Seldom Re-Peeted: The Bill Peet Interview
Peet: Yes, it began with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as a short and grew from there, much in the way that Dumbo did. It would have been twenty minutes or so, which wouldn’t have been anything.
Province: You did a great deal of work on Dumbo.
Peet: I was one of the “poor boys.” They put all the rich boys, the top animators making the big salaries, working on Bambi. They wanted to make it a gem. Originally Dumbo was going to be only a half-hour, sort of a special. When Walt saw what we were doing with it, he said it might make a good feature. Well, Dumbo made money. In fact, it was the only Disney film to make money until Cinderella.
Province: Were budgets monitored closely?
Peet: Walt got a little stingy with us on Dumbo because they had a showpiece with Bambi. They could play around with little things like the raindrops. Beautiful, but slow and expensive. We weren’t allowed any trimmings. Bambi was a wedding cake. Dumbo was one layer with a little bit of icing. Ours was more successful because it had common appeal, even though the animation was crude in some places. Dumbo didn’t make big money. It had only cost $800,000, so all it had to do to make its cost back was go a little over $1 million. The other features had cost $3 million, plus the cost of the prints, and with no foreign market because of the war.
Province: Two of the best, Bill Tytla and Fred Moore, worked on Dumbo.
Peet: People were always amazed at Bill Tytla, that he could draw the giant devil for “Night On Bald Mountain,” and the giant in “Brave Little Tailor”; these ponderous, muscled characters, and then do this little elephant. After he got his first scene on Dumbo, he passed me in the hall and said, “Y’know, Bill, I can’t draw these goddamned little elephants. If I send Nick [his assistant] up with the scene, would you see if you could work it out?” Nick brought up this stack of drawings, Bill’s scene where the elephants first appear was just a mess. So I went over every one of them, probably a couple of hundred drawings, every damned frame in the picture, and redrew the whole scene. They shot the pencil test and showed it to Walt. He was ecstatic! Nick came up and told me, “Walt loved that thing, and I want to shake your hand!” Well, Bill never bothered to thank me, Walt either.
Province: Fred Moore is often described as the boy genius of the studio.
Peet: There’s nobody that good. He was a great Mickey Mouse artist. He had the juices and was very creative. He created the dwarfs for Snow White, and he had a real loose, natural style and was a natural for animation. He gave a new flexibility to the whole art of animation. I think he was too young when he hit his peak, for one thing. He was only twenty-four. Freddy drank himself out of sight and got a little bit cocky and thought he was too good for the whole thing. He would hardly do any drawing, and his assistants would cover up for him. He thought you could draw and drink and you can’t do that. I worked on the mouse [in Dumbo] a lot for Freddy. It was his last big animation assignment. Ironically it was the drunken mouse scene. The champagne bottle falls into the tub of water, and the bubble comes up and then the mouse falls into the tub. Freddy just couldn’t draw a mouse that didn’t look like Mickey. It was so ingrained in him after drawing just thousands of them. The nose was too round, so I went over Freddy’s things including the storyboards. Freddy did a fine animation job on it, but I refined his drawings so they looked like Timothy. That was the last thing he ever did and it turned out to be one of his best jobs. Walt let him go on for a long time after that until it got to be too much. He went over to Walter Lantz and couldn’t handle it over there either. He later died in an automobile accident.
Province: Another great scene in Dumbo involves the crows. Were there problems with that at the time?
Peet: Yes, about the voices. I directed the voice recordings and the point they missed was that the voices were actually done by black men who were just doing their thing. It was caricatured, but it was them.
Province: That was a Ward Kimball scene.
Peet: Yes it was, and it was a damned good one, too.
Province: And after Dumbo?
Peet: I continued to work as a full-fledged story man who did his own sketching.
Province: Could we talk about the strike in 1941?
Peet: I was out there.
Province: And called back afterwards, which was uncommon.
