Perce Pearce – Walt Disney’s trusted producer

Walt Disney had huge faith in Perce Pearce both in his film making skills and his ability to get things done. He entrusted Perce to come to England and supervise his first all live action films at Denham Film Studios – Treasure Island and The Story of Robin Hood being the vital and first ones.

Above: Perce Pearce seated in overcoat with Set Designer Carmen Dillon and Second Unit Director Alex Bryce at Burnham Beeches for filming of Ther Story of Robin Hood (1952) for Walt Disney.
The British government, in an attempt to revive its own film industry after the war, had imposed a 75% import tax on American films shown in Britain and ordered that 45 % of the films shown in British cinemas be made in England.    Walt couldn’t set up an animation studio in England or France, but he had another option. He could make a live-action film in England and finance it with the blocked funds -and this he did with the first two made at Denham.
The project Walt selected for his live- action feature was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and he despatched Perce Pearce and Fred Leahy to England to supervise the production, but he remained unusually involved in the post production  at least compared to the offhanded way he had been treating recent films.
He had asked Pearce and Leahy to air-mail him specific takes for editing, and after a test screening in early January, he ordered them to cut ten to twelve minutes and provide a more forceful musical score; he also advised them that a more detailed criticism would follow. Two day later he ordered the editor to fly from England to Los Angeles, apparently so that Walt could oversee the editing himself.

Perce Pearce’s  career at this point took a major turn: he began working in live action, serving as Walt’s associate producer on Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart before moving to England to shepherd Disney’s first entirely live-action features (Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose, Rob Roy the Highland Rogue) onto the screen. In other words, Walt repeatedly chose Pearce to act as his surrogate.

Above: Walt Disney with his family on the set of Treasure Island during their visit here in 1949. Bobby Driscoll one of the stars of the film with them too. This shot is actually on one of the sets at Denham Film Studios.

There may have been a bit of typecasting when Walt sent Pearce to England—he was the son of English immigrants—but what was undoubtedly more important was Pearce’s adaptability, and his willingness to respond to the demands Walt made on him. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, people who had joined the Disney staff to work on animated cartoons followed similar paths, moving into live action or, later, into television or designing attractions for Disneyland. Ben Sharpsteen was an animator, then a director of short cartoons and feature sequences, and ultimately the “supervising director”—that is, Walt’s man on the ground—of Fantasia, Dumbo, and other features. But then, as Walt’s interest turned toward the True-Life Adventures and the People and Places series, he took Sharpsteen away from animation and put him in charge of those live-action films. Likewise, the director James Algar moved from animation into directing the True-Lifes.

From all appearances, Perce Pearce adapted well to his life in England—in stories about him that I turned up during work on The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, he sounds like a true English eccentric.  There’s no telling if such stress contributed to Pearce’s early death in 1956, but it couldn’t have helped.

The finished film, Walt Disney’s first all live-action feature, was a success- unbelievably the first in a long, long time. Treasure Island (1950) grossed $4 million, returning to the studio a profit of between $2.2 and $2.4 million. With the euphoria of this success was the worry that the animation side of the studio was dying. As Walt stated “We are not forsaking the cartoon field-it is purely a move of economy-again converting pounds into dollars “
In July 1951, just as his cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland was released in America, Walt Disney visited Europe with his wife Lillian and his daughters to supervise his second live-action movie. The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952) again financed  by the blocked monies of RKO and Disney. Before leaving, Walt had screened films at the studio, looking at prospective actors and directors and making what he himself called ‘merely suggestions’, while he left the final decisions to Perce Pearce, who was producing. For his part, Pearce had laid out every shot in the movie in thumbnail sketches, or storyboards, just as the studio had done with the animators, and sent them on along with photostats and the final script to Walt for his approval, which Walt freely gave, though not without a veiled threat that Pearce had better make the film as quickly as possible. “This is important not only to the organisation but to you as the producer,” he wrote.
The use of storyboards was new to ‘Robin Hood’ directorKen Annakin,  “but it appealed to my logical brain very, very much,” he said later, and prompted ingenious scenes such as the first meeting between Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham after King Richard has left, played on the balcony of the castle against a brilliant but ominous orange sky at sundown. “I had never experienced sketch artists, and sketching a whole picture out,” Annakin said. “That picture was sketched out, and approved by him—but it was designed in England, and sketches were sent back to America.” For all his influence and control, Walt was not an overbearing studio head in Annakin’s view. “Basically, he visited the set maybe half a dozen times, stayed probably two or three hours while we were shooting.”
Though Walt delegated a good deal of authority on these films, he nevertheless took his approval of the storyboards seriously. When he noticed that one sequence wasn’t shot exactly as agreed, he questioned Ken Annakin  as to why. Annakin replied that he was going over budget and wanted to economise. “Have I ever queried the budget?” Walt asked. “Have I ever asked you to cut? Let’s keep to what we agreed.”
Meanwhile as Robin Hood was being filmed, Walt, Lillian and his daughters wandered through Europe, visiting the Tivoli Gardens in Denmark, and did not return to the studio until August.
While making those live action movies in England (which also included Sword and the Rose (1953) and Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1954)).
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