Walter Elias Disney (December 5, 1901 - December 15, 1966) was an American animated film producer and the creator of an American-based theme park called Disneyland and the billion-dollar Walt Disney corporation.
Walt Disney was born in Chicago to Elias Disney and Flora Call. He was named after his father and after his father's close friend Walter Parr, St Paul Congregational Church's preacher. In 1906 his family moved to a farm near Marceline, Missouri. The family sold the farm in 1909 and lived in a rented house till 1910, when they moved to Kansas City. Walt was nine years old at the time.
Walt graduated from Benton School on June 18, 1917. He received some education at the Kansas City Art Institute but he left school aged sixteen and became a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I, giving his year of birth as 1900 to be able to enlist. He served as a member of the American Red Cross Ambulance Force in France till 1919.
Walt returned to the USA, moved to Kansas City and started looking for a job. Disney had always wanted to be a film maker. He even once applied for a job working for Charlie Chaplin and was turned down. He was also interested in becoming a political cartoonist but after some time of being unemployed he had to settle for a job in "Posman-Rubin Commercial Art Studio" for 50 dollars a month. In his new job Walt met and befriended Ubbe Ert Iwerks, later known as Ub Iwerks. The two friends were interested in creating their own company and in January, 1920 they formed "Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists". The company soon closed and the duo was hired by the "Kansas City Film Ad Company".
Walt wasn't content with the animated ads they assigned him and started making his own animated films on his spare time which he sold to the "Newman Theater Company". The films were called Newman Laugh-O-Grams. They were originally only about a minute long but they soon gained the interest of the public by focusing on local problems and criticizing the local government. Apparently Disney still wanted to be a political cartoonist.
In 1922 Walt started making longer shorts based on well known fairy-tales like "Cinderella". In 1923 Walt also started experimenting with shorts combining live-action and animation. Few of the shorts that Walt worked on during these years have survived but they were locally successful at the time and Walt was getting ambitious.
Walt was now working on his own company again along with Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising and Carmen Maxwell but the Laugh-O-Grams weren't satisfying him any more. Though reasonably popular in Kansas they weren't truly financially successful.
His next attempt at success would involve the combination of live-action and animation. This was already the basis of the moderately successful series Out of the Inkwell by Max Fleischer and his brother Dave Fleischer that had begun in 1918 and was still running. However, the Fleischer brothers had their animated star Koko the Clown interacting with a live-action setting. Walt wanted to create a series of cartoons, called the Alice Comedies in which a live action little girl interacted with animated characters. The idea would be used successfully much later in Roger Rabbit cartoons but was quite original for its time.
Walt and his team put all their efforts on creating Alice's Wonderland. The young actress playing Alice in this film was Virginia Davis, who had worked for the "Kansas City Film Ad Company". Unfortunately for them, their profits from Laugh-O-Graphs weren't enough to cover the expenses and the company went bankrupt in July, 1923. But Walt had his finished project in his hand and he left for Hollywood in hopes of finding interested distributors. Reportedly he had only 40 dollars left at this point. Ub followed him. But Ising, Harman and Maxwell decided to follow their own separate path. They would form "Arabian Nights Cartoon Studio" and later Harman-Ising Studio.
In Hollywood Walt found the interested distributors he was looking for, Margaret Winkler and her fiancee (and soon husband), Charles Mintz. They were already distributing the Felix the Cat series by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer. On October 16 they signed a contract for twelve films. However Walt , at this point, had no studio, artists or actors while the contract asked for the participation of Virginia Davis, still living in Kansas. But Walt was enthusiastic and started working on his problems.
