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.

it's a hap hap happy day

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.

Whistle While You Work – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/.

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24 Comments

  1. I enjoyed this movie as a kid. It had been aired several times on the PBS network back then. It came on one time when I went home from school for lunch. I got so involved in watching that I decided to not return to school that afternoon – big mistake. My mom came home early from work and caught me.

    • gurn blanston
      2

      Snow White is a classic in every sense – Gulliver’s Travels is, charitably, a mess.

  2. I just watched this movie recently again, and I’ve always been a great fan of it. It is a classic for me.

    My favorite moment is when Gulliver is on the shore at night, smoking a pipe, and looking at the waves (while the choir is singing in the background like angels).

    It’s a moment I’ve thought of when seeking peace.

    • Tyrone Anderson
      0

      I also like Gulliver’s dreams of home on the beach – especially when he sings back to the voices.

      I also like King Bombo’s scene as David is singing ‘Forever’, when he is laughing and crying reminiscing of the good times he had with King Little, only to return abruptly to his hard front when the spies catch a glimpse of this. It shows Bombo was good really but had an image to protect, as shown when he almost went to apologise to King Little but was accidentally grabbed by the guards which sent him over the edge.

  3. Gina Cruz
    0

    The effort they used to put into cartoons….it’s admirable. We will never see something like this again anytime soon. This came out when my grandmother was a little girl, she grew up watching it, my mom grew up watching is, and so did I. I’ve been watching this for 17 years. Love it.

  4. Jordan Rose
    0

    An unique masterpiece! A movie that never gets old (which in my book is the definition of a “classic”)! When will the world see a genius like David Fleischer again?!

  5. Austin Bender

    I remember watching this once as a kid when I was too sick to go to school. I don’t think I’ve seen it since. I’m not sure why it isn’t widely considered to be a masterpiece. Maybe a lot of people are like me and haven’t seen it in ages.

  6. It is crazy. I hate the story because I really love the novel (I’m a sucker for satire and fantasy) but the animation is just so beautiful! The acting performance is good and the humor is good (just not satire) but so many Gulliver’s travels movies do the same thing, focus on Lilliput and choose there own story. The 1994 Gulliver’s Travels movie is the one to watch if you are looking for a movie version of the book (satire included!) it is one of my favorite movies.

    • It is a shame a lot of symbolism is removed from this rendition. The original story had some thoughtful moments about humility and what people consider grandiose and lavish are pointless in the big picture, both as Gulliver an allegory of the christian idea of god, and also him as a tiny being in the face of giants (gods) where his little achievements he wanted to boast about (gunpowder) were seen as horrendous and stupid. All in all, this is a strong cartoon indeed.

  7. It was late at night and I wanted to watch something on TV and found this movie, at first i was thinking of changing the channel since I’m not used to seeing these type of movies due to my age but due to my curiosity of what will happen next and the fact that I’m a hopeless romantic I ended up watching the whole thing and i’m glad I did! I love the song the prince and princess sing too! It was an awesome bed time story 🙂

  8. Rev-reV
    0

    The creativity in this one is amazing. Reminds me of my childhood.

  9. terrell
    0

    This is the strangest animated movie ever. I like it though, and its music is absolutely wonderful.

  10. mabel mcgee
    0

    You make a great case. It’s a classic. Nobody makes animation like this anymore, which is a damn shame.

  11. Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

    I have never seen this film, but your article makes me really curious! The visual beauty of Disney classics is striking: the colours, the characters’ movements, the accuracy of the drawings…an admirable work. Fortunately, we still have artists like Misayaki who are passionate about 2D animation(although his style is very different). But I must say that the work artists do on 3D animation today (Pixar, Disney and other independent teams) is also breathtaking.

  12. I used to have this on an SLP mode VHS when I was a kid!

  13. Interesting! I’m also surprised to know many readers have seen this one. Maybe I should see this adaptation sometimes.

  14. It’s interesting to observe how film versions of Gulliver’s Travels tend to fade into disrememberance over time. Recall the 2010 version starring Jack Black–which I think most people would like to forget existed. Yet as the author breaks down, despite the fact that the 1939 animated version is a work of cinematic merit, it is overshadowed by other works equally or less commendable. Perhaps the clever satire of Swift’s work is too integral an aspect for it to be made into a long-lastingly successful children’s movie?

  15. I saw this movie when I was younger, but I didn’t come to appreciate it until about a year ago when I took a History of Animation class. It was a great animation at the time and still is!

  16. Jonathan Leiter

    Upon my first viewing of the Fleischer Brother’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” I was first of all once again disappointed that they only showed us the section of the book dealing with the Lilliputians, despite the fact that there were numerous other lands and characters that Gulliver could have interacted with. However, that may have made the film a lot darker and more sinister, but perhaps more memorable for it. Who can say.

    In terms of how similar it is to “Snow White,” I found many aspects directly similar, especially the fact that both the prince and princess sing and that their singing becomes a central plot device during the climax. The song itself isn’t very good in my opinion, though. I also didn’t care much for the abundant slapstick, which was of course a staple not just of Fleischer studios but of the time-period. “Snow White” had its share of slapstick, but it wasn’t as repetitive or rough and tumble as other studios would have done. And unfortunately the slapstick and side-plot with Gabby’s in-story character made the film lose traction with me. It was, however, a valiant effort by a group of animators and filmmakers that had not had the same mindset or formal training that Disney required his animators to go through; and I’m impressed to learn that the film actually did well upon its initial release.

    I find it a continued point of frustration that so many many great animated features and series have little to no scholarly documentation or criticism in the annals of history; especially those that are produced outside of the US. When trying to research or look for peer-reviewed articles about “The Secret of NIMH,” “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” or “The Brave Little Toaster,” I find next to nothing; not a single article across the 2 or 3 decades that these films have been around. And it is such a shame that the same can also be said of films like “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Mr. Bug Goes to Town,” which are moving into their 7 and 8 decade old marks.

    It seems to all stem from this preconception that animation is a lower form of entertainment meant for children, and therefore not worth distinguished scholar’s time. And I sincerely hope that some day that preconception can be cast aside.

  17. Ben Hufbauer

    I saw and enjoyed this movie as a kid. Thanks so much for this article of the story of its creation.

  18. I agree with you and many who commented that Gulliver’s Travels has long been under-appreciated. I do think part of the problem the Fleischers ran into is that, in their efforts to replicate Snow White’s success, they “miscast” themselves with material that didn’t really jibe with their aesthetic. For me, Mr. Bug Goes To Town is more successful because it captures the tougher, streetwise urbanity the studio mastered so well.

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  20. Kevin Butler
    0

    Despite the knocks that this film has received..I enjoy
    it.

  21. A gorgeous film, like the Superman movies these brothers made, a door to magical animation that that mouse factory as Calvino would say immutably slammed shut, lest there be one less stuffed abysmal animal sold to one imagine less child in the decrepit empire of Waly’s.

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