Dalí and Disney: Actually, A Pretty Likely Friendship

Last year I got wind of an exhibit coming to The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, FL: “Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination.” I knew I couldn’t miss it and I knew I’d be in Florida during the exhibit’s time at The Dalí. In April 2016, I made the journey to St. Pete, a short detour off my planned route, to see this exhibit that I had heard wonderful things about.

And I was not disappointed. It was crowded (understandably so) but so, so cool. I had never visited The Dalí before and it’s just a gorgeous museum. “Disney and Dalí” is no longer at The Dalí but it’s still a must-see if you’re in St. Pete. This isn’t an exhibit or museum review, though. This is about the friendship between these two men. (For the sake of clarity, I’m going to refer to Walt Disney as Walt and the company Disney as, well, Disney.)

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Interior of The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, 2016. Original photo.

Nearly everything you’ll read about Walt and Dalí states that it was an unlikely friendship. I have to disagree. Of course, their styles were very different but these men were the same age (Dalí was only three years younger than Walt), both artists, and both pioneers in their fields. Walt kept abreast of trends in art and filmmaking so it is no surprise that he eventually met and formed a friendship with one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed artists. They both pushed the boundaries of their art, broke new ground, and had the kind of drive that it seems to me only another person with that kind of drive can understand. Of their friendship, Walt’s nephew, the late Roy E. Disney, once said, “It always seemed to me they were both really relentless self-promoters and they must have seen that in one another.”

And have you seen Fantasia? It’s not like Walt was unaware that animation could be surreal.

Anyway. I just don’t think we should be so surprised by this relationship.

By 1936, Disney had already revolutionized animation, syncing sound with animation for the first time and using three-strip Technicolor technology, which Walt had gained exclusive access to. Mickey Mouse was already a beloved figure, the company had produced its 36th Silly Symphonies short, and three years earlier, it produced the short Three Little Pigs.

By 1936, Dalí had become an internationally acclaimed artist. His first solo exhibition was in Barcelona in 1925 and an exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1928 brought him international notoriety. He completed his most famous work The Persistence of Memory (also known as “the melting clocks”) in 1931. He had visited Paris in the 1920s and returned in 1936 with his wife, Gala, to escape the Spanish Civil War.

All of this to give you a frame of reference as to where their careers were in 1936. It was that year that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held an exhibition titled Fantastic Art, Dada, and SurrealismNaturally, Dalí’s work was featured. But Walt also had pieces in the exhibit: two animation cels from Three Little Pigs. This was the first time their careers crossed paths and the men began to take note of each other. The next year, Dalí would travel to the US and write a letter to Andrê Bretton, the founder of Surrealism, stating, “I have come to Hollywood and am in contact with three great American Surrealists—the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney.” Dalí was eager to make an animated film, seeing animators as Surrealists.

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(One) mission accomplished! Dalí sketching Harpo Marx, 1937. Photo via The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.

In 1944, Walt read Dalí’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. He was so entranced, he sent his copy to Dalí to ask for an autograph and suggest a collaboration between Walt Disney Studios and Dalí. Walt made this suggestion for two reasons: recently, critics had been accusing Disney of sacrificing artistry for marketability and Walt wanted to continue working with the type of innovation used by Fantasia, which had been released in 1940.

Beginning with this initial letter from Walt, the two began exchanging letters and eventually met at a Warner Brothers Studio party in 1945. World War II had delayed their collaboration (Disney was making propaganda films) but with the war’s end, they could focus on collaborating.

In 1946, Dalí began spending half of his time in Burbank, home of Walt Disney Studios. (The other half was spent in Pebble Beach, CA.) They fleshed out their ideas, wrote outlines, and created drawings. Walt chose the name “Destino” (Spanish for destiny) for the project, after the title of the ballad they chose for the short film’s score.

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Dalí working on Destino at Walt Disney Studios, 1946. Photo via the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.

If it wasn’t apparent before, it quickly became clear that their storytelling approaches were very different. Walt’s stories relied on characters while Dalí saw characters as secondary elements, to be wrapped in symbolism. Walt described Destino as, “a simple love story—boy meets girl.” Dalí described it as, “a magical exposition of life in the labyrinth of time.” Of course he did.

While these differences might have spelled the end of any collaboration for others, the project soldiered on for nearly a year. Work on Destino came to a rather abrupt end when Walt determined that he couldn’t afford to keep Dalí on Disney’s payroll. (It’s unknown exactly how much Dalí was paid but Walt did comment that Dalí was “expensive.”) Walt also felt that Disney should move away from anthology features, which Destino had turned into. Overall, the project had sort of gotten away from them and was turning into something that neither man envisioned. There are also rumors that the men’s strong egos played a part in the project’s death but given that the men remained friends until Walt’s death, I doubt egotism was a factor. In the 1950s, they vacationed at each other’s homes in California and Spain and Walt had Dalí’s paintings on the walls of his Palm Springs home. There just wasn’t animosity there.

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Dalí and Walt Disney in Spain, 1957. Photo via The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Over 50 years later, Disney released Fantasia 2000. It was the release of this film that inspired Roy Disney to resurrect Destino. Walt Disney Studios hired a team of French animators to bring Dalí’s notes and drawings to life. In 2003, Destino was finally released, nearly 60 years after its conception. 

It has elements of Disney’s animation style but Dalí’s influence is unmistakable. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2003. Of course, Walt never saw the film, passing away in 1966. Dalí lived until 1989. Unfortunately, not even Roy Disney lived to see the film. He passed away in 2001.

Destino stands as a reminder that art forms can merge and create something beautiful and unexpected. Dalí wanted to create an animated film and there was no better partner than Walt Disney.

Sources
Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination from The Walt Disney Family Museum
Walt Disney Timeline from The Walt Disney Family Museum
Timeline from The Dalí Museum
The Secret History of Salvador Dalí’s Disney Film by Trey Taylor
The Time Salvador Dalí Worked for Walt Disney by Mark Mancini
Destino from The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation

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