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Walt Disney - Man and Mouse

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Walt Disney - Earth's Most Famous Showman
Man and Mouse | War and Withdrawal | Uncle Walt of Disneyland

Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) was not only the greatest showman in his lifetime, he is also quite possibly the most famous American to have ever lived, and the winner of 22 Oscars, far more than anyone else. After all, there have been numerous American Presidents, Hollywood actors, authors, inventors and poets, but only ever one Walt Disney. He is one of only two men to have an entire major American studio named after himself1 and his name is now synonymous with animation, theme parks and family entertainment.

Walt Disney: Man or Myth?

As with all true showmen, his legend is far bigger than his life. Whenever interviewed, he would embellish and exaggerate his life story, editing it to make it more dramatic. His early life would appear to be harsher, the obstacles he had to overcome made greater and perhaps unsurprisingly rumours and questions have been raised over his life. Was his body, or just his head, cryogenically frozen to prevent his death? Was he secretly racist? Was he delusional, paranoid that Communists were constantly planning to get him?

Early Life

Walter Elias Disney was born on 5 December, 1901, in Chicago. His father, Elias, was a deeply religious, hard man who ruled his family with a firm grip. Walt's mother, Flora, was a teacher, ten years younger than Elias and dominated by him in all things. Walt never felt close to his father2, perhaps as Walt was their fourth son after Herbert, Ray and Roy, but the youngest child in the family was their daughter Ruth. In 1906 the family moved to a farm near the small but rapidly growing railway town of Marceline, Missouri. This is where Walt spent his childhood, in a growing rural community where a coal mine was located on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. This was an idyllic area, located only 90 miles west from Hannibal where author Sam 'Mark Twain' Clemens had grown up. A nostalgic love of the American rural west would stay with Walt all his life, which he would frequently attempt to recreate in both his films and his theme parks.

Sadly Elias Disney was an unsuccessful farmer. Following ill-health, falling crop prices and a 5-month-long coal strike in 1910, the Disneys were forced to auction off their stock, sell the farm and move to Kansas City.


After beautiful, rural Marceline, Kansas City was an urban disappointment. Elias purchased a Kansas City Star paper route which he expected his sons to work on. At 3:30am, Walt, Roy and Elias would load their handcarts with newspapers to deliver them. Walt, aged nine, would get home for breakfast at 5:30am, do a delivery round for a local pharmacy, go to school but leave before the end of the school day to deliver the afternoon editions. In school holidays Walt worked in a sweet shop in order to earn his own money, as he received no wage for the paper round. He also sold ice cream, eggs and butter on his route in an attempt to earn the family enough money to live on. This was Walt's life for six years.

Walt's oldest two brothers left home and lived elsewhere in Kansas City, but Walt stayed close to his sister Ruth and older brother Roy, who looked after him like a father. At school, Walt was obsessed with drawing, and often sold some cartoons he drew to a local barbershop. He enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute when aged 14. One of the few attractions of Kansas would be the Fairmount Amusement Park, which would later influence Disneyland. Walt and Ruth would be taken there by Roy.

The Great War: Walt's Great Escape

When America entered the Great War, Roy enlisted in the US Navy and the Disney family moved to Chicago where Walt drew cartoons for school paper The McKinley Voice, and worked for the O-Zell fruit factory. Desperate to escape, Walt tried to enlist in the US Navy, but being 16, he was rejected for being too young. He eventually succeeded in joining the Red Cross Ambulance Service by changing his year of birth from 1901 to 1900 on the form. He was originally stationed outside Chicago and learnt to drive an ambulance, but almost immediately caught influenza in the epidemic of 1918 that killed over 20 million victims.

After the war ended he was sent to Paris in late November 1918. He spent his time drawing caricatures, and it was while working for the Red Cross Ambulance that he became an extremely heavy smoker, a habit that would eventually kill him. In September 1919, Walt returned to America.

Post War

Although on his return Elias had arranged for Walt to work in the O-Zell jelly factory, Walt was determined to be an artist. He moved back to Kansas City, sharing a house with his older brother Roy. He was hired as an artist at the small Pesmen-Rubin art shop, along with another artist named Ubbe Iwwerks, although this only lasted until the end of the Christmas rush. As they were both now unemployed, Walt proposed to Iwwerks that they form a business together, forming Iwwerks-Disney3, doing commercial art for local businesses, which only lasted for two months.

Soon after, they both worked for the Kansas City Slide Co in 1919/20 as cartoonists, animating adverts using primitive techniques more appropriate for stop-motion. Hooked on the artform, Walt studied Edwin Lutz's Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development and learnt the techniques of cel-animation4, continuing to attend art night classes with Iwwerks.

