Walt Disney wasn’t known for dispensing compliments but he made no secret of his love for Mary Blair’s whimsical artwork and her innovative use of color. That’s why he commissioned her to create concept pieces for so many of his films, including Song of the South, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan…and why she was the ideal person to design the look for his “It’s a Small World” attraction. Blair died in 1978 but her reputation has soared since then among animation buffs. Her original paintings now sell for substantial sums.
No one knows more about this talented woman than animation historian John Canemaker, author of The Art and Flair of Mary Blair (Disney Editions) and curator of an outstanding exhibition at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco last year. But even he was unaware that she had worked on the 1942 Universal Picture Arabian Nights, which starred Maria Montez and Jon Hall. I recently discovered this while going through the scrapbooks of art director Alexander Golitzen (see my previous piece, HERE).
When I learned of this long-unknown project I naturally turned to John for some background. He told me, “The Arabian Nights production occurred during an interesting period for Blair. After three unsatisfying years at Harman/Ising’s studio she joined her husband, Lee, at the Disney Studio in April 1940, as she said, ‘reluctantly,’ and created early concept art for films that later became Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp. She quit in June 1941 for, as Lee said, ‘domestic life again,’ but two months later the couple were an essential part of the 1941 South America trip with Walt and ‘El Grupo,’ which is where Walt discovered her, as it were. No wonder she worked on the Arabian titles sans credit. When and why she found time to work the Golitzen film is a mystery.”
Alex Golitzen thought enough of Mary to hire her for this lavish Technicolor production and kept snapshots of her renderings, which were used as backgrounds for the main title credits. To find the original materials I simply pulled out my Universal DVD of Arabian Nights and made frame-grabs. (Incidentally, the film hasn’t much of a reputation but it’s quite entertaining and handsomely mounted. It’s still available from www.ClassicFlix.com.
For Mary Blair aficionados every painting is a joyful discovery. Even though these frames were only seen for a matter of seconds, covered with lettering for a movie’s cast and crew, they are unmistakably her work. That’s why I’m happy to share them with you.
To learn more about this gifted artist, I encourage you to go to the website run by her nieces, http://magicofmaryblair.com.