Meet Hyacinth Hippo

Hattie Noel

I know what you’re saying to yourself right now: he’s finally lost his marbles and has started posting suggestive photos of voluptuous black women and calling them hippos. But actually the above photo is a rare piece of Disney animation history. It’s a photo of actress Hattie Noel who was the live-action reference for Hyacinth Hippo in Fantasia.

This is one of the “lost” pics from her modelling sessions for Disney artists. For obvious reasons, it’s a bit of Disney history that you never read about in their official histories. Over the years, I’ve seen a couple other reference shots of her, but this one has ended up on eBay (or at least a copy of it has, since the seller is only offering a printout and not the original photo).

(via Disney History blog)


  • Ace Weems

    What “obvious reasons”?
    Is it that we not allowed to draw large woman of color as hippo’s any more? Personally I love her pose and poise and would love to have her pose for me. She would and did provide great reference studies for squash and stretch. Does she know that what she did was never written about? Hidden for “obvious reasons”? She provided a great contribution by posing for Preston Blair (?) who would use these poses as a reference (and others) to create one of the greatest characters in Fantasia. Dance of the Hours is brilliant! So sad that Hattie Noel’s contribution has been hidden for “obvious reasons”? Again, What were those reasons? How about the skinny waif that posed for the ostrichs? Do we know who s/he was? Or Was that piece of history hidden as well?

  • http://stevenegordon.com Steve G

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I assume ‘the obvious reasons’ are that Disney would prefer to disavow the use of rotoscope and reference whenever possible. Many of the 9 old men were particularly hesitant to admit to this type of history.

  • uffler mustek

    Hot.

  • Chuck R.

    Okay, I’m a huge fan of Fantasia, and an artist who draws from live models on a regular basis. I have a near-obsessive fascination of the pains that Disney artists have taken to produce the amazing work of the late 30′s and 40′s. This photo is pretty damn interesting.

    Still, it’s not hard for me to appreciate that the common muggle is not going to see this photo the same way an animation geek sees it. If you don’t understand the “obvious reasons” Amid is talking about, you need to get out of the studio more.

    As long as we’re on the topic, how often did the Disney artists use human models for animal characters (other than copying mannerisms of voice actors ala Jungle Book?) This is a rare instance to me.

  • http://portapuppets.does.it uncle wayne

    I can only pray to Christ that this wonderul (& historic) post will not ensue any insipid “racial” issue!! Thank you, Amid! A great great (& more-than-rare) post!

  • Floyd Norman

    Way, way back in the fifties, Ken O’Conner, Disney’s premiere layout artist taught a class on the making of that incredible sequence in Fantasia. This was all inside Disney, so I imagine there’s a lot most newcomers don’t know about.

    Still, I don’t know what the big deal is all about.

  • Ace Weems

    Gosh Chuckles! Thanks for your clarity. Clear as mud.

    So what you’re saying is Disney hasn’t kept this hidden from animation geeks because they could and would understand and appreciate the context in which it was created. Yet they have wisely hidden it from “common muggles” because they wouldn’t see it the way we animation geeks would. Interesting. In that case I should apologize and thank Disney for protecting the “common muggles” for the greater good. Afterall exposing “common muggles” (and the chattering masses) to what goes on in the making of a animated classic could lead them onto a slippery slope; the thin edge of the wedge; the beginning of the end spiraling ever downward that they’ll never get out of. It could lead to being an animator. Gasp! I know shocking isn’t it. Disney doing something for the greater good. Hot!? Apparently. Too hot for the “common muggles”. Still, If that’s so, then why haven’t we animation geeks known about these photos? Or? No, It couldn’t be? Am I the last guy invited to the party and you guys ate all the cake already? Were you guys playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey with me? Did you know about this Chucky and didn’t tell me? I’m a animation geek too! I should know this stuff! How come I never knew this? Why was it hidden from me? Why didn’t you tell me! No don’t. I couldn’t bear it if the real reason was…I’m not an animation geek! I’m just a “common muggle”! Whaa!!

    Seriously Now. Back to the original question, What are the “obvious reasonsâ€?? Chuckles spell it out. Not inuendo, inference or guesses. Spell it out. Then we can discuss it properly. The why’s and what for’s. The context of the times, the events and the cultural history. Afterall I don’t get out much. (What time is it? 1950?) And I never get invited to parties.

  • http://thad-k.blogspot.com Thad Komorowski

    I’ll never look at “Dance of the Hours” the same again.