He enlisted the help of his older brother Roy Oliver Disney who became his new partner. They established a small studio at 4651 Kingswell Avenue and started working. Although they only managed to make ten films during 1924 they were successful enough. The two brothers were able to move to a larger studio at 4649 Kingswell and hire more staff. Besides artists (including Walt's later wife), more child actors were hired , playing secondary roles. Walt convinced Virginia Davis and her family to move to Hollywood. At the distributors' suggestion a recurring animated character was added to the series, Alice's cat Julius. He first appeared in Alice's Spooky Adventure released on April 1, 1924 and originally Walt didn't intended to use him again. But the distributors were familiar with animated cats and insisted that the cat would join the cast permanently. In Julius they formed a copy of Felix.Anne Shirley). But Dawn's payment wasn't enough as the only source of income for her family and she quit too. She was replaced by Margie Gay. Despite these problems, fifteen films of the Alice series were released during 1925.
In 1926 Margaret Winkler married Charles Mintz and retired from business. Walt now had to deal with one distributor who felt that the series was declining. By this time Ub Iwerks was in charge of the animated films and Walt just supervised and dropped some ideas. The animation was getting better, the gags increased but the live-action sequences were becoming less important and the scenarios tended to be repetitive. But the series was still successful enough. During the year the name of the company changed from "The Disney Brothers Studio" to "The Walt Disney Studio". From then on Roy would still play an important part in the Company's financial department but had now little to do with the films. Walt was now the head of the Studio which moved to Hyperion Avenue. Walt felt that his youthful appearance (he was 25 years old) worked against him during contract negotiations and grew a mustache in an attempt to look older and more serious.
In 1927 the end came for the Alice series. It had reached its limitations and with Alice in the Big League released on August 27, 1927 it was over. Besides Black Pete, none of the series characters would appear again. But Walt had other plans. Charles Mintz's own employer Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios was interested in a new animated series starring a rabbit. Mintz assigned this to Walt and his company. They developed the new character and named him: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Poor Papa was produced by Spring of this year but Laemmle was less than pleased with the character. They wanted a likeable character like Charlie Chaplin's Tramp, Felix the Cat or even Julius from the Alice Comedies. What they got was a rabbit looking old, fat, sloppy and scruffy with a hooligan's personality. Poor Papa would be released on August 6, 1928 when the character's popularity was at its height but this wasn't the introduction of the character to the public that Universal wanted. The Disney studio had to redesign the character. But the next short they produced was what Universal wanted. Trolley Troubles featured a younger, slimmer, better Oswald with the personality of a naughty young boy. The film's release on September 5, 1927 made the character instantly successful. Nine shorts featuring Oswald were released during the year and the character became popular. Oswald merchandise appeared though Walt had nothing to do with it. Black Pete was now used as a recurring antagonist to Oswald. Walt had success at his hands... or so he thought.
One of the more famous Disney quotes has been, "Remember, it all started with a mouse". But it more likely started with the Rabbit. Walt was successful enough to be able to hire his old colleagues Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, who hadn't been so successful on their own but had improved in skills. Seventeen of Disney's Oswald cartoons were released during 1928, the final being Hot Dog, released on August 20, 1928.
Walt was quite confident when he went to negotiate with Charles Mintz in New York. He wanted his fee to increase from 2250 dollars per short to 2500 dollars per short. Instead Mintz wanted Walt's fee to decrease to 2000 dollars per short. When Walt refused, Mintz had some announcements to make. He didn't need Walt anymore. He had secretly met with a number of Walt's employees including Harman and Ising and had signed them on contracts of their own. As the distributor Universal held the rights to Oswald and they could make their own cartoons with him if they wanted to, Walt returned to his Studio in defeat and along with Ub Iwerks and the remaining employees he started working on a new project to replace Oswald as Disney's star.
This meeting was very important for the history of animation because of its consequences in the long run. It is well known that Walt's next project was Mickey Mouse but there were other developments spawned from the meeting. Charles Mintz wasn't idle either. He continued to provide Universal with Oswald cartoons, produced now in a new Studio under his brother-in-law George Winkler. Thanks to Harman and Ising, now chief animators, the 25 shorts produced till mid-1929 were of the same quality as those produced by Walt's Studio. But then Carl Laemmle decided to create an animation department for Universal and hand the rights to Oswald to it. The new Studio would be run by Walter Lantz and would later spawn even more famous characters like Woody Woodpecker. Ozzie of the Circus, released on January 5,1929 was the first in a long series of shorts produced by Lant'z Studio. As for Mintz and Winkler their Studio and their careers were over. But Harman and Ising weren't even started yet. They found employment again creating a partnership with producer Leon Schlesinger. Together they created an animation Studio on behalf of Warner Bros. The short Sinkin' in the Bathtub , released on April 19, 1930 was the first of a long series of cartoons called Looney Tunes that would spawn more famous characters like Bugs Bunny.
