The Secret Origin of the Aristocats

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Each year, it gets harder and harder to come up with a Disney-themed Christmas column, since in the past, I have written about Walt’s Christmas, Disney Christmas cartoons, Christmas at the theme parks and more. Then, it occurred to me that many Disney animated features were released at Christmas time and I could pick an obscure one to discuss.

The Aristocats premiered December 24, 1970, almost 40 years ago and is rarely discussed, since it was really the first animated film made after Walt’s death. Jungle Book was released a year after Walt’s passing, but the perception is that, since it was in production during Walt’s lifetime, it still included his spirit and was a final tribute to his contributions.

The Artistocats reveals how essential Walt Disney was in shaping the studio’s animated features—and how significant a gap he left. Aristocats was the first film made entirely after his death. The plot does little more than link a string of vaguely related episodes," said animation historian Charles Solomon in the Los Angeles Times (April 9, 1987).

I don’t always agree with Solomon’s opinions. However, when I read this quote 20 years ago, I thought he was being much too kind to the film.

I have never cared for The Aristocats as a Disney animated feature. I guess the storyman in me wonders about the inclusion of two giddy English geese and their drunken uncle (basted in white wine and the last voice work of the talented Bill Thompson known as the Little Ranger, White Rabbit and Mr. Smee) and two dim witted Southern American dogs (voiced by Pat Buttram and George “Goober” Lindsey) in Belle Epoch France—and what the devil do all these diverse characters contribute to the story or the growth of the characters?

How did a 1960s cat with love beads and indoor sunglasses end up in an all cat jazz band with distasteful stereotypes (remember the Chinese Cat with slanted eyes and buck teeth voiced by Paul Winchell?) when American jazz didn’t really become popular in France until after World War I? (Remember that this story is supposedly set in 1910 Paris, France.)

And I am not even mentioning all the “borrowing” from re-used animation cycles to how “Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat” seems to be trying to be “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book or how the defeat of one of Disney’s weakest villains ever, Edgar the Butler (and why does he feel the desperate need to kill the cats when the Duchess is still in fine health? Is he planning on killing the Duchess now, as well?) by the animals is strongly reminiscent of Horace and Jasper’s downfall in 101 Dalmatians.

The film was released in December 1970 and was a box-office success, although critics were more than a little under-whelmed, especially after the wonder of the previous release, The Jungle Book. Today, the little white kitten named Marie is a huge favorite of the Japanese and there is a ton of merchandise featuring her.

In fact, the Disney Channel considered making Marie and her brothers into teenagers and using them in a syndicated television series in 2003. By the way, in 2005, Disney announced it was going to do a direct-to-video sequel of the film, but that project was canceled in 2006 along with several other proposed sequels.

For many years, The Aristocats remained probably my least-favorite Disney animated feature until I started dating a young lady named Tracy Barnes. It was her favorite Disney animated film of all time, but I suspect it was because, as a child, she saw it at a very emotional time in her young life and associated that incident with bonding more closely with her dad who took her to the movie theater. Anyway, Tracy taught me many things, but one of those things is that every Disney movie is somebody’s favorite and I need to be respectful of that fact.

I truly believed that this film was a clear example that without Walt doing his famous story editing, future films would lack the richness of the earlier Disney animated features. Even the weakest of those earlier Disney films remain entertaining today and have several set pieces that are memorable—thanks to his eye for story. How often do you see a clip from The Aristocats used in compilations of outstanding Disney animation?

Well, I have been wrong before and apparently I am wrong again, at least when it comes to how much input Walt had in The Aristocats. Originally, it was to be a two-part live-action story for Wonderful World of Color and Walt was deeply involved and was also the one who decided the story would be better in animation.

For Tracy Barnes, wherever she is today, and all those readers who feel kindly toward The Aristocats, here is my Christmas gift to you: The story of how The Aristocats,came to be. It is another story you will never hear on the “extras” of the DVD.

