This weekend sees the release of The BFG, Steven Spielberg’s lavish adaptation of eccentric Welsh author Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s classic. It’s a perfect fit for Disney, with its oversized characters (literally) and message that an emotional bond can be formed between two characters, no matter how different they might be (a theme that appears time and time again, in films ranging from The Fox and the Hound to Lilo & Stitch to virtually every Disney•Pixar animated marvel). The connection between Disney and Dahl is an interesting one that dates back many decades and is filled with all of the colorful detail and strange twists that you’d expect from a Roald Dahl (or, for that matter, a Walt Disney) story.
World War II was a particularly fraught time for the Walt Disney Studios. Between 1942 and 1945, 94% of all films produced by Disney were under a government contract for training and propaganda. International distribution had all but dried up thanks to the conflict abroad. As biographer Neal Gabler recounts in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Walt was “looking for a property for an animated war film that might have commercial possibilities, since he was stymied from making his own entertainment features.”
Around this time he received a manuscript from a Royal Air Force lieutenant named Roald Dahl. Dahl had enlisted in the Royal Air Force at the start of World War II and became a fighter pilot. As a fighter pilot he would battle the German Luftwaffe, and after a 1940 crash in the Sahara desert, he was sent to Washington, D.C., where he served as a military attaché to the British Embassy. (This is when rumors of his work as a covert operative began; years later he would write the 007 adventure You Only Live Twice, which introduced many of the tenants that would help define the franchise, including the outrageous villain lair and some of the gallows humor.)
While in Washington, D.C., Dahl began to write. He had swapped stories with his fellow RAF pilots about gremlins, a mythical race of creatures that would sabotage their planes. Before submitting the story for publication, he had to get an okay from his superiors. As Disney historian Leonard Maltin wrote, “As it happened, the man who headed British Information Services in New York City was a movie producer and entrepreneur named Sidney Bernstein. Bernstein took it upon himself to send Dahl’s story to Walt Disney.” Maltin noted that, “Walt immediately saw the potential for a topical film with an unusual taste of whimsy.”
Gabler wrote that Walt had “managed to deter other studios from making gremlin films of their own by saying that he was putting one into production.” In the summer of 1942, Dahl was given three weeks’ leave and went to California to meet with Walt and his team. In his 1978 memoir Lucky Break, Dahl wrote about the experience. “Each day, I worked with the great Disney at his studios in Burbank, roughing out the storyline for the forthcoming film. I had a ball. I was still only 26. I attended story conferences in Disney’s enormous office where every word spoken, every suggestion made, was taken down by a stenographer and typed out afterwards. I mooched around the rooms where the gifted and obstreperous animators worked, the men who had already created Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi, and other marvelous films. When my time was up, I went back to Washington and left them to it.”
In the December 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine (then a more general-audience publication), Walt ran a seven-page “preview” of the forthcoming Gremlins-centered movie, using Dahl’s text, called “Introducing the Gremlins.” Somewhat hyperbolically, the magazine called the story “unquestionably the greatest contribution to living folklore in more than a hundred years.” By 1943 something approaching gremlin-mania seized the country. Disney Historian Jim Korkis noted that there was a popular song called “Dance of the Gremlins,” a daily comic strip called “The Gremlins” that was published starting in January 1943, and fashion trend wherein women began wearing “Gremlin Hats.”
In mid-1943, The Gremlins was published in book form. While the Cosmopolitan article was published under a pseudonym, The Gremlins was clearly authored by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl, while illustrations were handled by Bill Justice, a Disney animator and Imagineer. It was Dahl’s first published book and the first book Justice had illustrated. An idea was floated to make the film a live action/animated hybrid, with the look of a traditional war film … except for the animated gremlins crawling around the airplanes and monkeying with the machinery.
What happens next is a mystery. It’s unclear if Dahl (whose nickname on the lot was “Stalky” due to his height) ever returned to California. Maltin says that he never did, while Gabler insists that Walt made another trip. The idea to combine live action and animation was soon discarded, and Walt instead shifted his attention to making a completely animated feature based on the idea. Merchandise from the proposed film slowly flooded the market, based on Dahl’s ideas and the designs the animators had come up for them (fun fact: baby Gremlins are called Widgets, female Gremlins are called Fifinellas). Disney and Dahl’s Gremlins made their way into coloring books and toy store shelves and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories comic books.
According to Korkis, two different scripts were developed. One version, described by animation historian John Cawley, featured “the addition of large chunks of narration and a dose of patriotic exhortation concerning the need to join together to fight a single enemy.” The Gremlins, with their capacity for disabling British airplanes, remained “very heavy villains.” Legendary Disney animator Ward Kimball said that, despite several characters entering the marketplace in the form of plush toys and collectibles, the animators could never even lock down what the Gremlins would actually look like.
One animator recounted a time that he had accompanied Walt to a meeting of RAF pilots, to try and get their first hand account of their meeting with “gremlins.” Instead, the pilots just wanted to tell old war stories. Walt left the meeting at midnight, frustrated beyond belief. Meanwhile, other studios were readying their own gremlins-based adventures. While Warner Bros. already had two animated shorts in development, they agreed to honor Roy Disney’s gentlemanly agreement, which gave Disney Studios rights to the term “Gremlins,” and changed the titles from “Bugs Bunny and the Gremlin” to “Falling Hare” and “Gremlins from the Kremlin” to “Russian Rhapsody.”
In December 1943 Walt wrote to Dahl, “Definitely, the Gremlins will not be made as a feature because of the feeling on the distributor’s part that the public has become tired of war films. We have given considerable thought to the possibility of making the Gremlins into a short and I have personally endeavored to generate some interest among the various crews but haven’t met with any degree of success.” Walt tried to drum up interest but it just wasn’t there. “If we ever hit upon an angle that seems right for production, we’ll get in touch with you.” As far as we know, Dahl and Disney’s communications ended there.
The Gremlins project still lived on, though. There was that merchandise, for one. And the book, with its incredibly limited run of 50,000 in the United States market, became an instant collectors item. Before a deluxe reissue of the book a few years ago, it routinely fetched hundreds of dollars on the secondhand market. The Gremlins made their way onto military insignias used by several branches of the armed forces (illustrated by animators from the Walt Disney Studios), and Fifinella the lady Gremlin was, as Maltin recounts, “adopted as the official mascot of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. She appeared on patches, letterheads, matchbook covers, and decals.” It just goes to show, you can’t keep a good Gremlin down.
In 1984 Warner Bros. released Gremlins, a film executive produced by Spielberg, which was based, in part, on those animated shorts and the designs and stories dreamed up by Disney and Dahl. In one pivotal scene a showing of Walt Disney’s classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs distracts the Gremlins, imagined in this film as scaly, rambunctious creatures, who have besieged a quaint, Rockwellian town. Disney and Gremlins, together again.
The BFG is out in 3D on Friday.