Salvador paints, but Walt Disney! A surreal friendship (and an old joke)

Archives reveal how a successful creative collaboration became a strong long-lasting friendship

Jonathan Owen
Sunday 21 November 2010 01:00

Newly released private correspondence has revealed for the first time how the surrealist artist Salvador Dali and film mogul Walt Disney went from being professional collaborators to close friends.

A shared love of fishing was one of the things that brought them together, according to letters unearthed by archivists at Disney Studios and exclusively provided to The Independent on Sunday, which show just how close the artist and the animator became.

The two men met at a party thrown by the Hollywood mogul Jack Warner in 1945 and struck up a rapport that led them to collaborate on a film project called Destino. Writing to his "very, very dear friend", Dali told Disney that he was "encouraged by the route of our common destiny" and how "the night of our meeting I spent almost entirely without sleep".

In another letter to Disney, on 2 June 1946, Dali predicted Destino "will become one of the most brilliant moments of [Dali's] artistic career" and that "we wait with anxiety the miracles of technical realisation which I know you are also as exigent and maniacal about as is Dali himself... Don't forget that in the hours of great artistic adventure, we should also try to develop great friendships".

Disney and his wife Lillian would talk of going fishing with Salvador and Gala Dali, with the Dalis writing to their "very dear friends" how they were "joyfully waiting for you... I would love to see you and Mrs Disney and help catch those fabulous crawfish".

And in a letter written on 11 June 1946, Disney said: "I am happy to know that you are both so thrilled over Destino. We are not going to let the pressure of time stop us from getting something that will be worthy of Dali's talents. If we can find the time, Mrs Disney and I would be happy to visit you again and perhaps take advantage of your invitation to go crayfishing in the Carmel River." He wrote again on 3 July 1946 of how they were "looking forward to our visit... with great pleasure".

And Dali congratulated his friend on the "extraordinary success" of Uncle Remus in 1946's Song of the South as confirming "the triumph of the combination formula – I have not ceased to imagine things for Destino – it must be the 'miraculous fusion' of living action and cartoon".

In the event, rising costs led to Destino being shelved. Not that this got in the way of the friendship, with the Disneys visiting the Dalis at their home in Port Lligat, Spain, years after they had first met.

The original artwork from their collaboration was largely forgotten until it was rediscovered by Disney's nephew Roy, who completed Destino in 2003. The six-minute film features eyeballs in dinner jackets, a wall eroded by the sands of time and a ballerina's head that turns into a baseball. It is released for the first time this month as a bonus feature on a special edition on Blu-ray marking the 70th anniversary of Disney's Fantasia.

Brian Sibley, a Disney expert, said: "There was nothing 'safe' about Dali's ideas at all, and Disney seemed willing to embrace them – he knew that he wasn't going to be doing a Mickey Mouse movie."

He was surprised by the letters. "I had seen them as being professional collaborators. I certainly hadn't realised how close they were. But they were both showmen and I think they just found a common bond. They both had rather severe fathers and quite difficult childhoods. There were certain personal elements that would have given them a kind of kinship."

Asked if such a pairing could happen today, he commented: "I look at John Lasseter [head of Pixar] as being very much a kind of Disney figure, so I could conceive of an idea where he might collaborate with an artist – Damien Hirst or someone like that. I can see the possible arena for him working with somebody and doing something experimental."

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