Walt Disney did not invent animation. He was not the first to put sound to his cartoons or even give personality to a cartoon character. But Walt did take the idea of moving drawings, barely understood by the artists who drew them and an audience who did not take them seriously, into a sophisticated highly refined art form that today because of Walt’s innovations and creativity are as popular as live films and are a multi-million dollar business.
To understand Walt’s contribution, we need to have a look at animation from the beginning. Animation is as old as man. Attempts to capture motion in drawings can be seen in Paleolithic cave drawings where animals have numerous legs in many positions, conveying the illusion of motion. Throughout the years, many attempts to show movement from drawings conjured up many different devices, such as the common flip-book, but until the dawn of cinematography, there was no serious development. At the time, the thought of drawings coming to life was almost unheard of. The animation of the day had no real storyline, its characters non-descript and emotionless. They were merely drawings that moved about, and theater goers never did warm up to them.
It was not until 1914 when cartoonist Winsor McCay drew an animation for his vaudeville act called “Gertie the Dinosaur” that the public began to see this as true entertainment. Gertie was one the first “characters” to have a “personality”. In the short film (12 minutes) Gertie plays, cries and drinks. There is a storyline to the cartoon, and Gertie was the first original character developed solely for an animated cartoon and not from a pre-existing comic strip. Gertie is the 6th greatest cartoon of all time by the United States National Film Registry. A note for you trivia buffs… Dinosaur Gertie in Disney’s Hollywood Studios on Echo Lake serving ice cream is a tribute to Winsor McCay and Gertie.
Other notables in the history of animation are Max and Dave Fleisher’s “Out of the Inkwell” series in 1919 about KoKo the clown. This cartoon clown was modeled after Brother Dave who was a clown on Coney Island. This was innovative because KoKo the cartoon clown was placed in a real world were Max controlled his antics. Another major success of the era was “Felix the Cat” by Pat Sullivan. But as popular as they were, they really did not have a personality. They were just something novel to watch on the screen, and people saw them as just moving drawings.
Walt Disney returned from France in the fall of 1919 after serving in the Ambulance corps. He wanted to become an artist, since his love of drawing began the day he could pick up a pencil. With the help of his brother Roy, he got a job at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial art shop. Here he learned the fundamentals of illustration and drawing. At Pesmen, he met fellow animator Ubb Iwwerks, and both 19 year olds became friends. Iwwerks was a swift draftsman but painfully shy. After the short Christmas season, they were let go. The men decided to start their own art studio, the Iwwerks-Disney commercial art studio, but this endeavor only lasted about a month. Walt got a job at the Kansas City Slide Co. in February, 1920 and soon Ub (who changed his name) joined him. Walt soon learned the basics of animation, and with a borrowed camera, he began to experiment feverously. Soon he and a fellow animator, Fred Harmen, made several short animated films, some focused on Kansas City’s public services.
Walt made a deal with Frank L. Newman, owner of three movie theaters in Kansas City to buy his “Newman Laugh-O-grams” as he labeled them. Newman loved them and would buy as many as Walt could draw. These short “Laugh-O-grams” commented on fashion, police scandals and streetcar service. The films were popular, and Walt gained much notoriety. He even got a raise to $60.00 a week at the Slide Company. Walt and Harmen began to experiment with live action animation, increasing their knowledge of the art form. Walt began to think of opening his own studio. Walt finally did just that, and in May of 1922 he founded his “Laugh-O-grams” studios. He enticed his friend Ub Iwwerks from the Film Ad Company to join, and along with animation pioneers Hugh Harmen, Rudolph Ising, Fritz Freleng and Carmen Maxwell, Laugh-O-grams was born.
They contracted with a company Pictorial Clubs Inc. for six fairy tale cartoons, and a seventh, which is a pivotal film in the Disney Company history called “Alice’s Wonderland.” This unfinished film based on Alice in Wonderland, about a live girl in a cartoon world gave rise to the “Alice Comedies,” part one of Walt’s Triumphant. Pictorial Clubs went bankrupt, and with no money coming in, despite Walt’s efforts to save the company, Laugh-O-grams went under in July of 1923. Walt, with only $40.00 to his name, left for California to meet his brother Roy, hoping to become a director, but instead returned to animation with the “Alice Comedies.”