  • http://members.shaw.ca/petemslie/index.htm Pete Emslie

    The “Obvious reasons” seem obvious to me and probably everybody else, Ace. Look, when we see that famous footage of vaudevillian Eddie Collins doing his dance as live-action reference for Snow White’s “Happy”, with his rolls of flab bouncing up and down as a great example of Squash and Stretch, we all get a big laugh out of it. However, if we were treated to the equally rotund Hattie Noel cavorting about in a tutu, squashing and stretching for the benefit of the Disney animators, many people (outside of animators and cartoonists) would be aghast. Considering the flak that “Song of the South” has unfairly taken from black lobby groups and ultraliberal white people, I can well understand why Disney has decided to keep this footage and accompanying stills well hidden. In the words of Jack Nicholson: “You can’t handle the truth!”

    ‘Nuff said…

  • http://www.dltad.blogspot.com A.M.Bush

    Can you seriously not see how a person might be offended by Disney using a fat black woman as reference for an ANIMAL? That’s really “obvious” to me.

  • Stewie

    An even more hard to explain tidbit is how closely the background setting in “Dance of the Hours” resemble those in the ballet sequence in 1938′s “The Goldwyn Follies”, but, other than the ridiculously close settings, the issue isn’t the least bit controversial.

  • http://www.jessica-plummer.com Jessica Plummer

    I personally figured the “obvious reasons” were suggesting the whole of Disney selectively not including their heavy use of reference to create their animation. Of course, this doesn’t bother animators normally, but their philosophy is to not “spoil the magic” for the general audience, I would believe. IE duping them into believing everything was drawn out of one’s head in that magical Disney way. I don’t understand why there has to be tension behind different interpretations of “obvious reasons”.

  • http://www.Jamalotolorin.blogspot.com Jamal Otolorin

    Ummmm. I think a few readers may just not be knowledgeable about America’s general history or maybe some are just suffering from collective Amnesia.

    A.M. Bush is right. But there is a little more to it than that.

    And I hope I Amid can clarify what he intended by his “Obvious reasons” statement.

    Fantasia was released in 1940, in a completely different racial landscape that is prevailing today. For those who don’t know there were segregation laws in effect that enforced separate but equal accommodations for Black people in the United states. Its a logical argument to suspect that Disney did not want to “reveal the magic” to the audience, however if your an Animation connoisseur, you know that Russian Actress Tatiana Riabouchinska got credit as the model for Hyacinth in 1940, while hattie did not.

    Alas today is a different America, and it’s ok to release hidden secrets like this.

    That I think is what Amid means by “obvious reasons”

    I find it fatuously paradoxical that many try to sweep this stuff under a rug. Its OK its a new day. But don’t try to hide or ignore the past.

  • Ace Weems

    Oh, Socratic irony.

    Thank you Jamal. That’s exactly the point. Not being American I’ve never experienced the polarizing effects of a empire built on the backs of slavery. However I would have liked someone, anyone to come out and just say, “It’s a race issue.” But everyone ducks, dodges, and avoids even revisiting this past. I look forward to a proper discussion of the rightness or wrongness of using this beautiful woman (who happens to be African-American) as a reference for Hyacinth.

  • Chuck R.

    Amid spelled it out in the initial post:
    “suggestive photos of voluptuous black women and calling them hippos”
    He said “reasons”, not “reason”

    This photo is an “interesting piece of animation history” to maybe 2% of the American populace. It would be “confusing” or “weird” to probably 80%. I’ll be generous and say it’s “ammunition” to .001%. Disney has a right to be concerned about that tiny minority. I think that being Black History month, it would be great to open a new thread concerning black stereotypes and cartoons (and greater yet to bring a film other than Dumbo into it) But the fact is, this is about a political minefield involving, race, gender and sexual propriety.

    From the various Popular Science articles presented on this site, as well as films like the “Reluctant Dragon”, it’s safe to say that Disney had few qualms about letting a few trade secrets out. It was probably a source of pride to point out that Disney artists studied the “movements” of professional dancers to get the details right. This photo was (I hope) used in the same professional manner, but all it takes is one bad headline, to change the story completely (Amid pointed that out too)

    BTW, this “secret” wasn’t “released” because it’s “okay”. It’s probably just as flammable as it was when it was taken. That’s why it’s on ebay and not the bonus disk for the Fantasia 60th anniversary Edition.

  • Melvin

    Wonder who posed as the comedy relief picaninny centaur in the six shots obfuscated in 1968 from Beethoven’s Sixth? Those are the scenes in the official version where the image gets suddenly blurry due to optical field cuts made around the offensive visuals, so the latter day p.c. omission wouldn’t affect the musical track. Ain’t corporate revisionist history a thing of wonder? Disney would have you believe the world ISN’T a carousel of color. Talk about building an empire on the backs of slavery.

  • Chuck R.

    “Talk about building an empire on the backs of slavery.”

    Melvin, What should Disney do with old films that have embarassing racial content? If they cut them out, they are revisionists. If they leave them in they are racially insensitive.

    I would have them package and market the film the same way they did the Disney Treasures series, but then everyone gripes about the disclaimers and too much Leonard Maltin.

