Spotlight: Mary Blair
Disney films are built on images of women. The Disney Princess is, like it or not, an iconic commercial and cultural force. When Uncle Walt chose to rest his labour of love first feature on the shapely shoulders of Snow White, he set a template that would be repeated over the decades, from Cinderella to Frozen. Beautiful women, fairy stories, happy endings.
The artists who drew those iconic images of Disney Princesses were predominantly male. Female animators were, and still are today, in the minority (stats from 2018 demonstrate that women make up only 16% of animation departments in the US). However, while women were in the minority at Disney, the studio’s first few decades were shaped by a small but vital group of quietly influential women.
Nathalia Holt’s excellent book, The Queens of Animation, explores the lives of several of these women in depth. Holt demonstrates how, in the face of social limitations, sexist work culture and entrenched hierarchies, these women faced an uphill battle to simply receive credit for their work. Those that made headway during the studio’s golden era (1937-1942), and kept the multiplane cameras whirring through the war years, found themselves fired or driven from their jobs during the regressive swing back of the 1950s. Promising careers were cut short, great potential squandered.
One woman however, managed to win Walt’s trust, cling on through the roughest times and became in her own way, a kind of Disney icon (although, heaven forbid, no princess). That woman was Mary Blair.
Mary Browne Robinson was born in Oklahoma in 1911 and grew up in Texas and California. Her mother, grandmothers and aunts were powerful forces in her childhood, but the family’s fortunes were shaped by her alcoholic, frequently unemployed father. Money was tight, but Mary was a remarkable student with an unmistakable artistic talent. She won a scholarship to attend the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where she studied under Gyo Fujikawa, another gifted female artist, who would later also work at Disney. At Chouinard she fell in love with a fellow student, Lee Blair, and the two married in 1934.
Throughout the 1930s, the young artistic couple worked at several animation studios. Lee was able to start out straight away as an animator, but Mary could initially only find less prestigious work as an inker. Her talent was irrepressible though, and she was soon working as an art director for Harman-Ising, home of Looney Tunes. Mary always saw herself as a painter first and was initially reluctant to seriously pursue animation. By 1940 however, both Lee and Mary were working at Disney.
Disney Studios in the 1930s was a challenging place for a female worker. Most departments were overwhelmingly male dominated, and the most creative and prestigious roles – the artists, animators and writers – were dominated by White men. During this period, Disney was actively discouraging women from applying, sending a standard letter to all female job applicants that cautioned low expectations:
Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men.
The one area where women could anticipate consistent employment was in Ink and Paint. Populated almost entirely by conventionally attractive women under the age of 30, the department was jokingly nicknamed The Nunnery. The Ink and Paint “girls'' were responsible for the skilful job of tracing and tinting the transparent cels which made up every frame of on-screen action (every second of film required 20-30 individual drawings).
It was delicate and arduous work, conducted by dozens of women, who wore gowns and gloves to keep the cels free from grease or lint. Although crucial, this work was low in the studio hierarchy, underpaid and often thankless – of the 150 Ink and Paint girls who worked on Snow White, only a tiny proportion were invited to the films premiere, and none were given on screen credit. Nonetheless, even within the restrictive boundaries of the department, the girls could make a more permanent mark. Ink and Paint employee Mary Louise Weiser patented the first grease pencil while working on Pinocchio (1940), to make drawing on cellulose easier. Her invention became an essential tool in 1950s aviation, used in air traffic control centres to mark the route of aircraft on glass.
Outside of Ink and Paint, women had gradually infiltrated other departments, but these advances were not without struggle. Bianca Majolie, who became the first female employee of the Story Department in 1935, was a talented artist who made her way into this male domain through her warm personal relationship with Walt (they went to the same high school). Despite this step up, she found the department’s hyper masculine atmosphere oppressive, and did her best to avoid the famously antagonist story meetings, where the team would rip ideas apart and shout obscenities at those who dared to present substandard ideas. Despite her influential role in developing films including Snow White and Pinocchio (she even translated the book from Italian for the team) Bianca was abruptly fired, with no explanation, in 1940.
