Welcome to Revisiting Disney! Today, we’re looking at that movie that made everyone want a puppy when they were a kid, 101 Dalmatians! As usual, I have labeled each category. If you want to skip to the parts that interest you most, feel free. And, of course, if you have any thoughts, burning or otherwise, please share in the comments!
Released on January 25th, 1961, 101 Dalmatians was the Disney film to follow the release of Sleeping Beauty, and a lot was riding on it. Because Sleeping Beauty had been very expensive and would only become successful retroactively, the Studio was in debt.
There had been discussions regarding the potential closing of the Animation Studio, to allow the Company to focus more on the live action films, television, and the theme parks, all of which were doing much better. The Studio was in luck, 101 Dalmatians was the highest grossing movie of 1961 and met with great critical and popular acclaim.
For this Revisiting Disney, I have an important character in the story of Disney Animation to introduce you too. Not Uncle Walt (I’m saving him for The Jungle Book), but Ub Iwerks, who I think flies under the radar all too often.
Iwerks was one of Walt’s oldest friends and the first of Walt’s employees when he formed an animation studio. The two men had met in 1919 and when both were working in Kansas City as commercial artists. After the Oswald the Rabbit incident (more on that later), Iwerks stayed with Disney. The two men worked together for years before Iwerks broke away to form his own studio in 1930, although he rejoined the Disney Studio in 1940.
When he came back, Iwerks focused on developing new technologies, including the model cars used in 101 Dalmatians, the technology used to create the blend of live-action and animated sequences, and the multi-plane shots used in the opening sequence of Pinocchio, just to name a few.
Iwerks had skill at what his IMDB page calls “fast drawing,” at one point making 700 animation drawings a day for two weeks. He and Walt were the co-creators of that famous Mouse, Mickey. In fact, Iwerks was the original animator behind Mickey, while Walt provided the voice. Iwerks was named a Disney Legend in 1989. From what I can tell, Disney and Iwerks made a great team, blending their different talents to create memorable characters.
101 Dalmatians is unique in that there are only two musical numbers, “Dalmatian Plantation” and the ever popular “Cruella De Ville.” Both of these iconic pieces were written by Mel Leven. The original “Dalmatian Plantation” was rewritten at the request of story man Bill Peet, while Leven reworked his villain song to be “Cruella De Ville” because he thought a jazzier piece would better fit both her character and the feel of the film. The rest, as they say, is history.
Returning from his arrangement of the musical score in Sleeping Beauty, George Bruns composed the music for this film as well. It’s a beautifully crafted score that conveys the emotion of the film while also remaining playful.
The music and the animation also match up beautifully, and while the music is present, it doesn’t undermine or overshadow the story, it complements it. In his composing, Bruns is able to strike that difficult balance between manipulating the emotions of the audience and assisting the animation, and he does it well.
If Sleeping Beauty was the end of an era, 101 Dalmatians was the beginning of a new one. While Sleeping Beauty was the last of the hand-inked films, 101 Dalmatians was the first to completely use the Xerox process in its animation. This was a completely new way of animation.
This was a double-edged sword. On one hand, this cut costs to produce features. But on the other hand, the Studio had to fire their entire Inking and Painting Department, made up of the talented men and women who had added the color to every individual cell of the previous movies (if I had a time machine, that would be the job I would want; working in the ink and paint department on those early Disney classics).
Some of the modern studio heads say that the Xerox process loses some of the artistry of the ink and paint style, but others mention that it does become more sophisticated as time goes by. The Xerox process would also later be replaced by the computer, which would use the cost-effective methods of the Xerox and the style of the ink and paint work in the earlier Disney films.
For this new medium, the use of black and white Dalmatians was a perfect fit. The Xerox also was much appreciated by the animators, because their original artwork went directly to the screen. Previously, all art had to pass through the hands of other people to be replicated. In the “Making Of” special on the DVD, Marc Davis mentions how great that was and how much the animators all loved this fact.
Of course, with this new medium, changes had to be made. Before, animators could have left their construction lines but in this new system, those had to be removed, either by the animators or by their assistants (that must have been a terrifying job, cleaning up the animation of the greats…).
Part of the reason that I love watching the “Making Of” features is because you learn so much. The cars in 101 Dalmatians were done in a unique way. Ub Iwerks had the idea to shoot scenes of model cars and translate that into the film. All of the cars in the film, therefore, are painted clips of the model cars. They used springs, sand, and other similar tricks to make the scene what they wanted it to be. This is pretty awesome if you think about it.