By 1921 Walt began making his own 1-minute long cartoon animations with Fred Harman, entitled Laugh-O-Grams, that were shown at the Newman Theater, the largest cinema in Kansas City. Around this time, Roy discovered he had tuberculosis, was considered to be at risk of dying and so moved to California for health reasons.

In 1922 Walt began animating fairy tales, a theme he would return to again and again throughout his life, setting them in a contemporary setting. He formed his first company Laugh-O-Gram Films in 1922, despite being only 20 and legally too young to have done so. At the time, only 23% of cinemas in America regularly showed cartoons, so it was a very difficult market to find success in. Their only customer went bankrupt, owing them over $11,000.

Determined to keep going, Walt began work on combining live action with animation on a short film entitled Alice's Wonderland. In this, a young girl named Alice, played by Virginia Davis, enters a world of animation and interacts with cartoon characters. Yet before this was finished, Walt was forced to declare bankruptcy. He only raised enough money to live off by offering to film children for their parents to purchase as mementos. His first animation studio had ended in failure. He decided to leave Kansas City and relocate to be with his brother Roy, still recuperating in the Veterans Hospital in Hollywood.

Disney Brothers Studio

Walt Disney arrived in Hollywood in August 1923 with all his possessions: a reel of Alice's Wonderland, basic animation equipment and a few tattered clothes, in a cardboard suitcase. After a couple of months of trying to interest producers in his Alice film, one, Margaret Winkler, an experienced animation producer, saw promise in mid-October. She ordered a series of six, on condition that they would be made by January 1924. No longer having an animation studio, Walt felt unable to cope until his brother checked himself out of the hospital. Though Virginia Davis, the star of the show, lived in Kansas, her mother was desperate for Virginia to be a star and readily agreed to move. Walt even persuaded his brother to become his manager and look after the financial side of the business.

By December the two brothers were renting a small office and an outdoor space, where Walt filmed Virginia against a white cloth, giving her instructions like 'Look frightened!', with no money to buy enough film to do retakes. The first six Alice animations, drawn entirely by Walt, were made on time. In February 1924 Walt hired his first animator, Rollin 'Ham' Hamilton, and was joined by Ubbe Iwwerks, who had now anglicised his name to Ub Iwerks, in June. Under Iwerks' influence, Alice's role in her own cartoons began to be eclipsed by the cartoons themselves, especially by a cat named Julius. Pegleg Pete also appeared as a recurring villain.

Another appearance at the studio, in January 1924, was 26-year-old Lillian Bounds, who worked as an ink-and-paint girl. Lillian and Walt married on 13 July, 1925, and lived in a tiny apartment. He was not the only person to get married, as the Disney's distributor Margaret Winkler married Charles Mintz, who gained control of Winkler's company. Mintz, although enjoying the financial success of the Alice comedies, was unwilling to share the profit with Disney Bros, who consequently had a falling out with the Davis family over how much Virginia would be paid. No longer able to afford her, Virginia was replaced by 4-year-old Margie Gay. Meanwhile in February 1925, the Disney Bros Studio had relocated to a small bungalow on Hyperion Avenue, where he renamed the studio Walt Disney Studios. Walt was now overseeing production rather than animating. His life consisted almost entirely of being in the studio with some time spent at home; he did not socialise outside his work and family environments.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: Unlucky for Some

In 1927, after 60 episodes the Alice series', the novelty had worn out and the series was dropped. A new character needed to be created, which Mintz suggested should be a rabbit. In March 1927 Mintz signed a contract with Universal Studios to deliver 26 short cartoons featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. These, shown nationwide, were extremely popular and led to Mintz deciding in 1928 to take over the character and sell shorts direct to Universal. He did this by hiring most of Disney's animators, and continued to make the profitable series without Disney. Although Walt had proposed and designed the rabbit, as Mintz had named him 'Oswald', he legally owned the character, which was later purchased by Universal5. Disney faced ruin and was in desperate need to create a new character.

Taking the Mickey

In 1928, the new character, Mickey Mouse6 was created by Walt, reportedly on the train from New York to Hollywood, the journey taking place immediately after he had learnt that he had lost the rights to Oswald. Mickey and Minnie Mouse first appeared in a short film entitled Plane Crazy, animated by Iwerks, who had tweaked Walt's original Mickey Mouse design. No studio was interested in this, or Mickey's second appearance. Walt decided to break new ground and have the third animated Mickey Mouse short film, Steamboat Willie, in synchronised sound. This was shortly after the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, had been released. Mickey Mouse quickly became incredibly popular and starred in a series of short films.

In many ways Mickey became a victim of his own success; Mickey was soon adored across America and was considered an American icon. As Mickey was perceived as a representation of America, if he ever misbehaved, Disney received letters of complaint. Mickey was soon forced to strictly uphold all American values, which strongly limited what he could do.

