Nathalia Holt has written a timely novel about five women who worked for the Walt Disney Studio in its early years. They were pioneers in art and vital contributors to the most popular Disney films beginning with “Snow White.” Even the icy colors and story structure of the current film “Frozen” was influenced by these women when their work was discovered in the Disney archives.
Women were hired at Disney in 1935 only for Ink and Paint positions. They were responsible for the 20-30 drawings for each second of Disney film. Walt Disney believed it was a waste to train a woman in anything requiring more skill because he thought they would just get married and quit. Walt’s own wife, Sylvia, was a former Ink and Paint employee. (Most of these women lost their jobs with the advent of the first Xerox machine.)
Bianca Majolie, who met Walt in high school, was the first professional hired as a storyboard artist in 1935. She provided an English translation of “The Adventures of Pinocchio” and contributed significantly to “The Ugly Duckling,” among other famous Disney productions. At one meeting her storyboard ideas were literally shredded by Walt. When Bianca fled in mortification to her private office, the male artists followed her and broke through her locked door, shouting and making fun of her humiliation by Walt.
Grace Huntington was a professional pilot who was passed over repeatedly for flying jobs because she was a woman although she set altitude records for light planes in the late 1930s. Upon hiring her as a storyboard artist and animator, Walt warned her that the men at Disney would resent her. She didn’t expect to find a pig in her office when she arrived at work one day. Grace was a significant contributor to “Snow White.”
Retta Scott wrote and illustrated the scenes of Bambi and his mother being chased by the dogs in the movie. She was the first woman to receive screen credit for animation. The men at Disney could not believe that a woman could be responsible for drawing the snarling and vicious dogs in “Bambi.”
Sylvia Holland struggled after being hired as the leader of a team of men to develop musical sequences for “Fantasia.” She succeeded only because Walt recognized her as a brilliant artist.
Mary Blair is the most renowned of the women who worked in significant roles at the Disney Studios. She is credited for her vision of modernizing Cinderella by designing her clothes with a waist and for her designs of merchandise which netted the company at least 8 million dollars in revenue. The haunting lyrical scene between Dumbo and his mother was created by Mary. Walt kept her artwork in his own home and stayed close to her even after she left the company. She designed the mural for the attraction that was “It’s a Small World After All” at Disney’s theme park.
Retta Scott and Mary Blair are credited with illustrations in many of The Little Golden books about the Disney animated stories. Both were recognized as Disney Legends in later award ceremonies.
All of the women were paid drastically less than the men who were in similar positions. They were not allowed access to an exclusive penthouse on the roof of the Disney studios which included chefs, masseurs, and swimming pools. Rarely were the women acknowledged on the screen credits when they had done so much of the creating.
“The Queens of Animation” is a riveting story about brilliant artists who had careers that have influenced us all. It is the story of women defying the culture of male exclusivity in the Disney organization. It is also a captivating history of the Disney Studios in its earliest days and includes fascinating details about how the early movies were created.
The five women featured in the novel definitely have not gained the accolades they deserve. In several biographies of Disney, only one or two of the women are even mentioned in indexes. Even then, they are given just a sentence or two. Yet it is clear that the universally beloved Disney movies would not have been as successful without the contributions of these women.
Just as in recent books and movies such as “Hidden Figures” and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Sacks,” this novel brings to the forefront the achievement of overlooked women. It is a detailed, captivating, historical piece that I hope many men and women read.