First released in 1949 and distributed in English-speaking territories under the title The Singing Princess across the version dubbed by the then-17-year-old Julie Andrews, La Rosa di Bagdad by Anton Gino Domeneghini is the first animated feature in Italy, the first Technicolor animation film in Europe and probably also the first long-form animated movie in the whole continent featuring ink-on-cel and paint-on-cel – and if you heard otherwise, be assured that the 1926 German animated fairytale film The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger used silhouette animation techniques, not drawing.
Nevertheless, almost nobody is aware of this beautifully crafted Middle-Eastern folk tale involving a beautiful princess named Zeila, a wicked sorcerer called Jafar and a kind-hearted caliph known as Oman, so much that the similarities between a couple of the characters and some very well-known Disney leads have gone completely unnoticed.
When it comes to Jafar, it mustn’t have been too difficult for the Disney animators involved in the making of Aladdin in 1992 to perhaps bump into the antediluvian La Rosa di Bagdad and draw some inspiration, but the other coincidence is a bit more odd and enigmatic.
As a matter of fact, there is a certain resemblance between the character of Caliph Oman in La Rosa di Bagdad and the short-tempered father of Prince Charming in Walt Disney’s Cinderella; they may not look completely identical, but the attitude, the vibe, the range of facial expressions and the general feeling may appear particularly analogue to cartoon-sensitive people. What’s even more bizarre is that, according to historic reports, the role and looks of Caliph Oman were officially inspired by the Sultan of Basra from the 1940 historical fantasy movie The Thief of Bagdad, but – funnily enough, Cinderella’s King resembles late actor Miles Malleson more closely than Caliph Oman himself.
Look at the moustache.
The two animated movies were released just a couple of months apart: La Rosa di Bagdad debuted in December 1949 whilst Cinderella premiered in February 1950, but production wasn’t carried out simultaneously; the Italian film had been finished years before and, at some point between 1945 and 1947, was forwarded to the UK to get some Technicolor treatment in the same British studio being used by Walt Disney for the live-action movie Treasure Island: the American genius spent two-and-a-half months in the UK in the summer of 1949, exactly during the making of Cinderella – whose production was finished as late as in October of the same year.
It was after falling in love with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that Italian advertising producer Anton Gino Domeneghini convinced himself that he could also direct an animation movie, and he never made a secret of having based some of La Rosa di Bagdad’s characters on Snow White’s dwarfs. Walt Disney and Domeneghini reportedly met at some point in the 1960s and had plans to shoot a movie together which never became reality as they both died in 1966. Either way, any contact Mr Disney might have had with La Rosa di Bagdad whilst being in the UK in 1949 and how this may have potentially affected the making of Cinderella would have gone completely unreported because of overlapping timings and places.
A bit of context is needed here: it eventually took Domeneghini seven years and an awful lot of work, money, research, resources and effort to get La Rosa di Bagdad completed. After his production studio in Milan was bombarded and destroyed during World War Two, he relocated his dozens of workers and their families to a couple of villas based in an area of the Northern Italian countryside which was regrettably still too close to the local train station not to be also targeted by Spitfire planes and flying bombs.
Domeneghini’s main business had always been advertising, but because the Italian government had put a ban on commercials during wartime and regular promo work couldn’t be performed anymore, he decided to employ his people and machines to bring to the market the first Italian animated film in history. He raised the money by campaigning, crowdfunding, networking, making promises, making bold statements and using his political influence and contacts to get state funds from the cabinet of Benito Mussolini. And after work was completed in 1945, he had to ship all the materials to the UK to get the film shot in Technicolor. At the time, the only Technicolor production unit and three-colour camera in the whole of Western Europe was in Stroud, England, where the film company Stratford Abbey Films had been relocated from London following the horrific Blitz in 1940.