The use of Dalmatians allowed for more fun because of the number of spots; I think that the opening number is one of the most fun Disney film openers ever animated. It has catchy music and there is always something going on. It looks great, and it’s different than what had been done before.
The backgrounds are designed to be more modern, and really, the entire artistic look for the film was much more modern than previous Disney films. Ken Anderson was in charge of production design and art direction, and he placed Walt Peregoy in charge of color styling and the backgrounds. The style was, again, modern, but also very stylistic and crafted in such a way as to appear simple (but, typical of that sort of thing, was actually very challenging).
Walt Disney, by all accounts, hated the way that 101 Dalmatians looked, which may have been because he loved the way films like Sleeping Beauty and Bambi looked. He seemed to prefer the tapestry look, rather than the more simplistic look of 101 Dalmatians and didn’t forgive Ken Anderson until soon before his (Walt’s) death.
Of the Nine Old Men, eight were involved, with Ward Kimball being the ninth. From what I can tell, he had made the transition to working mainly in television, but he’ll be back later. Marc Davis and Les Clark were both transitioning out, Les Clark to retirement and Marc Davis to work on other Disney projects. Wolfgang Reitherman was one of the directors, and he would direct several more animated features for Disney (we’ll talk more about him in later weeks).
Les Clark was born in 1907 in Utah and had been with Disney since the beginning. According to a book by John Canemaker (Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation), Clark was the one person on Walt’s staff that had been continuously employed for the longest time. His retirement was set in 1975, so he worked on other projects in the meantime. There is less information about Les Clark, but like the rest of the Nine Old Men, he left a mark on the animation industry and, as a result, most of our childhoods.
Marc Davis did the animation for Cruella De Ville, and she is often thought to have been his masterpiece. He was extremely talented and continued to work for the company in other capacities for many years. After the work he had done on Maleficent and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, he is said to have enjoyed Cruella’s character because, although she was horrible, she was crazy and fun to draw. He animated her himself throughout the movie, rather than supervise a team of animators. Davis would be named a Disney Legend in 1989, and passed away in 2000.
The movie opens with Pongo, a bachelor Dalmatian with his bachelor “pet,” as dogs call their humans. While his pet is writing music, Pongo is sitting and thinking about how boring life is, and how his pet really needed “an attractive mate.”
Pongo is our narrator at the beginning of the story, and it’s really fun to watch him try to pick out a woman for his pet, as he admits that “a dog’s a pretty poor judge of human beauty.” It’s also fun because the people that Pongo sees all look like their dogs and the person he finally settles on has a pet Dalmatian, Perdita, who will later become Pongo’s wife.
After some trickery and dogged (see what I did there?) determination, Pongo arranges a meeting and the two couples eventually hit it off. Pongo‘s attempt at matchmaking is honestly one of the funniest parts of the movie.
The end results are two married couples that have a lot of screen time and what seems like a realistic relationship; they argue at times but also support and comfort each other. This seems new for a Disney film; established relationships are not usually a big part of the story.
We skip ahead a bit. Pongo and Perdita are expecting puppies, and Anita’s eccentric friend, Cruella de Ville, makes an appearance. Her name and personality inspire Roger to put words to his new song (the famous “Cruella De Ville”). The scene where Anita is talking to Cruella downstairs while Roger is playing his newly written song loudly is hilarious. Not only is Pongo providing the facial expressions we would expect, but when Roger starts playing the trumpet and then later the trombone, Anita rolls her eyes or scowls at her husband through the ceiling.
When the puppies are born three weeks later, one puppy is stillborn (but is is saved and named Lucky, a running theme in the film is how lucky Lucky is, in general). Cruella turns up to buy the whole litter, but Perdita’s fear of the woman, Roger’s distrust of her and Pongo’s apparent feelings on the matter prompt Roger to refuse to sell the puppies. Cruella is furious and cuts ties with Anita, and that seems to be the end of the matter.
The puppies grow up and are pretty adorable, but the plot picks up when they are kidnapped by two thugs named Jasper and Horace. As the plot unfolds, we learn that they were hired by Cruella to do so. As the human police are having no luck tracking down the dog-nappers, Pongo and Perdita enlist the help of the Twilight Bark, the method of communication that dogs use. Fun fact, in the Twilight Bark scene, five dogs from Lady and the Tramp makes an appearance, including Lady and Tramp.