Peet: I felt Walt had been damned unfair regarding the fact that since it was his studio, he only wanted to pay his favorites. Years later he told me how he hated like hell to have to pay non-creative people. But that’s the nature of the business. Animation requires an array of manpower with a minimum of talent, the low-grade talent doing the simpler jobs. You can’t just pay the talent at the top and say to hell with all the others. No matter how third-rate, you need them, too. He didn’t pay us any overtime. They used to work us on Saturdays, and if they wanted something done a little faster, they would pull us in at night. Some of the in-betweeners were only making $16 a week! You could hire a hundred people no sweat and then you don’t have to worry about a lot of details. You can get cheap labor to do all the coolie work. The government required overtime after 48 hours, but they got the studio on some sort of waiver to get around that. There was no sick pay. I remember coming to work so sick with the flu that I could hardly stand up. And there was no screen credit. Walt figured people would be willing to take a beating just to able to work there rather at one of the other studios that perhaps offered a few more benefits. It was the old idea that scared people work better. Walt always had the big carrot out there: the future. No future at Lantz or Mintz or the other little studios because their limit was putting out shorts.
Province: Would you say Walt Disney had forgotten where he came from? After all, his own artistic ability was modest.
Peet: He couldn’t do any of the things he was famous for. His humor was suspect. I would call it sarcasm at best. He also couldn’t write or draw. I ran into a barber many years ago who had a Donald Duck drawing on the wall of his shop down in Hollywood. He said it was an original drawing by Walt Disney. It was from around ’36 or ’37. I thought it was funny because Walt could never have done that. He would sign the stuff, but he was always scared to death that somebody was going to ask him to do a drawing. He was a catalyst. He could take a room full of people and organize them into doing it. He could spot talent and pick this guy as good for that and someone else would be good for this.
Province: What about the official “Walt Disney” signature?
Peet: Hank Porter created that. Walt signed his name and Hank worked with it and put some style into it.
Province: Did you know Art Babbit well at all?
Peet: I didn’t like him. He tried to take too much credit for us going out. We didn’t go out on account of him. We went out because of the unfairness. I got a raise during Dumbo, so I had no axe to grind regarding money. I went out because I felt to stay in would be betraying my principles. When they found out there might be a strike, they called us into the theater. Roy Disney addressed us and said that Walt Disney himself only made $500 a week and that they tried to be fair with everybody. He said if everyone would take a 10 percent pay cut, they could keep 400 people and not have to fire them. Okay, we all cheered and took the cut, even though I’d just gotten my raise. There was great applause. It was settled. One week later they started taking the cut and fired the 400 people anyway. When I went out, some friends told me, “Bill, you’re making the mistake of your life. You’re going to ruin your career, and you’re just starting to take off.” I couldn’t help it. I could not honestly go back in there and ever feel right again. I’ve talked to many people over the years. They’ve told me that they would have felt better if they had gone out. They said they’ve always felt guilty about being a company man. Walt insisted they [the strikers] were all Commies. If you disagree with long hours and no sick pay, you must be a Commie. He also insisted that there wasn’t any talent on the outside of the gate.
Province: This must have been an agonizing period for Disney, though. Three flops in a row with Bambi, Pinocchio and Fantasia, and then the war.
Peet: During the war things got pretty thin. There was no foreign income until the war was over. Audiences didn’t go out during the war. They were at home glued to their radios wondering how far the Japanese had gotten in the Philippines.
Province: What about the wartime South American films like The Three Caballeros?
Peet: Those were subsidized by the government for good will. We did some war work, but those were done on very small budgets. The government gave us what they considered ample amounts, but they didn’t understand animation, and Walt wasn’t used to working in those narrow limits. Another crisis was Cinderella. We were down to the point where we needed another Snow White, another success. Walt loved to tell me this story. Walt and Roy had been arguing for weeks. Roy told him that they couldn’t afford to gamble everything they had on one film. If they would sell out now, they could live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Roy wanted to pick up the marbles and go home. Walt insisted they do just one more, and he chose Cinderella. Without that there would have been no Disneyland, no Epcot Center and no Disney Studio today.
Province: The popular version is that Roy Disney was often concerned with Walt’s financial extravagances.
Peet: He was wrong most of the time. The only time he might have been right was with Fantasia. It was a gamble. They were all gambles. Anybody who tries to do anything great is gambling. Look at “Flowers and Trees.” It was finished, and Walt went all the way back to the beginning and redid it in color. Roy had a fit and said this was absolutely impossible. But Walt wanted to put out the first color cartoon. Roy was wrong there. It won an Academy Award.
Province: Right after the war you worked on the film you’re most identified with, Song of the South.