Ironically enough Oswald, the reason for these developments, has long been obscured by characters later created by the Studios formed as a result of his creation. For more info on those Studios and their animated traditions:
- The Encyclopedia of Disney Animated Shorts
- The Walter Lantz Cartoon Encyclopedia
- Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies-The Early Years
- Looney Tunes Cartoon Checklist
He continued this inventive film making with Mickey Mouse. Mickey's first cartoon was Plane Crazy, in a story inspired by Charles Lindbergh. The best-remembered today, however, was the first "talkie" cartoon, Steamboat Willie.
Disney found out that his distributor was stealing from him, so he broke away from them. Lessons learned from this experience would later prompt him to distribute his films with his own distribution company, Buena Vista. But Disney's distributor persuaded Iwerks to leave Disney and work for them. Iwerks owned one third of the Walt Disney Studios. He eventually returned to Disney and worked for him in R & D creating such historic inventions as the multi-plane camera which created three dimensional backgrounds in animated films. But his choice back then to leave the studio and sacrifice his percentage of the company cost him countless millions of dollars. While Iwerks's contribution may be overlooked by most people, among Disney historians his name is as well known as any Disney character.
Mickey's films were successful, but it was in merchandising the studio became truly lucrative. Starting out with Mickey Mouse pencils and then expanding into watches, comics and toys, the Mouse created a true financial empire.
The shorts also had success with their musical scores. The Three Little Pigs was so successful when it was released in theaters that it was actually billed above the features. The title song, composed by Frank Churchill, was a huge popular hit, subsequently covered by other artists like Benny Goodman.
Snow White, released in 1937, was Disney's and the world's first feature-length animated film. To acquire the funding to complete, Disney had to show a rough cut of the motion picture to loan officers at the Bank of America. A string of animated films, such as Fantasia (1940) and Pinocchio (1940), followed. Not all were commercial successes, and Disney's financial situation was at times threadbare. Disney's relationship with his animators was strained when they went on strike in 1941, almost crippling the studio.
To compensate for the diminished resources, Disney came out with movies like The Three Caballeros and Melody Time that were less complicated and relied upon short musical segments. Learning from the lack of success he had with Fantasia, Disney used music from artists like Dinah Shore and Nelson Riddle as opposed to Johann Sebastian Bach and Igor Stravinsky. There might have been even more of these films if not for World War II. The Army occupied part of Disney's studio. Perhaps the most important Disney film from this time would be Victory Through Air Power. Disney agreed to make training films for the United States Armed Forces. In these, the Seven Dwarfs would demonstrate how to set up camps and so forth. But Victory Through Air Power, in which an eagle defeats an octopus, was used by the military to explain the strategy behind D-Day.
After the war, the unfavorable economics of concentrating exclusively on animated movies finally caught up with Disney and his company, as they diversified into television and live-action movies, still retaining their family-friendly nature. However, Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he named several of his employees as Communist sympathizers. Some historians believe that the animosity from the studio strike caused him to bear a grudge, along with his dislike and distrust of labor unions, leading to his testimony.
In the months before his death, Disney dreamed of building EPCOT, an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. He passed away before he could make that dream a reality. While the Walt Disney World theme park was built, the EPCOT, also known as the "Florida Project", was translated by Disney's sucessors into the EPCOT of today, essentially a living world's fair. The Epcot park that currently exists is a far cry from the actual living city that Walt Disney envisioned. However, the Celebration, Florida new town built by Disney Corporation adjacent to Walt Disney World harkens back to the EPCOT vision.
- Disney characters' names in various languages
- List of Disney characters
- List of Disney animated features