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The Disney Golden Age refers to the beginning of the Disney Animated Canon when Walt Disney was still alive and all the films received critical acclaim despite struggles at the box office due to World War II and other problems. It is predicted that the era started when Disney made his first full-length animated feature, beginning with the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and ending in 1970 with The Aristocats, which is also said to be the start of another era known as the Disney Dark Age. However, it should be noted, by animation historians, movie critics and Disney fans, that The Aristocats is sometimes considered a part of the Disney Golden Age for a multitude of reasons. It was one of the last films Walt Disney worked on while he was still alive, the film was not only a critical and financially success, but is generally considered an iconic film.
In 1934, Walt Disney gathered several key staff members and announced his plans to make his first feature animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The production was dubbed "Disney's Folly" due to many doubting its success. The film became the first animated feature in English and Technicolor. Silly Symphonies such as The Goddess of Spring (1934) and The Old Mill (1937) served as experimentation grounds for new techniques for the production.
Walt Disney introduced each of the Seven Dwarfs in a scene from the original 1937 Snow White theatrical trailer.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cost Disney an expensive sum of $1.4 million to complete (including $100,000 on story development alone), and was an unprecedented success when released in February 1938 by RKO Radio Pictures, which had assumed distribution of Disney product from United Artists in 1937. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was briefly the highest grossing film of all time before the success of Gone with the Wind two years later, grossing over $8 million on its initial release, the equivalent of $134,033,100 in 1999 dollars.
The studio launched into the production of new animated features, the first of which was Pinocchio, released in February 1940. Pinocchio was not initially a box office success. Of the film's $2.289 million cost – twice of Snow White – Disney only recouped $1 million by late 1940, with studio reports of the film's final original box office take varying between $1.4 million and $1.9 million. However, Pinocchio was a critical success, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song and Best Original Score, making it the first film of the studio to win not only either Oscar, but both at the same time.
Fantasia, was released in November 1940 by Disney itself in a series of limited-seating roadshow engagements. The film cost $2 million to produce, and although the film earned $1.4 million in its roadshow engagements, the high cost ($85,000 per theater) of installing Fantasound placed Fantasia at an even greater loss than Pinocchio. Despite its financial failure, Fantasia was the subject of two Academy Honorary Awards on February 26, 1942, one for the development of the innovative Fantasound system used to create the film's stereoscopic soundtrack, and the other for Leopold Stokowski and his contributions to the film.
Much of the character animation on these productions and all subsequent features until the late 1970s was supervised by a brain-trust of animators Walt Disney dubbed the "Nine Old Men," many of whom also served as directors and later producers on the Disney features. Other head animators at Disney during this period included Norm Ferguson, Bill Tytla and Fred Moore. The development of the feature animation department created a caste system at the Disney studio: lesser animators (and feature animators in-between assignments) were assigned to work on the short subjects, while animators higher in status such as the Nine Old Men worked on the features. Concern over Walt Disney accepting credit for the artists' work as well as debates over compensation led to many of the newer and lower-ranked animators seeking to unionize the Disney studio.
Dumbo, in production during the midst of the animators' strike, premiered in October 1941, and proved to be a financial success. The film only cost $950,000 to produce, half the cost of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, less than a third of the cost of Pinocchio, and two-fifths of the cost of Fantasia. Dumbo eventually grossed $1.6 million during its original release. In August 1942, Bambi was released, and as with Pinocchio and Fantasia, did not perform well at the box office. Out of its $1.7 million budget, it only grossed $1.64 million. While Fantasia, Pinocchio and Bambi were initially disappointments, their success would rewrite themselves after some very successful re-releases.
The first five Disney films are today, some of the most acclaimed animated films of all time, and each are still huge financial successes. It is considered the best era of Disney films, as these groundbreaking films established the genre of the animated film.
Production of full-length animated features was temporarily suspended after the release of Bambi. Given the financial failures of some of the recent features and World War II cutting off much of the overseas cinema market, the studio's financiers at the Bank of America would only loan the studio working capital if it temporarily restricted itself to shorts production. Then in-production features were therefore put on hold until after the war. Other issues affecting the studio at the time included the drafting of several Disney animators to fight in World War II, and the necessity for the studio to focus on producing wartime content for the U.S. Army, particularly military training and civilian propaganda films. From 1942 to 1943, 95 percent of the studio's animation output was for the military. During the war, Disney produced the live-action/animated military propaganda feature Victory Through Air Power (1943), and a series of Latin culture-themed shorts resulting from the 1941 Good Neighbor trip were compiled into two features, Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944).
Saludos and Caballeros set the template for several other 1940s Disney releases of "package films": low-budgeted films composed of animated short subjects with animated or live-action bridging material. These films were Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948) and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). The studio also produced two features, Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948), which used more expansive live-action stories which still included animated sequences and sequences combining live-action and animated characters.
Return to Full-Length Features
In 1948, Disney returned to the production of full-length features with Cinderella. At a cost of nearly $3,000,000, the future of the studio depended upon the success of this film. Upon its release in 1950, Cinderella proved to be a box office success, with the profits from the film's release allowing Disney to carry on producing animated features throughout the 1950s.
Alice in Wonderland, released in 1951, met with a lukewarm response at the box office and was a sharp critical disappointment in its initial release (though would gain a huge critical and commercial "cult" following just a few decades later). Peter Pan, released in 1953, was, on the other hand, a commercial success and the highest-grossing film of the year. In 1955, Lady and the Tramp was released to higher box office success than any other Disney feature from the studio since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, earning an estimated $7.5 million in rentals at the North American box office in 1955. Lady was significant as Disney's first widescreen animated feature, produced in the CinemaScope process, and was the first Disney animated feature to be released by Disney's own distribution company, Buena Vista Distribution.
By the mid-1950s, with Walt Disney's attention primarily set on new endeavor such as live-action films, television, and the Disneyland theme park, production of the animated films was left primarily in the hands of the "Nine Old Men" trust of head animators and directors. This led to several delays in approvals during the production of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, which was finally released in 1959. At $6 million, it was Disney's most expensive film to date, produced in a heavily stylized art style devised by artist Eyvind Earle and presented in large-format Super Technirama 70 with six-track stereophonic sound However, the film's large production costs and under-performance at the box office resulted in the studio posting its first annual loss in a decade for fiscal year 1960, leading to massive layoffs throughout the studio (though, like Alice, Sleeping Beauty would eventually gain millions in subsequent re-releases).
By the end of the decade, the Disney short subjects were no longer being produced on a regular basis, with many of the shorts divisions' personnel either leaving the company or begin reassigned to work on Disney television programs such as The Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland.
Despite the 1959 layoffs and competition for Walt Disney's attention from the company's grown live-action film, TV, and theme park departments, production continued on feature animation productions at a reduced level. In 1961, the studio released One Hundred and One Dalmatians, an animated feature which popularized the use of xerography during the process of inking and painting traditional animation cels. The film was a success, being the tenth highest grossing film of 1961 with rentals of $6.4 million.
The Sword in the Stone was released in 1963, and was the sixth highest grossing film of the year in North America with estimated rentals of $4.75 million. A featurette adaptation of one of A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, was released in 1966, to be followed by several other Pooh featurettes over the years and a full-length compilation feature, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which was released in 1977.
Walt Disney died in December 1966, ten months before the studio's next film, The Jungle Book, was completed and released. The film was a success, finishing 1967 as the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year.