January 25, 1961 – One Hundred and One Dalmatians Released to Theaters
“One Hundred and One Dalmatians is the most modern Disney animated movie ever made. [It’s]the one that has the most guts, that says, ‘This is art,’ but it’s entertainment at the same time…it’s Picasso coming in to Disney.” – Andreas Deja, Supervising Animator, Walt Disney Studios.
On January 25, 1961, the Disney animated feature One Hundred and One Dalmatians was released to theaters. Based on the 1956 bestselling children’s book by Dodie Smith, the story caught Walt Disney’s attention in 1957, and he soon bought the rights to the story of two Dalmatians who travel great lengths to save their stolen puppies from being turned into fur coats by the evil Cruella De Vil. Costing $4 million to make, the film was an enormous success upon release, and is known as a technical and stylistic innovation for the studio. The feature was directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton S. Luke, and Clyde Geronimi, with story by Bill Peet, musical score by George Bruns, and songs by Mel Leven. Voice actors include Rod Taylor as Pongo, Cate Bauer as Perdita, Ben Wright as Roger, Lisa David as Anita, and Betty Lou Gerson as Cruella.
The story opens with narration by Pongo, who introduces his “pet,” Roger, a songwriter, and laments that a bachelor’s life is not as glamorous as one would think. Pongo comes up with an idea to set Roger up with a mate, and after spying many not-so-ideal candidates, he spots a female Dalmatian with her owner, Anita, and tricks Roger into following them into the park. After tying Roger and Anita together quite literally, the two happy couples move into a quiet flat in London, and Perdita lets Pongo know she is pregnant. Everyone in the household is excited about the prospect of puppies, including Anita’s old school mate, Cruella De Vil, whose curiosity about the puppies makes Pongo suspicious. Roger, who has been working on a new melody at this point, teases Anita with lyrics about Cruella, calling her a “vampire bat” and an “inhuman beast,” among other things.
Three weeks later, the puppies are born, and Cruella appears in the doorway, wishing to purchase the puppies. When Roger stands up to her and says she will not be getting a single puppy, Cruella flies into a rage and departs. Unbeknown to the two couples, Cruella hires two thugs, Horace and Jasper, who go into the house when Anita and Roger are taking Perdita and Pongo for a walk, and steal the puppies. Although Anita and Roger call Scotland Yard, Pongo concludes that the humans have failed, and the only solution left is the Twilight Bark. While Perdita dismisses it as a gossip chain, Pongo convinces her that they have to try, and begins the barking chain while in Regents Park. The chain travels fast, causing all of the dogs in London to bark madly, much to the annoyance of all the humans.
The chain makes its way to the countryside, to an old sheepdog named the Colonel, a horse known as the Captain, and a cat called Sergeant Tibs. The Colonel interprets the message, with Tibs letting the two know that he heard barking two nights before at the abandoned Hell Hall. As he makes his way into the dilapidated mansion, Tibs makes the startling discovery that there are ninety-nine Dalmatian puppies occupying Hell Hall. Although Tibs is chased out of the mansion, he reports his findings to the Colonel, who passes the message back to Pongo. Pongo and Perdita decide that the only option is to go retrieve the puppies themselves, with help along the way by dogs in the chain. “If you lose your way,” the Great Dane reminds them, “contact the barking chain. They’ll be standing by!” The two Dalmatians brave treacherous weather, Cruella’s two bungling henchmen, and Cruella herself to bring all of the puppies back to their home in London.
When Walt Disney contacted Dodie Smith about turning her book into a film, she responded enthusiastically, “To be quite honest, I always hoped you might – so much so that, when I was writing it, I often found myself visualizing the scenes as they would be in cartoon.” Dodie’s story was a contemporary tale, and the Disney animators took a big leap from the stylizing of the old classics like Cinderella and even Sleeping Beauty that they’d only finished two years earlier. Indeed, the movie still has a contemporary feel, with 20th century style rather than the classic romantic look favored by Disney. Even the characters were different; for example, Cruella De Vil was seen smoking cigarettes, and the puppies were seen watching television. “At this point, we feel it is going to be one of the most interesting things we have done in the cartoon feature field,” Disney wrote in one of his correspondences with Smith. “Dalmatians…has met enthusiastic audience approval. I feel we have a very successful picture.”
The biggest change in the film was the implementation of the Xerox process when it came to cel animation (see January 21st entry for more information). Created by Ub Iwerks, the process had been tested on the short film Goliath II, and created excitement among the animators, as they were seeing their own drawings up on the screen, as they had originally envisioned them. One problem, however, was the presence of what is known as construction lines – the original sketch lines when beginning to draw a character. In many instances in the film, one can tell when Milt Kahl animated a scene, as the construction lines would still be present, as he was very militant about having people come in and clean up his sketches, as sometimes they would disturb the final drawing. However, one main reason that the Xerox process worked so well for this picture is because the Dalmatians were basically black and white, and all that was needed was just a clear outline of the dogs. This also helped when it came to creating the spots of all 101 Dalmatians.
Another interesting aspect of the Xerox process were the vehicles. Iwerks had the idea that if a drawing could be copied straight to a cel, he would be able to use the same process to take a picture of a line that was drawn on the edge of a model. The animators built the cars as models out of cardboard, tracing the edges with a black line. To make the wheels move believably, they suspended the model from a kite string, and pulled it across a piece of fabric placed over wooden dowling rods. The clips of the models were then transferred directly to a Xerox plate, and were painted. In the final print, what you are seeing is the model on the screen, rather than a straight animation of a car. It was one of the many fascinating technological advances of the film.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians also has the distinction of being one of the first Disney animated features that wasn’t really a musical. This is surprising, as Roger is a songwriter by trade, which could have easily led to many musical numbers. There are only three songs in the film: Cruella De Vil, Dalmatian Plantation, and Kanine Krunchies. Mel Leven had written a different piece before before the final version of Cruella De Vil. As told by Disney Historian Russell Schroeder, “Driving to work one day, Mel thought, ‘You know, a blues tempo would really fit that character.’ So he came up with the melody line…he replaced his prior song himself.” Dalmatian Plantation had also been replaced, as story man Bill Peet came to Leven and asked him to have the song have more emphasis on rhyming. Kanine Krunchies is a delight, as it is an exaggerated spoof of the commercials played on television in those days.
Overall, the film is a delightful piece of pop culture, and while considered a contemporary piece in the early ’60s, the film hasn’t grown stale or shown its age. It was a wonderful turning point in the studio stylistically and technically, and would continue to be a success in each of its reissues into theaters.