In 1938, Disney animation hopeful Mary Ford received the rejection letter below that flatly stated: “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason girls are not considered for the [animation] training school.”
And it was true — when Snow White had come out the previous year in 1937, the animation had debuted exclusively by men (a common practice for other studios at the time as well). Sure there were dozens of so-called “animation girls” who toiled overtime in the inking and painting department, painstakingly tracing and coloring the animators’ drawings of dwarfs, songbirds and the eponymous rosy-cheeked princess onto celluloid. But animators they were not.
Coincidentally, the same year Mary Ford received her blunt rejection letter, Disney hired on Retta Scott to the story department, which in 1936 had been infiltrated by its first female employee, Bianca Majolie, who came up with a Dumbo-like tale of an awkward elephant that was made in to a Silly Symphonies short called Elmer Elephant.
Reportedly in 1940, while the studio was hard at work on Bambi, Walt was shown some of Retta’s deer drawings and was impressed enough to tap her as an in-between animator whose job it was to create additional frames in between the primary action on screen to create the illusion of movement.
Then while in-betweening away, some of the animators spied Retta’s sketches of the vicious hunting dogs that chase down Bambi’s “love” interest and were stunned by their cruel intensity:
We wondered who at the Studio could have drawn this terrifying situation so convincingly and would have guessed that such virile drawings could have been done only by some burly man, probably with a bristling beard and the look of an eagle in his eye. We were amazed to find instead that they were done by a small, delicate, wonderfully cheerful young woman with winkling eyes and a crown of blond curls piled on top of her head.
So taken aback by “delicate” Retta’s not-so-delicate dogs, Walt and the gang decided she should animate the chase sequence on her own, rather than serving as an in-betweener, earning her an animator screen credit and a place in the Disney history books as the first credited female animator on a feature film.
Led by a snarling pack of Bambi hunting dogs, Retta broke through Disney’s celluloid ceiling, though she didn’t effectively shatter it by any means. Animating was still men’s work — despite a number of artistically gifted women who worked as inkers and painters, in-betweeners, layout artists, background painters, character models and even assistant animators during the pre- and post-War years.
That said, the celluloid ceiling was more a symptom of cultural gender-backwardness than a Disney-exclusive “No Girls Allowed” policy. As cartoon critic and biographer Amid Amidi has pointed out about the dearth of female Disney animators of that era: “As a percentage of [Walt's] employees, more women worked in non-ink-&-paint artistic positions at Disney between the 1930s and 1950s than any other Golden Age animation studio.” It’s just a shame we’re just now learning about them.
Listen to learn more: The Women Behind Disney