The British government, in an attempt to revive its own film industry after the war, had imposed a 75% import tax on American films shown in Britain and ordered that 45 % of the films shown in British theaters be made in England. (A similar restriction had been agreed in France). This was a terrible blow to the Disney studio and to make matters worse, the French and British governments had both impounded receipts earned by American studios in those countries, insisting that the currency be spent there. For the Disney studio, this amounted to more than $1 million. Obviously Walt couldn't set up an animation studio in England or France, but he had another option. He could make a live-action film in England and finance it with the blocked funds. In effect, then, when Walt Disney finally crossed over into live-action, it was because the British government had forced him to do so.
Producer Perce Pearce with art director Carman Dillon
and director Alex Bryce on the 'Robin Hood' set.
and director Alex Bryce on the 'Robin Hood' set.
The project Walt selected for his live- action feature was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and he dispatched Perce Pearce and Fred Leahy to England to supervise the production. But he remained unusually involved in the post production at least compared to the offhanded way he had been treating recent films. He had asked Pearce and Leahy to air-mail him specific takes for editing, and after a test screening in early January, he ordered them to cut ten to twelve minutes and provide a more forceful musical score; he also advised them that a more detailed criticism would follow. Two day later he ordered the editor to fly from England to Los Angeles, apparently so that Walt could oversee the editing himself.
The finished film, Walt Disney’s first all live-action feature, was both a critical and financial success- unbelievably the first in a long, long time. Treasure Island (1950) grossed $4 million, returning to the studio a profit of between $2.2 and $2.4 million. With the euphoria of this success was the worry that the animation side of the studio was dying. But Walt reassured those that had raised concerns, (including Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.) “We are not forsaking the cartoon field-it is purely a move of economy-again converting pounds into dollars to enable us to make cartoons here.” So in a strange turn, Disney had to make live-action films now to save his animation.
Richard Todd as Robin Hood
In July 1951, just as his cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland was released in America, Walt Disney visited Europe with his wife Lillian and his daughters to supervise his second live-action movie. The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952) was financed again by the blocked monies of RKO and Disney. Before leaving, Walt had screened films at the studio, looking at prospective actors and directors and making what he himself called ‘merely suggestions’, while he left the final decisions to Perce Pearce, who was producing. For his part, Pearce had laid out every shot in the movie in thumbnail sketches, or storyboards, just as the studio had done with the animators, and sent them on along with photostats and the final script to Walt for his approval, which Walt freely gave, though not without a veiled threat that Pearce had better make the film as quickly as possible. “This is important not only to the organization but to you as the producer,” he wrote.
Walt Disney using the Storyboard
The use of storyboards was new to ‘Robin Hood’ director Ken Annakin, “but it appealed to my logical brain very, very much,” he said later, and prompted ingenious scenes such as the first meeting between Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham after King Richard has left, played on the balcony of the castle against a brilliant but ominous orange sky at sundown. “I had never experienced sketch artists, and sketching a whole picture out,” Annakin said. “That picture was sketched out, and approved by him—but it was designed in England, and sketches were sent back to America.” For all his influence and control, Walt was not an overbearing studio head in Annakin’s view. “Basically, he visited the set maybe half a dozen times, stayed probably two or three hours while we were shooting.”
Though Walt delegated a good deal of authority on these films, he nevertheless took his approval of the storyboards seriously. When he noticed that one sequence wasn't shot exactly as agreed, he questioned Ken Annakin as to why. Annakin replied that he was going over budget and wanted to economize. “Have I ever queried the budget?” Walt asked. “Have I ever asked you to cut? Let’s keep to what we agreed.” In the end, Annakin never wavered from his understanding that the film he was making was, even with his own directorial expertise and perspective, and an insistence on a more authentic telling of the Robin Hood story, a Walt Disney production.
Director Ken Annakin
Meanwhile as Robin Hood was being filmed, Walt, Lillian and his daughters wandered through Europe, visiting the Tivoli Gardens in Denmark, and did not return to the studio until August.
While making those live action movies in England (which also included Sword and the Rose (1953) and Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1954)), “Walt achieved something that I’m not sure he actually knew he was going to achieve”, suggests Disney authority Brian Sibley, “which was that he placed himself as being not just an American filmmaker, but also a European filmmaker—or specifically a British filmmaker. We thought of him as making films not just about us, but making them here as well. I think that that gave Britain a kind of ‘ownership’ to Walt Disney, and that only came about in the ‘50s.”
Inside the Dream: The Personal Story of Walt Disney by Katherine & Richard Greene (2001)
Walt Disney: The Biography by Neal Gabler (2007)
So You Wanna Be A Director by Ken Annakin (2001)