Film & video

The Fascinating Story of the Women Who Created the Great Disney Classics

The Golden Age of film animation would not have been possible without these female illustrators, animators, and art directors

Cinderella (1950), Dumbo (1941), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and Bambi (1942) are classic Disney movies that marked the childhood of millions of children worldwide. They have one thing in common: the role played by women in their making was invaluable.

Although it was the legendary animators of the early days of Disney Production (known as Disney's Nine Old Men) who went down in animation history, the dream factory created by Walt Disney paved the way to hundreds of women.

However, their stories may not be as well-known as those of their male counterparts.

The Fascinating Story of the Women Who Created the Great Disney Classics 1
Frame from 'Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs' (1937) trailer, the first Disney color feature.

During the 1930s, around 100 women worked in the Inking and Painting departments of the company. However, it was difficult for them to access positions as animators. You can see this discriminatory attitude in one of the rejection letters that have recently come to light.

In them, like the one sent to aspiring animator Mary Ford in 1938, Disney productions claimed that:

"Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men."
The Fascinating Story of the Women Who Created the Great Disney Classics 3
Rejection letter received by Mary Ford in 1938, and recovered by her grandson Kevin Burg.

"For this reason, women are not considered for the training school. The only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on celluloid sheets with India ink and filling in the tracing on the reverse side."

But then came the Second World War and the production company had to change its strategy radically. From the 19940s onwards, more and more women were able to access better positions than the traditional inker and painter jobs.

On February 10th, 1941, Walt Disney announced that the studio would begin to train women as animators.

Among the reasons listed for training women, Disney claimed that it would be beneficial for the women employees to gain new skills and keep the work going in the possibility of a war that would enlist young men. He also added that women had the right to have the same chances for advancement as men.

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Walt Disney. Source: General Photographic Agency / Hulton Archive.

From then on, dozens of women took jobs in other departments, as animators, art directors, and character designers. The below are only a few of the pioneering women who managed to get to positions usually reserved to men:

Retta Scott

Animator

Retta Scott is considered the first woman to receive screen credit as an animator for a Disney film. Scott joined the production company in 1938, where she started working in the Story department.

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Portrait of Retta Scott. Source: D23.

One of the greatest Disney classics, Bambi (1942), was being produced at the time. Retta Scott's work was mainly conceptual, and her sketches and storyboards were used as inspiration for animators.

However, some of her sketches' extraordinary quality, such as one showing the famous fight between some hunting dogs and Bambi, caught the eyes of legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. "A startling moment for us came when we saw Retta Scott's amazing sketches of the vicious dogs…", they claimed, as recorded in the Walt Disney Family Museum's website.

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Some of of Retta Scott’s sketches for Bambi (1942). Source: 'The Walt Disney Family Museum.'

The sketches' speed, dynamism, and energy were such that both Thomas and Johnston decided that Scott alone would be the best person to animate those scenes.

And so it was. When Bambi's production began, Retta Scott was promoted to Disney's animation department, and she animated the chilling fight scene that kept thousands of children transfixed to the screen.

Scott participated in the making of Fantasia (1940) and Dumbo (1941) and in the production, later canceled, of Wind in the Willows.

The Fascinating Story of the Women Who Created the Great Disney Classics 11
Image from the film Dumbo.

Hazel Sewell

Director and animator

Hazel Sewell is an American animator who was the first director in the Inking and Painting department at Walt Disney Studios. She was Walt Disney's sister-in-law and collaborated in coloring the short Mickey Mouse Plane Crazy (1928). Sewell worked in color and ink but was also art director in the first great classic from the studio: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs(1937). Later, she would participate in the animation of Bambi (1942), another Disney great. Sewell worked for the studio until 1938 when she resigned after 11 years of employment.

Retta Davidson

Animator

Retta Davidson began her career at Disney like many other women artists: in the inking and painting department, and worked in the productions of Pinocchio (1940), Bambi (1942), and Fantasia (1940). In 1941, when male animators started to be enlisted to fight in the Second World War, the studio asked the female painters and inkers to show their artworks to evaluate whether they would be suitable to train as animators.

Davidson was selected; however, in 1942, she let go of the opportunity to enlist in the Navy, as narrated by animator Floyd Norman in this article.

The Fascinating Story of the Women Who Created the Great Disney Classics 15
Retta Davidson at work.

When the war ended, she returned to Disney, where she worked as an animation assistant for many principal animators. Davidson left the studio again in 1966 and then returned in the 80s, this time to work in features as an animator: The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and more.

Mary Blair

Illustrator and art director

Although Retta Scott paved the way, perhaps the best known among the women animators of Disney's Golden Age was the artist Mary Blair. Her drawings are legendary, and she worked on many of Disney's most successful productions. Mary Blair started working in the studio in 1940 as an illustrator for the movie Dumbo(1941).

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Portrait of Mary Blair at work. Image by IMDb.

In 1941, Mary Blair embarked on a journey to Latin America with other animators from the company. These tours had a significant impact on her future style. As a political strategy, President Roosevelt believed it essential to establish closer links with neighboring countries and send various industry representatives on a visit. Blair and her colleagues toured México, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Perú, and other countries.

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One of Mary Blair’s artworks for 'Alice in Wonderland.'

The artist absorbed the aesthetics and richness of colors of those countries and reflected this in colorful art concepts in movies such as Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953).

Mary Blair's career at Disney was not limited to animated films. She designed It's a Small World, one of the most popular attractions in Disney World.

Ruthie Tompson

Animation

Ruthie was another female animation pioneer who started her professional journey in the Inking and Painting department. Over four decades, she worked on various projects, revising the animation cels before they were filmed and planning scenes for features such as Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Sleeping Beauty (1950), and Mary Poppins (1964).

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A young Ruthie Tompson. Image source: Gerontologyy.wikia.org

Sylvia Holland

Illustrator and storyboard artist

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Portrait of Sylvia Moberly-Holland.

The artist collaborated in developing the concept art, character designs, backgrounds, and color studies of the beautiful film Fantasía (1940).

Although this is only a shortlist of six creative women, there were many more female professionals who had to push through the obstacles of the times to access opportunities in the world of animation. By doing so, they created classic movies for the joy of thousands of children worldwide.

Have you enjoyed reading about them? What is your favorite classic Disney movie? Leave us a comment at the end of this article.

English version by@acesarato

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