After the Golden Age and the turbulent Wartime era, the dawning of a new decade also brought about the emergence of a new era in Disney animation, commonly referred to as the “Silver Age”.

From Cinderella in 1950 through to 1967’s The Jungle Book, this was arguably the time that Disney was at their consistent best. It is in these decades that we see the prevalence of the “Nine Old Men”, the name coined by Walt Disney for his core animators. These nine were incredibly influential, and whilst all of them had worked on the Disney shorts and early features such as Snow White in some capacity, it was at the tail-end of the 1940s with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad, and the beginning of the 1950s with Cinderella through to Peter Pan in 1953 that they were working most collaboratively. 

It was also at the beginning of this period that Disney artist Mary Blair’s influence became most apparent. Whilst she took a brief hiatus from the studio in 1941, around the strikes over pay disputes, she returned and was part of the goodwill trip to South America as research for Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1944). The trip had a huge impact on her style and particularly her use of colour. Her watercolours impressed Walt so much that she was appointed as art supervisor for the aforementioned package films, and subsequently worked on segments in Make Mine Music (1943) and the somewhat notorious Song of the South (1946). In the 1950s, Blair was credited with colour and styling for Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953), and the influence of her concept art is particularly evident in those films. Honoured as a Disney Legend in 1991, 13 years after her death, the style and flair of Mary Blair is one of the real high points of this period for Disney. 

Fairy Tales and Famous Literary Works

This period of Disney is perhaps notable for almost solely being adaptations, with all but one of the eight films in these two decades being based on existing literary works. This really is the period that has it all; there’s three films based on fairy tales or folklore (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and The Sword in the Stone), three based on novels (Alice in Wonderland, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book), one based on a play (Peter Pan), and the remaining film, Lady and The Tramp,  which is something of an anomaly!

Disney story artist Joe Grant came up with an idea inspired by the antics of his dog, Lady. Grant approached Walt Disney with the sketches and Walt loved them so much he commissioned him to start story development on a new feature called “Lady”. This was in development throughout the 1930s and 1940s but none of the ideas satisfied Walt enough to see further progress. After reading a story by Ward Greene in Cosmopolitan magazine called “Happy Dan the Cynical Dog” in 1945, Walt immediately purchased the rights to it, believing that the existing character of Lady falling in love with a “cynical” dog (eventually becoming the Tramp character), was the missing piece of the puzzle.

However, it was only after Joe Grant left the studio in 1949 that his original sketches were unearthed and the story began to take shape. Interestingly, it was some 51 years after Lady and The Tramp’s release that Grant received any acknowledgement for his contribution to the film, with the release of the Platinum Edition DVD in 2006. 

From concept to the screen

Concept art has always been an important component of animated films, with the original artist’s work often providing the key inspiration, used by the animators for what is eventually seen on screen. It is perhaps in the 1950s in particular that the original work of the concept artists is most closely replicated in the final product. 

The notable artists working in this period were Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle. Blair, as mentioned already, had been working with the studio since the 1940s, and her incredible use of colour made her work really stand out to Walt. With Peter Pan for example, the original sketches for the film were quite dark and sinister, and Walt was so impressed with Blair’s style and vivid concept designs that he insisted this should be the style that the film adopted instead. Because of Blair, the first three films of this new decade for Disney are amongst some of the brightest and most visually striking, and are remembered fondly for their bold colours and memorable imagery.

Arguably the most beautiful looking film of this period is 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, and it was Eyvind Earle who was responsible for the completely unique visual style of this film. Taking his inspiration from medieval paintings and tapestries, Earle created the beautiful backgrounds for the film and despite him leaving the studio before the film’s release, his vision is still very much intact in the finished product. It was however, a vastly expensive process. Sleeping Beauty very nearly became the film that bankrupted Disney entirely, and is often cited as the reason why the next batch of Disney films had to adopt a completely different style.

Change on the horizon

It seems hard to believe now given that it is much-revered, but Sleeping Beauty was a bit of a flop for the studio, and following this Disney not only needed a hit, but they needed to cut back on costs as well. As a result, the animation department had to cut back on its number of inkers from 500 people, to less than 100 people, and a new animation style was adopted.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) was the first Disney feature film to use photocopying technology (Xerography), making it much easier and quicker to create the complex animation that this film required. This film does, after all, feature over 100 dogs and had this been hand-drawn, it would have been both time-consuming, and incredibly costly. Using this xerox technique, the new visual style of Disney was very different, favouring a harder or scratchier outline in the backgrounds, instead of the softer, painted look of the films up to and including Sleeping Beauty

With the exception perhaps of The Jungle Book (1967) which combined painted backgrounds and the harder-outlined character designs, this paired-back animation style saw Disney through its financial difficulties and indeed was the favoured approach until The Rescuers in 1977. 

The Silver Age was known as a period of great creativity, as well as change for the studio. However it was also an age that ended tragically, with the passing of Walt Disney in 1966. Whilst The Jungle Book was the last film that he personally oversaw, he sadly did not live long enough to see it, and died in December 1966 after battling lung cancer.

What followed was a time of great uncertainty as the studios struggled to find their flow without the guidance and imagination of Walt. This time was known as the “Bronze Age” or sometimes the “modern era”.

Look out for the next Disney Decades piece, as we’ll explore this tumultuous time for the studio…it’s certainly an interesting one!