  • Gerard de Souza

    I am sure there are many obvious reasons. Funny, I didn’t find that an unusual statement.
    Firstly, lay people don’t understand the use of reference or even rotoscope as Disney used it. They simplify it in their minds as a crutch not understanding the action analysis, creativity and the departure from the reference that goes into using it to create animation. Witness the controversy when it was revealed on a TV program that renaissance artists used optical devices to trace their subjects! It’s controversial to the lay person with a preconceived notion on how a real artist should create, not appreciating the years of study it takes to trace a subject with understanding of what it is one is “tracing”.
    Secondly…yup I’m sure today people (the self-appointed PC police) would see the footage as exploitive as far as race and weight. Although there was nothing in Hyacinth Hippo that we see as a racial caricature. I would almost bet they knew of this actress who was fat and funny and thought she’d be great reference. It makes me want to go back and find her work. I bet she was known for such schtick.

  • Melvin

    Chuck R., the thing to do is what you propose: release historical elements intact. Since the Maltin disclaimer seems to be the sole method palatable to corporate legal minds, just do it that way. At least the material will be out there, not locked in a vault for another forty years.

  • Mike R

    For all those that can’t understand why this might be offensive or why it’s “obvious” that Disney is keeping it under wraps, here’s a fast and easy way to get some clarification and understanding:

    1. Go up to a black woman with a Rubens-esque/rotund/heavy-set figure.
    2. Tell her you’re trying to draw some cartoon hippos and need a model for reference.

    You might want to check your health insurance policy before trying this.

    Bonus activities:

    Try steps one and two on a selection of white women and black women. Compare and contrast the extent of your injuries.

    After the ambulance arrives, tell them their reaction was “P.C.” See if a second ambulance arrives.

  • http://Chrislmisc.blogspot.com ChrisSketch

    As far as I’m concerned, cool photo, cool story, great piece of animation history. End of story. It’s little tidbits like this that makes me come back to CB again and again.

  • http://www.Jamalotolorin.blogspot.com Jamal Otolorin

    yar welcome Ace.

    I don’t think it was right or wrong for Hattie to be used as a model.

    She probably enjoyed the work. who knows? And maybe being a overweight dancer was her “schtick”. I think the whole point was that she didn’t get credit in the film that she worked on for quote, unquote “obvious reasons”

    Well, personally I don’t find any of those old Disney films that have “embarrassing racial content ” offensive at all. But then again My skin is thicker than most. I find it more irritating when its locked up in a vault. Hey maybe I want to watch Coal black and the sebben dwarfs.

    And I agree unfortunately that discussing race in almost any arena has become a potential MINEFIELD.

    But it shouldn’t be that way.

    So whats going on with the election?

    arrrr …just kidding.

  • Chuck R.

    That’s what’s bothering, you? That she didn’t get credit for modeling for the hippo?

    Jamal, almost NOBODY got credit for doing great work on those features. If one was lucky, they’d appear in a random publicity shot for a magazine or something, but even white boys like Bill Peet got left out of credits entirely, even for making substantial contributions to a feature. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but features with lengthy credit lists are pretty much an Eisner-era phenomenon.

    As far as discussing race, yes, it would be better for everyone if it could be discussed more openly.

  • françois

    Ace Weems:

    The “skinny waif” might have been Marjorie Bletcher (Then; Marge Champion now!) ….

  • Jackie

    This is an interesting discussion. Not all the Disney cartoons which are From the Vault in Disney Treasures are do to being of racist comments. Some of them are just plain disturbing.

    Like Happy Birthday with Donald Duck. He thinks the nephews are buying cigarettes to start doing drugs. So he makes them smoke all the cigars, and the show them getting ill. Then Donald realizes the cigars were bought for him on his birthday, and he turns really small like he’s so upset/humilated that he did such an awful thing to his nephews who only wanted to give him a gift.

    I’ve seen much more overt racist caricatures in Looney Tunes, and of course Tom & Jerry. Where they had that Black mama sterotype being Tom’s owner in some episodes.

    I also think it’s interesting how kids react to these images. When I first saw What’s Opera Doc? I didn’t realize that when Bugs Bunny said “Goodbyeee” with huge buck teeth, that it was a derogatory joke against Japanese people from WW1. The blackface jokes are obvious, but you can see where some of them might seem innocuous if you don’t know the history behind them.

    I also find the Leonard Maltin warnings somewhat patronizing. It’s like, we get it, the cartoons aren’t PC, yadda yadda yadda. This is coming from someone who’s seen the uncensored episodes of Ren & Stimpy. Now that stuff is disturbing.

  • http://aol Michelle

    So its an issue if that person is African American,overweight,and a woman? Hmmm.

  • Read a real history book

    Here we go again, closed minded white people who just-don’t-get-it