A Forgotten Walt Interview From 1933

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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I love paper. Years of researching things by squinting at rolls of microfilm and microfiche and having it print out almost too illegible to use have reinforced for me the value of having the original paper physically in my hand.

However, I am well aware of how fragile paper can be. I have had lots of valuable, irreplaceable paper completely lost several times when vast quantities of water accidentally came in contact with it. I also know that without proper care, paper will yellow and become brittle and crumble in your hands.

That last scenario happened to me just recently but I was able to rescue the information to include in this column. Growing up in Southern California, I haunted Mouse Club conventions; NFFC conventions; old bookstores in Los Angeles, Burbank and Pasadena; and, of course swap meets and antique stores for any Disney-related paper. Sometimes I discovered an old magazine with an article related to Disney. Other times I came across ancient in-house publications from the Disney Studios. Occasionally, I would purchase things I wasn’t quite sure what they were or why they were created but only discovered the story behind the item years later.

Many years ago (too long for my feeble memory to recall exactly when although I know it had to be more than 15years ago), I stumbled across a full-page sheet from a 1933 newspaper about the making of The Three Little Pigs. The seller was just selling that page and not the entire newspaper. At the time, I was only casually interested in the Silly Symphonies, so I kept it folded away in a big brown bag and eventually forgot I even had it.

Recently, while searching for information for a completely unrelated subject, I rediscovered the bag. To my horror, I discovered that the paper had neatly torn along the folds, triangular fragments from the sides had broken off and more. I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle with about 17different pieces to re-create a huge Sunday newspaper page.

Very carefully and patiently, I pieced all the pieces back together and to my surprise discovered information and Walt quotes that had never appeared anywhere else in print. In 1933, there was no formal publicity department for the Disney Studios and Walt talked unedited to a variety of publications to promote the studio or a particular film.

Preserving Disney history is sometimes difficult because first-generation material either no longer exists or researchers don’t even know where to begin to look, especially since many popular newspapers and magazines ceased publication decades ago. Unfortunately, piecing the paper back together to copy down the information resulted in even more damage to the original.

So, for the enjoyment of MousePlanet readers and in keeping with my goal to share with you material that you will never find anywhere else, I have transcribed most of the article for you. The sections I left out are the typical paragraphs about the creation of an animated film along with the shock that it takes so many drawings and so many people.

I have left in all of Walt’s quotes and other material about the creation of The Three Little Pigs that I have never seen documented anywhere else including the comments about the music.

The Three Little Pigs and its famous song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” certainly gave American audiences hope and a laugh during the Great Depression. Perhaps it is appropriate to remember it in these trying times as well. At this time when money is so tight, it is certainly appropriate to consider Walt’s philosophy of money and work that is clearly spotlighted in this article.

I’ve written about The Three Little Pigs before ("Disney's Ham Actors: The Three Little Pigs," June 6, 2007).

The Three Little Pigs premiered on May 25,1933. It was so popular that it ran for weeks. Variety stated: “Three Little Pigs is proving the most unique picture property in history. It’s particularly unique because it’s a cartoon running less than 10 minutes, yet providing box office draft comparable to a feature, as demonstrated by the numerous repeats.”

United Artists could not supply enough prints to meet the demand and some exhibitors had to share a print, running it back and forth between two or more theaters.

“Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” replaced “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime” as the working man’s anthem during the Depression. It was played constantly on the radio and major phonograph companies issued competing records of the song. This was the first time that a cartoon had ever spawned a hit song. The song even appeared in MGM’s Babes in Toyland and Paramount’s Duck Soup.

There was a flood of merchandising for the characters from stationery to playing cards, to toothbrush holders, tea sets, radios, books and even Christmas tree lights. By the time this interview with Walt took place, both the cartoon and song were still popular even though both had been in release for more than a year.

Here from the Magazine section of the San Francisco Chronicle from Sunday morning December 31,1933 is:

“A Silly Symphony Becomes America’s Slogan: Three Little Pigs Change the Psychology of the Nation—Walt Disney Tells How He Makes Animated Cartoons” by Alice L. Tildesley.

The article has a picture of a very dapper looking Walt Disney in a suit and hat with his arms crossed and the caption: “Work is the real adventure in life. Money is merely a means to make more work possible,” says Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies.

