The man behind the mouse, Walt Disney, was born in the Chicago area in 1901. His full name was Walter Elias Disney, which is where the namesake animated robot, WALL-E, gets his name for- obviously- Walter Elias. He spent his formative youth in Marceline, Missouri, which inspired the layout of Main Street U.S.A. in the parks. There he developed an artistic talent for art and drawing. From Marceline his family moved to Kansas City, a prominent railway hub, where Walt became obsessed with trains. That’s my kind of guy. He studied in Chicago as a teen and decided to fight in World War One. He was much too young, so he traveled to France and served as a Red Cross ambulance driver for a year. Ernest Hemingway did the same thing, and I wonder if they ever met. Probably not. Ernest was probably passed out on a gurney with an empty glass at any point when they could’ve interacted.
In 1919 Walt returned from the war, which had ended with the Treaty of Versailles and a humiliated Germany. He went back to Kansas City and started work as an animator in advertising. Walt began messing around with state-of-the-art animation techniques and decided to strike out on his own and create his own studio. While it had some initial success, it eventually went into debt in 1923 and shut down. But you know, these were the Roaring Twenties, so Walt and his brother Roy pooled cash together and headed west. There, in Hollywood, the heart of cinema’s Silent Era and Golden Age, the two of them, followed up by their animator friend Ub Iwerks, founded Disney Brothers’ Studio. And in Hollywood, a certain lagomorph was conceived… but we ain’t talkin’ ’bout some smart-mouth space-jamming bunny here. Introducing the coolest rabbit of them all, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. That’s right. The flagship for the Disney Empire might have been a rabbit at one point.
Those of you who don’t know, Oswald was essentially the prototype for what became Mickey. For any historians out there, think of Oswald as the Etruscans and Mickey as the Romans; the Etruscans create founding traits and concepts, but Rome was really the one that expanded on that. Oswald was an anthropomorphic, half-naked rabbit with a pair of navy blue short, a bad attitude, and… is able to remove and twist his body parts? What? I went and looked up Oswald since I hadn’t thought about him while writing this, and I watched the late 1920’s cartoon “Oh What A Knight.” I never realized how weird these cartoons were. Allow me to describe this cartoon for you.
So what happens in this cartoon is Oswald sees some smokin’ lady staring down at him from a castle tower. With some impossible cartoon physics, even by cartoon standards, Oswald scales the tower to smooch the damsel in distress but there’s a knight there… hence the name. This is where it gets REAL, and Oswald becomes some sort of weird amalgamation of The Mask, Mister Fantastic, Stretch Armstrong, Inspector Gadget, and The Cat In The Hat. (Live action version with Mike Myers, to be specific.) Oswald is running on the walls like Quicksilver. His shadow sword-fights the knight while he takes a break to kiss the queen. Whenever the knight takes a stab at him, his legs extend and instead of lacerating his torso, the knight only jabs the air between his calves… like when Inspector Gadget uses his robot legs. And then the craziest part is when the knight backs Oswald against a door and swipes to decapitate him… and Oswald rips his own head off, throws it like a football, and his headless body ducks and runs over the side of the room to where his head lands back onto its socket, reattaching. What is this guy, Frankenstein’s Monster? He can remove and reattach body parts? Now where were we?
Back from that tangent, Oswald was doing great, but an associate of theirs, some chump named Charles Mintz, stole all the rights to Oswald and the intellectual property, as well as stealing all of Disney’s animators, except the loyal Iwerks. I’ll talk about Oswald and Mintz later, but for now let’s continue Walt’s tale. So that chump scurries off with Oswald and the workforce, so what does Walt do? He comes up with a mouse… named Mortimer. It’s been claimed Walt’s wife hated the name, and whatever happened, the new rodent became Mickey Mouse. In 1928, Walt, Iwerks, and their wives produced three cartoons starring Mickey. The first two weren’t distributed, but the third one did. Since “The Jazz Singer” introduced sound into film, they equipped this cartoon with a soundtrack. This was “Steamboat Willie.”
