I’ve always loved Walt Disney. The main reason is because he is what is called a “late bloomer“, that is, a person who did not succeed immediately, but did it after taking numerous doors in the face. This makes it clear that one must never give up, that there is always hope. And hope is one of the fundamental messages of his production, which we now discover together with his life. We will also discover that perhaps he is not the adorable man that everyone believes, but the sentence after the reading is up to you!
Birth and youth of Walt Disney
Walter Elias Disney, born December 5, 1901 in Chicago, was the fourth and penultimate child of Elias Disney and Flora Call. The boy was five when his father took his family to live on a Missouri farm. Of the four years spent in this universe, Disney will retain a lasting nostalgia that will become one of the main sources of inspiration for him.
In 1910, the family moved back to Kansas City, where Walt took courses at the Institute of Art from 1915. In 1918, hired as an ambulance driver at the Red Cross, he landed in France, from where he turned, without success, to American newspapers by offering his cartoons.
Back in Kansas City in 1919 and hired, thanks to his brother Roy, in an advertising agency, he meets another young and talented designer, Ub Iwerks, who from that moment will be his closest collaborator; after setting up his own studio in 1930, Iwerks returned to Disney for good in 1940. Likewise, Roy, initially a bank clerk, became the wise partner in all of his brother’s businesses in 1923; He succeeded him at the helm of the company in 1966 and then he was his son, guaranteeing the continuity of the dynasty after his death in 1975.
Starting from zero
In 1920, Walt was hired with Iwerks at Kansas City Film, a cartoon producer. Two years later, the enterprising young man founded his own company, Laugh-o-Grams Films, with the collaboration of Iwerks, to which the brothers Harman and Rudolf Ising are added. The team then produced fairy tale-inspired cartoons: Cinderella, Puss in Boots, The Bremen Town Musicians.
But, in 1923, the failure of his company led Walt to join Roy in Los Angeles; with the financing of an uncle, he opens a modest studio. Soon joined by his old team, reinforced by Friz Freleng and the Clark brothers, he relaunched the Alice series for a New York distribution company. In 1923 he applied his famous O-shaped graphic to the creation of the Oswald rabbit, the hero of a new series, which was immediately a great success. But a conflict with his distributor causes him to lose direction of Oswald and his animation team.
Starting from scratch, Walt created in 1928, with Iwerks, the only loyal, a new character called Mortimer, who became famous the following year under the name of Mickey Mouse. Walt’s wife, Lilian, discouraged the use of Mortimer because he seemed too pompous for a cartoon and I recommend Mickey. Perhaps the alliteration of the name, as he liked our beloved Stan Lee, convinced Walt and Mortimer definitely became Mickey Mouse.
The first two tapes were released only after the third, in sound version. In the first, Plane Crazy, the little mouse, enthusiastic about Lindbergh’s enterprise, who has just crossed the Atlantic by plane, takes his girlfriend Minnie and the farm animals aboard a crazy aerial vehicle. The second, Gallopin’Gaucho, is a fun pastiche of the performances of the famous Douglas Fairbanks. But it is with the third, Steamboat Willie, that Walt Disney creates a masterpiece.
The triumph of sound comics
Already in 1927 the sound cinema had conquered the American theaters with the famous jazz singer Alan Crosland. Disney, having understood the irreversibility of the phenomenon, develops a synchronization system and imagines a scenario that gives pride of place to gags and sound or musical effects (such as the one in which Mickey Mouse plays the xylophone on the teeth of a cow). Steamboat Willie, a true parody and musical comedy of the Showboat genre, then very popular on Broadway, debuted in New York on November 18, 1928 and was a real triumph.
This success opened the golden age of Disney short films for ten years: that of Mickey Mouse Cartoons and the Silly Symphonies. The first of these, in 1929, is a fantastic chaos of skeletons illustrating the Dance of Death by Saint-Saëns. However, the Mickey Mouse universe is enriched with new characters: Pluto, then Goofy in 1932, Donald Duck in 1934. Very quickly they become independent characters, each becoming the protagonist of their own series. They will also compete with Mickey Mouse of the late 30s, especially Donald, the irascible and petulant duck, surrounded by his own accomplices: Daisy, his girlfriend, his three nephews and, later, the famous uncle Scrooge, that is the stingy.
