Interview: Film Historian and Critic Leonard Maltin Discusses His Career Chronicling Disney History (Exclusive)
Renowned film historian and critic Leonard Maltin has had a life-long love for Disney. In 1973, he published a book on the films of Walt Disney, which was the first of its kind. He has released several other books including Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which was a staple for film buffs during its 45-year run. You can find Leonard in numerous film documentaries and on his weekly podcast which he co-hosts with his daughter Jessie called Maltin on Movies. Starting in 2019, he also began hosting a film festival called MaltinFest. In this exclusive interview, I talk with him about his experiences in publishing, as well as the DVD line Walt Disney Treasures, which were released between 2001 and 2009.
What are your earliest memories of Disney?
It’s a two-part answer. One is, the first time I remember being in a movie theatre, my mom was leading me by hand into the Guild Theater, which is on 50th Street right behind Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. We were there to see the 1955 reissue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In those days, they had continuous showings, and parents that were eager to get out were streaming out, though the film hadn’t finished yet. It was the last shot of the film. My mother was leading me in and the first image I saw was the last shot of Snow White, where the Prince and Snow White are going off into the brilliant sun. That’s burned in my brain. But also, I was the right age to start watching the Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland TV show when they first went on the air. So that’s where and when I got bitten by the bug.
Can you talk to me about the process of researching and writing your book The Disney Films?
I remember being home from school the day that Walt Disney died. My recollection is that I heard the news on the radio that he passed away. I was already publishing my fanzine, Film Fan Monthly, and thought “Well, I need to devote a whole issue to Walt Disney”. It’s imperative. We had a copy of the Manhattan phone directory and I leafed through it and found a listing in the white pages for a production called “Walt Disney Productions”, as it was then called. They were on Madison Avenue in town. I phoned that number and asked to speak to someone in publicity. The person who answered that call was a woman named Arlene Ludwig, who I later learned was the daughter of Irving Ludwig, the man who ran Buena Vista for many years. He started as the advance man on Fantasia when it was being presented as a roadshow attraction in 1940. Arlene and I are still friends to this day. I used my local library to do the bulk of the research for that issue When I finished, I sent some copies to Arlene. She called me and said “This is phenomenal! We don’t have a list like this. Can we buy some extra copies?” I said, “No, but I can give you some extra copies, you’ve been so nice.” So I sent her a dozen copies or so, and she couldn’t stop thanking me, which blew my mind. This is, of course, before Dave Smith and long before the Internet.
Several years passed, and I made my first trip to Los Angeles in 1969, I think. I’m pretty sure it was on that tour that Arlene offered to give me a tour of The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. I took her up on that and the man who gave the tour was named Tom Jones, who was head of publicity on the west coast. He couldn’t have been nicer! It wasn’t just a tour. I got to meet Ward Kimball and talk to him for 20-25 minutes and I got to go on a set. They were shooting No Deposit, No Return. They were shooting a bluescreen shot of a guy on a skyscraper under construction. Then, when I finished this incredible experience, I was led into a small screening room where Tom had arranged for me to see a 35mm print of The Reluctant Dragon, which was not available in any form at that time. All that you could see of it was the Reluctant Dragon segment, which was in circulation in 16mm. That was a glorious day. Ward Kimball asked if I was going to be doing some writing for my magazine and if I would send it to him first. I did and so he did some rewriting and correcting and what I published in the magazine was his annotated version of my article. But, when I was sitting at the end of the day in Tom Jones’ office he said “You should expand this into a book. We are using this all the time now!” But I couldn’t see it being a book. I hadn’t given a moments thought to that. But, he planted the seed. Within a year or two, I got my foot in the door of publishing. My first book was the first edition of my movie guide that came out in 1969. My next book, Movie Comedy Teams came out in 1970. I did like four books in rapid succession! I did one called Behind the Camera about cinematographers. Then I was introduced to the editor-in-chief at Crown Publishers, which is a hardcover publisher. I pitched two ideas and they took them both. One of them was on short subjects and one was on the films of Walt Disney.
When this happened, I called Arlene and said “I’ve got a deal. I’m going to write the book now”. She said, “How can I help?” I said, “I want to screen every one of the films in chronological order.” I wanted to watch them in chronological order so I could discover them the way that people discovered them. It happened that they had a regional 16mm non-theatrical depository, as they called it, in Paramus, New Jersey which was right next to my town. It was a nondescript building; you would drive right by it and not know what was inside. Well, what was inside was hundreds of prints. This was where they shipped all of the shorts and features that were circulated for the non-theatrical market. But they also had a VIP section, which is where they kept prints for some of the films that did not circulate for the public. That’s what I was permitted to go into. The deal was that I could take home one film at a time, which I tended to do on Fridays so I could watch them on the weekend. They didn’t have absolutely every film. They didn’t have Fantasia, for instance. Apparently, no 16mm print was ever made of Fantasia. But almost all of them were there.