“Steamboat Willie” was a massive success. Even today, without color, the animation looks pleasant and engaging. There are silly details that still hold up today; for instance, when Mickey drives the steamboat up to a dock, the sign above the pier reads “Podunk Landing.” The sound is superb, and so is the design and humor. Nowadays folks get offended by everything, and I don’t wanna criticize this fantastic cartoon, but I couldn’t help but notice…. Mickey’s kind of a jerk in this. I wrote down every uncharacteristic thing he does in the short. He’s like an animal abuser… while still being one. I’m kidding of course, but it is interesting how we associate Mickey as being a pacifist.
- Throws a bucket of water onto a parrot.
- Pins a cat down, repeatedly yanks its tail, twirls it through the air, and launches it offscreen.
- Nearly asphyxiates a duck and plays it similarly to a bagpipe.
- Pulls the tails of a pig litter to provoke squeals.
- Mallets a cow’s teeth and pulls its tongue.
- Hurls a potato at the parrot from earlier and presumably drowns it. Upon hearing the bird’s gurgling, he breaks out into laughter. Sadistic.
Can I blame Disney and pals? Of course not. I have the first Tintin comic, “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets,” which came out about a year after “Steamboat Willie.” This comic is just one big propaganda piece against the U.S.S.R. with Tintin and Snowy acting like fools, out of character. Tintin gives up in a fight and survives through pure coincidence, and more than usual. Fortunately both Walt and Herge refined their crafts and made both Mickey and Tintin outstanding, kind characters. So in summation the fact why Mickey acts mean during this cartoon- this was a rough draft for the legend known as Mickey Mouse. It’s good, really; to see these characters evolve as their creators understand their goals.
Following this, more and more characters were introduced to the Disney pantheon; Minnie, Donald (who really likes hiding flutes in his sleeves in an early cartoon,) and others. By now the stock market had crashed and the Great Depression was making work and life tough. Yet Walt continued to pump out cartoons, and people enjoyed them. I envision Disney as a sort of light for the struggling American public; you may be destitute, but to see silly, lively animals dancing and singing- I bet it would’ve been a hopeful thing to watch. But as always, shorts weren’t good enough. Disney decided to take a leap… onto the silver screen.
What was the most important event of 1937? The Hindenburg, you say? No, moron. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Why? Because this film changed the face of cinematic history. The first animated film in English and the brand-new Technicolor, with innovations in sound, color, and animation, the film grossed $8 million, a total unprecedented for the Great Depression, where about 15 million Americans were out of work. This was unlike anything ever seen, a staggering acceleration in technology. At the time, when film was in its relative infancy, imagine how fascinating it would be to see people, witches, and dwarfs singing and dancing, with rosy cheeks, facial details, accentuated ears, and beautiful backgrounds from a storybook. The colors were new, bright, innovative. Walt borrowed a ton of money to produce this, and it was a massive risk- that paid off. Critics loved it. It made money rain from the sky, and Walt was given a special Oscar by child star Shirley Temple. Special, because it had one normal Oscar, then seven smaller ones behind it like the dwarfs. Snow White changed the face of movies with a tremendous gambit that altered pop culture.
Now, I know people nowadays complain about this movie, criticizing the story structure. By today’s standards, it’s your average damsel in distress film, lampooned by the Shrek series. But at the time, when the concept was still fresh, it was unique to the medium. It set the foundation for Disney’s wildly successful princess franchises, as well as modern animation and movies in general. And say what you want about the story; it isn’t elaborate, and that’s not bad. Referring to Tintin once more, Tintin’s first outing wasn’t a huge story, either. It was experimental, and so was this. Snow White was an experiment with new technology so stories could be extended from it. Without it, many stories and ideas today wouldn’t exist. And let’s face it, this movie would never be made today. It’d be lambasted for not having an elaborate enough story. The scene where Snow White tramples through the forest terrified me as a kid, but nowadays I’m glad this movie was made because it visually and technologically revolutionized cinema, animated or otherwise.
Now Disney was on a roll; he could be crafting other features with new characters. But before we proceed, we need to bring up another setback. In 1941 the studio suffered animator strikes, and… oh yeah… forgot about that. You see, “Dumbo” was critically loved in 1941, and Time Magazine made plans for the pachyderm to be featured on their front cover. The front cover of their December 1941 edition… then Pearl Harbor happened, and the cover instead emphasized a national tragedy and a day of infamy.
