How Cruella become a De Vil woman

As a special edition of Walt Disney's 101 Dalmatians is released on DVD, Alice Jones reveals the origins of a real bitch
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The Independent Culture

Cruella de Vil doesn't do subtle. When she arrives on screen, it's with a blare of her scarlet Bugatti's horn, a clap of thunder and a hail of insincere "dah-lings". When she leaves, it's in a puff of noxious green cigarette smoke and with a slam of the door that sends cracks up the walls and across the ceiling. The adjective "scene-stealing" might have been invented for her. And, indeed, the larger-than-life two-dimensional devil woman with the skunk-striped hair, full-length furs and pink cigarettes caused ructions among the animators at the Disney studios who fought to curb her wilder excesses, fearing – rightly – that their own fluffier creations would be eclipsed.

Today, some 47 years after 101 Dalmatians was first released, it is De Vil who lives on in the public's imagination, regularly appearing in polls of the best (or worst) movie villains of all time. In the American Film Institute's list, topped by Hannibal Lecter, Cruella is one of only three animated characters (along with the Queen in Snow White and the Man in Bambi) to appear. And in 2002 she was the only female to make it on to Forbes' Fictional 15 rich list, with an estimated fortune of $875m. As the film is re-released for the first time in 17 years on a special collectors' edition DVD, these previously unseen sketches and DVD footage reveal the identity of the real-life Cruellas and the tortuous artistic process which gave rise to Disney's most distinctive villainess.

Cruella de Vil was born in 1956 to the novelist Dodie Smith, the proud owner of nine Dalmatians, the eldest of which was called Pongo. When a friend idly remarked that the pets would make a lovely coat, the seed of a villainous glamourpuss who "lives for furs" was sown. Smith's Cruella, who was expelled from school for drinking ink, has black eyes "with a tinge of red in them", sleeps between ermine sheets and douses her strangely coloured food (dark purple soup and black ice-cream) in clouds of pepper.

Less than a year after The Hundred and One Dalmatians was published, Walt Disney snapped up the rights, enchanted, no doubt, by the possibilities offered by hordes of talking dogs, which could build on the immense success of Lady and the Tramp. Smith was immediately enthusiastic, sending Disney an autographed book and revealing that she had secretly hoped that he might pick up on it. "So much so, that when writing it, I often found myself visualising the scenes as they would be in a cartoon." The pair embarked on a lengthy correspondence, culminating in Smith's declaration, on seeing the finished product in 1961, that she was a "99 per cent pleased author"; the one per cent of dissatisfaction stemmed from the size of her credit – "small, cramped and only on the screen for a flash".

Back in Hollywood, the film's genesis did not run quite so amicably. In 1959, Disney was on the cusp of great change. Sleeping Beauty, Walt's pet project, had not been as commercially successful as expected and the studio was busily diversifying into television and theme parks. Roy, Walt's brother and the business brains of the operation, suggested that it was time to stop lavishing money on animated films. The cost-cutting measures he brought in included a Xerox machine to transfer the animators' drawings on to cells rather than having them laboriously copied by hand. Though the process was still far from simple – the machine took up three rooms and there was a unit charged solely with drawing the dogs' millions of spots – it was a technological revolution and 101 Dalmatians was the first Disney movie not to be hand-inked.

It was also the first to eschew classic fairy tales for a thoroughly modern story set in London, with believable human characters who wore contemporary fashions, smoked cigarettes and drove cars, all drawn in the graphic style of the day. "But what Disney wanted to create was the kind of animation he'd spent 30 years perfecting, the full lavish Michelangelo paintings you see in Fantasia and Pinocchio," explains the Disney historian Brian Sibley. "His initial reaction was one of disappointment. So he must have been quite startled by the reception the film got. The critics loved it because it was fresh and people saw that Disney wasn't predictable. It was hugely successful and immediately put paid to any thought that animation was done with."

It also gave audiences a screen baddie to savour – one who was all the more loathsome for being human. Cruella was, in fact, the product of several humans spliced together. Betty Lou Gerson, a radio actress, who had previously recorded the nannyish narration for Cinderella, provided Cruella's haughty voice and throaty cackle. But as a studio shot of the demure 47-year-old actress with a permanent wave and pearls suggests, she was no use as visual inspiration. So the studio brought in Mary Wickes, a consummate character actress, who towered over her peers at a gangly 5ft 10in. Wickes, whose last role before she died in 1995 was voicing a gargoyle in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, captured Cruella's flamboyant physicality on film – the swirl of her coat, her thrown-back head, her wild gesturing with an improbably long cigarette-holder – giving the animator a human frame of reference.

Marc Davis, one of Disney's "nine old men", as he called his most senior animators, brought both together, adding his own magic draughtsmanship to create Cruella, his last piece of animation for Disney in a career that saw him bring to life Thumper, Alice, Tinkerbell and both the evil fairy Maleficent and Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Despite the broad brush strokes of Cruella's silhouette with its ghoulish skull, blood-red slash of a mouth and bony body, with Davis's animation, the devil is in the delicious details – from the sizzle of her cerise cigarette as she stubs it out in a cupcake, to her hair coming alive like Medusa's as the wind rushes through it in her sports car and her "at-home" outfit of black fur negligee and pink rollers.

It was popularly believed that Davis based Cruella on the fast-living Hollywood star Tallulah Bankhead, who was notorious for zooming around town in her Bentley and whose last words were apparently "codeine... bourbon". "I once asked Marc if she was based on a specific actress," recalls Sibley. "He just smiled and said: 'Actually, I put something of all the bad women I've known into Cruella.'" Davis's vision led to rows with the other animators, including Milt Kahl, who created the villainous Shere Khan in The Jungle Book and who was, says Sibley, "decidedly miffed that Mark should have got the best character while he was stuck animating Anita."

In 1996, Disney released its live-action remake, with Cruella remodelled as a fashion-house maven in the mould of American Vogue's redoubtable and fur-loving Anna Wintour. But Glenn Close's dominatrix-style performance didn't come close to the cadaverous charm of the animated Cruella, as the indomitable 82-year-old Gerson pointed out to Sibley at the time. "Well, dah-ling, she's a wonderful actress," she purred, De Vil-style. "But she didn't wear a fur coat in quite the way I wore it."

'101 Dalmatians' is available on Platinum Edition DVD