The 1950’s was one of the most productive periods for Disney feature animation. Led by animators like the famed Nine Old Men, character animation evolved to new levels. It began with the release of Cinderella in 1950.
In the lineup of key artists on this film was animator Ward Kimball. Ward was known for wacky and comedic sequences that pushed the limits of the art form. Perhaps his best work leading up to Cinderella was that of Donald Duck, Jose Carioca, and Panchito in the title song of The Three Caballeros (1944). This taste of Ward’s for raucous comedy and wild movements was not forgotten on Cinderella.
|Ward at ease|
“Ward Kimball probably had the most fun of anybody on Cinderella,” says historian John Canemaker. “He got the cat, Lucifer.” Along with the wicked stepmother, Lucifer serves as the key antagonist, particularly in relation to the mice, whom Ward also had a role in animating. Indeed, we see Ward’s style in the mice, but it is in Lucifer that he truly shines.
Initially, Ward had issues developing a menacing cat that was convincing enough, and that still had the possibilities for comedy. “I didn’t have to work making those drawings of Cinderella,” Ward later said, “it was pure comedy, the old cat and mouse relationship. My problem was to develop a cat that looked mean.”
“He had some funny stories about looking for a cat that would be a personality like Lucifer,” animator Frank Thomas recalled. “They had mean cats and slinky cats and all the different kinds of cats drawn in the story sketches.” Ward had to pull all of these together in a concise manner. “Walt came out to the house here one day,” Ward recalled. “And our six-toed cat we called Feetsy was rubbing up against Walt’s leg, and he said ‘For gosh sakes Kimball, there’s your cat! What are you worried about?’ And that’s what led to my conception of the cat.”
Lucifer’s final design was rounded and sort of heavy. But unlike his later cousin, the Cheshire Cat, Lucifer shows no warmth. He is sinister and mean. His roundness reflects more his aristocratic and pompous care than any “cuteness.” In the eyes we see the focus of his villainy; “eyes with a colored iris, and a very small pupil,” described animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “The shape was slanted and catlike, except in takes or surprised expressions.”
Through Lucifer, Ward continued to push the limits of how animated characters could be expressed. “That was perfect casting,” says animator Andreas Deja, “because you could never have Ward Kimball on Cinderella, he would have fallen apart, he would not have enjoyed it…Ward got to do what he’s best at, not staying within the forms of realism, but breaking out of that.”
While the stepmother’s presence hangs over most of the plot, Lucifer takes a more active role in it. Though we feel evil within, it is really a love for trouble and mischief that drives Lucifer. “I always read it as the ecstatic joy of being mean,” says director Brad Bird. “When he has to do any other function, the cat is very casual, blasé and lethargic. But anytime he has a chance to screw somebody up, he’s like ‘Yeah!!!’” We see this when Lucifer manipulates the dog Bruno or filths up the floor Cinderella is cleaning, and in particular in his ongoing pursuit of the mice.
Above all, there is one scene where this mischievous drive shines the most. “Ward’s masterpiece,” says Deja, “of all his work he’s done at Disney, probably is the sequence where the cat is confused by which cup is hiding one of the mice. That is such a crazy but spontaneous sequence; it’s as good as anything Chaplin has ever done.” Lucifer’s face rises above the table like a shark out of the water and he ensues in a mad frenzy to trap the mouse, Gus-Gus. Upon realizing which cup he is under, Lucifer erupts into a crazed jeer of celebration, his eyes become fully rounded and he waves his hands maniacally. It’s a movement that only Ward Kimball the animator could devise. A moment not originated in storyboards or scripts, but in Ward’s imagination.
Animator Glen Keane discusses the moment: “There’s a moment where it lifts the cup, and you know, he just does this little (performs jester of Lucifer). I would have loved to have been there to talk with Ward, at that point, ‘what were you thinking there? I mean, why do that? Where does that come from?’” Those are perhaps only questions Ward himself could have answered, for he was the only one at Disney who animated in such a spontaneous way.
Watch the magic moment here:
Apart from simply being a strong example of Ward Kimball’s ability, Lucifer in particular seemed to have struck a deeper chord. Once historian Jim Korkis asked Ward which of his characters he most resembled, to which Ward replied, “Lucifer the cat.”
This was not a reflection of any evil or malice, but of independence. “You know, Walt Disney hated cats because they wouldn’t do what he told them,” Ward said. “Walt needed to dominate. Maybe that’s why he always put up a wall between himself and others.” Ward was his own man, with his own ideas and opinions, opinions that he would share, much like Walt in a way. “Walt wanted to be in control of the situation,” Ward would say. But there was no controlling Ward Kimball. And, in a way, there is no controlling Lucifer the cat. Ward or Lucifer would simply not do what others told them to do.
This connection is on a sub-surface level, something not plainly evident when viewing the film. Something Ward may have even kept to himself. Though many at the Studio might have found a similarity between Lucifer’s antics and Ward’s certain aptitude for pranks. Ward pulled many pranks equally on those at the Studio and even on friends and family, truly reflecting a mischievous part of his character (See “Walt’s People: Volume 2”, pg. 91-94).
He had a complicated relationship with Walt Disney. One of great bonding similarities, but also of dividing conflicts and grudges. As the years wore on into the 1960’s, their relationship strained. The two were perhaps more alike than they realized, their two great personalities ever clashing.
|Walt and Ward|
The one thing that’s not debatable was Ward’s unending and iconic ability as an animator. “His great quality of going from real to unreal, it’s always in Kimball’s work,” says Canemaker. “He was a fantastic, unique animator; you can look at his stuff on the screen and know it’s Ward Kimball.” Where other great animation is built on subtlety of movement and thought, Ward’s screams with life and jumps off the screen into our laps. No cat will ever come off so deliciously menacing again.
Want to learn and experience more about Ward Kimball? Check out http://wardkimball.tumblr.com/ and follow @wardkimball on Twitter!!! Show your support to help get “Full Steam Ahead! The Life and Art of Ward Kimball” published! We all need to read this book!
-Cinderella. By Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton S. Luske, and Clyde Geronimi. Distributed by Buena Vista Film Distribution Co., 1950. DVD.
-From Rags to Riches: The Making of Cinderella. Walt Disney Studio, 2012. DVD.
-From Walt's Table: A Tribute to the Nine Old Men. Walt Disney Studio, 2012. DVD.
-Ghez, Didier. Walt's People. Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him. Vol. 2. [United States]: Xlibris Corporation, 2006. Print.
-Thomas, Frank, and Ollie Johnston. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. New York: Hyperion, 1995. Print.
Photographs featuring Ward Kimball and Walt Disney from: http://wardkimball.tumblr.com/