Animated April: Spotlight on Bianca Majolie

By Bianca Garner

Upon doing research for ITOL’s Animated April, a month dedicated to women in animation and female representation in animated films, I came across a name that I had never heard before: Bianca Majolie. As a fellow Bianca, I decided to research into this woman whose work with Walt Disney in the 1930s has pretty much been forgotten about by the history books. At a time where many women were working in the Ink and Paint Department, Majolie was the first woman hired for the Walt Disney story department and helped developed story ideas for some of Disney’s most beloved classic animated films such as “Peter Pan”, “Bambi” and “Cinderella”.

Born in 1900, she grew up in Rome, Italy. Her actual name was was Bianca Maggioli but over the years she also went by the names Blanche Majolie and Bianca Majolie-Heilborn (she took on her husband’s name, Carl Heilborn, when they married in 1942). Majolie came to the United States as an exchange student and attended McKinley High School in Chicago. Walt Disney served his freshman year at McKinley, even contributing cartoons to the school’s newspaper, but dropped out to volunteer in the Red Cross in 1918. At this time Majolie didn’t know Disney personally, but would later recall that she saw him only once on the day after he came back to school dressed in his G.I. uniform to say good-bye [at the end of World War I], “I was graduating mid-term, handed him my girl grad-book, and he drew pictures in it.”

bianca majolie
Bianca Majolie

After After graduating, Majolie studied figure painting and design at the Grand Central School of Art, clay sculpturing at Art Students League, and “drawing for line continuity” at Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York. She then worked as a freelance artist on fashion assignments that took her to cultural hotspots such as Florence and Paris. In 1929, she worked as a freelance artist on fashion assignments for Earnshaw Publications, and served for five years at J.C. Penney as an art director and brochure designer until 1934. During this time she even submitted a comic strip about a girl named Stella who was trying to find a job during the Great Depression for a contest held by King Features Syndicate.

Perhaps feeling frustrated and eager for a change, Majolie decided to write a letter to Disney in 1934, asking for a job in his animation deparment:

“If you can do so, without causing yourself too much inconvenience, please arrange to see me sometime. I am only five feet tall and don’t bite. I have a pantomime cartoon strip that I’d like very much to market, and you might be able to give me some information…”

Walt responded with the following: ““I am sorry you don’t bite, but nevertheless should be very glad to have you drop in and see me anytime at your convenience.” However, it was until a year later that the two of them met for lunch at the Tam O’Shanter Inn, and based on the strength of her samples of “Stella”, he hired her to serve in the story department. The department was made up of men who weren’t exactly that accommodating to their first ever female colleague.

In Nathalia Holt‘s wonderful and must-read book, “The Queens of Animation”, she details how Majolie faced a story department that was filled with men who didn’t try to hide their disdain for their first female colleague. The would play pranks on her and would subject her catcalls, “looking for any weakness they could find.”

elmer
Elmer and his sweetheart Tillie Tiger

Majolie instantly made changes, she offered an entirely different perspective compared to the rest of story team who mostly focused on writing gag orientated stories. She came  up with a touching original story about a baby elephant who is teased because of his trunk which proves surprisingly useful against a fire that threatens his love. The story was developed into the 1936 Silly Symphony, “Elmer Elephant”.

Elmer is theorized to be the precursor of “Dumbo”; both characters being that they have insecurities about a specific body part they get ridiculed for (in this case, Elmer’s trunk) and eventually achieving success with the body part in question. We can probably assume that the story came about as part of Majolie’s struggle to fit in as the only female in the story department.

“Majolie faced a story department that was filled with men who didn’t try to hide their disdain for their first female colleague. The would play pranks on her and would subject her catcalls, “looking for any weakness they could find.”

Master Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, in their book Too Funny for Words, credit Bianca with elevating the art of animated storytelling: “We could not have made any of the feature films without learning this important lesson: Pathos gives comedy the heart and warmth that keeps it from becoming brittle.”

elmer end
The happy ending to “Elmer Elephant”

Majolie worked on several Silly Symphonies which were never completed: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, “Japanese Symphony”, and “Ballets des Fleurs”. She also contributed to several Silly Symphonies which were completed, including “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”, and “Woodland Cafe”. Aside from her work with the Silly Symphonies, she also translated Carlo Collodi’s novel “Pinocchio” into English for Walt, as well as offering advice on ways that the novel’s story could be improved upon.

When it came to pitch meetings, Majolie always struggled to talk in front of her male peers. Her stories were good, they were well suited to the Disney brand and ethos, however she felt completed isolated as the only woman in the room. Writers were encouraged to act out their ideas, something that made her even more nervous. It could be a really fun atmosphere at times, but sometims her colleagues could get bosterious. “I sat in the corner with my heart beating wildly and gasping for air,” she wrote in a letter to a friend about a particularly tense meeting.

One day, old Walt himself tore up her drawings of “Snow White” in front of her colleagues, which led to Majolie running out of the meeting room in complete humlination. Is it any wonder that she did  her best to skipped as many of the meetings as she could, her excuses ranging from illness to car accidents. Still, she continued working for Walt and in 1938, she wrote several outlines and provided visual development artwork for early versions of “Cinderella” and “Peter Pan”.

ugly duck
Concept art for “The Ugly Ducking”

In that same year, she partnered with artist Al Heath to provide conceptual artwork on the Nutcracker Suite segment in “Fantasia”. She also worked on the “Bambi”, that saw her “establishing a permanent record of pictorial descriptions, vital and humorous facts relating to animals we are dealing with, films, photos, etc.” Following her work on Silly Symphony short “The Ugly Duckling” Majolie took a sabbatical leave from Disney claiming she had “lost interest” but the sexist and toxic work environment probably played a part in this decision. When she returned in June 1940 but she was informed thather position had now been filled.

Majolie went on to marry American artist Carl Heilborn in 1942. She later worked on private commissions for glass panels and ceramic art sculptures, and briefly returned to Chicago to illustrate her book “The Children’s Treasury”. In 1953, they opened the Heilborn Studio Gallery in Los Angeles where they featured their work and that of other artists. Heilborn later died of a heart attack on April 26, 1954. Majolie never remarried and died on September 6, 1997.

References:

https://www.waltdisney.org/blog/worth-much-man-cracking-celluloid-ceiling

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2019-11-14/queens-of-animation-nathalia-holt-disney

https://www.marketplace.org/2019/10/23/you-wouldnt-recognize-disney-without-the-work-of-these-women/

https://time.com/5706383/feminist-disney-frozen-history/

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