This is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon. The Silent Era (1890-1929) is hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently, the Golden Age (1930-1952) is hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, and Swinging into Modern Times (1953-1975) is hosted by Ruth at Silver Screenings. Be sure and click on the images for a larger—and wider—view.
“From the time I started making motion pictures I dreamed of bringing Sleeping Beauty to life through the medium of animation,” said Walt Disney. "But its scope defied us until recent years when our creative talent and technical advances made its production possible. Sleeping Beauty is the most beautiful and exacting picture we have ever made—and without doubt our costliest. It has been a definite challenge but thanks to our talented staff of artists and technicians, it has been met.” Walt’s “beautiful and exacting picture” is truly an animated epic that could have only been made during the 1950s, its production coinciding with the widescreen era—for the astounding artistry of Sleeping Beauty (1959) is brilliantly staged on the sizeable cinematic canvas of Technirama, the “technical advance” that enabled the Disney artisans able to convey the artistic “scope” of this most elaborate of all of Walt’s animated films.
The first mainstream widescreen process (1952’s Cinerama, with its complicated three-projection system and huge curved screen, was never adapted by more than a few specialty houses) was CinemaScope, introduced in 1953. Walt Disney was among the first of Hollywood’s heavyweights to sign up. He produced Lady and the Tramp (1955) in the anamorphic process and during its production, announced in 1954 that the animated feature to follow Lady, Sleeping Beauty, would also be filmed in CinemaScope.
1955 is more or less considered the beginning of a grand age of roadshow theatrical releases. A roadshow presentation offered a widescreen feature attraction—often an epic or at least a drama filmed as a spectacle—shown exclusively in a specially selected theater on a reserved seat, hard-ticket basis, almost as a prestigious play would be presented in a legitimate theatre. During this period, roadshow movies included Oklahoma! (1955); Around the World in 80 Days, The Ten Commandments and Giant (all 1956); and Raintree County (1957). Given its popularity and prestige, Walt Disney wanted to create a production that would allow him to enter this form of theatrical presentation. Of course, the subject would have to be something special, and Sleeping Beauty, with its rich sword-and-sorcery setting of castles and princesses, fairy-tale forests and valiant princes, offered a worthy project.
In fact, Walt Disney envisioned this, his sixteenth animated feature as the ultimate in the art of animation, a magnificent production that would surpass everything he had produced before. The widescreen presentation would allow the great showman to showcase his special brand of onscreen art, a motion-picture art form no other studio was able to present as a roadshow attraction. Inspired by the intricate artistry of the Unicorn Tapestries (c. 1500) at the Cloisters in New York City, Walt envisioned Sleeping Beauty as a “moving illustration;” the imaginative impresario challenged the more than three hundred artists and technicians who worked on this film to make each widescreen frame an independent work of art.
Artist Eyvind Earle had
painted some impressionistic pre-production art. In Earle’s stylizations Walt found the “visual perfection” he was
seeking. Walt assigned the artist as the
film’s production designer and stylist, directing the rest of his animation
team to produce all the artwork in the stylized, angular, graphic visualization
determined by Earle. The iconoclastic artists
took a modernist approach to the gothic elements he adapted from
tapestries and medieval landscapes, filtered through a mid-century design
Meanwhile, innovations were being made in widescreen processes that would out “scope” CinemaScope. Developed by the Technicolor company—Disney had a long association with the color process as he was one of the first in Hollywood to believe and then extensively and creatively use the full-color technology—the Technirama process utilized a film area twice that of CinemaScope, resulting in a sharper, less grainy image. As the promotional brochure, The Sweeping Wonder of Super Technirama 70, put it, “The startling clarity and depth of the Super Technirama 70 image on the giant screen marks a major step forward in motion picture presentation.”
That acclaimed clarity and depth was to have a significant impact on the artwork of this widescreen animated feature. In studying pre-Renaissance art and architecture as well as Persian miniatures and intricate Japanese prints, with their enormous attention to every detail, Eyvind Earle noted that everything was sharply delineated. “So it is with Sleeping Beauty,” noted Eyvind. “Everything from the foreground to the far distance is in focus. That gives you more depth on the screen. And I think it’s especially important in Technirama. With the wide screen, seldom do you have a close-up that fills the whole screen. When the close-up fills only part of the screen, your eye should be able to take in the landscape as well.” To create the magnificent panoramas for this widescreen spectacle, Earle painted dozens of backgrounds, some of them fifteen feet long.
Once Walt decided on Technirama for Sleeping Beauty, he and his artisans crafted the film specifically for its widescreen presentation. “All of our artwork, backgrounds, paintings, had to be larger and more detailed. In fact, Technirama 70 made every one of our production problems new, different, and bigger. That’s why it took us six years and six million dollars to make Sleeping Beauty. But to us it was worth it.”