Stratford Abbey Films was owned by Anson Dyer, the forgotten pioneer of British animation and a brilliant cartoon artist whose memory and legacy seem to have completely vanished; he died in 1962 aged 85, and the 17th-century historic building of Stratford Abbey in Stroud where his firm was once located was demolished in 1961 to make space for a car park and a petrol station.
For the record, Anson Dyer received no formal recognition, neither by his country nor by the zealous British monarchy, for his invaluable contribution to the film industry in such a manifestly suspicious way that one can really wonder what the reasons for not celebrating Mr Dyer and not making him Sir or whatever else may have been.
Just go and research the British archives and local public records for information about him: all you will find is the application form for a military re-examination visit he did in April 1918 where you can appreciate how his attacks of asthma and bronchitis made him ineligible to go and get himself killed during World War One. It’s a perfectly scanned folder in hi-res with all the documents in place including the comments and signature from a medical assessor who answered to the name of R. Douglas Powell M.D. and would probably be like 200 years old by now.
This is everything the United Kingdom’s registers keep about a man who began his career in animation as early as 1915 and came up with animated Shakespearean parodies and magical fairy tales series when Walt Disney was still a teenager.
Now, going back to the Italians and the Americans, it is unknown how long Domeneghini spent in the UK to shoot La Rosa di Bagdad at Stratford Abbey Films, but it is well documented that the film materials remained on the UK soil for more than 45 years after his departure, that is to say until the 1990s.
And it is precisely by the time La Rosa di Bagdad was premiering at the Venice Film Festival in August 1949 that Walt Disney found himself in the UK to make Treasure Island whilst working remotely on Cinderella.
Disney landed in the UK on 11 June 1949 and left on 29 August of the same year.
Treasure Island’s film credits don’t mention Stratford Abbey Films, but the live-action adventure movie was also shot in Technicolor, and then again, the only place in the continent you could use for that in 1949 was Anson Dyer’s company in Stroud, which was just where all the film materials for La Rosa di Bagdad were being kept by the time Walt Disney checked in.
Additionally, Stroud is just 32 miles away from Bristol, where many of the exterior scenes of Treasure Island were being filmed.
Whilst Disney was busy in England, the three directors of Cinderella communicated with him from the United States by mailing out storyboards, scripts and acetates; it is reported that when Disney returned to America at the end of August, he reviewed the animation sequences and ordered several minor changes. According to animation historian Michael Barrier, he also ordered “a significant reworking of the film’s climax” – whatever that means, but all the people involved in the making of Cinderella are long dead by now, so it’s hard to find out how “significant” this reworking may have been. The film arrived in theatres six months later.
There are no reports in the UK local press of any official visit Walt Disney may have paid to Anson Dyer’s studios, and Dyer’s descendants seem to have no family memories involving Mr Disney in town, – but given how curious, open, attentive and used to American long-distances the man was, it would be surprising if he wouldn’t travel, even informally, as close as 32 miles away to witness the only Technicolor studio in Europe where his first British film was being shot, or perhaps just to shake the hand of the Anglo-Saxon animation trailblazer who was 25 years his senior. What may have Disney seen during such a visit, provided it ever happened? And what may he have perhaps been shown in terms of sketches, animation cels and footage from La Rosa di Bagdad during his UK trip? Can influence and similarities in cartoons be as inspiring as unintentional?
A pool of illustrious animation experts have been consulted and questioned about it all: cartoon mysteries and similarities, the making and impact of La Rosa di Bagdad, what it must have been like to create a romantic animation movie during wartime and how the plague of cancel culture in cartoons has been around long before 2020 when a bunch of losers accused Speedy Gonzales of being offensive.
Massimo Becattini is a talented film director who took part in the most recent restoration of La Rosa di Bagdad and made a wonderful documentary about the film titled Una Rosa di Guerra, released in 2009. He used to be well-acquainted with Anton Gino Domeneghini’s late daughter Fiorella Domeneghini who passed away in 2013, and interviewed all the people involved in the filmmaking that were still alive at the time; unfortunately, not many of them are still with us as of today.