Rather than rest on his laurels and mass-produce Mickey Mouse cartoons, from 1929 Walt followed his success with a more experimental cartoon series entitled Silly Symphonies. These combined music and animation, beginning with much-acclaimed The Skeleton Dance, animated by Iwerks.

At the Height during the Depression

In October 1929, the Great Depression hit America. This wave of national unemployment helped Walt recruit many other studios' most talented animators, although Ub Iwerks, feeling neglected and in Walt's shadow, left to form his own animation studio. Walt had lost one of his oldest, closest allies, yet the financial situation ensured that his animators were dedicated, hardworking and loyal.

During this time, Walt was a workaholic rarely found outside the animation studio, which kept growing almost beyond all recognition. All profits were ploughed back into the company. In 1929, Walt encouraged his animators to attend night classes at the Chouinard Art Institute and by 1932 nightly art classes were held in the studio. The animators were expected to strive for perfection with every frame, and held to the highest possible standard. Walt always wanted to push the boundaries, as he had with sound, and the search for perfection led to new techniques being tried. When Walt planned a short film, rather than using the screenplay, key scenes were drawn out and attached to a board called a 'story board' – storyboarding soon became used not only across animation studios but by all filmmakers. Soon the Disney methodology dominated the animation industry. His insistence that background artists lay out the cartoon visually before it was animated created the term 'layout artist'. Everything that happened in the studio had to meet with his approval.

In 1930 Mickey gained his dog, Pluto, the Mickey Mouse Club had launched and in 1932 Goofy was created. Also in 1932 the first full-colour cartoon, a Silly Symphony entitled Flowers and Trees was released. Walt successfully negotiated the 5-year exclusive animated rights on Technicolor's three-strip colour film. Perhaps Disney's most popular short animated film was 1933's Silly Symphony Three Little Pigs, which gave the world the song 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?'.

Walt himself was too hard working, staying at the studio all hours of the day, and in 1932 had a breakdown caused by overwork. Marital pressures had also taken their toll, as in 1931 and 1932 Lillian's first and second pregnancies ended in miscarriage. Walt was under doctor's orders to take a break and to take up sport. He and Lillian finally enjoyed their first holiday as a married couple. In late 1932, having tried a variety of sports including swimming, dancing, horse-riding and golf, Walt became addicted to polo.

In December 1933 Walt became a father, to Diane Marie Disney. Sadly in 1936 Lillian suffered a third miscarriage, and so they decided to adopt a second daughter, Sharon Mae, on 31 December, 1936. Walt would dote on his daughters with all the affection he had sought but never enjoyed from his own father.

In 1934 Disney became the first studio to generate more income from merchandising than from film royalties. Also in 1934 a character whose popularity threatened to eclipse even Mickey Mouse was created; Donald Duck. Mickey had changed from his initial rebellious nature and evolved into the epitome of respectability, which had the disadvantage of making him less interesting than a naughty character. This is why Mickey often appears as the heroic foil to bad-tempered Donald or even Pluto. These shorts were initially released by Columbia, then United Artists, and later by RKO, the fifth-largest film studio in America at the time, owning its own cinema chain.

Snow White

By the mid-1930s, Walt realised that for all the success of his short films, they are only the support for the feature film. The man who had been the first to introduce both sound and colour to animated films had ambitions to make the world's first full-length cel-animated film7, Snow White.

Walt would later delight in stating how, when the film was in production, the industry predicted disaster and announced that no audience could be entertained by cartoon characters for more than ten minutes. The truth is that only one review in one newspaper called it 'Disney's Folly', while the rest of Hollywood were intrigued or full of anticipation. Unless he was referring to his wife, Lillian, who rarely saw her husband while he was consumed with making the film, preoccupied with it even when not at the studio. She encouraged Walt with words such as, 'I can't stand the sight of dwarfs. I predict nobody'll ever pay a dime to see a dwarf picture.' On its release, Snow White became the highest-grossing American film yet made, a remarkable achievement considering its key audience were children paying half-fares to see the film.

Continues in Part 2: War and Withdrawal
1The other being William Fox, whose Fox Film Corporation founded in 1915 merged with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935 to form Twentieth Century Fox.2Many Disney films would later feature dead or distant fathers.3Disney would later state that if it had been called Disney-Iwwerks, it would have sounded like an opticians.4Cel-animation, also known as traditional or hand-drawn animation, uses a series of pictures drawn on 'cels', named after the transparent celluloid film on which the artwork was commonly drawn.5The rights to Oswald were finally bought back by Disney in 2006.6He briefly was to be called Mortimer Mouse, but Lillian considered this too pretentious. A mouse named Mortimer would later appear in the 1936 animated short Mickey's Rival.7Full-length stop-motion animated films had already been made, notably 1925's The Lost World' and 1933's King Kong.

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