World War 2 was hectic for Disney, a company in its crib. After Pearl Harbor, his studio in California was occupied by US Army troops preparing for the war. Soldiers and cars were all over the soundstages, you had Disney developing Mickey Mouse-themed gas masks for children, and most importantly- made propaganda cartoons. Before we move onto more joyful subject matter, let’s have a sidebar and discuss this.
Propaganda was a massive persuasion technique during World War Two. Perceptions of the war overseas could be transmitted through this. It was a scary time to be around, indeed; you had U-boats lurking in the waters, Japan dropping bombs on mainland Australia, and the threat of occupation, at the time, at least, very imminent. If I had to guess, cartoons would’ve been a nice distraction from the war to scared children… and it wouldn’t hurt if they pushed their respective governments’ actions. So let’s take a look at “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” a propaganda short made to show Americans how hollow and stingy the Nazi workforce was.
“Der Fuehrer’s Face” was a 1943 Disney cartoon starring Donald Duck… as a Nazi. You read that right. In this short, Donald wakes up and does a mandatory salute to a trio of portraits on the wall, paying homage to Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini. The Hirohito one is obviously offensive, with yellow skin and squinting eyes, but the Mussolini one confuses me more. The caricature shows Mussolini with a big chin- is that some Italian stereotype I don’t need to know about? Anyhow, Donald wakes up, eats his rock-hard bread ration, strolls past his swastika-themed wallpaper, and goes to work at the munitions depot. There are some excellent visual gags here. Donald has to screw the tops on huge mortar shells, and for some reason photos of Hitler roll down the conveyor belt, and every time Donald has to shout the Nazi salute.
My favorite part is when Donald’s working and the PA system goes, “Now through the kindness of the Fuehrer, now comes the vacation with pay!” And instead of work ending, a tattered paper backdrop of the Alps drops down behind him and Donald is allowed to view it for a few moments before resuming work. The job gets so bad, Donald wakes up… and it’s all revealed to be a nightmare! Donald runs over the a statuette of the Statue of Liberty by his bedside, caresses it, and proclaims: “Oh boy! Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!” I’m proud of you for showing your patriotism, Donald.
This isn’t the only one of Donald; there’s another where he demolishes a Japanese airbase and an Imperial soldier says “Happy cherry blossoms to you!” and another teaching you to pay your taxes, which have risen “Thanks to Hitler and Hirohito.” Honestly, I feel these should disturb me, especially the Japanese depictions, but oddly it doesn’t. Is it racist? All I do know that these cartoons are products of their time, artifacts of soft culture, that should be analyzed for their content, regardless of their depictions.
Let’s instead focus beyond the war, and observe Disney’s creations during this period. Before WWII, Disney produced classic after classic without fail. Some of these included adaptations like “Pinocchio,” while others were conceived originally. Others include “Dumbo,” “Bambi” (kids would be too scared for this to be made today,) and “Fantasia,” a monumental melding of audio and visual effects. “Fantasia” also gave birth to the iconic skit of Mickey as the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” going against the wishes of his master Yensid (Disney backwards) and hiring the absolute worst cleaning crew ever. This sequence has become so iconic, so innovative, that it continues to be honored today. Even “The Simpsons” paid homage by having Mickey and the brooms be lampooned by Itchy and Scratchy.
Even with the war, Disney pumped out blockbusters. To keep minds away from the battlefront, animators sent Donald down to South America for “Saludos Amigos” where he hangs out with a green bird, Jose Carioca, from Rio De Janeiro. (A carioca is a native to the Brazilian city.) In 1944 a third bird from Mexico joined, named Panchito Pistoles. These are the Three Caballeros, a trio made as part of the goodwill trip to Latin America. If you’re so inclined, for the longest time these three make a cameo at Disney World’s Epcot Mexico ride, however I’ve heard rumors it might be replaced soon.