Peet: I did story-sketch on the sequences with B’rer Rabbit based on the Uncle Remus fables. The personalities were so rich and well-defined in the original stories. To me they were funnier than hell! I thought they were going to re-release it but the studio backed off because of the racial things. When it [originally] came out, the NAACP had strong objections to it. They felt Uncle Remus was treated as a slave even though it’s post-Civil War, around 1910 or so.
Province: One of my personal favorites that came out some time later but was not one of the most popular was Alice In Wonderland.
Peet: I worked on just about every part of that. The strange thing is that the person who worked on it last received credit for a lot of my things. I developed the Caterpillar stuff, the Mad Tea Party, the “half a cup” gags and things like that. We wondered if it could have been a little better in many little ways. We all disagreed with the way it ended; with a montage. I didn’t like it. I had developed a labyrinth, and I was fascinated with the idea of the guards chasing Alice through this thing. It could have been a hell of a thing with the music, like trying to escape from a bad dream. but they decided to have everyone jump into the tea pot in a montage. Montages don’t do anything, and you don’t want to end with a conglomeration. You want suspense, where she’s beating on the door with just a minute left and just barely gets out of there.
Province: Your ideas about story structure caused a major confrontation with Walt over while making Sleeping Beauty.
Peet: Some people would agree with Walt no matter what. When I was working on a story, I wouldn’t agree with him no matter what, because I knew the difference. I wasn’t trying to compete with him. I would disagree with him honestly, not just to fight with him. This was a case where Walt had no ideas. He was preoccupied with Disneyland and excited about that and irritated with us. He said, “Change this!” and I said, “Why make an arbitrary change? Why not try to do something better?” That was a weakness in the studio. If it stayed on the boards too long, Walt would see it over and over and get bored with it. It’s not fair because after seeing it time after time it’s no longer fresh, it can’t be. Something very good could be ruined because Walt had seen it too many times. Walt’s judgment was tainted because he was spoiled by seeing a lot of stuff. His judgment was no longer worth a damn. He was always hiring these big-time screenwriters and playwrights. These people had no conceptions in visual terms at all, all dialogue. So they really couldn’t handle the stuff. He paid them a hell of a lot of money to fail. When it came down to it, we had to do it. He was very excited about Disneyland and working on that. Then to have to come back to the studio and work on the same old stuff he had been doing for years. A lot of product went out the door that he never saw because he was involved with Disneyland and the TV show. Once in a while he would come by to see what you were working on, but it wasn’t like the old days when he would sit in and watch every move. It became more of his delegating jobs to those who were able to do it. His attitude was that we cost too much.
Province: You feel his interest in animation waned after Disneyland opened?
Peet: He always held up Disneyland and, later, Mary Poppins as being great. It was something tangible that he could see; the cameras filming, the sets being built and the special effects. Everything happening right then and there. Animation took too long. Walt would have to wait forever to see the results, and then you don’t dare watch it because if there’s a mistake there’s nothing you can do about it because you’ve spent the money. You can’t just cut out pieces because it costs so much. Live action, you just shoot again tomorrow and you can tell the actors what to do. Walt could control live action, too. He always wanted to compete with the big shots and make a Gone With the Wind or something.
Province: Mary Poppins was definitely Disneyfied because she certainly isn’t a warm character in the original book.
Peet: It’s about a wealthy British family that no one can identify with, let alone a nanny. I thought Mary Poppins was an icky, sweet nothing.
Province: I understand that Mrs. Travers, the author, did not part with the rights easily.
Peet: She came to the studio and was tougher than hell. She tried to oversee it and insisted that she be involved in some advisory role. They wouldn’t let her do it because she would have raised hell every day. She was a witch of a woman and a real pain in the ass.
Province: What kind of relationship did you have with the “Nine Old Men”?
Peet: That name has always bugged me because it gives people the idea that there were only nine animators and that they did everything. There sure weren’t nine old storymen because it’s the most precarious job in the business. When I left the studio, I was the only one left from the story department from Pinocchio. Yet the Nine Old Men were there the entire time and they could do no wrong. They knew Walt wasn’t going to fire them because of some piece of animation that didn’t work. But a storyman was only as good as his last story. Walt always figured he could get a storyman, but he respected the animators and didn’t want to mess with them. He figured they were the special talents. They had been there the longest, but that didn’t mean they were great. There were two or three that were pretty mediocre, but they carried the load on the features. The storymen aren’t given any credit or seen as being important in any of the Disney books. They never gave me any credit for any of my work on The Jungle Book.
