Mary Blair or Bust

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Saturday, October 18, 2008
[unrelated side note: the new iTunes visualizer looks like the big bang!! at least it does for Ella Fitzgerald. Maybe it's responding to the big band.]

[related side note: isn't this picture great? The artist at work. I love her Peggy Olsen hairdo! Although in fairness, when Mary Blair had her Peggy Olsen hairdo it was still stylish.]

I've long been an admirer of the work of Mary Blair, but I didn't know I was. Her particular colorful, optimistic style was familiar, but I didn't realize it was all work of one of the pioneering women of twentieth century illustration. I think it was a post on boing boing around a year ago about an exhibition of her work in San Francisco that connected the dots for me. She illustrated many children's books in the 50's, (some of them have never been out of print), but I know her look best from the work she did with Disney. She's responsible for the look of It's A Small World (I don't think she wrote the song, so SHUT UP), and also did the concept art for the animated versions Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland. (!!!, ??, !!) I'd clicked a few links and registered that I liked it, but didn't think too much more about it until I was emptying the book drop at work one day and came across the 2007 children's picture book for Cinderella, which uses her original concept art to illustrate the story. (this is one of the books I've had checked out for months.) What finally got me moving with this post is that just the other day I found the Blair version of Alice in Wonderland.

Cinderella, retold by Cynthia Rylant: The Disney Cinderella movie is one I've had a sentimental attachment to for a long time. I like the Cinderella story in general (less bloody than Snow White, yet justice is served), and I have a particular fondness for the animated feature. This is a movie that my dad took me to one day when I was sent home sick from school -- I've considered that this entire memory might be apocryphal, but I don't think so. It's the only way I can make sense of the fact that I am very fond of the movie despite there being a stuttering mouse named Gus Gus who is a part time tailor yet can't be bothered to make himself some pants. (I know, I know! Disney is a pants-free zone if you're a talking animal.)

The Rylant retelling is really stripped down -- this version is for young children, so the fact that Prince Charming is a silver-spoon himbo with a foot fetish and extreme parental pressure to get married RIGHT NOW isn't particularly emphasized. Mainly, she reiterates that "this is a story about love." (and MAGIC FREAKING PUMPKINS.) The paintings are so lovely and lively! In the animated feature things were smoothed and slightly subdued, but this is full of snappy, bouncing energy. Bright splashes of color and a great sense of movement suggest that Things Are Happening.

The illustrations and carefully chosen words get at the heart of the story -- to Cinderella's longing for love, for acceptance, for family, for a dress not made by birds and rats. If you are a Cinderella purist this might make you tear out your hair and heat up the iron shoes for your wicked stepmother to dance to her demise at your wedding (oh wait, that was Snow White, right? or both? Does anyone meet a grisly end in Cinderella?), but it's not a bad retelling. These stories can take a lot of stretching and contracting. Plus, the art is SO FUN, I promise.

Alice in Wonderland retold by Jon Scieszka: I found this one waiting on a truck to be shelved at work the other day. Hooray! I have less of an emotional attachment to the Disney Alice (I'm crazy about the Tenniel illustrations of the original), but once again the Mary Blair concept art is so zingy, bright, playful and fun it's well worth laying your eyes on. This adaptation seemed considerably more abridged to me than Cinderella, perhaps because the Alice story has a single author and has not been as worn down by time; it's not yet as malleable. By necessity (could you read the whole thing aloud 3x before bedtime?) there are a lot of things left out or elided.

The tack he takes to make this story appealing to very young children is by drawing a comparison between the young reader and Alice. She was very curious and sensible, and did what you,the very curious and sensible young child reading the book would do. (take drugs and follow strangers around! Get sassy with someone who has been yelling "OFF WITH THEIR HEAD" within earshot! okay, maybe that wasn't the point he was making.) ANYWAY. I certainly enjoyed this a great deal and plan to add both books to my own personal library. I hope Disney releases a Mary Blair Peter Pan volume soon!

For more Mary Blair fun and information, please consider visiting these links:

This Flickr set has many images from both of these projects, plus a whole lot more

Read about Mary Blair's disney career on her Disney Legend page.

Cartoon Modern is a wonderful resource and just plain interesting.

Animation Backgrounds is such fun to look at! They have many Mary Blair inspired images from both Cinderella and Alice.

5 comments on "Mary Blair or Bust"
  1. This is so crazy! Just this week, and this might not be related in the purest sense, I was thinking about how I had stories on album when I was a youngster, with read along booklets no less, and that Stan Lee read the Spider Man story I had...and these illustrations that you have shared totally remind me of my childhood and all things bright and exciting, as these are books I am fairly certain I enjoyed as a child. I have that "Of coure I have seen these before" feeling about them. Not so much a deja vu as a vu jade.

  2. Youngster? hee! You are a such a curmudgeon, but that's one of the things I like about you.

    These pictures elicit the same "childhood bright" feelings in me -- I think they're probably tuned in to some timeless universal youthfulness, even though they're almost 50 years old.

    Speaking of albums: Bec and I had this crazy Scooby Doo record that we loved. It was basically an episode, but audio only. She still likes to bust out with "all of our most valuable jewelry has been stolen!" at random moments.

  3. I miss the Scooby Doo from my childhood so much. Well, maybe not SO much but at times I really remember Saturday morning quite fondly.
    Right now I am rewatching the SNL opening from last night. I loved Tina, but once Sarah came out I was all, "WHY?!?", but then I did love the Amy rap during the news.
    Wordstock. 3 weeks.

  4. I just re-watched the Amy rap from the news -- I love her so much! I thought I was going to die when what's his name came out in his snowmobiling getup. But what I loved the most was the way Amy stalked off the stage and didn't say BOO to Palin. ha ha. (okay, maybe I loved it most when she stood up and started counting it off with her HUGE pregnant belly. hee hee. "his smile be creepy!" or maybe the thing with the moose.) Oh, Poehler!

    YES to Saturday morning cartoons! Man, I used to watch some truly lousy cartoons, but it was FUN.

  5. I will miss Amy when she leaves but I will be following her wherever she goes. She is funny. I mean she IS funny.


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