Women in the shadows at Disney: Bianca Majolie, the studio’s first screenwriter

Have you ever heard of Bianca Majolie, a Disney employee from 1936 to 1940 and the first woman hired in the studio’s screenplay department?

Women in the shadows at disney: bianca majolie, the studio's first screenwriter
Walt disney pictures

Bianca Majolie was the first female employee of the screenplay department of the Disney studio. Hired in 1936, she immediately worked on Elmer the elephant, a short film Silly Symphony some animations of which would later be used by Dumbo (1941).

Bianca Majolie went to school at McKinley High School in Chicago, the same as a certain Walt Disney, before studying arts still in Chicago and then in New York. In 1934, she wrote to Walt asking for help on a project, and the two began a correspondence.

They met in 1935 and Walt, impressed by his work, offered him a six-month apprenticeship, paid $ 355 a week, about 1,000 less than that of male apprentices. Amounts are quoted taking inflation into account and to reflect current dollars; historically, Majolie was paid 18 dollars (from 1935) per week.

Women in the shadows at disney: bianca majolie, the studio's first screenwriter

Walt disney pictures

Extract from “Elmer the elephant” (1936), story by Bianca Majolie

After Elmer the elephant, she writes and draws on other Silly Symphony, some of which will remain unfinished and others will be completed, such as Cabaret de nuit (1937). Of Italian origin, it is also Majolie who translates the book into English. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi so that Walt and his writers can work on it. She takes the opportunity to drive improvements to the story for the future animated film.

She also works behind the scenes on Bambi (research on animal behavior, mood drawings), Peter Pan and Fantasia, notably signing paintings for the segment. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy :

The only female screenwriter in the studio, Majolie will have a hard time making her voice heard and bringing her stories to life in front of her male colleagues, who are much more comfortable. She will write to an acquaintance: “I was sitting in the corner with my heart pounding and panting to catch my breath.”

Hosts Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, hired around the same time as her, will state in their memory book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation that the presence of Bianca Majolie in the screenplay department has taught them one thing:

We couldn’t have made a single of the feature films [Disney] without learning that important lesson, which is that pathos gives comedy the heart and warmth that keeps it from breaking down.

In 1939, she worked on a first version of Cinderella (which would not see the light of day until ten years later) and the last short film Silly Symphony, entitled The Ugly Duckling.

After this job, Bianca Majolie took a sabbatical and returned in June 1940 to find that her post had been filled and her script Cinderella discarded. She therefore became a freelance artist, married a designer and painter, Carl Heilborn and wrote a children’s book called The Children’s Treasury which she will publish in 1960.

In the magazine Glamour From April 1941, the Disney Company promotes the fact that the studio wishes to recruit women, but announces that their salaries will be lower than those of men.

This press release announces that these salaries could however be higher if (quote from page 50 of the magazine) “a lot of young women didn’t work for about two years and then got married and quit.” Adding that most of the women involved got married to Disney employees and so stayed in the studio.

We will present them to you in a later paper.

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Women in the shadows at disney: bianca majolie, the studio's first screenwriter

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