Fine Art Babbitt

Brian Sibley reviews Channel 4’s documentary about veteran Disney animator, Art Babbitt.

Young Art Babbitt appears in unique 16mm footage from his personal archives.

For years his name languished in obscurity: official Disney historians ignored his existence, while those who wrote about Disney in critical, iconoclastic terms only ever referred to him darkly as the animator who led the Disney studio strike of 1941.

Having reached the venerable age of 80, Art Babbitt is finally receiving, in some measure, the recognition due to him, and even the Disney studio now feels able to acknowledge his unique contribution to such films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo.

Evidence of this recognition was his appearance, in 1986, at a Guardian Lecture at London’s National Film Theatre – an event featured in Channel 4’s documentary Animating Art (Producer/Director: Imogen Sutton).

Art Babbitt conducts a workshop at the Richard Williams’ studio.

In a series of highly animated conversations, Babbitt talked with energy and enthusiasm about his days at the Disney studio during the Golden Age, when to be a top animator was to live like a star with several cars and household servants.

Babbitt also discussed some of the remarkable Disney characters which he helped create: Goofy the oaf who “thinks things through very carefully – and then does them wrong;” the icily evil Queen in Snow White; the whimsical old wood carver, Geppetto, in Pinocchio; the dancing Chinese mushrooms in Fantasia and the bird-brained stork responsible for delivering Dumbo the baby elephant.

In what was a sometimes curiously-edited film, little was said about Babbitt’s career after he left the Disney studio, although he was shown recently working on Richard William’s still-to-be-completed feature The Thief and the Cobbler and passing on some of his lifetime of experiences to the young artists at Williams’ studio.

It was hard to imagine Animating Art being of much interest to the average viewer, but for a Disney-buff the most fascinating aspect of the programme was undoubtedly the inclusion of unique 16mm footage from Babbitt’s personal archives, giving a glimpse of life at the Mouse Factory in the late 30s and early 40s.

The bird-brained stork responsible for delivering Dumbo the baby elephant.

There were shots of Art working at his lightboard; Disney animators relaxing on the studio’s volleyball court during lunch breaks; Pinto Colvig (the voice of Goofy) on clarinet leading the Disney band got up in false beards and fancy dress; dancer Marge Belcher (whom Babbitt later married) modelling as Snow White for animator Ham Luske; Disney artists Norm Ferguson, Les Clark, Freddie Moore and others enjoying high-jinks at Disney’s post-Snow White binge; and scenes of the picketing and demonstrations which accompanied the bitter strike led by Babbitt.

The film failed to examine the causes of the strike and omitted some important facts
– such as that 60 per cent of the workforce crossed the picket-lines and continued working. What was clear, however, was the extent to which the Utopian studio built by Disney after the success of Snow White had turned into a poisoned paradise.

Although Babbitt has never disguised the fact that there was no love lost between Disney and himself, his hostility was carefully played down. When asked if there was anything he admired about his former boss, he spoke of Disney’s great skill as a storyteller and editor, his ability for finding creative talent and his personal courage, particularly in making Snow White. Disney, said Babbitt, was like Louis B Mayer and the Disney artists were his Greta Garbos.

Speaking of his passion for animation, Babbitt described the medium as “a craft that will die unless something is done to keep it alive”. One thing is certain, it wouldn’t dare die while Art Babbitt is still around!

Printed in Animator Issue 21 (Winter 1987)