Gulliver’s Travels: The Making of a Classic…75 Years Later
When Paramount Pictures premiered the Fleischer Studios’ production of Gulliver’s Travels in Miami Beach on December 18, 1939, they didn’t know what to expect. Their intentions with the film were modest and reasonable: they wanted to capitalize on the previous success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The Disney animated film garnered $7.8 million worldwide during its initial theatrical run, making it the highest grossing sound film of its time.
As Rick Jewell points out in his essay “RKO Films Grosses: 1939-1951: The C.J. Tevlin Ledger,” Snow White earned the film’s distributor, RKO Radio Pictures, a profit of $380,000 (1994, 44). Paramount Pictures wanted their version of Snow White with Gulliver’s Travels, and they got it. According to animation historian Thomas Reich, “[Gulliver’s Travels] was #1 at the box office until Gone With the Wind. Over time it ended up being the most attended animated feature film of all time.” Despite this success, however, Gulliver’s Travels remains ignored and overlooked by critics and scholars, and compared to Snow White, the film has not become a recognizable classic in popular culture. Why has film history treated Gulliver’s Travels this way?
It is often perplexing to find that some Hollywood films are classics and others are not, especially when David Bordwell demonstrates in The Classical Hollywood System: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 that “Hollywood filmmaking adheres to integral and limited stylistic conventions” (1985, 3). In an attempt to come to terms with this confounding contradiction, I will contextualize Gulliver’s Travels within a historical context to show that it is firmly situated within Hollywood’s mode of production and style in 1939. Through a historically researched account of the film’s production, as well as an analysis of the film’s narrative and stylistic conventions, I argue that Gulliver’s Travels is merely another product off Hollywood’s assembly line. Moreover, I will compare Gulliver’s Travels to Snow White to show their similarities in narrative and stylistic conventions as well as reception. These similarities, I claim, call attention to the arbitrary nature of distinguishing classic films, as both Snow White and Gulliver’s Travels are similar films from the same time period, but the former is considered a classic whereas the latter has been forgotten in the 21st century.
Since Gulliver’s Travels isn’t considered a classic, there isn’t as much scholarly discourse surrounding the film as there is Snow White. Eric Smoodin’s BFI Classic on Snow White exemplifies this intellectual bias, as the very association of Smoodin’s book with the BFI series suggests that Snow White has transcended its historical time period to achieve classic status. By contrast, Gulliver’s Travels has not been given the BFI treatment, thereby implying its inferiority. This is problematic for the historian, and I want to propose that Snow White has become a classic simply because scholars like Smoodin keep insisting that it is a classic. As scholars contribute more scholarship to a particular film, they add more information to it, thereby reinforcing its place within the canon. This makes it easier to engage in discussions about some films than others, and Gulliver’s Travels represents the forgotten film about which there isn’t much substantial discourse.
That being said, two individuals who have laid the groundwork for our historical understanding of Gulliver’s Travels are Ray Pointer and Thomas Reich. Both Pointer and Reich work tirelessly to restore early animated films, and Reich is responsible for restoring the only completed version of Gulliver’s Travels. According to Pointer, Gulliver’s Travels is a product of the Fleischer Studios, a New York based animated studio that was run by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer from 1921 to 1942.
Before Gulliver’s Travels, the Fleischer brothers achieved success in the 1930s with cartoon shorts like Popeye, Betty Boop, Screen Songs, and Color Classics. As film historian Jerry Beck notes, the Fleischer brothers began their 15 year association with Paramount Pictures in the 1920s, and the head of Paramount, Adolph Zucker, was responsible for distributing their films. Paramount and the Fleischer brothers profited from the Popeye and Betty Boop characters, but the brothers were always interested in making feature-length animations. As Pointer recalls, “The evidence is when they started their color series with the entry of ‘Poor Cinderella’ starring Betty Boop. It ran slightly longer than a normal one-reeler. So, a lot of things they were exploring were things they were exploring towards making features.” Despite the Fleischer’s interest in making a feature, however, Zucker ruled against it.
The reason why Zucker vetoed the Fleischers’ plans relates to economics. According to Pointer, Paramount was affected by the Hayes Commission in 1934, and they had to reorganize their company three different times as a result. Zucker was a budget-minded businessman after all, and he didn’t want to produce a feature-length animated film without guarantee that it would make a profit. The Fleischer brothers therefore continued to make their cartoon shorts until the surprise success of Snow White in 1937 opened up an opportunity for Paramount. As Pointer says, “It wasn’t until [Zucker] saw the results from Snow White that they said yes.” In an attempt to capitalize on the success of Snow White, Zucker gave the Fleischer brothers a year and a half to produce their first feature-length animated film, Gulliver’s Travels, by Christmas 1939. To put this into perspective, Disney worked on Snow White for over three years.
It is clear from the beginning that the production of Gulliver’s Travels would be complicated. The Fleischer brothers were interested in expanding the art of animation, but Zucker was focused solely on generating a profit. The film began production in 1938, and Pointer notes that the studio moved from New York to Miami in order to make the film. According to some speculations, the studio relocated because they initially planned to have a live action Bing Crosby star as the shipwrecked Gulliver . This never happened, and the move to Miami caused many difficulties and financial hardships. Pointer argues that it contributed to the film’s over-budget, as he writes:
They were finishing the Betty Boops in New York and doing Popeyes, too. Part of the problem was Paramount green-lit Gulliver at the time [Fleischer] was in the process of moving. They had started the move in 1938, and part of the moving expense was put into the feature budget. The feature was foolishly estimated to cost $500,000, which was what Disney originally estimated Snow White would cost. In the end, Gulliver ended up costing $1.4 million. Part of that was the moving costs. That was estimated to be over $500,000 in itself. It’s now believed that Gulliver actually cost about $1 million.