Walt Disney keeps researching
Continuing the search for technical innovations, Disney began, in 1932, the Technicolor with Flowers and Trees, crowned with a first Oscar. Many animated films followed, most notably The Three Little Pigs in 1933, including the famous refrain “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? it was sung by all of America then plunged into the great depression. In 1934 it will be the turn of The hare and the turtle, inspired by the fable of La Fontaine. The seventh Oscar for short films of that decade was awarded in 1938 to Ferdinand The Bull, the young bull destined for bullfighting due to his imposing stature but who preferred the peace of flowering pastures to the frenzy of arenas. These characters would have been perfect for Wilde’s poems to think of!
The year 1937 marked a new and important stage in the development of Disney’s businesses. In fact, he saw the release of his first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which established access to Hollywood productions and enjoyed immense worldwide success. The film brings together all the aesthetic and dramatic ingredients of a great popular success: profusion of colors; variety of dramatic effects that mix suspense, fantasy and comedy; originality of the characters.
At the same time, Disney company moved to Burbank (Tim Burton’s hometown), in what became the largest cartoon studio. Organization is an industrial production method with an advanced technical division of activities and a multiplication of the workforce, which went from 187 people in 1937 to 1,600 in 1940. Each phase of the production process is now rigorously defined and entrusted to specialized teams. Walt Disney’s ambition is based on a search for technical perfection that meets the needs of an increasingly naturalistic realism: the creative imagination of the early days disappeared.
Disney Company gets bigger
This was the time when Disney started creating art courses at the Chouinard Institute to train its animators. He will soon be demanding that their animations be a real living model decal. It is always with the same spirit that he developed the famous multiplanar camera, which allows shooting in three dimensions and the effect of the relief. It was first employed in the construction of the Old Mill, which earned Walt Disney his sixth Oscar, in 1937.
Building on the success of Snow White, Disney continued to make feature films with Pinocchio, released in 1939 and followed by Fantasia in 1940. The latter film was constructed in eight sequences. Each illustrated a famous piece from the classical musical repertoire, from Bach and Beethoven to Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. We remember that our acquaintance had contributed to this work: Kay Nielsen. Critics have harshly judged this film, which was then rightly considered a masterpiece.
After Dumbo the Flying Elephant (1941), Bambi (1942) marks an apex of the naturalistic style dear to Disney: the fawn was paradoxically both more human and more real than life.
But the international context, combined with the company’s own difficulties, abruptly interrupted the boom that had begun five years earlier and led to a productive re-conversion in 1940. Furthermore, in 1941, a strike broke out among the animators for reasons of both salary and freedom of creation. Confrontation with the man they later dubbed “Big Bad Walt” led to the firing of some of the brightest of them. And they turned to competing studios to develop an “anti-Disney” style. Finally, the entry into the war of the United States in December 1941 and the consequent closure of European markets led Walt Disney to give up national values.
Walt Disney: WWII and after
From 1943 to 1945, most of the accomplishments of the Disney studios will serve, more or less directly, the war effort and propaganda of the United States.
They take the form, on the one hand, of military instruction films – such as 1943’s Victory through Air Power, the first in a long series sponsored by the military – and, on the other, of propaganda films aimed at the general public: in 1943 , two great hits, Face and Education for Death, corrosive satires of Nazism, accompany another more contested film, supporting “pan-Americanism” in the direction of Latin American countries, Saludos amigos, with the Three Caballeros that will follow in 1945.
In these four films the protagonist is Donald Duck, spokesman for the official ideology. He will now play the lion’s share until 1961, in a series of short films increasingly oriented towards an educational or didactic function. Mickey Mouse will only appear in one or two films a year, until his last appearance in 1953 in The Simple Things, alongside Pluto.
The postwar period, however, was marked by a new turning point with the expansion of Disney productions to “non-animated” films. First with the documentaries of the True Life Adventures series, for which Disney, but in particular his brother Roy, founded his own distribution company, Buena Vista. Some “animal” feature films such as The Living Desert and The Great Prairie (Oscar 1953 and 1954) or African Lions, in 1955, met with great success.