Province: Marc Davis has personally described you to me as the best story man in the business.
Peet: Well, that’s OK, but I wish he would tell someone else. All the publicity went to those people. The biggest problem for me was that I was so creative, and other people would grab hold of my stuff. When Illusion of Life came out, I called Ollie [Johnston] and gave him hell. I told him it seems strange to me that he never mentioned that there’s a storyman and a creative end to this thing. The public probably thinks the animators sits down and starts doing it from scratch. I did storyboards, thousands of them, and character design; I would direct the voice recordings. Then guys like Marc Davis, Ken Anderson and Woolie Reitherman would take credit for my Cruella deVille and all of the personalities. Those personalities were delineated in drawings, and believe me—I can draw them as well or better than any of them. Marc Davis told Charles Solomon, the animation writer for the Los Angeles Times, that he created Cruella deVille from scratch and had his picture taken with the girl who did the voice. I wrote the screenplay and every bit of dialogue. I found the woman who did the voice and I wrote all her dialogue. I don’t have any of my Dalmatian drawings because I left the studio in a hurry, but after I was gone they took credit for everything. They might be down in their morgue, but those people made damned sure there was nothing left of mine because it would prove what I am saying. I had it all cut and dried for them. These are the types of things that drive you nuts. During one dinner hour I was at the Smokehouse [Restaurant], and one of the publicity people was at the bar. As I was leaving he said, “You goddamned artists, if we didn’t sell your stuff, you wouldn’t be worth a damn!” I told him, “If you had nothing to sell you wouldn’t be worth a damn.” He looked at me and said, “Just for that, Bill Peet, you will never see your name on any promotional material or in the newspaper again.” Sure enough, when Dalmatians came out, the names on it were Marc Davis, Woolie Reitherman, and Ken Anderson.
Province: But in an assembly-line product like animation, where literally hundreds of hands touch it, how can you be exactly sure who did what?
Peet: There has to be a brain. The humor rarely comes from the animation. It has to be on the boards. Illusion of Life doesn’t even suggest any thought behind it. For a feature to hold together as a drama and have a continuity with personalities, it has to be very carefully worked out. Then you get the soundtrack recorded, right down to the gnat’s eyelash.
Province: How long would it usually you to work through a typical feature?
Peet: Usually around two years. The animation would overlap because they would pick up scenes as I moved them down. In other words, the first three scenes of Sword in the Stone would be underway in animation while I was working on the next fifteen minutes of the film. Then that piece would go down to the animators until finally I was down to the last sequence and they would still be animating the first half of the film.
Province: Of all the films you worked on, do you have a favorite?
Peet: Dalmatians. I think it’s a better film than Sword in the Stone. Doing those two things, and for fun the Uncle Remus characters.
Province: Putting Sword in the Stone to animation was quite a task. The Once and Future King is not exactly light reading.
Peet: There was some criticism that we treated it too lightly. But if we had gotten too heavily into it, it would have been a real drag. We decided to make it playful because almost everyone knows the story. There had already been too many Knights of the Round Table epics and that was not for us. While I chose to do Sword in the Stone, a group of about six people—Marc Davis, Ken Anderson, Woolie Reitherman, Milt Kahl, etc.—spent about six months developing a manuscript for Chanticleer, a psychological drama by Edmund Rostand, the author of Cyrano de Bergerac. There was a meeting and Milt Kahl said, “I can draw a goddamned good rooster!” I said, “Well so can I, but that’s not the problem. The story doesn’t come off for me because its just a little too weird.” They all got pretty angry with me. I continued working alone on my script for Sword in the Stone and they started work on Chanticleer. Months went by and I finally got it together and on the boards. Meanwhile, Frank [Thomas], Ollie [Johnston], Woolie Reitherman and all the others were having meetings at night developing a manuscript, plus elaborately illustrated storyboards, large color pastel paintings and had songwriters in to write songs and record music. Finally Walt called a meeting to see what they had done on Chanticleer. They showed it all to Walt. Ken Anderson asked what he thought and he said, “Just one word—shit!” Then he said, “Let’s go see what Bill Peet is working on.” Here come all of these people into my studio. They were all sulking and hoping I’d fall on my face. They hadn’t spoken to me the entire time. I went through the storyboards and showed some of the gags with Merlin and the Owl. I showed Merlin packing everything into one suitcase, which was my own, it wasn’t in the book. When I was done, Walt asked them what they thought—pretty good, huh? And they said, “Oh yeah!!” You can imagine how humiliated they were to accept defeat and give in to Sword in the Stone. The cost with all those salaries? Too much! No wonder Walt was pissed off. He allowed them to have their own way, and they let him down. They never understood that I wasn’t trying to compete with them, just trying to do what I wanted to work. I was in the midst of all this competition, and with Walt to please too.