It all begins with a gentleman named Harry Tytle. Tytle spent 40 years at the Disney Studio, eventually becoming a producer on live-action films. He was well-liked and was close to Walt.

On December 9, 1961, Tytle was in London where Tom McGowan, who had directed some of the animal films for Wonderful World of Disney like The Hound Who Thought He Was a Raccoon (1963), lived with his family. Walt Disney was also in London at the time and suggested that Tytle make a deal with McGowan to find some animal stories for the Disney Studio.

McGowan also developed Born Free, which he offered to the Disney Studio and it was rejected. McGowan was the original director on that film, but left before the film was completed.

By the New Year, McGowan had found several stories. One was a children’s book about a mother cat and her kittens set in New York City. Tytle felt that a London location had added a significant element to the story of “101 Dalmatians” and suggested setting the story of the cats in Paris.

McGowan and Tytle worked out a rough storyline, assuming it would be done in live-action and run as a two-part television show that could later be combined into a theatrical release just as previous two part episodes had been done.

Originally, the story revolved around two servants (a butler and a maid) who were in line to inherit a fortune of an eccentric mistress after the pet cats died and focused on their feeble and foolish attempts to eliminate the felines. Then there was an extended section of the mother cat hiding the kittens to keep them out of danger in a variety of different homes and locales around Paris, France.

The concept was that the live-action cats talked to each other, much like the popular Mr. Ed television program. Walt was all in favor of the animals talking as long as it was not in the presence of humans. He felt it helped develop the animals’ personalities and moved along the story line.

About two months later, when Tytle was in Rome supervising the shooting of Escapade in Florence (1962 starring Annette), McGowan brought him the story that had been written by Tom Rowe, an American writer then living in Paris. McGowan had paid for all of Rowe’s expenses out of his own pocket. Rowe had an interesting career as a writer from starting as a film reviewer for “Variety” and moving on to writing scripts for television shows like “Fantasy Island” to films like “The Green Slime” (1968) to “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1981). He was also a painter with several exhibitions in Paris.

Tytle and McGowan spent a few days making revisions to Rowe’s version. By August, they sent the completed script to Burbank, where it was returned as “rejected” by the Disney Studio.

However, this rejection did not come from Walt who had not seen the treatment but by underlings. Tytle was hesitant to contact Walt directly but that didn’t stop McGowan who tracked Walt down in London and slipped the treatment into an envelope and delivered it to the front desk of the Conaught, the hotel where Walt was staying.

Walt liked the story and called McGowan at his home before McGowan had even returned from dropping off the envelope. Walt told McGowan that he would be seeing Tytle in Lisbon and they would go over the treatment. Tytle did meet with Walt in Lisbon and on the plane trip back to London, Walt told Tytle to buy the story, prepare it as a live-action feature that McGowan would direct and Tytle would produce.

Walt felt there was too much material in the script and suggested eliminating the musical kitten, as well as other cuts and revisions.

Beginning August 30, 1962, Tytle and McGowan worked for six straight days on working out a contract. The London Disney office actually amended the contract to cut McGowan in on any possible merchandising royalties. (This wasn’t a problem when it was a live-action project. When it became an animation project, those rights were purchased back from McGowan.)

In January 1963, Tytle was in a London hospital for some surgery and during his recovery, he worked in his hospital room with McGowan and Rowe on revisions. The script was finally finished February 1, and Tytle returned to Burbank to begin preparations for shooting in Paris.

In June, Walt showed Tytle a letter from Rowe. Apparently the writer was unhappy with the revisions to the script and in particular with Tytle who he felt was a “minion” of Walt’s sent to corrupt the work. Walt, however, was happy with Tytle’s work and allowed Tytle to respond to the letter himself. Tytle informed Rowe that it was just a difference of opinion and was sorry about his feelings on the matter but that Walt liked the changes and they would remain.

For a variety of reasons, the Disney Studio shelved the story for awhile and McGowan attempted to buy back the rights from Disney but was refused.

