Mary Blair and the Package Features
Mary Blair “came of age” as a Disney artist on the package features of the 1940’s. After the explosion of color and style on the South American research trip in 1941, this rebirth found its way into the heart of both Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944). Some of the most loyal depictions of Blair’s work in a finished feature came with such films as Melody Time (1948). These films, known as the package features, were compilations of short subjects produced more out of economic necessity than for any other reason. In the postwar years of the late 1940’s, the Disney Studio was on very shaky financial grounds. The package features were much needed life support to the struggling operation. Not until the release of Cinderella in 1950 did the Studio firmly reestablish itself.
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Blair remained very influential at Disney’s through this period. Though her more beloved works came with Cinderella or Peter Pan (1953), her style shone strongest in some subjects of the package features. As historian John Canemaker notes, “her graphic and color sense pervade everything from title designs to entire episodes…”
Make Mine Music, the first of the post war package features, was released in August of 1946. This film features the least Blair influences. She is credited under “Art Supervision,” along with Elmer Plummer and John Hench. Canemaker, in his latest book on Blair (“Magic Color Flair”), makes keen note of the “melancholy surrealist imagery” in the sequence Without You. Blair’s work is sensed throughout, but no certain sequence stands out as the quintessential piece of Blair’s in the picture. Such would not be the case in the next package feature, however.
Melody Time would feature the strongest implementations of Blair’s work. The first was the feature’s opening episode, Once Upon a Wintertime. In such, not only the backgrounds evoke a Blair aesthetic, but also the characters channel the more flat plane style. We see a bold use of color for emphasis of pathos. When the human and rabbit females begrudgingly ignore their male counterparts, the layout becomes highlighted almost entirely in red, then subsequently an icy blue as the males sulk in their misfortune. This highly stylized monochrome technique was pure Blair.
The surrealist madness of Bumble Boogie evokes a Blair characterization that would later be fully implemented in Alice in Wonderland (1951). Surreal imagery matches an abstract use of color, which combined work very effectively in synchronization with the high paced music of Freddy Martin. Blair shines particularly in the sequence involving the musical butterfly characters.
Wintertime and the episode Johnny Appleseed are perhaps the two strongest examples of Blair’s work in a final Disney product. In Appleseed, it is evident from the very beginning. As the storybook unfolds to “The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed,” we see a quintessential Blair landscape with white blossomed trees and an equally beautiful white pink-clouded sky. The trees take an impressionistic tone as they appear to become the clouds. As the camera pushes in on the illustration, the sequence jump cuts to an actual production background that appears seemingly identical to the illustration. In this sense, stylistic tone and actual setting are matched. The style is the background.
Canemaker explains, “her style has a Modernist edge, a dialogue between reality and abstraction.” This dialogue works best in Appleseed. And as a result of such conversing, we glimpse a world neither entirely abstract nor real, but rather believable and pleasing. Animator Frank Thomas remembered Blair’s work for Appleseed, “[they were] some of the greatest things I’d ever seen for an animated feature. Just handsome, handsome drawings! The colors, the shapes, the way they all went together.”
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Though Canemaker suggests a Modernist influence, he also makes key note, as is due, of the traditional vision in Blair’s work, “Walt saw an element in her work, which in one way, hearkened back to traditional American folk art.” In Appleseed, Blair channeled such American painters as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. “Her spheroid, sensual, sensual biological forms communicate solace, comfort, joy- life affirming images that soothed a public fatigued by war and fear of the Atomic Age.” What better to sooth such a public then the seasonal colors of Johnny Appleseed?
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In the final package feature, Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Blair made contributions only to the second episode, that retelling the Legend of Sleepy Hollow with a highly contemporary spin of Bing Crosby’s narration. Blair’s color and staging again come through in such. She particularly seemed to capture the lanky, skeletal figure of Ichabod quite effectively, something the animators on the picture would make good use of. We see lots of orange, yellow, brown, and grey, autumnal colors perfect for the story’s setting.
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Again, the master historian Canemaker, “[Blair had] qualities Walt found appealing and useful.” Walt Disney always looked for the practical application of such artistic vision in his products. In a way, Mary Blair is the tragic heroine in that highly collaborative art which is animation. By the release of Ichabod, Blair was established as the leading force in the art department at Disney’s. Her artistic style would shine in influence over the coming features of the early 1950’s, but the lack of her style’s full insertion into the final product remained, and Blair would leave the Studio in 1953 to freelance. It would take a fully three-dimensional extravaganza to fully implement the wondrous world of Mary Blair, with “It’s A Small World” premiering in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair.
-Canemaker, John, and Mary Blair. The Art and Flair of Mary Blair: An Appreciation. 1st ed. New York: Disney Editions, 2003. Print.
-Canemaker, John. Magic Color Flair: The World of Mary Blair. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Walt Disney Family Foundation Press, 2014. Print.