"Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it's done, and done right." - Walt Disney

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

English Made Disney

Knee-deep in projects brought on by World War II, Walt Disney's forced departure from his Golden Age of Animation endlessly provokes enthusiasts to ponder - "what if?" I won't deny my own inquisitive notions and sighs of disappointment when thinking of this question, however my strong interest in the Studio's work during the War motivates me to carry on. In an attempt to discover some of Disney's extremely obscure projects during this time period, I came across several intriguing articles published between 1942 and 1945.


To begin, the following excerpt is the introduction to an article entitled Education: Short Cut to Literacy - published in the June 15, 1942 edition of TIME:


First speaker: "What is Basic English? What is it for? I haven't got it clear."


Second speaker: "It's only the part of the English language which does the most work."


First speaker: "But what about us? We have thousands of other words. Isn't it very hard for us to keep to it?"


Second speaker: "We are talking Basic right now. All this we've been saying is in Basic English."


First speaker: "Well, blow me down!"


Second speaker: "You're still talking Basic."


Ivor Armstrong Richards looking over
storyboards for one of his "Basic
English" education shorts produced
by Disney (circa 1942).

Curious yet? Believe it or not, the First person was Walt Disney himself. The Second was a man I never
knew existed until stumbling across this article. His name was Ivor Armstrong Richards, and as described by TIME, he was "British co-developer and chief propagator of Basic English." Based on Richards' theory of study, Basic English of the time broke the language down into 850 words. My mission here is not to explain the origins of Basic English, but to instead share how this philosophy nurtured by Richards crossed paths with Walt Disney.

 It's no secret that during the War Disney was producing many training films for the military. The Walt Disney Treasures DVD edition entitled Walt Disney: On the Front Lines, presents information about these lost treasures, however I do not recall viewing or even reading about a series of training films made by the Studio designed to teach the English language. Walt met with I.A. Richards in mid-1942 to start the ball rolling on preliminary plans for training films of this caliber. In fact, Richards' journey to Hollywood was made possible under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation - a supporter of Basic English at the time.

Who exactly were these training films originally targeted for? According to an article from The Evening Independent (out of St. Petersburg, Florida) published on May 15, 1942: "If the war department likes the idea, draftees found to be too illiterate to understand military instructions may be taught English with the shorts." The shorts that this article refers to were to initially amount to three films - each lasting between 10 - 15 minutes. The first experimental film of the series was apparently entitled 46 Words, Seven Verbs - instructing army-age illiterates of the time the beginnings of Basic English.


From an educator's standpoint, I not only find the meeting of these two men very interesting, but I would love to see any of the training films that they may have produced. Under the assumption that the animation would have been very limited, try to imagine a storyboard that had to be created in order to get Richards' lessons across. The Independent article makes reference to cartoon drawings designed for these shorts by underrated Disney Artist, Dick Kelsey, and describes one specifically in the following:


Then there are such sequences as this: A sketch of money and the word "money;" a woman and a man holding money; and the words "this is my money;" the man holding the currency toward a woman and the words: "I will give my money to you," and the finale "I gave my money to you."


In progressive scenes, all in black and grey and white, new words or verb tenses are emphasized to introduce them.


In conclusion, it's very possible that these shorts were produced - obviously not for the viewing pleasure of the American public. In a TIME article dated December 31, 1945, it makes reference to the fact that Richards and Disney indeed made "Basic [English] educational shorts for the Army." It's interesting to note that Richards' impact with Basic English made a significant mark on Latin America, and I can't help but wonder if Disney's involvement with the Good Neighbor Program with South America (heavily connected with Nelson Rockefeller) was what brought these two together. Either way, it's always a treat to learn something new about Walt Disney's versatile career.