Friday, January 23, 2015

Dear Miss Ford...

I recently came across a reposting of the Mary V. Ford letter, which actresses and activists have been using to take Walt Disney to task for a string of accusations, most ending in some sort of "-ism".

While researching what prevailing attitudes in America were towards women in the late 1930's, I came across something by Mickey Moran which was selected by the Loyola University Department of History as the Outstanding Paper for their 1988-89 academic year, entitled 1930's America - Feminist Void?

In six, well written, pages and three dozen footnotes, Moran explored then current attitudes regarding women's rights. Several paragraphs were quite relevant.

Pointing out a widespread lack of support for the ERA, government and commercial regulations restricting working hours, or the type of labor women could perform, declining economic conditions causing intense competition for jobs, a widespread belief that a woman's primary role was to civilize her husband, family and society at home, and a sharp decline in the number of women obtaining advanced college degrees, Moran sums the decade up with these words:

"But while the number of married women in the work force actually increased by 50 percent between 1930 and 1940 - despite the Depression -women found enormous obstacles blocking their entry into certain fields. Most women found work in factory and clerical jobs, as traditional barriers against women in professional fields loomed higher. Instead of "glamorous" professions, 36 percent of working wives entered domestic and personal services, while another 20 percent were in apparel and canning factories. Those who were in lower-level professions, such as elementary and high school teaching, found men displacing them for higher pay. In 1939, the median salary of a male teacher was $1,953 a year, while female teachers received only $1,394."

With this backdrop, Walt's opinion, whatever it was, was probably at least mainstream for the time.

With an understanding of Disney's process of making feature length animated films the letter to Mary Ford - actually penned by Mary Cleare - begins to take on a distinctly different tone.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a massive undertaking. An article by Andrew Boone in the January 1938 issue of Modern Mechanix estimated the effort at more than 1,500,000 individual pen and ink drawings.  Six months was expended by the animation team before the illustrations used in the film were even begun. Then the actual cells were produced, at the rate of 1960 per day, to create the master reel. Boon explains:

“Ink and paint” represents the manufacturing bottle neck, for a movie cartoon can progress no more rapidly than skilled hands complete the multitude of drawings. Since this cartoon required an average of twenty-two individual painted cels for each foot of completed picture, 166,352 finished paintings were exposed to the camera.

Movie|fone reported; "The film's production took nearly five years. It took at least 570 crew members (some sources say 750), most of them animators or water-color artists. As many as 2 million sketches and paintings were created, though only about 166,000 of them can be seen in the finished film."

The list of visual artists who worked on Snow White is impressive. In addition to most of Walt's Nine Old Men, it includes hundreds of women including Claire Weeks, Jeanne Lee Keil and Rae McSpadden. The group of Assistant Animators included Marc Davis and Ollie Johnston, then in their mid 20's, who were certainly, as Ms. Cleare factually stated, "young men".

Note also that Mary Cleare didn't turn Mary Ford away. Rather, she suggests that Miss Ford show up with samples of her pen, ink and watercolor work, and points out that competition for the openings is stiff.

It appears that the letter was somewhat of a template, as another, sent to Frances Brerer of Van Nuys about a year later has a familiar ring. Again the closing message is that they'd be happy to talk with Frances, if she shows up and brings her portfolio;

By the way, we probably also shouldn't overlook the fact that there was probably lots of support for the Ink and Paint girls coming from another quarter. At this point, Walt had been married to a former Ink and Paint Department girl for over a decade and had made her sister head of the department.

Here is a link to a much more interesting take on the story of being one of Disney's 100+ Ink and Paint Girls, from the March 2010 issue of Vanity Fair; Coloring the Kingdom.

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