The news of the missing puppies makes it to the Colonel, the Captain, and Sergeant Tibbs, who happen to live near the ancestral De Ville place, Hell Hall, where barking has been heard recently. Tibbs goes to investigate and learns that not only are the London puppies there, there are 84 more puppies there as well.
The news reaches Pongo and Perdita who set off immediately to save their puppies, especially when they hear Cruella is involved. The Barking Chain, a dog support branch, is standing by to offer assistance. Meanwhile, Tibbs learns why Cruella wants the puppies (to make coats) and begins his rescue operation. Things seem hopeless when Pongo and Perdita burst in to save the day. Finally, with the help of the Colonel, the Captain and Tibbs, all 101 Dalmatians on the run and heading back to London.
Encountering snow, tired paws and no food, Pongo, Perdita and their children (born or adopted), are heading back to London and avoiding both Cruella and Horace and Jasper, who are in hot pursuit. Luckily, the Barking Chain is there to offer assistance; a Collie offers food and shelter at his dairy barn, and a Labrador offers them a ride home in a moving van.
Of course, just as they are about to load up into the van, Cruella, Jasper and Horace arrive, determined to find the puppies. In a stroke of genius, Pongo leads his family to roll in soot and disguise themselves. This works beautifully, though the fact that no one was suspicious of 101 Labradors baffles me to this day. It’s Disney magic, I suppose. The puppies are thrilled because they have an excuse to get dirty, don’t have to walk anymore, and are not going to get skinned.
When almost all of the family is loaded up in the van, Cruella discovers them and what follows is a high-speed chase. Cruella and her goons try to run the van off the road but succeed only in stranding themselves in the snow. The dogs make it home safe and sound, still covered in soot.
Meanwhile, Roger, Anita, and Nanny are sad because not only were the puppies stolen, but Pongo and Perdita ran away. When Pongo and Perdita return with both their stolen puppies and more dogs, the humans are delighted to have them back. Now faced with 101 Dalmatians in a tiny house, they decide to buy a big house in the country, something they can afford to do since Roger’s song, “Cruella De Ville,” has become a hit. And they all live happily ever after.
The story behind the source material of 101 Dalmatians is quite fun. The original novel by Dodie Smith is a wonderful story that comes highly recommended (available on Amazon through Puffin as an abridged copy and through third party sellers in the original format. Even the abridged version is well worth the read, something I do not say often).
Smith was a successful playwright and novelist who owned multiple Dalmatians herself (one named Pongo). A friend of hers had jokingly made a remark about how the dogs would make a beautiful fur coat, and the idea was born.
The story was first published in the Ladies’ Home Journal with the title “The Great Dog Robbery,” and first printed in book form in 1956. Walt Disney loved the story so much he immediately moved to get the film rights, something that Smith had been hoping for.
Bill Peet was the man who adapted Smith’s story and did the storyboard work for 101 Dalmatians. He was the first man at Disney to create a story single-handedly. During his work, he kept in touch with Smith, including sending her character sketches and keeping her in the loop on the changes he was making to her story. Smith loved the movie and is said to have told Peet that he improved her story, which is very high praise indeed.
There are some differences between the book and the film. Some of these things, like the change of the Radcliffe’s to the Dearly’s, and the fact that the name of the henchman Horace is changed from Saul, don’t make much difference to the plot. Other things, like Cruella’s back story and the idea that Pongo and the Roger character, as well as the Perdita and Anita characters, had their own Nannies, who served as Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler when the households combined, were sadder to not see on screen, but still didn’t really change the story either.
The biggest change, however, comes in the form of Missus, who is the Perdita character in the book. Perdita is an entirely different dog, brought in to serve as a wet-nurse to the fifteen puppies. Perdita has a sad backstory; her puppies were taken away from her and she was separated from her love, a liver-spotted Dalmatian named Prince. Perdita herself was a liver-spotted Dalmatian.
In the end, Prince and Perdita are reunited and they, with Pongo and Missus, raise the 97 puppies they find themselves charged with. Although it has a happy ending, it’ a sad story and reminded me as a kid that not all dog owners are kind, and some just don’t take the feelings of their pets into account. The Dearly’s love for their dogs is held up as the standard to which all pet owners should strive.
