The Original Mickey Mouse Club Show

         

Paul J. Smith       (1906-1985)

Composer and Songwriter

A musical virtuoso as a child, Paul Smith joined Disney in the mid-thirties, remaining for three decades. An Oscar-winning film composer, he also had numerous songwriting credits for the Mickey Mouse Club, many with his companion studio nurse Hazel George.

Note: Not to be confused with animator Paul J. Smith, also born in Michigan in 1906, who worked for the Walter Lantz studios

Background

Paul Joseph Smith was born on October 30, 1906, in Calumet, Michigan, the second of four sons to Joseph J. Smith and his wife Anna. His father worked as a clerk in a copper mining office, then sometime after 1914 moved the family to Caldwell, Idaho where he became a bank accountant. Despite this prosaic business career, Paul's father had studied violin as a young man in Minneapolis and Paris. Paul spent his later childhood growing up in south Caldwell City. According to his Disney Legends biography, Paul's father instructed his prodigy son in a variety of musical instruments, and by his teenage years Paul was conducting the high school band.

After finishing high school in the spring of 1923, Paul Smith attended the College of Idaho in Caldwell, where his father had become a professor of music in 1921. He spent two years studying there, then transferred to the Bush Conservatory of Music in Chicago in the fall of 1925. Much later in life Paul would feel there was a little too much Bach, Chopin, and other classical symphonic influences in his musical education. He was awarded a Juilliard scholarship in Music Theory, but it is not known whether he studied in New York. Two years at the conservatory were followed by a job teaching brass at nearby Elmhurst College. He also taught music at York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, but by the Spring of 1930 he was unemployed and living back at home with his parents in Idaho. That summer Paul Smith moved to Los Angeles where he enrolled at UCLA, majoring in English. He was discouraged about a career teaching music, and had decided to switch to writing musicals.

At UCLA he had his own dance band, the Paul Smith Orchestra, which played in the big varsity shows called Campus Capers. Paul Smith told interviewer David Tietyen long afterwards how impressed he was by the technical virtuosity of an early Mickey Mouse cartoon, in which Mickey's piano playing not only matched the musical notes of the soundtrack, but also showed him pressing the correct keys on the instrument. Larry Morey, a friend of his from the Campus Capers shows, had started working at Disney and persuaded Paul to come there too.

Paul joined the Disney studio full time in 1934. Initially assigned to arranging background music for cartoon shorts, he quickly picked up the techniques for scoring animated scenes. During the next twenty-five years he would arrange and score some seventy cartoon short features. His first major assignment was working along with Leigh Harline under Frank Churchill's direction on arranging music for Snow White, for which the trio received an Oscar nomination.

Sometime during the thirties Paul Smith married, eventually having two children, a boy and a girl, by his wife. He shared the Oscar in 1940 for the score of Pinocchio with Leigh Harline and Ned Washington (The latter two gentlemen also received an Oscar for their song When You Wish Upon a Star). He would continue scoring animated feature films throughout the forties, garnering Oscar nominations for Victory Through Air Power, Saludos Amigos, Three Cabelleros, and Song of the South. For the last two films, he scored and arranged only the animated sequences.

He received another Oscar nomination in 1952 for helping score and arrange Cinderella, though as with all his film work prior to 1956 the songs in the movie were written by others. It would remain his personal favorite of all the films he worked on according to an interview he gave after retiring. Paul's adept musical characterizations of animated creatures led Walt Disney to give him a try at real live-action animals. He would score most of of the True Life Adventure films, including Beaver Valley, Nature's Half Acre, Bear Country, Secrets of Life, The Living Desert, The African Lion, and The Vanishing Prairie. Paul Smith told a later interviewer he found a special joy working with nature and animal films, though he had no pets as a child.

