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ROALD DAHL WAS an author of children’s books, a screenwriter, a short story writer—and a fighter pilot. That is, this British author of James and the Peach and Matilda, screenplay adaptor of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and winner of three Edgar Awards for short-story mysteries also managed to fit his lanky 6 ft. 6 in. frame into a Hawker Hurricane in World War II combat against the Luftwaffe.
Dahl became linked with Walt Disney through a combination of his World War II aerial combat, his first children’s story, and his later posting as British Military Attache in Washington, D.C.
The Gremlins is Roald Dahl’s fanciful tale of troublesome little creatures who sought revenge after their ancestral English forest idyll was destroyed and replaced by, of all things, an airplane factory.
Thus, these gremlins became known for causing problems with aircraft. A faulty magneto? Clearly gremlins knew their way around sparking.
A fuel tank leak? They had power drills and, what’s more, these drilled holes would be indistinguishable from Luftwaffe damage.
How to counter the gremlins? Set up a Gremlin Training School, give gremlins Hitler’s Luftwaffe as a formidable enemy, and promise them a new forest home once the war was won.
The Disney Connection arose from a Dahl colleague in the U.S. Sidney Bernstein was an entrepreneur and movie producer who also lead the British Information Services in New York City. It was Bernstein’s idea to send Dahl’s story to Walt Disney.
Dahl wrote in his 1978 memoir Lucky Break, “Because of the Gremlins, I was given three weeks’ leave from my duties at the Embassy in Washington and whisked out to Hollywood [in the summer of 1942]. There, I was put up at Disney’s expense in a luxurious Beverly Hills hotel and given a huge shiny car to drive about in.”
Dahl was 26 at the time.
Gremlins Movie Shot Down. During WWII, Disney’s Burbank studios were active in lots of training films and other morale-enhancing productions. At one point, the studio envisioned a full-length animated movie of Dahl’s gremlin tale.
However, complications arose. One was the question of “gremlin” ownership. In 1928, Walt and his brother Roy Disney had Oswald the Lucky Rabbit stolen from them, so this matter of intellectual property was important. Dahl wrote the story, but the origin of gremlins as a concept was lost in R.A.F. lore.
A second complication involved Dahl’s employer, the British Air Ministry, which insisted on final approval of script and production.
Yet another was a marketing matter. In December of 1943, Disney wrote Dahl, “Definitely, the Gremlins will not be made as a feature because of the feeling on the distributors’ part that the public has become tired of so many war films. We have given considerable thought to the possibility of making the Gremlins into a short and I have personally endeavored to generate some interest among the various crews but haven’t met with any degree of success.”
Gremlins, the Book. The Gremlins was published by Random House in mid-1943. Its text was attributed to Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl, its copyright by Walt Disney Studios. Though not identified at the time, almost all of the drawings were the work of Bill Justice, whom Leonard Maltin calls in the newly published Dark Horse Books introduction, “a living Disney legend who started out as an in-betweener [filling in animator art] in 1937 and went on to become an animator, director, and an Imagineer.”
“This was the first time,” Justice said, “I’d ever been asked to create a new cartoon character… Al Dempster added some full-page color paintings to my illustrations and the book The Gremlins was published by Random House. It was the first book I’d ever illustrated.”
The book had moderate success, with a U.S. print run of 50,000 and another 30,000 in Australia. However, wartime paper shortages precluded reprints.
In 1967, a special edition of The Gremlins was produced to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force. It was distributed exclusively through the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. The book’s initial distribution sold out on its first day.
Among Disney and Dahl collectors, secondhand copies of the original Random House edition fetch as much as $10,000. In September 2006, Dark Horse Comics published The Gremlins: The Lost Walt Disney Production, a reproduction of the 1967 commemorative edition, with an added introduction by film historian Leonard Maltin.
Tomorrow, in a continuation of sorts, we’ll share more gremlin lore. What do Merriam-Webster and the OED have to say? What about gremlin lady folk or kids? And what of the gremlin legacy? ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018