The unheralded women of the Disney Studios

In “The Queens of Animation,” Nathalia Holt takes a fascinating look at the women behind Disney classics like “Cinderella” and “Bambi.”

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History” by Nathalia Holt, Little, Brown, 379 pp.

A young woman hurries up to a soundstage building, and a security guard interposes himself. “Sorry, ma’am, this is a story meeting,” he tells her. “Restricted entry.” 

“I’m a writer here,” she explains, a bit puzzled, “and I’m supposed to attend these meetings.”

“Women aren’t admitted to the story meetings. It’s men only,” the guard tells her, dismissing her by looking away. 

“No, no, you’re mistaken. I’m a new hire, and I should be in there,” the woman tells him, getting more and more angry and finally putting her foot down. “I’m going in now. The meeting is starting and I need to be a part of it.”

The young woman was Grace Huntington, one of the stars of Nathalia Holt’s new book “The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History,” a bolt of pure reading delight that outdoes even Holt’s utterly winning earlier book “Rise of the Rocket Girls.” This new book tells the backstage story of the women who worked at Disney during its earliest years and first heights of glory, indeed who themselves pushed it to those heights. It concentrates on five such women: Grace Huntington, Bianca Majolie, Retta Scott, Sylvia Holland, and especially Mary Blair, and through their stories, invaluably researched and assembled here, our author gives readers a look at the women who gave shape to so many of their childhood memories. 

Bianca Majolie, who had attended the same high school as Walt Disney, was working in art direction at J.C. Penney when she saw “Steamboat Willie.” She sent Disney a letter, seeking career guidance and assuring him, “I’m five feet tall and I don’t bite,” along with a cartoon she had drawn. As Holt tells the story, “Walt expressed regret that Bianca didn’t bite and then invited her to send him her comic strips so he could assist her.” Majolie was eventually offered a six-month apprenticeship in the story department, even though Disney’s story artists were all men. 

Majolie, like dozens of other women who worked for Disney in the 1920s and ’30s, did much of the grunt work behind the greatest Disney films of all time.

In a beautifully sculpted narrative of hurtlingly fast pace, Holt tells the stories of these women and their female colleagues, both in the Ink and Paint department and in the subsequent new airbrush department, which Disney picked Barbara Wirth Baldwin to lead – a circumstance that didn’t sit well with the men under her authority. “There was grumbling among the male artists about having a woman as their leader,” Holt writes. “Bristling at any display of femininity, they were especially vexed when Barbara insisted that her group wear hairnets to prevent a single strand of hair or flake of dandruff from falling onto the [animation] cels.”

All of these women faced discrimination and most of them struggled to have their work recognized or even to receive credit. Ironically, in this book about pioneering women, Walt Disney stands out in these pages as a particularly vibrant character, the ultimate true believer in the enchantment of movies.

In a very real sense, many of the struggles of the Queens of Animation were also Disney’s struggles, and Holt draws readers deep into the fascinating specifics of those struggles. We learn that for the “Waltz of the Flowers” sequence in “Fantasia,” the women traced real snowflakes from photos provided by an elaborate outdoor setup connected to a microscope. We learn about the studio’s losing streak in the early 1940s, when it seemed as though “everything they produced was destined for failure,” with “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” and “Bambi” initially failing to turn a profit. Disney needed a hit, and the question became: “How could they give Cinderella a sumptuous look at a budget price?” 

“Story development at Walt Disney Studios was a competitive sport,” Holt writes, and that sport is still played today. Take, for instance, the story of Linda Woolverton, who was working on Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” in the late ’80s. She’d written a scene in which Belle is using push pins to mark on a map all the places she wants to explore, but when Woolverton saw the storyboards, the action had been changed by other writers: now Belle was decorating a cake in the kitchen. “It was the kind of editorial change that made Linda lean over and literally bang her head on the wooden table before her in exasperation.”

The fight goes on, then, but in “The Queens of Animation,” Nathalia Holt has told the story of indispensable trailblazers. It’s gripping, galvanizing reading.

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