Province: You designed Merlin in Sword in the Stone to resemble Walt?
Peet: I gave him Walt’s nose and character. A little playful, but sometimes not. He’s cantankerous, argumentative. He can’t be wrong. I’m the Owl [laughs], or maybe more like Wart. Milt Kahl balked at drawing my Merlin. He took all the illustrated King Arthur books out of the library to check out the Merlins—always tall, austere figures with long black beards and star-spangled robes. But Walt liked my Merlin, not knowing of course that it was my version of him. Even after Sword in the Stone finally began to move into animation, Woolie Reitherman, the director, continued to resist and warned me, “We’ll never finish this picture,” which I considered a peculiar remark at that stage of the game. However, he was quite content to take credit for it once it was completed.
Province: “The Wizards Duel” is my favorite sequence from that film.
Peet: I wrote the lyrics to the song during the wizard’s duel. When I designed “Madam Mim,” who was this frowzy old lady, Walt said, “Bill, why can’t we have a big, tall dame with black hair?” I said, “Walt, we always do that. She has to be a counterpart to Merlin. He’s an old eccentric, and so she has to be too. They have to match.”
Province: They’re almost like an old married couple.
Peet: That’s right.
Province: You had published several of your books by this time. Did Walt comment about them to you?
Peet: I had five books in print when I left in ’64, and he never mentioned them. I had not been gone from the studio very long when they called and wanted to buy a couple of them. I called Walt’s line direct to tell him there was no way he was ever going to get his hands on them. His secretary, Johnnie, told me he was out of the office so I didn’t get ahold of him. I was later glad I didn’t. I cooled down and didn’t call back. A few weeks later I walked out into my driveway and there was Walt’s picture on the front page of the newspaper with the headline, “walt disney, wizard of cartoons, dies.” I later found out he’d been terribly ill and had been seen walking around the lot looking at things for the last time. Sort of saying goodbye. How lucky I was that he had been out of the office. I would have felt really bad if I had told him to go to hell or something during what were the last few days of his life.
Province: Your career in children’s books has certainly been extremely successful.
Peet: There’s life after Disney! I’ve gotten good reviews on my autobiography in all the big newspapers. Before I dared complete the manuscript, I had to show it all, including rough drawings, to the people in the Disney permissions department for approval. They agreed to the use of the characters as long as they remained under Disney copyright. They gave my editors fits before finally agreeing to it. The Mouse Factory has become an overpowering monster you don’t mess with. I just went to signings at nine bookstores but that’s all, just to get it off the ground. I have 34 storybooks published, many of them in foreign languages. The big chain bookstores seldom stock them since they deal on a volume discount basis, something my publisher won’t do. I was treated very badly in the Bob Thomas book [Walt Disney—An American Original]. He said that I left the studio because I wanted to do The Jungle Book my way and Walt disagreed. After I finished Sword in the Stone, Walt asked what I wanted to do next. I said we should do The Jungle Book. It was a natural for us because we could animate all the animals as personalities. Walt and Bob Thomas went to a meeting in Paris when they found they could buy the rights from the Kipling estate. When Bob Thomas told Walt they could get the rights, Walt said, “Hey, great, that would make a great live-action picture!”10 Walt saw me a few weeks later and said, “Hey Bill, I got The Jungle Book for you!” and I pretended to be surprised. Bob Thomas has no idea what happened during our last meeting. But that’s just the way I’ve been treated. It’s aggravating to be misrepresented. My autobiography is not a Disney book. I wrote it to straighten a few things out.