“If you can dream it, you can do it…” Walt Disney
In turns magical and well, mammoth, the Walt Disney Co. has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last couple of weeks. The bad press kicked in after an alligator took off with a toddler on the shores of one of its most popular US resorts, but the mega brand is creeping its way back into the good books for all of the right reasons now that Finding Dory has hit and is set to wipe the floor with all animated film records that have gone before it. Walt Disney is a brand that has gone beyond the films, the theme parks and the man after whom it takes its name, a clever creative who stayed one step ahead of the game all his life.
He is the man who also happens to be the subject of tonight’s two-part documentary, WALT DISNEY. Few creative figures before or since have held such a long-lasting place in American life and popular culture. Born in 1901, Walter Elias "Walt" Disney was an international celebrity by the time he was 30 and hailed a genius before he was 40. He has long represented all that America – and much of the rest of the world – wants to believe in, but was as flawed and well, “human” as the rest of us. Biographer/cultural historian Neal Gabler speaks of the great Walt’s “dark soul,” and a former animator is quoted is saying of Disney, “if you crossed him, he was one mean SOB.” Disney was by no means a saint, but by god was he a creative force to be reckoned with.
A young Disney attended McKinley High School in Chicago, where he took drawing and photography classes and was a contributing cartoonist for the school paper. At night, he took courses at the Chicago Art Institute, always upskilling and fuelling his creative fire. When he was 16 however, he dropped out of school to join the Army but was rejected for being underage. Instead, he joined the Red Cross and was sent to France for a year to drive an ambulance.
When Disney returned from France in 1919, he moved back to Kansas City to pursue a career as a newspaper artist. His brother Roy got him a job at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio, where he met cartoonist Ub Iwerks. From there, Disney went on to work at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, where he made commercials based on cutout animation. Around this time, an always-curious Disney began experimenting with a camera, doing hand-drawn cel animation, and decided to open his own animation business. From the ad company, he recruited a bloke named Fred Harman as his first employee.
Walt and Harman made a deal with a local Kansas City theatre to screen their cartoons, which they called Laugh-O-Grams. The cartoons were hugely popular, and Disney was able to build his own studio, upon which he bestowed the same name. Laugh-O-Gram hired a number of employees, including Harman's brother Hugh and Iwerks. By 1923, however, the studio had become burdened with debt, and Disney was forced to declare bankruptcy. He knew his stuff creatively but not when it came to keeping the books, a fact that would plague him his entire life (whether he chose to acknowledge that or not).
Disney and his rather more financially savvy brother Roy soon pooled their money and moved to Hollywood. Iwerks also relocated to California, and there the three began the “Disney Brothers' Studio”. Their first deal was with New York distributor Margaret Winkler, to distribute cartoons they had created during the Laugh-O-Grams years. They also invented a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and contracted the shorts at USD $1,500 each.
A few years later, Disney discovered that Winkler and her husband, Charles Mintz, had stolen the rights to Oswald, along with all of Disney’s animators, except for Iwerks. Right away the Disney brothers, their wives and Iwerks produced three cartoons featuring a new character Walt had been developing called Mickey Mouse. When sound made its way into film, Disney created a third, sound-and-music-equipped short called Steamboat Willie. With Walt as the voice of Mickey, the cartoon was an instant sensation. The rest as they say, is history.
He and Roy co-founded Walt Disney Productions, which became one of the best-known motion-picture production companies in the world. Disney was also among the first to use television as an entertainment medium. The Mickey Mouse Club, a variety show featuring a cast of teenagers known as the Mouseketeers, became a cultural phenomenon and launched the careers of numerous young stars. He won 22 Academy Awards during his lifetime, and was the founder of theme parks Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Variety put it perfectly when they said that few lives can sustain a two-hour documentary, but with WALT DISNEY four doesn’t seem nearly enough. Feast your eyes on tonight’s first installment, and book a date with your couch for the next.