (i.e., that climate-controlled, high security structure where Walt Disney Animation Studios has an estimated 65 million pieces of art in storage).
“This addition to TASCHEN’s ‘Archives’ series of film books was originally supposed to have been 800 – 900 pages,” Kothenschulte recalled during a recent phone interview. ‘But given that we wanted this volume to be filled with lots of large illustrations that had been scanned at high resolution … Well, at some point, you have to start taking into consideration the size of the pages you’ll be working with as well as the weight of the paper you’ll be printing your book on. And since we wanted film fans to actually be able to lift this Disney film book, that then began limiting what we could put into this volume.”
Mind you, given that “The Walt Disney Film Archives” is 620 pages long (More importantly, give that this 18.8 by 2.5 by 12.8 inch volume weighs a whopping 13.8 pounds), there isn’t a movie buff on the planet who would dare to call this book skimpy. But even though it features 1500 pieces of artwork that were carefully culled from the ARL’s collection (Not to mention entertaining & informative essays written by some of the top animation historians working today. Among them Didier Ghez, J.B. Kaufman & Disney Legend Dave Smith), Daniel still reflects on the book that might have been.
“Of course, we had to represent all of the animated features that Walt had worked on. Plus a good selection of Disney’s shorts. But it kind of broke my heart that we weren’t able to do more with those featurettes that Walt Disney Animation Studios made back in the 1940s, 1950s & 1960s. Those films were made by the exact same great artists who worked on Disney’s full-length animated features. They actually feel like little features. They’re special and unique. I just wish that we’d been able to do more with those,” Kothenschulte lamented.
What’s kind of ironic here is that Daniel first learned about the ARL’s artistic treasure when he was paging through another great film history book, Charles Solomon’s “The Disney That Never Was: The Stories and Art from Five Decades of Unproduced Animation” (Hyperion Press, November 1995).
“I remember reading that book in my early 20s. And the artwork that Charles had in there from sequences that were developed for Disney’s concert feature but never completed just fascinated me. Mind you, they were only a few images from those abandoned ‘Fantasia’ sequences in that Solomon book. But that artwork so fascinated me that I think that they were the very first pieces that I asked Fox to pull once I was actually invited to visit the ARL,” Kothenschulte stated.
That’s Fox Carney – the Manager of Research at the Walt Disney Animation Research Library – which Daniel is talking about. And Carney and his crew at the ARL were more than happy to pull some of the rarer-than-rare images out of their flat files as Kothenschulte was just beginning the research portion of this then-proposed addition to TASCHEN’s “Archives” series.
“It was a pleasure to have Daniel here,” Carney said. “And for those of us who work at the ARL, we always get a kick of bringing art to a table for someone to look at that maybe they haven’t seen before and then just watch their jaws drop open.”
“That happened a lot of times while I was working on this book,” Daniel laughed.
So what sort of treasures can one expect to see when they finally pick up this hefty film history book? To hear Carney & Kothenschulte talk, striking just the right balance with “The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921 – 1968” was tricky.
“When we first began digging through our collection, our goal was to provide Daniel with some really novel pieces that hadn’t ever been seen before. But – at the same time – because we knew that the team at TASCHEN was going to do a wonderful job when it came to the reproduction of images for this book … Well, there are were some pieces in here, some pastels that might be familiar to animation fans. But these images honestly have never looked better than they do in this new book,” Fox enthused.
In addition to the amazing imagery, there are some never-before-told tales in “The Walt Disney Film Archives” that are just going to amaze animation fans. Take – for example – this story that Berlin-based film journalist Katja Lüthge shares about the development of 1947’s “Fun and Fancy Free.” Believe it or not, the “Mickey and the Beanstalk” portion of this package feature came about because …
… in an early story conference, Walt Disney wanted to motivate Mickey’s appearance in a feature film with, of all things, a studio strike. On May 2, 1940, he spontaneously shared his idea: “We could use the opening business where Mickey, Don and the Goof are protesting – they’re going on strike – they want to work in features. Have (these) … characters (carry signs which read) “Disney Unfair to Short-Subject Actors” …
Now when you consider that – almost exactly one year later (on May 29, 1941 to be exact) – 334 Disney Studio employees went out on strike and almost immediately began picketing their place of work. Carrying virtually identical signs (i.e., “Disney Unfair to His Artists”) to the ones that Walt once proposed that Mickey, Donald & Goofy carry in their feature film debut … Well, you honestly can’t get much more ironic than that.