Daily microaggressions, pranks and low-level harassment were common. Grace Huntington, who followed Bianca to join the Story Department, recalled coming into work one day to find her colleagues had put a live pig under her desk. Sexism was literally built into the architecture. The top floor of Disney’s purpose-built studio complex included the Penthouse Club, an exclusive men only members club that comprised a steam room, billiard tables, terraces for nude sunbathing and walls festooned with murals of naked women.
Mary arrived with no illusions. She had been driven from her previous job by escalating sexual harassment from a co-worker. At Disney she was sent over to the story department, where she was surprised to find herself working alongside several women. Her boss was Sylvia Moberley-Holland, a former architect who had turned to animation after the death of her husband had left her with two young children to support. A formidable talent herself, Sylvia had made a mark while working on Fantasia (1940) on which she had directed the “Waltz of the Flowers” sequence, becoming Disney’s first female story lead. Mary was able at last to find female allies amongst her colleagues. She soon formed a lasting friendship with Retta Scott, who was to become the first woman to receive a Disney screen credit as an animator for her work on Bambi (1942). The two women would remain friends throughout their lives, their bond holding fast throughout the ups and downs of their turbulent careers.
Mary’s talent began to soar. Her sketches for Dumbo (1941) attracted Walt’s attention, who spotted her talent for capturing emotion in her drawings. In 1941, she elbowed her way into a career changing opportunity. Walt was developing a series of government sponsored propaganda films designed to strengthen US relationships with South America. Mary spent three months touring Brazil, Peru and Argentina on a research trip, the only woman in a crowd of all male artists, including her husband Lee and Walt himself. This eye-opening cultural awakening – a feast of food, drink, art, music, tradition – had a huge influence on Mary’s art. She returned full of ideas, which she immediately began pouring into her work.
Crucially the trip had also allowed Mary to make an impression on the boss. She became Walt’s new favourite, much to the chagrin of her male peers, and served as art supervisor on Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944). While those films are patchy, built largely on outsider stereotypes of Latin culture, Mary’s contribution can be felt in its most successful moments. As Holt highlights, sequences such as the “Aquarela do Brasil” section of Saludos Amigos, in which a paintbrush floats by drawing scenes of Rio de Janeiro, bears the hallmarks of Mary’s extraordinary use of colour and sense of childlike wonder.
Over the next decade, Mary would remain consistently in Walt’s favour, eventually becoming an Art Director and playing a key role in shaping the look and feel of films throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She became particularly renowned for her unusual colour combinations. “Mary was the first artist I knew of to have different shades of red next to each other,” animator Frank Thomas remembered, “You just didn’t do that! But Mary made it work.” Influenced by modern art and mid-century design, Mary drew the concept art that would determine the distinctive flat, graphic look of Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). It was Mary who, influenced by a touring production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, gave Maleficent her bold horned headdress, and Mary who drew upon Dior’s New Look to design the hourglass dresses of Cinderella.
Mary herself, with her high cheekbones, short fringe and dashing homemade outfits, was as elegant as one of her own drawings. Yet behind the exquisite tailoring and professional success her personal life was turbulent. Lee was an alcoholic, unfaithful and incurably jealous of his wife’s talent. Over the years he became increasingly emotionally and physically abusive to both his wife and his children. Hints of her trauma come through in her work. The famous scene in Dumbo, where the baby elephant reaches through the bars of a cage for his mother’s trunk, was inspired by Mary’s experience of miscarriage, while the dark gothic landscapes of Sleeping Beauty were drawn during a particularly troubled period in her marriage. Mary was an intensely private woman, who talked to few about her struggles. Instead, she poured herself into her art.
Not every decision Mary made was inspired and she didn’t always push back enough on bad ideas. The indigenous stereotypes in Peter Pan (1953) happened on her watch, and she was involved in the development of the infamous Song of the South (1946), which was later censored due to its racial stereotypes. For all that some women such as Mary had managed to make headway within Disney’s rigid hierarchies, the picture for African Americans and other artists of colour was even more limited. A Chinese born artist Tyrus Wong had played an important role on Bambi in the 1930s and in 1948 Frank Braxton became the studio’s first Black animation hire, but neither artist lasted long at the studio.