Once the war ended, success still reigned. “Song of the South” came out, which is a minefield of controversy to say the least. “Cinderella” was released in 1950, which has since become a historic landmark film. In the next century, the animation still looks timeless. “Alice and Wonderland” and “Peter Pan” were produced next. Although there is that one song… “What Makes The Red Man Red?” and the general illustration of Native Americans is uncomfortable, the movie overall is pleasing and classic. (By the way, there is another weird part where mermaids attempt to drown a young lady. Strange.) Interestingly enough, “Sleeping Beauty” was a flop, and put financial strain on the company following Walt’s death. But even with that, in 1961 “101 Dalmatians” was made, introducing Cruella De Vil, one of cinema’s most psychopathic villains and ancestor of that lady in “Devil Wears Prada.”
But in 1964, perhaps one of the best Disney films was produced: “Mary Poppins.” For years Disney had tried to get the rights to film a live-action version of “Mary Poppins” from Pamela Travers, but to no avail. As portrayed in the much later film “Saving Mr. Banks,” with Tom Hanks as Walt, the studio eventually gained permission from Travers and made the movie- with extreme success. The animation here is spot-on, timeless, the acting great, even from the kids, and so are the songs, set pieces, and those weirdos on the adjacent roof who think their house is a ship. Did I imagine that as a kid? But perhaps the reason I love this movie the most is how it had become such a staple of movies; creative segments, adaptation, and reinventing old material, something Disney is a professional at doing. Also, Mary Poppins served as the inspiration for Mrs. Featherbottom, one of the most surreal and hilarious jokes ever to come out of “Arrested Development.” Just saying.
Beyond these successful movies, Walt yearned for a new expansion in his entertainment empire. After experiencing financial gain, he took an inspired leap into an untapped market- theme parks. You see, Walt took his daughters to amusement parks- but observed how dirty they were. Seeing this, Walt took a significant risk and made plans to create a theme park based on his movies and characters, called Disneyland, where parents and their kids could enjoy rides, as opposed to kids having fun while parents sat on a bench nearby.
No one had attempted anything like it before. It was dubbed “Walt’s Folly” by cynics. In the suburb of Anaheim, a theme park was built with unique rides and attractions. It opened on July 17, 1955, and on the scene were Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, as well as pre-political career actor Ronald Reagan presiding over the TV broadcast. (“Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who’s Vice President, Jerry Lewis?”) Yes, and even though the future US President was there, the opening had more of a Mondale vibe to it; it kind of appeared like a tremendous failure. For instance, there were counterfeit tickets being sold, horrible traffic, and concession stands running out of food. Nevertheless, after this tough inauguration, Disneyland became a huge success and like with his other projects, Walt’s risk paid off; he had given birth to a wonderful place of fun and whimsy. It was even immortalized as a lyric in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” in 1989.
But he still wasn’t satisfied. As Disneyland grew, cheap motels and tacky sideshow attractions popped up around the resort to mooch off Disney’s success, and Walt realized he hadn’t gone enough. He sought a final product, the ultimate resort- and looked in Florida. On a swamp, Disney purchased land outside of the hamlet of Orlando and prepared to construct his final plan- one that would come to fruition posthumously- Disney World. Sadly, Disney passed away in 1966 (though some believe he’s been cryogenically frozen) and with him died a life of wonder. But his legacy did not.
Disney and the properties he’s made have left a massive imprint on popular culture, and spawning new genres of film. I can’t emphasize enough how he changed the movie-making and entertainment industries through whimsical styles, humor, and cartoon characters with which audiences could relate. He had his personal flaws, like all humans, but I love Walt because in every picture I’ve seen of him, he’s smiling. He’s a child at heart, a fun-loving guy, and in the rigid social structure of the twentieth century not many folks were willing to publicly show that side of them. He had a tough life. A farm boy, ambulance driver. He had his beloved rabbit stolen from him. But he proved the American Dream. His persistence led to the foundation of the world’s most successful entertainment corporation, which thrives even to this day.
In our second half of this historical exploration, I explain Disney after losing Walt- the “Dark Age,” “Renaissance,” and “Revival.” I go over where Disney has gone since its creator passed- and what direction it’s moving in now.