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The Big Book

You wouldn’t recognize Disney without the work of these women

Bridget Bodnar and Kai Ryssdal Oct 23, 2019
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Portrait of Retta Scott working on Bambi
Ben Worcester

The following is an excerpt from Nathalia Holt’s latest book, “The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History.” In it, she details the rise and fall of female animators and storytellers in the early days of Walt Disney Studios, and explains why it would take decades before female animators would regain the ground they lost.

When Bianca Majolie stood up at the front of the room, the blood immediately drained from her face, her palms started to sweat, and she could feel her heart pounding. Bianca took a deep breath and opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Instead her mouth felt dry and gritty, as if her saliva had given up and left to hide in the pit of her stomach. It was Jan. 25, 1937, and Bianca wished she could hide too. She had worked for the Walt Disney Studios for two years and she dreaded nothing more than the story department meeting where the writers pitched their ideas in front of the group. It was not due to a lack of talent on her part. Bianca’s characters and lively plots were destined for the silver screen. Nor was it her shy personality. When necessary, her soft-spoken demeanor gave way to the loud, booming voice of one passionate about her work. The problem stemmed from the fact that she was born a woman in a world that wanted men.

She skipped as many of the meetings as she could, her excuses ranging from mundane claims of illness to fantastic tales of car accidents, complete with shattered glass sprinkled across the highway and the smell of burned rubber. Her alibis were mostly unnecessary — there was no onus to attend every meeting, unless you were the one pitching. When it was her turn to share her ideas with the group, she approached the matter as she would swimming in the chilly Pacific Ocean: better to just get it over with, plunge into the waves headfirst and let the cold water numb your body.

On this January day, however, the room felt colder than the Arctic. Everyone knew that “Snow White” was Walt’s darling, and suggesting changes to one of its scenes, even if necessary, was certain to bring the wrath of the room down upon the hapless writer. As Bianca stood there in silence, she could hear relaxed laughter outside the windows, and for a moment, she imagined she was one of the women on the other side of the glass, relaxing on the lawn without a care in the world. “I could be like them,” she thought. “All I have to do is leave. “

Sketch by Grace Huntington displaying the overwhelming nature of work in the studio. (Courtesy of Berkeley Brandt)

At the Walt Disney Studios, it was not enough to simply have an idea, or even write a script. In the story department, you had to stand up in front of your colleagues and act it out. As much as Bianca hated dramatizing her ideas at the meeting, she loved watching the other writers perform their material. Dick Lundy could mimic the voice of Donald Duck flawlessly as he pretended to walk across the street, then slip and fall right in front of her seat, his body twisting in contortions worthy of the Three Stooges, before he lightheartedly tittered in Minnie Mouse’s falsetto: “Oh, Donald, have a nice trip? Tee-hee- hee.” The room would roar with laughter, with Bianca joining in until tears ran down her face. Sometimes they would don costumes, the men applying rouge and lipstick as they performed an elaborate can-can, their knobby knees kicking as high as they could while they belted out tunes. The atmosphere could be boisterous, full of pure joy and childish antics, and it made Bianca proud to be one of them.

But other times it could be terrible. The men would yell obscenities, and throw wads of balled up paper at the presenter when they considered at an idea unworthy of development. At these moments, Bianca could feel her colleagues’ aggression, the room becoming a pressure cooker for the unlucky person whose only crime was sharing their work. Too often, it seemed that the ugliest response, the one that could shake the confidence of even the most talented writer, was directed at her. At these moments, Bianca wished she had some special ability to distract her colleagues from her flaws. If only she could sing or dance, be a great beauty, or even, more humbly, mimic the happy squeak of Mickey Mouse. Sometimes what she wanted most was to be a man, if only for the few hours a week she spent at story meetings.

Bianca thought about this now as she stood trembling before her peers and resolved to appear confident. With a deep breath, she shoved her natural shyness aside and placed her storyboards, corkboards filled with artwork pinned in sequence, on the wooden easels facing the group. Her sketches showed a raven-haired beauty, the princess Snow White, frolicking with dancing flowers, pixies, and birds. Voices of dissent started rising almost immediately and Bianca found herself shouting, trying to get her ideas heard, but her soft voice was drowned out. In the midst of the fray, Walt Disney quietly walked up to the easels and yanked Bianca’s sketches from the corkboards, sending pushpins flying. With hardly a word, he ripped the papers in half. The room went instantly silent as the scraps of Bianca’s work fell to the floor, a smiling flower peeking out from one page.

The moment represented Bianca’s worst fears realized, and like Snow White tumbling through the forest to escape the huntsman, she instantly fled. She could hear the group of men running after her, the pounding of their feet growing louder as they continued to taunt her. She had never been so thankful to have a private office. Running into it and turning the lock, she cupped her face in her hands and let the tears of embarrassment and shame she had been holding back flow. As she caught her breath she could hear shouts on the other side of the door, and then her colleagues’ insistent knocking. The voice of one of the men, “Big Roy” Williams, a firebrand with a famously short temper, suddenly rose clearly from the crowd, yelling, “This won’t do!” The rapping seemed suddenly to grow angrier. Bianca cowered in the corner, her heart beating wildly, and her panicky gasps for air becoming high-pitched. She felt helpless. It wasn’t enough to have her work rejected by Walt, whom she respected and who was frequently her champion. She knew that the team wanted her to be thoroughly humiliated. Her tears fueled their cruelty.

The wooden door frame began bending now, the plywood and nails no match for the pressure of so many men on the other side. With a loud CRAACK, the wood splintered, the door gave way, and twenty-three men tumbled into Bianca’s sanctuary. She tried to bury her head in her arms, covering her ears to block their shouts, but it was no use. She would have to take it like a man.

Excerpted from the book “THE QUEENS OF ANIMATION: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE WOMEN WHO TRANSFORMED THE WORLD OF DISNEY AND MADE CINEMATIC HISTORY” by Nathalia Holt. Copyright © 2019 by Nathalia Holt. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

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