The animated movie Cinderella, released in 1950, might be the movie that saved Disney.
Dollar amounts in this article are circa 1950; tack on a zero if you want to adjust for inflation.
In 1937 Disney released Snow White, the first full length animated feature, and it was truly a game changer. Wonderful - riveting - and just as entertaining today as it was when a movie ticket cost a quarter. The dwarves cantacommuting to and from work, the animals cleaning up the cottage, dwarves sleeping everywhere while Snow White occupied their adjacent beds, and the wash-up scene - it's full of fun! I had to explain to my son that the current rap song, "Whistle while you Twirk", is hardly original. He had no idea. Of course the movie has a bit of drama as well, attempted murder and all that, but you know from the outset that it has a happy ending.
Spurred by early success, Disney released several animated movies over the next ten years: Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia, Melody Time, and Dumbo. We think of these as classics today, but they did not achieve commercial success at the time. They're all good movies, but not magical (in my subjective opinion), or perhaps everyone was preoccupied with the War. We can only speculate. In any case, movie after movie was a bust. Disney found itself 4 million dollars in debt, and standing on the edge of bankruptcy. A box office success was desperately needed.
After two years in production, and another 2.9 million dollars invested, Cinderella was released in 1950, to public and critical acclaim. Revenues reached $85 million, more than enough to lift Disney out of bankruptcy. And no wonder - Cinderella has all the magic of Snow White, and then some. Wonderful animation, action scenes, animals, singing, humor throughout, and a touch of drama leading to a happy ending. Disney was solvent again and flying high.
Mike Douglas provided the singing voice for the Prince. Yes, that Mike Douglas, who went on to host an Emmy-winning talk show for 15 years.
Ilene Woods provided the speaking and singing voice for Cinderella, and in my opinion, she's perfect for the part. She possesses a "fairy tale" quality that is innocent, wholesome, and never bitter, despite the daily abuse heaped upon her by her step family. That's unrealistic of course, but hey, it's Disney. When she sings "So This is Love", or "A Dream is a Wish", the emotions come pouring out of her. She beat 309 girls for the part, but it was never her intention to audition. She made some demo recordings for her friends, just for fun, and fortunately for us they recognized her talent and sent the recordings to Disney, who selected her as his first choice.
The Nightingale song features three instances of Ilene singing harmony with herself. Tracks are recorded separately and then merged together. This became a standard technique in the music industry by the late 1960's, with Les Paul, Patti Page, and The Beatles being early adopters, but it was practically unknown in 1949. If you wanted three part harmony you got three singers! People just didn't sing with themselves. Ilene was initially apprehensive, but she agreed, and the effect is lovely. Just another innovation that Disney introduced to the world.
In a recent interview with Classicfilm, half a century after Cinderella was released, Ilene remarked, "It was so wonderful. I sort of forget when I'm watching the movie that I had anything to do with it. Yet, it brings back so many beautiful memories of working with the wonderful artists and working with Walt mostly."
What if Disney had not made Cinderella at that time? What if Cinderella lacked the magic that made it an instant success? What if Disney had gone bankrupt in 1952? All of the following would not be here.
Disney Land, Disney World, Disney Cruises, Disney Channels (cable and radio), The Wonderful World of Disney (I looked forward to this every week), The Disney After School special, Davy Crocket, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Parent Trap, The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins, Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, Escape to Witch Mountain, The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers, Air Bud, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Oliver and Company, Honey I shrunk the Kids, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Muppet Christmas Carol, The Lion King, The Santa Clause, Pocahontas, Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Tarzan, Sky High, The Princess Diaries, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean, Freaky Friday, The Incredibles, The Shaggy Dog, Cars, Planes, National Treasure, WALL-E, and Tangled - just to name a few.
In some parallel universe, Disney came to a screeching halt in 1952. It leaves an awful hole! Fortunately, in our universe, Walt's vision of cinderella saved the day, and the company flourished.