To take full advantage of the expansive Technirama screen, Walt amped up the widescreen splendor by incorporating two elements in that were by now roadshow mainstays but had not really been part of his feature-length cartoons before. The first was spectacle. Roadshow epics such as Ben-Hur—released the same year as Sleeping Beauty and one of the most successful and honored motion pictures of all time—almost automatically included scenes of thousands soldiers, citizens, charioteers and revelers. For the first time, a Disney animated feature included sweeping scenes stocked with rejoicing subjects in the “Hail to the Princess Aurora” and courtyards full of palace dwellers during “The Sleeping Beauty Song” sequence. The second new element was action-adventure, as seen in Prince Phillip’s escape from Maleficent’s Forbidden Mountain fortress and of course the young royal’s climatic battle with the fire-breathing dragon.
In Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, master animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston wrote, “The end result was a gorgeous tapestry of colors and pleasing shapes…. The pageantry of the Middle Ages was captured with a magnificence that never will be duplicated again in this form. …We have not made a comparable feature with so much beauty in both appearance and color and such consistent treatment from start to finish—which was just what Walt wanted for the picture.” Even the ornate live-action storybook at the beginning of the film was designed to fit the enormous widescreen dimensions of Technirama, measures 20’’ x 23 3/4”. Hand-tolled on gold-plated copper and with 255 semi-preciosus stones, the oversized storybook took over a year of work to design and build.
The publicity for the sparkling new film emphasized the spectacular widescreen visuals. Walt showcased the artistry of Sleeping Beauty on an episode of his Walt Disney Presents television show, “The Peter Tchaikovsky Story.” But not wanting to shortchange the widescreen splendor of his animated spectacle, the savvy showman presented “A television first,” as announcer at the opening of the episode put it. “For the first time anywhere you'll see climatic scenes from Walt Disney's magnificent new motion picture production of Sleeping Beauty! And for the first time on television you'll thrill to the Magic Mural Screen!” In this January 30, 1959 installment, Walt essentially invented letterboxing; with his usual showman’s flair, he presented some fairly extensive clips in widescreen, allowing his television audience to see most of the rectangular picture instead of cropping the left and right side to fit on a square TV screen as was traditionally done. “Imagine,” said Walt,” “your living room is a theatre and your television set is a theater’s widescreen.” The ever-innovative impresario then presented the “Magic Mural Screen”—a widescreen image within a movie screen, complete with audience members along the bottom “watching” the show and a compliment of curtains along the top, taking the place of the much-disliked “black bars” of what, decades later, became traditional letterboxing, with great showmanship.
Released on January 29, 1959, Sleeping Beauty debuted at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills, California; in February, it opened in seventeen more exclusive venues, including the Criterion in New York City, followed by eighteen more in March and several more exclusive engagements throughout the year. Assigned regional exclusivity, these specially selected theaters movie houses were equipped to show Walt’s animated epic in all its widescreen splendor and full, six-channel stereophonic sound. Trumpeted the Sleeping Beauty television commercial: “It fills the gigantic screen with exciting new wonders. It surrounds you with wonderful music. So big, so wonderful, that to enjoy it most, you and your family must see it in the one theatre in your area equipped to show it in Technirama 70 and in stereophonic sound. Watch for Sleeping Beauty!”
Sleeping Beauty is known as being a financial failure, but it wasn’t so much as unpopular as it was expensive. It would take an enormously popular film to bring in profits against those hefty production costs. And then there was its limited availability: Walt may have wanted a roadshow attraction but Disney audiences used to Walt’s films playing in neighborhood theaters and eager to see his latest animated fairy tale may have ended up simply skipping it rather than driving miles to “the one theatre in your area.” And Disney was criticized for the higher admission prices charged.
In recent times, the film’s sumptuous visuals, especially when seen in its original widescreen presentation, has captured the imagination of Disney aficionados, especially those who value mid-century design, and cinematic showmanship; it’s now considered the second most popular film released in 1959, after Ben-Hur. Interestingly, when the film was issued as Platinum Edition Blu-ray by Walt Disney Home Entertainment in 2008—a Blu-ray edition for which I wrote the two onscreen “Fun Facts” tracks and the three trivia games— Sleeping Beauty was shown, according to Disney publicity at an aspect-ratio of 2.55:1 for the first time, revealing even more artwork at the top/bottom and sides of the picture than ever seen before, thanks to a meticulous frame-by-frame clean-up, culled from the original nitrate negative and requiring years to complete. With this classic of Technirama cinematic storytelling now as close as your Blu-ray player and your widescreen television set, just about anyone can easily screen the widescreen splendor of Sleeping Beauty just “as Walt Disney visualized its perfect presentation.”