Since stories for animated films were becoming more difficult to come by, Tytle, in a discussion with Walt, suggested The Aristocats might make a good Disney animated feature. The idea was run past Woolie Reitherman (who was then the supervising director on the animated features) and some of the key animators and they all agreed.

In August 1963, Walt asked for a copy of The Aristocats script and, two days later, Card Walker announced it would be the next animated feature. However work on the project didn’t continue until May 1964.

In Tytle’s diary for November 25, 1964, is the following entry of a discussion with Walt:

“We spent some time discussing the idea. I told him of various gags and bits of business that were not in this script because when we were planning live-action, we had felt they were too ‘cartoony,’ but now could be used. For instance, where the mother cat uses her whiskers as radar, protecting her from the two servants. The other one I told him about was when the servants were in the cellar. They get locked in (the mother cat pushes the door shut) when digging a hole to bury the cats, they hit the water main, flooding the wine cellar. The butler grabs for a floating wine bottle, can’t pour the contents into the already rising water, so drinks it, puts in a note (for help), then floats it out the cellar window. After doing this a couple of times, he gets ‘high’ and doesn’t care about help coming. Walt felt the Aristocats should follow the same tack as Dalmatians. He said it would be good if the cats could talk amongst themselves, but never in front of humans. He seemed to especially like the various artists in the story, and the characters. He says when we get started, he would like the Sherman boys come in and write songs. We discussed Waterloo (one of the kittens) and some of the earlier business that Walt had cut out. We have to stay to (just) three kittens, as there is too much business in the original treatment. Walt seemed to agree that the (family) history of the cats that was written by Tom Rowe was good, but extraneous.”

Studio nurse Hazel George asked for a copy of the script (apparently at Walt’s suggestion), read it and returned it a few days later saying that she liked it very much and told Walt so. Walt valued George’s opinion. Grace Bailey, another Disney employee whose opinion Walt respected, also read the script and liked it.

This leisurely process of delays on the film while work focused on other projects caused some problems after Walt’s passing. Tytle was told he was to centralize his efforts on live-action and that Winston Hibler would take over The Aristocats project. Hibler ran into production troubles and Woolie Reitherman took over and Hibler was never again involved on animation projects.

Changes were made.

“The part of the story that most intrigued Walt, that is, adoption into homes befitting the kittens’ talents, was cut," Tytle remembered. In my opinion, the resulting film lost the very element we tried to build, the Parisian atmosphere and characters, all the French charm. I honestly think the original story that Walt bought was much better. We didn’t have a mouse in the original story; I, for one, felt it was a cliché and not vital to a cat story. For once, I wanted to do a cat story without a mouse.”

Elsa Lanchester (who had been in Mary Poppins among many other credits) had been cast as the voice and live-action reference for the part of Elvira the maid who wanted to eliminate the kittens. However, after Walt’s passing, the voice cast was recast and Elsa’s role was eliminated. Much of the original business was thrown out and replaced with other things, including the geese.

After Walt’s death, Rowe sued the studio claiming that, because he had written his sections, he was entitled, under French law, the rights to those characters, even though he acknowledged the original idea was not his own. Obviously, that claim wasn’t supported by the Disney Studio.

“It would have meant much more if the story that McGowan, Walt and I wrote had reached the screen, and had been left for the audience to judge. Thus ended my working on any cartoon product,” Tytle said with a sigh.

So Walt did do some work on The Aristocats, but his work was tossed out of the final version. Perhaps some future Blu-Ray edition of the film will feature some excerpts from the original script and some of those voice recordings that were abandoned. Maybe it will turn out that The Aristocats was actually a much, much better story than I ever imagined. Certainly, it would seem to be more interesting that the final version that had everything including the kitchen sink.

Maybe this column will encourage some of you to pull out your DVD of this film to enjoy over the holidays. Over time, I have come to view the film as a an inconsequential piece of fluff rather than an abomination to the heritage of Disney animation, but I often wonder what it would have been like if Walt had still been around to raise his one eyebrow every now and then. It might have truly been a great final Christmas gift from Walt.