So I started showing these and of course when I showed Bambi, I had a full house in my basement where I screened the films. But by the time I got to the True-Life Adventure White Wilderness, it was just me. But that’s what I did, I watched every single film. It took me over a year to watch them, take notes, and digest them. I also had the good sense to use the projector lenses as a magnifier and write down all of the credits because I quickly realized that there was no place that replicated those credits. That was the biggest part of the job, seeing them all and writing down a draft of what I wanted to say. When I finished that task, I called Arlene and said “Well, I’m done with that part of the job. Now, I would love to interview some of the people at the studio. ” That’s when we hit a snag because, in the meantime, the company had made a deal with Harry Abrams, the prestigious art book publisher, to do a major book which turned out to be The Art of Walt Disney. They did not welcome what they saw as a competitive book on the market. This was the first such book since Bob Thomas’s The Art of Animation, which came out in 1958. I wound up talking to an important executive named Vince Jeffords and I had to convince him that my book would not be competitive. I told him that his book sounded like a lavish coffee table book, and mine wasn’t. Mine was more of a fact-filled guide to the films and we are were publishing it in black and white. That was my defense. This happened over several weeks, even months. I finally persuaded him that my book would not be competing with his. Another problem though: his point of view was that I needed their permission to write my book. My point of view was that I was asking for their cooperation; he couldn’t stop me from writing about Walt Disney’s films. But they were accustomed to owning. A big part of that company is licensing and merchandise. This began a lively debate and I later realized that at any time during this back and forth, he could have hung up on me or said “Get lost”, but he never did.
Finally, we reached a compromise. The compromise was that they would give their blessing to the book, but they would not give me access to anybody who worked for the company or any of their records or anything. So, I had to do the research on my own. I told them I was going to have a biographical chapter at the beginning of the book about Walt. They said, “Well, we want our new archivist Dave Smith to read that and make any changes.” Fortunately, Dave didn’t find very much to quarrel with. What this did do for me, however, was the ability to talk to all the freelance directors who had done the live-action films, many of whom had never been interviewed. Alfred Werker, who directed all the live-action in The Reluctant Dragon, had kept a photostat of a storyboard, which he sent to me. He couldn’t have been nicer. Byron Haskin spoke into a cassette tape recorder and sent me the cassette as did Ken Annakin, who was incredibly generous. So, I had great luck getting material on the live-action films. And that’s the saga!
Your last edition of the book was 20 years ago. Have you considered doing another update?
With each passing year, that becomes increasingly impractical. It would require another book! When I was tackling the history of the company, it was a small, very successful company. It was not part of a media conglomerate. It was a movie studio that also made television shows and had a record label but that was it. I also like the fact that the last edition ends with Toy Story because, to me, it is a good place to leave off.
Tell me about the process of releasing the Walt Disney Treasures DVDs in the 2000s.
What happened was, I was able to meet Dick Cook (the chairman of the company from 2002 to 2009). He had worked his way up from being a Jungle Cruise operator to eventually becoming the head of distribution. I told him that I had an idea I wanted to pitch to him. He said, “Okay, let’s have breakfast!” He loved having breakfast meetings at a place in Toluca Lake not far from the studio. I printed out a one-page pitch for a series of DVDs, yet unnamed, but became the Walt Disney Treasures. I didn’t actually give it to him, but I had it on the table. I did a verbal pitch: “You’re putting out all of these cartoons willy nilly on VHS. Why not do them in a more organized way? That way, you will get the collectors, Disney buffs, and families and kids.”And he said, “Let’s do it!” It was one of the shortest meetings I ever had. It then got tangled up with the legal business affairs before it got ironed out but, essentially, he said let’s do it, and he meant it. Nine years and 37 volumes later, the series came to an end only when Dick Cook was let go from the company.
Was there anybody at Disney that you wanted to interview but were unable to?
No. I was very fortunate, I got to almost everybody that was still alive during those years. Even Joe Grant, who I got to know pretty well. Joe Grant was a very reluctant interviewee, especially on camera. He wasn’t eager to do that, but he did.
What do you hope to see in the future of Disney?
They never made the content for the Walt Disney Treasures available online. I would love to see that material get another lease in life.
What are you working on now, Disney or otherwise?
For Disney, I cover new releases on my website. I write articles periodically for the D23 Magazine and have participated in the D23 Convention. I am also working on a book about my experiences. Reminiscences, if you will. I still teach at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, which I’ve been doing for 22 years.
Thank you so much to Leonard Maltin for taking the time to conduct this phone interview.
Several films mentioned in this interview are available on Disney+, including The Reluctant Dragon. If you would like to see the Walt Disney Treasures content available on Disney+, be sure to follow this link where you can request that this material be released.
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