Sort of Approximately How Disney Movies Happen
When I first saw this, long ago on the Disney Channel, I had no idea who Robert Benchley was. I rather assumed that it was kind of a Levar Burton thing--there are plenty of episodes of [i]Reading Rainbow[/i] where he seems to know everyone. I mean, it was believable when he was on the set of [i]Star Trek: The Next Generation[/i], or anyway believable enough to be getting on with, but no matter where he went, everyone knew him. I couldn't understand why some random schmoe would be able to get an appointment with Walt Disney and wander all over the lot. I mean, people knew his name before he walked into the room, and that didn't make any sense. I confess that it is only with the advent of the DVD, and therefore the special feature, that I have begun to have even the slightest idea who he was. While he did do plenty of features, he also made a lot of shorts. And indeed, to my sudden realization and delight, many of the shorts he made were of the "how to" variety, explaining why the animators showed him the first version of said type starring Goofy, "How to Ride a Horse." Which I also loved when I was a kid.
Robert Benchley is playing himself. One day, a woman playing his wife (Nana Bryant) reads him a children's book and insists that they need to sell it to Disney so that Disney can make a movie and the Benchleys can, presumably, make money for brokering the deal. (Clearly, she doesn't understand how the whole thing works.) She drops Benchley off at the Walt Disney Studios. To his astonishment (and, again, mine when I was nine), he's told to come right in and talk to Walt. He is given a guide, the tedious Humphrey (Buddy Pepper), who gives him a running lecture. Benchley, bored by this, skips out on it and goes off to watch a life drawing class. Turns out they aren't drawing a girl; they're drawing an elephant. But that's okay; the instructor recognizes him and lets him sit in. He meets Doris (Frances Gifford), who works in the Ink and Paint Department. She shows him around the studio, where he sees how animated cartoons are really made. There's storyboards, animation, ink and paint, scoring, and on and on. He doesn't see everything in order, but he does see, beginning to end, how cartoons are made.
Oh, it's still silly. Robert Benchley wasn't exactly Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock. Not even Humphrey Bogart. The odds that he would be able to walk right onto the Disney lot and see Walt? Slim at best. This was before the war, before Disney became quite as big as it would, but still. Walt was a busy guy. Arguably, he was busier in those days, because they couldn't afford people for him to delegate to. However, whatever, it worked for the purposes of the film. And after all, he was a bigger name than Alan Ladd--or whatever animator Alan Ladd was playing in this movie. Some of the people in the picture are real Disney employees, among them Ward Kimball and Clarence Nash. Others are actors. Since most of the people in the movie are uncredited beyond "The Staff of the Walt Disney Studio," it is difficult to say whether half the random people wandering about the studio are real Disney employees or real extras. Still, silly and full of actors as it may be, it's not a completely inaccurate portrayal of how animated cartoons get made.
This, contrary to what most people believe, is actually the first feature-length live-action release from the Disney studio, or anyway mostly live-action. This is well before poor Wilby Daniels had his problems with that Borgia ring in [i]The Shaggy Dog[/i] or Ned Brainard invented Flubber in [i]The Absent-Minded Professor[/i]. Yes, there's a Goofy short, the storyboard to another cartoon ("Baby Weems"), and of course the title short of "The Reluctant Dragon." There's even a brief clip of Donald demonstrating how you animate cartoons. However, there was at least as much live action as there was animation. Heck, they even hauled out Technicolor cameras, the better to demonstrate the wonder of Disney animation. Yeah, it's got a bit of a [i]Wizard of Oz[/i] vibe, in that it starts in B&W and shifts to colour when we see that giant multiplane camera, but Disney Is Magic. That's how Donald is able to lecture Benchley while they're just taking pictures of his cels. The multiplane camera doesn't get much of an explanation, but it's enough to know that Disney is showing us something that no other studio has.
Really, that's probably why the whole thing got made. People want to watch cartoons get made, and it's actually kind of a boring process. One of the animators (I think it's actually Ward Kimball!) references the first hundred thousand drawings, and it's true that I don't even want to contemplate how many drawings Ward did over the course of his career. By putting the whole thing into a movie, Walt was able to show audiences every step of the process, from art class to maquette, from pencil sketch to cel, from ink and paint to camera. We see foley, score, and voice recording. We see the brainstorming it takes before you can have a cartoon to animate. This is the whole of the process in a little under an hour and a half. The Disney Studios were not the only name in the animation game, even then--if you read [i]Chuck Amuck[/i], you can see how the Warners crew were helping the Disney animators in their strike at the exact time this film was released--but there was always something different about the studios. This isn't even the first animated/live-action cross to show the inside of a studio; Daffy Duck and Porky Pig met Leon Schelsinger once. However, it's not surprising that Walt's version was better and more informative.