This diversification of genres also includes the production of action fiction entrusted to good directors: The Rose and the Sword (1953) to Ken Annakin, or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1954) to Richard Fleisher. Then came Mary Poppins (1964), a great success of a genre that was almost extinct at the time, the musical, here mixed with animation. The film, which will be capped with Oscars, including those awarded to its director Robert Stevenson and her interpreter Julie Andrews, remains one of Disney’s most acclaimed hits.
From Cinderella to the Artistocats
However, this diversification did not prevent Disney from resuming production of animated feature films in 1950: Cinderella then Alice in Wonderland in 1951; Peter Pan in 1953 – three films whose graphics were modeled on a previous staging with real actors. The criticism was cruel enough for these adaptations of famous tales, the poetic value of which he believed betrayed.
After Lady and the Tramp (1955) came Sleeping Beauty (1959), an expensive adaptation at a loss, which was criticized for its “frozen perfection”. But this failure was offset by the release of The 101 Dalmatians 1961 and The Sword in the Stone in 1963, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman. After Walt Disney’s death, they took over the animation department with the “veterans” team: he will realize, with perfect fidelity to the projects left by Walt, two great hits, The Jungle Book (1967) and The Aristocats (1970).
The birth of the Disney Empire
There are two other areas where “Big Walt’s” entrepreneurial spirit has been exercised in the latter period of his life. First of all the television one, of which he was the first film producer to take an interest: in 1954 he created his first program on ABC (The Disneyland Story), followed in 1955 by the Mickey Mouse Club TV Show, broadcast daily. In 1957 the television series dedicated to Zorro was released, also a huge success. These broadcasts allowed for multiple redistribution of cartoon stocks, but also ensured the promotion of famous amusement parks.
This is where, without a doubt, the most personal part of Disney’s work from this period is expressed. He designs and builds a three-dimensional world, populated by the most diverse creations of his mythology, which is also that of popular America.
Disneyland, opened in 1955 in Anaheim, California, is joined by the gigantic Disneyworld in Florida, inaugurated by Roy in 1971. The Epcot center (“Experimental City of the Future”), his last posthumous work, completed in 1975 at Disneyworld, it is a baroque mix. In this, which Mickey Mouse, Sleeping Beauty, Pirates of the Caribbean, saloons of the West and the Polynesian natives meet. A sort of Disney version of the Tarot Garden!
According to Walt, this is what Disneyland should have been like:
The idea of Disneyland is simple. It will be a place where people will find happiness and knowledge. It will be a place where parents and children can spend pleasant moments in the company of each other.
Disneyland will be based on and dedicated to the ideals, dreams and hard facts that created America. And it will be uniquely equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them as a source of courage and inspiration to the whole world.
Disneyland will be filled with the successes, joys and hopes of the world we live in. And it will remind us and show us how to make those wonders a part of our life.
Disney Company after Walt Disney
On December 15, 1955, at the age of 65, Walt Disney died of a cardiovascular collapse. Since his death, the company continued to “do Disney”: obviously it continues to produce great cartoons, inspired in particular by classic fairy tales, such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1992), Aladdin (1993). Then The Lion King (1994) which inaugurates a certain thematic renewal, Pocahontas (1995) and Hercules (1997), while The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1996), loosely based on the famous novel by V. Hugo Notre-Dame de Paris, draws joyful effects from the new techniques of computer graphics that stimulate the action by giving depth to the image.
Finally, the company entrusts the production of successful fiction films to great directors, such as The Color of Money (1986) by Martin Scorsese, with Paul Newman. And he created a pay TV channel, Disney Channel, in 1983.
In recent years, Disney has renewed its image, in particular thanks to the Pixar studios, specialized in computer animation. In 1995 they produced Toy Story, the first cartoon produced in computer graphics. Successfully followed: Monsters 6 Co. (2002), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007) and Wall-E (2008).
Additionally, Disneyland continues to expand. Its “colonies” settle all over the world: Tokyodisneyland (1983), Eurodisney (later renamed Disneyland Paris) in Marne-la-Vallée (1992), Hong Kong Disneyland in China on the island of Lantau (2005).
And the Disney Empire has not finished disseminating, with merchandising in the stores, the effigy of the “little Mickey Mouse” and all the other characters through comics, toys, t-shirts, watches and various gadgets, which have invaded for half a century the daily world of the children (young and old) of the 21st century mass culture. Because Walt Disney’s real business was never cartoons, but dreams.