Tracing stories of women of colour is even tougher, and it’s hard to find much information about their contributions. The one exception is the remarkable story of illustrator Gyo Fujikawa, the American daughter of Japanese immigrants who taught Mary Blair at college, joined the Disney publicity department, and fled to New York in the early 1940s to avoid Roosevelt’s internment camps. Gyo would go on to build a successful career outside of film, drawing a series of trailblazing multicultural children’s books in the 1960s. As far as we can tell, it’s not until the 1990s, and the arrival of the likes of writer Rita Hsiao (Mulan in 1998), that we see women of colour finding active credited filmmaking roles at the studio.
Mary Blair continued to work with Disney on and off until the 1960s, including overseeing the design of the creepy, if iconic, It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland. She remained close to Walt throughout, but his sudden death in 1966 brought her career at the studio to a sudden halt. With her patron gone, the male colleagues who had always envied her close relationship with the boss closed ranks. She finished off the outstanding projects entrusted to her by Walt and left, never to be hired by Disney again.
Mary died aged 67 in 1974. The cause of death was a cerebral haemorrhage, likely caused by acute alcoholism. Her biography is in many ways a sad one, the story of a wildly creative woman who soared professionally but was constrained personally by the limited expectations of the day. Nonetheless, the shadow she casts is long.
We can sense her signature in the emotionally tinted landscapes of Frozen, the formal experimentation of Inside Out and the graphic title sequence of Up. Pete Docter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, has said how on every film he develops, “There’s a phase where we say, ‘Let’s look at Mary Blair’s stuff!’” Michael Gaimo, Art Director of Frozen, saw himself as picking up Mary’s baton. “What she did went beyond the project into a pure art form,” Giamo says, “It became art. It became a statement in itself.” The women who carried Disney (and later Disney Pixar) through it’s 1990s renaissance period and into the present day – Mulan’s Rita Hsuai, Brave’s Brenda Chapman, Frozen’s Jennifer Lee - were able to find their place partly due to trails blazed by Mary.
She may have found her place in Disney lore, but Mary was not the only woman who built the studio. As Holt’s book makes clear, credit must go too, to the many other women who played a role. To Bianca Majolie, whose concept art would influence the development of Peter Pan’s mischievous Tinker Bell and The Little Mermaid’s underwater kingdom many years after she was abruptly fired. To Gyo Fujikawa, who remains a celebrated figure in the children’s book world. To Retta Scott, the first credited female animator who after a hiatus rediscovered the art form in her mid-60s and enjoyed a career renaissance.
That last story is particularly close to our hearts. We remember as children scouring the credits on Bambi, looking for a woman’s name. Retta stood out among so many men, a little glimmer of hope in the April showers. Even the tiniest little drip drop, can send out ripples.
Queens of Animation, Nathalia Holt. 2019.
“The Blend.” Hans Perk. A Film L.A.
“A Brief History of Women in Animation.” Hannah Chusid. Untitled Magazine.
“The Forgotten Women who Helped Shape the Look of Disney Animation.” Nathalia Holt. Time.
“Sylvia Moberley-Holland.” Great Woman Animators.
“Disney Legends: Mary Blair”. Disney Archives.
“Behind the Scenes at Disney.” Steve Pfarrer. Daily Hampshire Gazette.
She Shoots, She Draws: A History of Women in Animation
Invisible Women at London Drawing Group
26 April 2021, 6.30pm
If you’re hungry to learn more, please consider signing up for our upcoming talk She Shoots, She Draws for more fascinating stories of women and animation from the archives.
In this illustrated online talk, we'll be taking you through a brief, partial but fascinating history of women in animation. Using clips and stills, we'll do our best to tell the story of the trailblazers who built the form, often with minimal recognition, working at both the heart of the industry and at its radical fringes. The story of these films, and the women behind them, offers bright and compelling insights into our shared socio-cultural history. Best of all, they offer a cheeky one-in-the-eye to the male gaze - when women hold the pen, all bets are off.
Tickets are on donation basis (£12 suggested) and you can get yours here