The late ’50s and early ’60s influenced the creation of 101 Dalmatians mostly in terms of style. I talked about this more in the “animation” section. There are several other things that show the time the film was made, however. One of the magazines that Pongo is looking at toward the beginning of the film, when he’s trying to figure out what a beautiful woman looks like is “Lilliput,” a magazine that Disney animation historians say influenced the look and feel of the film.
Although “Lilliput” would become a magazine for men only in the ’60’s, at the time of the film it was full of writing, art and photography. When it was created in the 1930’s, it had been designed as a general interest magazine and continued that way until the ’60’s. Despite that, it is possible that the Disney animators were aware of the upcoming change and put in the magazine as both a call-back to the original magazine and a tongue-in-cheek reference to the new direction of the magazine.
Another interesting thing is the use of television in the film. According to an article by Mitchell Stephens for NYU and Grolier Encyclopedia, commercial broadcasting really began in 1947, by 1949, most Americans had access to television, and by the mid-50s, half the homes in America had their own televisions.
Television shows were often serial stories because the industry was making the transition from radio dramas to television dramas. This makes shows seen in the film, like The Adventures of Thunderbolt that the puppies were watching before being kidnapped, or the What’s My Crime? show Horace and Jasper were watching, fit into this idea.
According to the DVD features, the Kanine Krunchies jingle had been developed by composer Brun as a mockery of modern television jingles; it was designed to be over the top. The use of advertising was also adapted from the radio medium, which I think shows just how much of an earworm a well-crafted jingle could be.
From this movie, I think there are several lessons to be learned. Firstly, sometimes people can get too focused on what they want and lose touch with reality. Cruella was a wealthy and well-dressed woman who was so determined to have a coat made out of Dalmatian skin that she hired people to dog-nap fifteen of them and purchase 84 more. She bought 84 pureblood Dalmatian puppies to make coats. That’s crazy.
Pongo also illustrates this. He was determined that his pet would find a mate and, although he ended up being correct in his choice, he had no acceptance of a reality in which his choice for his pet might actually not be interested in his pet. The opening sequence is hilarious, but it doesn’t change the fact that Pongo got serious tunnel vision.
Another lesson is that no one is an island. Without the help of the Twilight Bark and the Barking Chain, Pongo and Perdita would have never found their puppies, let alone got them all back to London. Sometimes, we need help to get things done, and there is no shame in admitting it.
Finally, the last lesson is that there is no limit to a parent’s love. Pongo and Perdita ran across the country to save their puppies, and the scene where they bust in and attack Horace and Jasper to give their puppies a chance to get away makes me cry every time. Yeah, I’m a softy; honestly, this movie makes me cry buckets. But seriously, these two parents did everything possible to save their kids.
DOES IT HOLD UP?
101 Dalmatians was a success. Critics loved it, audiences loved in, and the overall feeling was that it was less pretentious than other more recent Disney films. Current Disney staff say that it is one of the most lighthearted films that Disney ever made, and that even though it was released in 1961, it still feels contemporary. I would agree with that, the story doesn’t really feel dated.
From what I can tell, 101 Dalmatians was a crossroad film, one that took new technologies and ran with them while still remaining true to the legacy of the studio. It’s an animation marvel and one that tugs at the heart-strings. 101 Dalmatians is a well-loved classic that, in true Disney tradition, broke new ground.
For next week: The Sword in the Stone
If you enjoyed this post and the others in the Revisiting Disney series, and have found yourself wishing that you could find them all in one convenient and bound book with eight extra essays, there is an option for you! Check out A Journey Through Disney: My Look Back Through Disney Canon, now available on Amazon as both a Kindle book ($4.99) and a paperback ($11.99).
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Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, New York. 1975.
Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA, 1978.
Stephens, Mitchell. “History of Television.” Grolier Encylopedia. https://www.nyu.edu/classes/stephens/History%20of%20Television%20page.htm
Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. W.W. Norton and Company. New York and London, 2002.
Thomas, Frank. Disney’s Art of Animation From Mickey Mouse to Hercules. Hyperion. New York, New York. 1992.
Wright, Gordon. The Ordeal of Total War: 1939-1945. Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row. New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, and London, 1968.Pin this article to read later! And make sure to follow us on Pinterest.