But that’s what’s really great about “The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921 – 1968.” Daniel’s determination to build on what Charles Solomon did with “The Disney That Never Was.” Dig down deep into the ARL’s expansive collection (which – in an interesting side note here – the Company has recently begun digitizing. Just this past summer, Carney and the ARL image capture team reached a huge milestone: Their millionth image scanned) to share images & stories about proposed animated features that ultimately never made it off of Disney’s drawing board.
Take – for example – “Hiawatha.” In an essay that Kothenschulte himself wrote, it is revealed that …
Walt Disney’s admiration for (Henry Wadsworth) Longfellow’s portrait of the life of a Native American in the 16th century … inspired him to continue looking for ideas for a possible adaptation. In 1943, development of a serious dramatic adaptation began, which brought about Kelsey’s epic storyboard in 1948 and 1949.
That’s Dick Kelsey – one of the untrue unsung stars of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ first golden age – that Daniel is talking about. Walt was so sure that there was enormous potential for an truly ambitious animated feature material in “Hiawatha” (more importantly, that he thought so highly of Dick’s artistic abilities) that – starting in September of 1948 – Disney sent Kelsey on a six week-long trip to the Great Lakes Region. Where Dick was to then document & sketch many of the settings from Longfellow’s famous narrative poem.
As an Associated press story that was published before Dick began his journey, what this Disney artist was attempting ...
… will be no easy task in this modern era since (Kelsey) insists he will try to recapture both the spirit and the look of Hiawatha's land. Every remaining forest, prairie, lake and river associated with the Indian legend will be visited by boat, automobile, train, horse or on foot, (Dick) declared. He has arranged to study museum material in Chicago, St Paul, Minneapolis, and Rochester the American Museum of Natural History and the Heye Foundation in New York and the Smithsonian Institute and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. At Naples, NY (Kelsey) will confer with Dr. Arthur C. Parker, director emeritus of the Rochester Museum, an authority on American Indian life and lore. “
All of this research did ultimately pay off. For those “Hiawatha” storyboards that Dick produced – all in pastels, mind you – once he returned to Disney Studios were stunning.
“And the thing – with drawings that are done with pastels – is that they can be really tricky to reproduce. But because Daniel and the team at TASCHEN spared no expense when they were putting together ‘The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921 – 1968,’ the images from ‘Hiawatha’ that are included in this book are simply stunning,” Fox stated. “The fires and the fireplaces that Dick drew, the glowing arrows and such, they just really stand out. The colors of the foliage are just amazing. “
And for every seldom-seen / recently unearthed image that you’ll find in this 620-page tome, you also find a story that perhaps a previous management team at the Mouse House would have preferred that Kothenschulte had kept buried. Take – for example – this somewhat startling behind-the-scenes tale that Brian Sibley shares in his essay about the Studios’ 1963 release, “The Sword and the Stone.” It would seem that Walt’s brother …
... Roy O. Disney, who was of the opinion that since the Studio had a significant catalog of films available for re-release on a regular basis, (felt that – as of the early 1960s – production of) new animated features were far from essential.
But since Daniel was determined to make the newest title in TASCHEN’s ‘Archives’ series of film books as truthful & as far-reaching as he possibly could, this ambitious writer / editor kept that somewhat embarrassing story in “The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921 – 1968.”
“It was a question of history, of film history,” Kothenschulte concluded. “Besides, my girl friend’s favorite Disney film is ‘The Sword and the Stone.’ And ‘Robin Hood.’ “
FYI: You won’t find anything about Disney’s 1973 animated take on the tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. That information is being currently saved for TASCHEN’s proposed follow-up to “The Walt Disney Film Archives.” But before that comes the book that Daniel has already begun working on, which will be yet another hefty Disney-related volume.
“My next project is supposed to be a book on Walt Disney’s life and art. Since this project is supposed to be more focused on Walt the man, it will have many, many photographs of his personal life. And – once again – lots of wonderful artwork from Disney’s animated features,” Daniel said. “So that should be the next one. Mind you, it will be different than ‘The Walt Disney Film Archives.” More like an art book. More like – I don’t know – maybe like a book about the life & art of Leonardo. You know, that’s what some people called Walt back in the 1930s: Leonardo da Disney. So maybe this will be TASCHEN’s Leonardo da Disney book.
Well, all I know – if the 13.8 pound “The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921 – 1968” is any indication of what Kothenschulte & TASCHEN will be doing with their proposed “Leonardo da Disney” book – now might be a really good time for animation fans to go out and buy a good, steel-reinforced bookcase.