By Valerie Kalfrin
Cruella De Vil takes a back seat to no one. This frightening fashionista burst onscreen sixty years ago in 1961’s “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” a blare from her Bugatti-like roadster — and her own theme song — heralding her arrival. Who else would have such nerve but this woman with black and white hair as stark as her plans for those poor spotted pups?
Cruella’s on-the-nose name destines her for villainy. Perdita, the mama Dalmatian, repeatedly calls her “that devil woman.” But in spite of that, Cruella is a dark star in the stratosphere, someone who shows us from a young age what it means to have a character you love to hate.
Her gray complexion is the only ambiguous thing about her. She’s supposedly a school pal of Anita, the wife of composer Roger, the film’s human sweethearts. How on earth did these two hit it off? Anita with her hair in an updo, wearing pastel colors and sensible shoes, and Cruella in bold, broad strokes of black, white, and red. Visually, she’s a mix of various onscreen bad girls, all grand gestures, cigarettes, fur with red lining to match her red gloves and red heels, and a slinky black sliver of a dress.
Novelist Dodie Smith created Cruella in the 1956 children’s novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians after a friend said that Smith’s nine Dalmatians might make a lovely coat. Just like in the film, the book’s Cruella takes that plan to heart, but Smith offset her cruelty with a comic backstory. Cruella on the page was expelled from school for drinking ink, ate foods like black ice cream and purple soup, and slept between ermine sheets — an animation cell waiting to be drawn.
Walt Disney Animation Studios bought the rights to Smith’s book within the year. Bringing Cruella to life back then involved animator Marc Davis, who drew Thumper, Alice in Wonderland, Tinkerbell, and Maleficent, along with two women: Betty Lou Gerson (“Perry Mason”), the narrator in “Cinderella,” voiced Cruella’s smug tone and raucous laugh while Mary Wickes, a five-foot-ten character actress (“White Christmas,” “Sister Act”), modeled Cruella’s physicality, tossing her head and swishing her coat and her tail-covered purse.
The dogs outsmart everyone, of course, but Cruella is the only human worth the audience’s attention. (She’s one of three animated characters, including the Man in Bambi and the Queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” who lands on the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 villains.) No wonder Disney smells box office gold in her wake, casting Glenn Close in a 1996 live-action version (and a sequel in 2000). A live-action crime caper called “Cruella,” with Emma Stone (“La La Land”) as a young Ms. De Vil is slated for release later this year.
The animated Cruella grows more deranged as her plan unravels, her hair wild and eyes aflame. But she has a “cadaverous charm” that’s too much fun to ignore. Unapologetic and brash, she takes up both sides of the road and the edges of any scene. She’s hell on wheels who stashes the pups she wants killed in her family estate called Hell Hall.
Sure, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Snow White’s Queen are petty and vile, too, but Cruella is someone we might encounter in real life: no magical powers, just nasty, covetous desire. Her scheme might be spotty, but she sears the screen.