Bruno Bozzetto is one of the greatest Italian cartoon animators and film directors. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Film for Grasshoppers – Cavallette in 1991 and is the recipient of countless international awards. Well-known for his humorous animated short films, he is also the creator of the first feature-length animated film produced in the country after La Rosa di Bagdad: West and Soda was released in Italy in 1965, as many as 16 years following Domeneghini’s beautiful gem.
Francesco Maraja and Marzio Maraja are the surviving sons of Libico Maraja, the incredibly skilled and prolific illustrator who painted the enchanting scenography for La Rosa di Bagdad whilst in the villas Domeneghini rented for the staff during World War Two; they both share precious memories from that time.
The arts and culture charity the Maraja family started in 1992, called Associazione Libico Maraja, takes great pride in preserving an archive of 850 original illustrations by Libico Maraja and keeps alive the great artist’s legacy through community workshops, children’s activities, art exhibits and academic support.
Bruno Bozzetto, Francesco Maraja and Marzio Maraja all took part in Massimo Becattini’s documentary Una Rosa di Guerra; what a massive honour has it been to meet them all and unveil a hidden piece of our history.
Where does your interest in La Rosa di Bagdad originally come from?
I first watched La Rosa di Bagdad as a child in the 1950s, I must have been about 6 or 7 years old at the time, and I found that the quality of drawing and filmmaking was just extraordinary: the art style was inspired by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the original script was written by Anton Gino Domeneghini himself. I bumped into the movie again when it was first restored in the 1990s and I thought a lot could still be done to make it accessible to a wider audience through a film documentary,
so I got in touch with Anton Gino Domeneghini’s [late] daughter Fiorella who introduced me to all the people who’d worked on it and were still alive by 2008. There aren’t many left as of today, unfortunately, but the story behind the film is still fascinating; it’s so impactful that someone started an animation film under war bombing, premiered it after the war and then made it a success. La Rosa di Bagdad is the first Technicolor movie in the history of Italian cinema, and is a proper feature-lenght film, not like The Dynamite Brothers [I Fratelli Dinamite, by the Pagot brothers, released in 1949 and also claiming to be the first full-length animated movie in Italy] which is structured as a collection of short cartoons and episodes assembled together, rather than as a proper full-length feature production.
It’s such a great movie, I was just about 10 years old when I first watched it and I was really impressed with the quality of drawing which is amazing, especially compared to The Dynamite Brothers by Nino and Toni Pagot, whose art style I found kind of too “modern” and too different from the Disney animation that I loved watching so much. La Rosa di Bagdad takes us into a world of classic art, poetry and fantasy, which I really enjoy I never actually met Anton Gino Domeneghini in person, but I was well-acquainted with Angelo Bioletto, who was a great artist that started working on the film but then exited the project early on – I don’t know why.
I wasn’t there yet, I was born in 1946, so all I can remember is what my father would tell us over the years. He said that they had to start everything from scratch as nobody there had ever made an animated film before, they really had no clue about the whole process. They didn’t even have a camera, they built one from scratch and they called it Multiplanet. My father Libico had been involved in the making of La Rosa di Bagdad from the beginning; prior to that, he was working as an advertising specialist for Domeneghini at his company in Milan. He was so excited about making an animated film and took part in all the early experiments. They would examine the footage of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs second by second for hours, and he once told us that in the very beginning they couldn’t even make the characters walk; it look like they were slipping on the floor instead of walking. The animators would be mad at this before they eventually found out how the leg movement needed to be drawn to make the figurines walk properly. My father agreed with the artist Angelo Bioletto on many things, but Bioletto eventually left the team over creative differences with Domeneghini; Bioletto wanted to create a proper “cartoon” world, while Domeneghini wanted it to be as realistic as a painting. Bioletto had this argument with Domeneghini over a sunset scene that both he and my father wanted to look like a cartoon sun that goes to sleep whilst uncovering the clouds as a blanket, but Domeneghini wanted it to be a properly painted sunset, and he was the one who would pay the bills, so he won the argument in the end… but Angelo Bioletto left for good.