After convincing creditors he could recoup his losses, he retained the partially finished “Alice’s Wonderland”. He contacted many distributors for his Alice film, but no one was interested except a woman named Margaret Winkler, a major cartoon distributor in New York. At the time, she was representing Max and Dave Fleischer’s “Out of the Inkwell” series with KoKo the Clown and Pat Sullivan’s “Felix the Cat,” both hot properties at the time. But the Fleischer’s were threatening to leave, and a major contract dispute with Sullivan made Winkler look for a new product. She was intrigued by “Alice.” Walt’s timing was perfect. She screened “Alice” in October and decided to sign a contract with Walt for a series of cartoons named the “Alice Comedies” about a live girl in a cartoon world. This important contract was signed on October 16th, 1923 and is the beginning of the Disney Brothers Studios. It is also the first commercial cartoon series for Walt and company.
The Alice Comedies were moderately successful. After the third comedy, Walt convinced his old friend, Ub Iwerks to come to California and join the studio; which he did. Again, for you trivia fans, four child actresses played Alice during its run; Virginia Davis, Margie Gay, Dawn O’Day (only one short, Alice’s Eggplant, 1925) and Los Hardwick. But the amiable business relationship he had with Margaret Winkler was about to change… for the worst.
A month after signing with Winkler, she married Charles Mintz, who took over the control of the company when she became pregnant. He was a ruthless individual who pressed constantly for improvements in the cartoons, and money was always an issue. He even increased the number of films the studio was to produce. By early 1927, Mintz decided that the Alice series was nearing its end. He negotiated with Universal Studios for a new character and asked Walt to provide some drawings. This is the second of Walt’s Triumphant: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This is the first original character that Walt’s studio created. After a bit of trial and error, this funny rabbit’s (who has a striking resemblance to a famous Mouse!) series had began a successful run and helped the studio gain recognition and a stable financial foothold.
But Walt did not know that Mintz had plans to destroy him and his studio. Even early in January 1928, when the renewal of Oswald contract was being negotiated with Universal, Ub told Walt that Mintz covertly signed up most of Walt’s animators to work for him, because he thought Walt was not necessary for the series. But Ub refused to sign, and worse, Walt did not believe Ub. In March, Walt went to New York to negotiate better terms and found that Ub’s story was true. Mintz had his staff, and Walt had no legal rights to the Oswald character. Mintz told him to sell the company and work for him. Walt refused and left for California, with no character and just Ub Iwerks and Les Clark for a studio staff.
Enter Mickey Mouse. This plucky little character is what put the Disney Brothers Studios in the limelight. We all know the story that on the way back to California that Walt dreamed up Mickey on the train ride back. However, throughout many interviews over the years, Mickey was most likely born out of desperate meetings Walt had with his skeleton staff on his return; looking for their next character. There were many suggestions, but a mouse was decided on. Originally named “Mortimer,” Lillian Disney balked at that name, instead offered Mickey Mouse in its stead, and the rest is history. Walt gave Mickey his personality, his drive, his mischievous tenants, but Ub Iwerks gave Mickey his physical form. Together they made the first cartoon character who people could actually relate to. Born during the depression years, America bonded with Mickey; they trusted him. He was an everyman, a common worker, and Mickey had the same dreams and hopes as common America did during those dark years. Mickey was rooted for by all America as he fought with Peg Leg Pete, played with his dog Pluto, gave parties for his friends and sought the love of Minnie Mouse. He was not just a cartoon character but a hero people looked up to!
Although Walt’s contributions to animation and movies fill volumes, such as synchronized sound cartoons, color cartoons, and the first animated feature cartoon, his first three “Triumphants” created in the early years set the foundation for his future accomplishments and formed the core of the then Disney Brothers Studios.
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.