Born in Lancashire on this day in 1896, English writer Dodie Smith is best known for two novels in particular: her debut, I Capture the Castle, published in 1948, and The Hundred and One Dalmatians, in which a couple of dogs attempt to rescue their missing puppies from the clutches of a wealthy woman named Cruella de Vil. It was in 1957, a year after publication of the latter, spotty title, that a copy found its way to Walt Disney, and before long he was the proud owner of the movie rights to Smith’s book. Below are two letters, both written by Smith to Disney. The first was penned soon after the deal was signed; the second came two years later, after Smith had seen some artwork for the first time. The Disney adaptation of this hairy tale, titled One Hundred and One Dalmatians, was finally released in 1961. It remains one of the studio’s most successful films.
30th November, 1957
Dear Mr. Disney,
Mr. Cyril James thinks you may like to have an autographed copy of “The Hundred and One Dalmatians”, so I am sending him one for you, with great pleasure. And I want to tell you how very proud and happy I am that you are going to make a film of my book. To be quite honest, I always hoped you might—so much so that, when I was writing it, I often found myself visualising the scenes as they would be in cartoon. Perhaps this helped to give them a certain pictorial quality.
I do hope you will have seen the excellent photographs taken by Eric Gray, who was employed to supply suitable backgrounds of London, Essex and Suffolk. Very sensibly, he came to see me, and my husband and I were able to show him numerous atmospheric villages, buildings and landscapes. He also made some admirable enlargements of a few of our photographs of our Dalmatians. I would especially like you to look out for one known to us as “Folly’s Milk Bar”, in which our mother dog, Folly, is feeding some of the fifteen puppies born to her in one litter. For some reason she decided to stand up—so all the puppies are balanced on their little rear-ends.
You can imagine how I am longing to see the finished film—I really don’t know how to wait the five years I am told it may take. I can only hope that the work will go so smoothly that it may be done in record time. If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.
Every good wish to you—and to the animators who will bring my story to life.
7th December, 1959
Dear Walt Disney,
Very many thanks for your letter and the two sketches from DALMATIANS. We are fascinated by them, all the more because we did not, before, realise that the characters are drawn separately from the backgrounds—though I can now see exactly why this has to be done.
Cruella is magnificent, much more exciting than the illustrations in the book and I notice many amusing touches in her background. Pongo and Missis have great personality. (Sorry! I mean Pongo and Perdita. I still feel heartbroken about that change of name. I quite see you had to cut Perdita, but Missis is known as Missis to many thousands of children in various countries and, judging by the letters I get about her, is as popular as Pongo). Your Perdita has great sex-appeal and charm. Your Pongo is full of character and humour. Dalmatian breeders may be a bit vexed by his solidly black ears, but this won’t matter to the general public. Only breeders and owners know what a dog’s correct points should be.
Now that we have seen these pictures we are all the more excited about the film and all the more eager to see it. I hope your kind wish that I should write you another story will be fully justified by the success of DALMATIANS—and I don’t see how, with all your enthusiastic work, it can be less than a success.
Unfortunately, I’ve no new idea which might end up as a cartoon—but I have been offered assistance. We have two ordinary house mice which have become so tame that they climb onto our knee and eat out of our hands. Yesterday, for the first time, one appeared on my desk and watched me writing. It wandered round and ended by backing into an open fountain pen; then departed with an ink-stain on its behind. It obviously wants me to take it on as a collaborator.
Please give our kindest remembrances to Mrs Disney. We so much enjoyed having you both here and hope you will soon come again.
All our good wishes for Christmas and New Year and, again, with many thanks for the drawings, which we shall always cherish proudly.
These letters—and many others exchanged between Smith and Disney as the film took shape—now live in the vast archives at Walt Disney Animation Studios. And if you get hold of a copy of the 2-Disc Platinum Edition of 101 Dalmatians, you can hear a bunch of them read aloud in a featurette titled ‘Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney.’
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What wonderful charming letters
What an excellent pair of letters - so nice to see an author that engages with and supports the changes made by a studio - do we know if she still supported the final cinematic release?