As for me, I was there during the making of the film, but I was very young; I was born in 1940, so I was like 4 or 5 years old at the time. I’ve got a few memories of my own and I remember all the things that my father would tell us. I remember the villas where all the staff and their families moved to during the war to finish the film; after the offices in Milan were destroyed by bombardment, we all moved there and lived there together in the countryside as a community for 3 years, from 1943 to 1945. And yes, my father said that they were always watching and revisiting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Walt Disney second by second for hours and hours to try and understand how many animation cels per second were needed to make a character walk. They weren’t technically experienced, it was the 1940s, it was during the war, and if they ran out of paint they couldn’t just go to the supermarket and buy some! They needed to work something out and come up with a solution. They used live-action footage as a realistic guide to creating human animation; the scene where Amin climbs over a gate was actually shot in live-action by my father, who was very short and got recorded by his colleagues whilst climbing a gate nearby. But work would be disrupted by the war all the time. These villas were close to a train station, and bombs were regularly discharged very close to us. I was just a kid, and these are my memories of World War Two.
I personally find that the King in Walt Disney’s Cinderella looks very similar to Caliph Oman in La Rosa di Bagdad, and timing and logistics show how Walt Disney may potentially have seen some materials from La Rosa di Bagdad at Anson Dyer’s Technicolor Studios in England, in 1949, and may perhaps have taken some inspiration. What do you think?
You think so? Maybe. I personally find that Caliph Oman looks quite a lot like the Sultan of Basra from the 1940 film The Thief of Bagdad rather than being similar to Cinderella’s King, in my opinion. If you need some context, we know that the original materials from La Rosa di Bagdad were sent to the UK a few years before 1949, so most probably between 1946 and 1948, when Domeneghini eventually realised that he couldn’t shoot the film in Technicolor in Italy; the finished product eventually premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in August 1949, but the components were left in the UK for over 40 years. There is a document posted in 1959 from the UK Technicolor with a full list of what was still being kept over there at the time, and Fiorella [Domeneghini] regained possession of everything long after her father’s death, probably in the late 1990s. In fact, the first film restoration of 1991-1992 was based on copies, and the original items were used only in 1997-1998 for the second restoration, so she probably collected the stuff at some point between 1992 and 1998. But we don’t know for sure, and we don’t know if Walt Disney had the chance to watch the film before it was released. Fiorella said that Disney and Domeneghini met in Genoa, Italy, in the early 1960s, and even discussed making a movie together, but then they both died in 1966 so it never happened.
Hey, you really did the job of Sherlock Holmes here! That’s interesting. Well, you never know, that may be – who knows?! But do you really mean Walt Disney himself? Because he didn’t draw a lot, it was the animators the ones who developed all the characters, so I don’t think it was really him who did this unless he brought some pictures or sketches to America… But well, that may be! I didn’t think about it all before because I didn’t know about it, but I remember I read somewhere that whilst he was making La Rosa di Bagdad, Domeneghini joked about wanting to give Walt Disney a job when the United States would eventually lose the war. That made me laugh. But if something like that happened, I think most probably was that someone else – maybe not Disney himself – took some pictures in the UK and brought them to the United States, even though it wasn’t easy to take pictures back then, it took time, and the images couldn’t be “stolen” the way they can be today by any mobile phone, so it must have been a sort of official picture and, in this case, that would be a much serious matter. But I don’t think Walt Disney was the one drawing the characters, and I don’t believe in plagiarism. I don’t think anyone could intentionally plagiarise someone else’s work – rather, I believe in stuff that sticks in the subconscious mind. It may be that, without intention, something just sticks to it, but I would exclude plagiarism because it would be stupid, trivial, recognisable and very dishonourable. Many years ago, I was in Zagabria, Croatia, to accept an award, and during a press conference, somebody stood up and accused me of having plagiarised a film that I hadn’t even watched. I was so embarrassed, I didn’t know what to say, and I remember Chuck Jones came in to help and defended me publicly. So yes, it may happen, but mostly on a subconscious level!
