Saturday, September 28, 2013

Reel Connections: Disney's Cruella De Vil in "101 Dalmatians" (1961): A Touch of Tallulah Bankhead

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for 101 Dalmatians because it's the first movie that I ever remember watching. Whenever I picture that VHS flickering away on that old boxy TV, I can't help but having a moment of... I don't know, joy. I've looked long and hard for a way to bring 101 Dalmatians into the blog, and I think I finally found the way.
If you haven't been able to tell from my previous Edna Mode (The Incredibles) and Evil Queen (Snow White) post, and even my most recent Prince Charming (Cinderella) post, I am fascinated by character inspiration and the connections one can make between art, pop culture, and animated characters.  So, when I did a little research, I was pleasantly surprised to find such a connection in 101 Dalmatians. Furthermore, this connection dealt with one of my favorite movie villains: Cruella de Vil.
At this point, I have to make a confession. Unlike most posts, where I come upon connections on my own, in this one I relied on two distinct points of research that act as my chief sources: production notes available on the web and a post from the great Disney blog "Deja View" about the character development of Cruella as seen through various sketches. The latter is especially a great read and I encourage you to follow the link and read his stuff- it's really very interesting if you are interested in the Disney creative process.
Original Book Illustration
Like most Disney characters, Cruella is not purely, original-Disney, she is an adapted character. Originally she appeared in the source material, Dodie Smith's children's book of the same title, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. I've never read the book, but as any student knows, the beauty of the internet is that you don't have to. As far as I can tell, Cruella originally appeared as a cold, tasteless washed-out heiress character with some evil aspirations. I've included an original an original illustration for your viewing.
Davis working with Betty Lou Gerson
As you can tell, this is very far from what Disney's Cruella would end up looking like. Disney loved the story when he first read it and he bought the rights in 1957, a year after the novel was first published. He then gave future-children's book illustrator, Bill Peet, the task of writing the story. Eventually, the task of creating the villain for the film was given to legendary animator Marc Davis.
Davis was apparently inspired, by of all people, legendary actress and diva Tallulah Bankhead. Tallulah was well known in Hollywood during her long career for her incessant smoking, her exaggerated gestures and her deep voice. When I first read this, I began viewing Cruella from a new light, or in fact, I started trying to view her from any perspective at all. Cruella the Maniac, simply became Cruella the Deranged Film Star.

Think about it, the obvious and obnoxious showing off of her wealth, her Rolls Royce Phantom, her constant smoking, her bizarre fashion statements, and her obvious contempt for those "below" her. From this description, Cruella almost sounds like Norma Desmond's British cousin.
I would say this Hollywood-attitude can be supported rather well by some of Davis' earlier sketches. Cruella looks less insane. She has, of course, the black and white plaits that Smith wrote her with, but she has almost a sort of elegance. Perhaps even a touch of sensuality. It's here, in these early sketches, that I feel the Tallulah influence can be justified. Remember how I mentioned in my Snow White post, that the Queen was said, by some, to have been inspired by Joan Crawford to add elements of attractiveness to the villain. I would say that the same logic applies here.

Gradually, Cruella becomes more and more recognizable to the modern audience. At first, Davis seemed to gradually abandon the attractive villain approach and instead turned to a laughable one. But he also seemed to quickly abandon that approach as well and turned more to an insane Cruella, the one we know and love, or at least love to hate, today.
As you can tell, Cruella's features became more exaggerated. I would say this is a result of Davis' collaboration with the live action model, Mary Wickes, and the voice artist, Betty Lou Gerson, who together would help finally create the gestures and voice of the villain that we are so familiar with. In case you didn't know, Disney often hired live action models to act out his animated scenes to help inspire animators.
Literally engulfed in flames, with crazed expression, Cruella becomes the
classical embodiment of evil, living up to her name. 
I think the chief element that Davis added to his original sketches was just pure exaggeration. Cruella's features became sharp, and larger than believable (while Roger and Anita seem fairly normal). Her coat's size and cigarette's length defy logic. Her broad, sweeping gestures are the expressions of a madwoman. Which is obviously the point- Cruella is deranged to the point of parody. She has lost every inch of sophistication that appeared in the novel and clings desperately onto her last artifact of her class. The end result is both terrifying and absolutely fascinating. When she appears on the screen, you don't dare look away.
The demon-phone, the fire-inspired color scheme and the maniacal laugh-
elements that Davis uses to paint Cruella as a modern devil
and terrifying villain. 
I find it absolutely incredible to see the incredible process of the creation of a character like this, from its original illustrated stage to the character we know on the screen. While I enjoy discussing the motivations of Davis' approach, I can't come near to "Deja View"s logistical, visual post. If you enjoy this, I encourage you again to read the post. 
I think it's in those final moments we have with Cruella that Davis' character becomes fully realized. She no longer even clings to the sheen of glamour, she is pure, crazed insanity. How terrifying was it when you first watched her transform into the literal "devil" and drive after those puppies. Davis' Cruella reminds that all that glitters, or perhaps only tries to glitter, is not gold. Wealth is not goodness, riches lead to downfall, greed leads to destruction: these are classic and timeless morals that are embodied in the conclusion of the Cruella story. The pursuit of such things, Disney warns to his young audience, may be more (wonderfully) terrible than you can possible imagine. Or at least, imagine with the help of creative geniuses like Walt Disney, Bill Peet, and, especially, Marc Davis.

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