“No witch ever swished her black cape with a witchier sneer,” wrote LIFE magazine of Maleficent, the now-iconic villainess of Disney’s 1959 classic, Sleeping Beauty. The angular, fiercely horned dark fairy, whose very name conveyed ill-will, took standards for dastardly animated characters to new heights and has reliably terrified generations of moviegoers.
The “Mistress of All Evil” was the product of both painstaking cel animation and live acting. LIFE photographer Allan Grant captured the moment (above) as model Jane Fowler acted out some of the movements that made Maleficent a powerhouse villainess. Actress Eleanor Audley, the voice behind the evil stepmother in Disney’s Cinderella, also provided live-action modeling — and the chilling voice — for Maleficent. A team of animation artists used Fowler’s and Audley’s motions to bring Marc Davis’s medieval artwork-inspired designs to life.
Some critics voiced concern that scenes — especially a memorable bit with Maleficent as a dragon — were too frightening for children. The Los Angeles Times fretted that the film’s six production years, 300 artists and $6 million price tag would make it “the last as well as the biggest of these fairy tale features.”
Well, not quite. Angelina Jolie’s live-action film about Maleficent — with an estimated production budget of $180 million — has taken in more than $700 million internationally at the box office, a career best for the actress. Wicked.
Martha Groppo is a doctoral student studying history at Princeton University