What were we doing back in 1957? We were hard at work crafting Walt Disney’s most ambitous animated motion picture, “Sleeping Beauty” and reading Playboy magazine. Has Playboy been around that long, you ask? I guess it has. As I recall, there were copies all over the studio back then. Hardly a concern for Human Resources because there was no Human Resources back in the fifties. What would be considered a “hostile work place” today was simply taken in stride. It was the era that slightly preceeded the years that the television show, “Mad Men” would one day examine. Smoking, drinking and other office hanky-panky would be considered quite normal in the fifties. It was truly another time and another world.
I’ve often spoken about the number of young women working in animation back in the fifties. Today, we continue to hear the same names over and over again. Certainly, the amazing talents of Mary Blair, Retta Scott and others should not be ignored. However, there were scores of women artists working in the Animation Building back in the fifties. And, not just in animation, although animation could boast the largest number. I would venture to guess women would have probably played a larger role in Disney animation had it not been for the Sleeping Beauty layoffs. When the massive Sleeping Beauty staff was decimated in late 1959, many men and women left Walt Disney Productions never to return. Had things been different, I would wager many of these talented young women would have eventually climbed the ladder to more important positions. We’ll never know, of course. The late fifties layoffs put an abrupt end to the artistic growth at the Disney Studio. Growth, in terms of staff in any case. It would be at least another two decades before we would see female artists return to the Walt Disney Studio in significent numbers.
Back in 1957 the chances were pretty good you could be having your Sleeping Beauty drawings checked by a woman. As I said, there were a fair number of female assistant animators assigned to the film. It would appear that women, along with their ability to focus on intricate detail were perfect for a motion picture as complex as “Sleeping Beauty.” Male artists frustrated with drawings where the weight of an eyelash was considered important often deferred to the skill and patience of their female colleagues. After all, “Sleeping Beauty” had been the most intricate and detailed film we had ever done. It was an animated motion picture perfectly suited to the unique sensibilities inherent in most women artists. I hope this is not coming off as sounding sexist. The woman were just darn good at doing this job, and Directing Animator, Marc Davis was grateful to have women such as, Mary Anderson, Fran Marr and Doris Collins following him as he animated Briar Rose.
As I said, it was another world at the Walt Disney Studio back in 1957. While many might say it was a “Man’s World” back then, I might quickly add that it was a man’s world where women played a very important role.