Walt Disney explained Paul Smith's success in the True Life films by referring to his ability to make music visual. Certainly Paul's scoring made the films more palatable to theatre audiences by imbuing the animal subjects with an emotional color. At the time this was perceived as a virtue, though some later critics would consider it an unwarranted anthropomorphism, a "Disneyification" of the natural world. Nevertheless, the films made a hefty profit for little real investment, and Paul's contribution was recognized and rewarded with his first major dramatic live-action film assignment 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954. He also received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the College of Idaho in May 1955.

Contribution

It's hard to describe Paul's contributions to the Mickey Mouse Club without delving a bit into his personal life. At some point during his career at the Disney Studio he hooked up with the slightly older studio nurse Hazel George. Both of them had been married to other people, with whom they had had children. Whether either of them obtained a divorce, or was freed by the death of their legal spouse, is unknown to me. But shortly after the show started production in 1955 they were an "item", and would remain so, without marrying, for the rest of Paul's life.

The important point about this relationship was that for the first time Paul began writing songs rather than just scores, with Hazel as his lyricist. How and why this collaboration began is again unknown to me, however Hazel also started writing songs with other members of the Disney Music department at the same time. Walt Disney was apt to shift people into new positions when he discerned they had some unexpected talent for it, and it was likely his idea to turn Hazel George into a songwriter.

Desperate for help to fill up the one hundred hours of film needed for the Mickey Mouse Club's first season, producer Bill Walsh was glad to get both Paul Smith and Hazel George. The first serial filmed for the new show starred a young girl who turned out to have a marvelous singing voice. Though principal photography for Corky and White Shadow had finished in June 1955, Walsh assigned Paul Smith and Hazel George to write several songs during post-production that were then filmed and recorded in late October 1955. Darlene's song sequences turned out to be the most memorable part of the serial, and whatever the status of their personal relationship at this time, Paul Smith and Hazel George were firmly established as a songwriting team in the eyes of the studio.

The duo wrote a number of songs for Fun With Music Day skits during the show's second season, and also penned most of the ditties used by Jimmie Dodd for his Doddisms. By far the largest part of Paul Smith's work for the Mickey Mouse Club involved devising incidental music for circus performers appearing on Thursday shows. Paul also continued to do other Disney assignments as well. He wrote songs with Stan Jones and composed the score for The Great Locomotive Chase, and worked with Hazel George on a song for Westward Ho, the Wagons. After the second season these live-action film assignments would take up all of Paul and Hazel's time, as they wrote songs and scores for Perri, The Light in the Forest, and Tonka.

Aftermath

Paul Smith continued scoring live-action films for Disney up to his retirement in 1962, and also wrote songs with Hazel George for a number of pictures. Among the films he worked on were The Shaggy Dog, The Parent Trap, Pollyanna, Bon Voyage, Moon Pilot, Miracle of the White Stallions, and The Three Lives of Thomasina. (These last two actually were released after Paul's retirement). He also arranged a compilation album of his scores from the True Life Adventures films that was released in the early sixties.

Just why Paul retired from the studio at the comparatively young age of 56 isn't publicly known. He certainly hadn't burned out creatively, for he worked as composer-arranger for the TV series Leave It to Beaver during 1962-63. His companion Hazel George remained with the studio until her own retirement shortly after Walt Disney's death, but never again wrote songs after Paul's departure.

By the mid-seventies an ailing shoulder had forced Paul Smith to give up playing musical instruments. He explained to David Tietyen how he'd also had the tip of a finger amputated due to uncontrollable twitching, then he and Hazel George laughingly pointed to where Paul's Oscar for Pinocchio was propping a door open. Paul Smith died Jan 25, 1985, in Glendale, California, of complications from Alzheimer's Disease. Obituaries appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, but neither mentioned his wife nor Hazel George. Instead his survivors were listed as his son and daughter, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Nearly ten years after his death, the Disney Studio made Paul Smith a Disney Legend.

Much of the information on this page comes from interviews done by Disney music
historian David Tietyen, and from Jan Boles, archivist for the College of Idaho


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