FOND MEMORIES OF DIVINE MS. CRUELLA
This vampire bat, this inhuman beast,
She ought to be locked up, and never released,
The world was such a wholesome place until . . .
Cruella DeVil, the subject of Mel Leven’s lyrics, has been released--or re-released. The flamboyant villain who plots to kidnap 99 spotted puppies and make them into fur coats is one of the principal attractions of Disney’s “101 Dalmatians,” which grossed a very respectable $2.4 million at 1,090 theaters during the first three days of its current reissue.
People who grew up during the late ‘30s savor their memories of how the Wicked Witch scared them in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Baby boomers cherish a similar nostalgia for Cruella, the villain who frightened and fascinated them when she burst onto the screen in 1961. Nearly 25 years later people still turn up at costume parties as Cruella, and original artwork of the character commands high prices.
A somewhat tamer version of Cruella appears in Dodie Smith’s original book, “The 101 Dalmatians.” Three people played key roles in transforming her into the florid personality of the film: Bill Peet adapted the story, Marc Davis did the key animation of the character and Betty Lou Gerson provided the booming voice. Davis and Gerson discussed their redoubtable creation after a recent screening of the film at the Disney studio in Burbank.
“I had several partial models in mind when I drew Cruella,” acknowledges Davis, one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men.” “Including Tallulah (Bankhead) and one woman I knew who was just a monster: She was tall and thin and talked constantly--you never knew what she was saying, but you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. What I really wanted to do was make the character move like someone you wouldn’t like.”
Cruella wreaks havoc as she sweeps through the film. Davis’ animation plays the extravagant movements of her scrawny, angular body and limbs against the muffling folds of a voluminous white fur coat. She leaves a trail of shattered windows, slammed doors and ringing ears wherever she passes.
“Cruella is mean but ridiculous,” Davis explains. “She’s scatterbrained and selfish; she never stops to think. I don’t imagine murdering dogs was ever on her mind--all she saw was the fur coats she wanted to make out of them. The fact that she’s pitted against the other characters eye to eye, mind to mind, made her an interesting character to work with.”
As Davis suggests, there’s more to Cruella than just sound and fury: Audiences can detect a mind at work behind her tantrums and schemes. The villains in such recent animated films as “The Care Bears Movie” have lacked motivation--if the viewer accepts their evil intentions, it’s only because he’s been told to. Not Cruella. The dognaping scheme that forms the basis of the film’s plot springs naturally from the impatient, spiteful personality her words and motions have depicted.
Davis praises Gerson’s contribution to Cruella: “I worked with two really exceptional voices,” he says.
Like many voice talents in animation, Gerson was a successful radio actress, appearing in “First Nighter,” “Grand Hotel,” “The Woman in White and other radio series. While her normal speaking voice is clear and well modulated, she occasionally punches a consonant with an enthusiastic vigor that recalls Cruella.
“In the first recording session, they told me to see what I could come up with,” Gerson recalls. “The first voice I tried sounded a bit like Tallulah Bankhead; everybody said, ‘That’s it, don’t change it!’ I didn’t want Cruella to be totally frightening, like Maleficent (in “Sleeping Beauty”), so I played her with a touch of humor in my voice. Many of the Disney villains are truly terrifying, but I think Cruella is more comical than evil.”
Gerson missed the premiere of “101 Dalmatians” and only recently saw the film for the first time. She pronounced herself “totally enchanted,” a judgment audiences seem to share. To date, “Dalmatians” worldwide has grossed more than $200 million--much of it on the strength of Cruella’s macabre charms.