There are some black and white publicity drawings from The Three Little Pigs (the wolf huffing and puffing and another with two of the pigs holding the door while the house of sticks blows away around them), Skeleton Dance (four skeletons dancing in a graveyard with a church in the background and a tree with eyes, mouth and branch like arms looking on in horror) and pictures of Mickey serenading Minnie with a saxophone and playing on a piano.

“Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?”

We all could be singing this popular ditty with conviction if we had the confidence of Walt Disney, who has found the answer to this wolf-at the-door menace.

The answer, according to Disney is: Invent your own job; take such an interest in it that you eat, sleep, dream, walk, talk and live nothing but your work until you succeed. Then you may take on a hobby or two if you feel so inclined.

“All this talk about my making a lot of money is bunk,” declares Disney. “After 10 years of pretty tough sledding, I am now making a moderate profit on my products, but every dime I take in is immediately put back into the business. I’m building for the future. And my goal isn’t millions; it’s better pictures.

“I’m not interested in money, except for what I can do with it to advance my work. The idea of piling up a fortune for the sake of wealth seems silly to me. Work is the real adventure in life. Money is merely a means to make more work possible.

“The average cost of a cartoon in black and white is $18,000. In color this runs to about $20,000. These figures represent only the actual production cost and don’t include cost of prints—usually 250 prints a picture, but 350 for the pigs—cost of distribution, advertising, foreign taxes, duties, etc.

“It takes a Mickey Mouse comedy 12 months to pay for itself, while the average Silly Symphony doesn’t crawl out of the red for 18 months.

“On the other hand, these cartoon comedies last for a long time. They are still showing the first Mickey Mouse comedy after nine years. Maybe 10 years from now the big bad wolf will still be huffing and puffing before the door to the house of bricks.”

Certainly the Three Little Pigs should “crawl out of the red soon, for its breaking records everywhere and has been recalled as many as seven times to some theaters. Yet, if you can believe it, when Disney suggested the idea for the symphony to his staff some nine months ago, the twelve men who compose the story department remained unimpressed.

“It’s lousy! Why don’t you get a real idea?’ they chorused.

You see, Disney surrounds himself with good “no” men. Every one of these 135 who work at the one-story building called “Walt Disney Studios” is a member of a co-operating organization. They are not expected to say “yes” when they mean “no” and nothing is done without a majority opinion in favor of it.

“I think the reason they didn’t like the idea was that at that time the thing wasn’t very clear in my own mind,” confesses Disney frankly. “I withdrew it and tried to forget it, but the pigs and the wolf and the little house kept haunting me. I thought about them until I saw the story clearly, and then I proposed it again. This time they liked it. I don’t mean they threw up their hats, or that even I thought it would be a tremendous hit. We considered it a typical Silly Symphony.

“We have three musical directors who compose the music, or adapt it, for our pictures. Our three picture directors each has a film to direct, and each works with his own musical director.

“The music must fit the mood of the story. It should enhance the action, and care must be taken that it does not instead detract from the picture of annoy the audience.

“At first we tried to have the action follow the melody, but we soon saw that wouldn’t do. The musical score must correspond to the rhythm of the action following the beat of the music.

“The problem is simply one of resolving all musical tempos in terms of the standard speed and of making a consecutive series of drawings to fit the tempo. Certain basic tempos, multiples of the frame speed of the film, have been established. The fastest tempo employed is one beat every six frames amounting to four beats a second. The total range is from this to one beat every twenty frames, or one beat every five-sixths of a second.”

In the case of the pigs, one of his staff during the first conference suggested the title “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?” Whereupon, Frank Churchill, music composer, sat down and wrote the jingly tune in five minutes, after which the lyric was composed by two of the young men on the staff.

Originally the words appeared like this:

“Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?

The big, bad wolf, the big, bad wolf?

Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?

He don’t know from nothing!”

But that last line refused to fit and the boys toiled for some time trying to find a rhyme for “wolf”. At length one said in despair, “Let’s just let the flute take it!” And the well-known “tra la la la la!” was slipped in to finish the first hit melody furnished by a cartoon studio.

Approximately 100 hours are required to photograph a cartoon subject that averages 600 feet of film. The [[Three Little] Pigs was considerably longer than this and was composed of 15,000 separate drawings.

“The secret of success if there is any, is liking what you do. I like my work better than my play. I play polo, when I have time, and I enjoy it, but it can’t equal work!” says Disney.