We have a letter Domeneghini sent our father from the UK announcing that the movie had finally been completed, but it was actually a few years after they had finished the job in Italy; my father hadn’t been involved in the Technicolor process in England, he worked on the film just until 1945 like the rest of the team. Then, when the war was over, the community life in the countryside finished and people went separate ways. After La Rosa di Bagdad, my father gave up cinematic work altogether and started a new career in illustration.
We were told that Domeneghini met Walt Disney in Genoa, but we don’t know what kind of meeting that was, I heard that they wanted to work together on something, but unfortunately, there was no outcome. After La Rosa di Bagdad was finished in 1945, everybody returned home and the animation team ceased to exist. When the film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 1949, Domeneghini also presented the official book of La Rosa di Bagdad illustrated by Libico Maraja, and that was precisely how my father got started in book illustration, which eventually became his full-time activity until his death. He worked until his very last day; the last book he illustrated, Heidi, was released in 1983, which was the year my father passed away.
Massimo Becattini’s documentary Una Rosa di Guerra was released in 2009; in that same year, the first and probably only university Master’s Degree in Italy focused on comics, cartoons & children’s literature issued its first and probably only graduates. They were taught all about Japanese manga and anime, Franco-Belgian comics, the Brothers Grimm, the strips of Little Nemo and much more, but not a single word was spent for La Rosa di Bagdad. Do you think the film was accidentally forgotten or purposefully boycotted?
La Rosa di Bagdad probably suffered from political obstructionism over the fact that it was funded by the then-existing Ministry of Popular Culture established by the fascist government, and Domeneghini himself was a convinced fascist – but an intelligent one. He was even imprisoned for three months after the war was over for being a fascist, then they found out that he had actually saved the lives of all the people involved in the making of the film as they didn’t go to war instead, so – in the end – there was some sort of recognition of his contribution. But still, La Rosa di Bagdad was heavily labelled – no doubt about that – it was a product of fascism made under the Italian Social Republic [the collaborationist regime of Nazi Germany in Italy from 1943 to 1945]. However, despite all odds, the film made money, and Domeneghini was able to pay back all his loans. He was a very talented advertising man, he had huge brands as clients such as Coca-Cola, FIAT and Dior, he was great at branding and so he launched a range of merchandising for La Rosa di Bagdad which included a book, boxes of chocolates, comic books, school notebooks and other gadgets, and that was a big marketing innovation for the time. But the props for rediscovering La Rosa di Bagdad should first go to animation historian Giannalberto Bendazzi who recently passed away; he managed to meet and interview Angelo Bioletto, Libico Maraja and all the others at the time they were still alive, in the late 1970s. At the present moment, I know there are plans to do a new film restoration and get La Rosa di Bagdad in theatres again at some point in the future. After Domeneghini’s daughter Fiorella died in 2013, all the film materials, including the film negatives, the original soundtracks and the multiple-language versions in English, French and Dutch were all transferred to the Cineteca di Bologna, one of the most important film archives in Europe. And did you know that the American version titled The Singing Princess had an entire part censored? The character of Amin turning into a black boy under a spell was deemed offensive and not enough politically-correct, so it was cancelled from the movie!