The production of Gulliver’s Travels is similar to the production of many Hollywood films of the time. In particular, Gulliver’s Travels is a product of the producer-unit system that Janet Staiger identifies in The Classical Hollywood System, in which a central producer maintains a high degree of control over all film production at a given studio, making it difficult to keep tabs on the growing number of films (1985, 320). In this case, Zucker oversaw the production of Gulliver’s Travels, and Pointer’s report that the film went over budget shows that Zucker wasn’t able to successfully manage every production. Further, the producer-unit system implies that the one producer—in this case Zucker—is too focused on economics to be well-versed in every genre of filmmaking. As a result, Zucker had to trust that Fleischer would deliver a worthy animated film, and he had to relinquish some of his power to make this happen. Reich reports that Zucker told the brothers that he demanded Gulliver’s Travels to be similar to Snow White in order to be successful at the box office, to which the brothers responded, “Okay. Give me the money, shut up, leave us alone and we’ll give you something that will blow you away.” However, despite any amount of freedom that the Fleischer brothers negotiated with their animation expertise, Snow White and Gulliver’s Travels are strikingly similar films.
The opening credits of Gulliver’s Travels situate the film within 1939 Hollywood cinema. The first title card states that the film is “a Paramount Picture,” which places emphasis on Paramount’s control over the film. The next title card, “Gulliver’s Travels in Technicolor,” finds Hollywood trying to capitalize on the latest technological advancement. In addition to other 1939 films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, Gulliver’s Travels calls attention to Technicolor in an effort to lure audiences into the theaters. The next title card, “Based on Jonathan Swift’s immortal Tale,” is a filmic attempt to appeal to the literary. However, by calling it “immortal,” there’s an implication that the story can’t properly be told until it is given the Hollywood treatment, thereby reminding the audience that they are watching an important Hollywood picture. Following these title cards, each member of the production team is credited, and we are reminded that cinema is a collaborative undertaking. Further, the entire opening credits sequence is played to a musical score by Ralph Rainger, and its lush, operatic melody mirrors other musical scores from 1939.
After the opening credits, the film displays the words: “I, Lemuel Gulliver, give thee a faithful history of my most interesting adventure in the south sea.” Like Snow White‘s opening, there is an attempt here to exploit the story’s literary qualities. We’re now two minutes into the film and we’ve only just finished reading. This is because Hollywood relied on the literary to elevate the status of their films in the 1930s, including but not limited to animated films. As Eric Smoodin argues, animation wasn’t considered a prestigious genre of filmmaking by studios, critics, or audiences in the 1930s. Like horror and western films, animated films were scoffed at by snobs. For instance, Snow White received an Academy Award, but because it was an animated film, it earned a “special award” for “screen innovation,” as if to imply that the film wasn’t significant enough to compete for the major categories like Best Picture. Therefore, Snow White and Gulliver’s Travels call attention to literary qualities in an attempt to legitimize their existence as works of art, thereby earning the respect of sophisticated adult audiences.
By staying rooted in the animated musical, however, the films also appeal to children. The musical sequences in both films are buoyant and uplifting, and the visuals are colorful and eye-popping. Consider, for example, the musical sequence for the song “It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy day” in Gulliver’s Travels.
The scene is enchanting to watch as the inhabitants of Lilliput (a town with little people) clean up Gulliver, a giant who washes ashore on their island. The Lilliputians sing this joyous song as they make Gulliver a new set of clothes, and the colorful images and fantastical animated effects deliberately appeal to childhood wonder. For instance, the Lilliputians work in unison to shine Gulliver’s boots, and as they move along to the song, the filmmakers successfully create comedic rhythm and timing at which the audience can marvel.
This is very similar to the “Whistle While Your Work” scene in Snow White in which the princess and her team of animals straighten up the house of the seven dwarfs. As the squirrels, chipmunks, and bunnies dust and mop to the rhythm of the song, the viewer becomes captivated. Adults can appreciate the technical innovation of the animation or the literary adaptation whereas the children can admire the cheerful songs and color visuals.
The initial reviews to Gulliver’s Travels were positive, and the film wound up receiving two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song and Best Original Score. This is one more nomination than Snow White received two years prior (Snow White wasn’t nominated for Original Song). As I mention above, the Disney film did receive an honorary Oscar, but it was only for being the first feature-length animated film, and it is appropriate to assume that Gulliver’s Travels would have received a similar award if it was released first. As the Honorary Award description states, “For Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field.” According to Variety’s review, Gulliver’s Travels is “an excellent job of animation, audience interest, and all around showmanship.” The New York Times wasn’t as enthusiastic, but its review did acknowledge that “some parts of it are amusing enough to adults, even by Disney standards.” Therefore, if the narrative and stylistic conventions mirror Snow White and they were similarly received by both critics and the public, then why is the former considered a classic and the latter more or less forgotten in the 21st century?
There are perhaps a number of explanations for this, but I propose that classic films are classified as such for arbitrary reasons. Plainly put, there is no telling which films will become classics and which films will fall by the wayside. To some extent, quality and popularity play a part, but there are many popular films of the 1930s that aren’t well known today, and there are many great films from the 1930s that haven’t achieved classic status. Moreover, there are a number of classic films from the 1930s that aren’t any good, and there are similarly various popular 1930s films today that weren’t popular in the 1930s. If anything, films become classics because scholars, critics, and media outlets elevate them as such, thereby ignoring other potential releases. This is the case with Gulliver’s Travels, an ambitious animated film from 1939 that, for all intents and purposes, could easily take Snow White‘s place as the classic animated film from the 1930s.
Despite this, however, Gulliver’s Travels is still trying to achieve classic status 75 years after its initial release at the Miami Beach movie theater in 1939.
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