I don’t think the film was boycotted, I think that too much time went by between the release of La Rosa di Bagdad and the release of the next Italian animated film, West and Soda, which was out as many as 16 years later, in 1965. During all that time there was a complete void when it came to animation: people wouldn’t care for animation and you couldn’t even watch it anywhere in Italy. I remember travelling to London to try and learn some English and watch some animation in the cameo clubs, there was a lot of animation in the UK back then. In Italy, aside from Walt Disney’s films, there wasn’t anything. When I started making animated short films, I would immediately bring them abroad; I wouldn’t even think for a minute about doing something in Italy – that wasn’t working, there wasn’t any distribution channel for animated short films and the TV industry couldn’t care less. It was a sad state of abandonment of animation, and I think this abandonment impacted negatively not only La Rosa di Bagdad, but also The Dynamite Brothers. Both films are mostly unknown to the general public; if I mention The Dynamite Brothers to anyone who’s not an expert, they won’t know anything about it. La Rosa di Bagdad is still a bit more renowned as it had more success later on, but the abandonment from the distributors was complete for a product that didn’t interest anybody in Italy. Nobody cared for animation in Italy. I had a booklet called How to Cartoon which was the only book circulating in the country back then that explained a little bit about how to make an animated film. There wasn’t literally anything else, and this complete void contributed to making La Rosa di Bagdad largely forgotten, even though it is a great movie made under terrible conditions during the war. Angelo Bioletto once told me that the hand-drawn animation celluloid they prepared was oil-painted, so each cel took two days to dry out, and they had to rent an entire hangar just to let celluloid dry because they didn’t have room for that. I’ve got a paint-on-cel from La Rosa di Bagdad here which measures 2 mm, and if it folds, it’s impossible to make it straight again. They had some terrifying technical issues but they still did such an amazing job… hats off to these guys!
Up to the 1980s, La Rosa di Bagdad was still being aired on the Italian commercial channel Canale 5 on Christmas Day. I remember the film was on television on Christmas just before my grandfather Libico died, on 30 December 1983. This was the last time he watched La Rosa di Bagdad on TV, and was also the last time I saw it aired nationally.
You know, the next animated film being produced in Italy after La Rosa di Bagdad was West and Soda by Bruno Bozzetto in 1965, so there wasn’t much room for animation in Italy. But when we witnessed La Rosa di Bagdad being completely forgotten we asked ourselves a question, and we think we know the answer: Anton Gino Domeneghini was a convinced fascist, and the mainstream culture in Italy after World War Two was very left-wing-oriented, so it goes without saying that the outcome couldn’t have been any different.
The issue with fascism was certainly the reason why the film was forgotten, no doubt about that. But things are starting to change for the better now, The Associazione Libico Maraja is working alongside academic researchers to promote this legacy, and we see that the network of universities is increasingly becoming more open to learning about that. As many as six university theses and dissertations about the work of Libico Maraja also involving La Rosa di Bagdad have been written so far, and we are always working with the youngsters, arranging school workshops and public exhibitions to preserve history. We are also in the process of digitalising our archive of over 850 original illustrations by Libico Maraja and are always open to organising art exhibits in Italy and abroad… anyone who may be interested can get in touch with us for more information.
Thank you to the following people and organisations for helping out with a demanding and time-consuming research:
A Brief History of British Animation
Andrew Parry, Gloucestershire Archives
Associazione Libico Maraja
Cineteca di Bologna
David, UK Companies House
Film Documentari d’Arte
Istituto Luce Cinecittà
Jez Stewart, BFI National Archive British Film Institute
Mr Red, Stroud Voices
Pauline Stevens, Stroud Local History Society and Digital Stroud
Sara Kinsey, UK Historical Archives
Stroud News & Journal
The British Newspaper Archive
★ If you are interested in cinema and movies, you may also like our interviews with Back To The Future creator Bob Gale, Pat Boone (remember the song Speedy Gonzales?), the first woman nominated for Best Director in history, Lina Wertmüller, Academy Award nominee movie director Bruno Bozzetto, Berlin (remember Top Gun’s song Take My Breath Away in 1986?), the star of Mr Bean Rowan Atkinson, Neapolitan theatre legend Vincenzo Salemme and Italian mainstream actor Nicolas Vaporidis