Roaring: “It All Started With A Mouse”
On The Rise Of Walt Disney In 1920s America
In Kansas City, animator Ub Iwerks, working for the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, befriended a newly hired intern in 1919. He was a young man — just 18 — returning from overseas deployment in World War I , having forged his birth date to be accepted for service while underage. Now he and Iwerks were working alongside one another drawing up advertisements and catalogs. But just as they began their friendship, both men were laid off due to budget cuts in early 1920.
Their solution? Start their own animation company. It failed spectacularly and didn’t last a year.
They both then began work for the Kansas City Film Ad Company. In less than a year, Iwerks’ friend had antagonized their boss over a wild idea to use cel-shaded animation instead of the then standard cutout animation. He had even gone through the trouble of experimenting with this using his own camera at home. Frustrated, Iwerks watched his friend take another risk and leave to start his own business once again — this time with another co-worker.
Despite this, Iwerks soon joined his friend’s new venture known as Laugh-O-Grams: family friendly animated comedic shorts sold to the local theater to accompany films before their showing. The clips were a success, a transformation of the animation of the time which had been more crude and adult in nature. However, they weren’t profitable enough no matter how much the theater enjoyed ordering new ones. Iwerks’ watched as his friend once again had to deal with failure, with the studio going bankrupt by 1923.
Iwerks and his friend parted ways once again. This time his friend and now failed businessman several times over headed to Hollywood to meet with his brother Roy, who was suffering the aftermath of a successful battle with tuberculosis. He hoped to get access to a career in the film industry, but he and his brother would instead form an animation company that a century later is still with us and which encompasses a lot more than just animation.
They named it after themselves and then renamed it after Iwerks’ wild-eyed dreamer of a friend— The Walt Disney Company.
Walt Elias Disney may be one of the most ambitious and creative figures in all of American history. Born in 1901 in Chicago, he had watched his father fail as a farmer when the family moved to Marceline, Missouri, when he was still a child. But there he found a love for a place that would be the inspiration behind Main Street USA. It’s also there where he learned to become an artist, even making money when he drew a neighbor’s horse.
In 1911, Walt and his family moved to Kansas City. There he learned his love of the then-infant film industry. As he grew older, he took lessons in art and animation. After he forged his way into serving the country in World War I, he began his aforementioned various failed ventures in heading an animation studio — each time dragging his friend and fellow animator Ub Iwerks along.
Disney was seemingly done with those aspirations when he came to Hollywood in 1923 to meet with his brother and look into a start in the growing film industry. But in an unexpected surprise, Margaret Winkler, the woman who had at one time had the rights to the infamous Felix the Cat, reached out to Disney regarding an idea of his to have animation and live action clash together in one medium. He was hired and given the tools to run his own company and produce these shorts for Winkler. This time, he would bring his brother Roy in as a business partner, along with fellow animators he had worked with in the past — Iwerks included, of course.
The revolutionary idea that had brought Walt’s ambitions back to life were the “Alice in Wonderland” shorts, featuring an actual live actress in Virginia Davis interacting with cartoons and made possible through filming Davis with a blank canvas backdrop that would later be filled with drawings. They were hits, and Disney finally started to see success. His brother Roy was the key factor to avoiding bankruptcy; if Walt was the idea man, his brother was the money and budgeting man that kept his ambitions in check.
By 1925, Disney fell in love with Lillian Bounds, an ink artist he had hired on. They married very soon after and Disney and his team had come up with an iconic and popular figure to headline cartoon shorts for Universal Pictures — Oswald, the lucky rabbit. For the next couple of years Disney was on top of the world. A growing new company, a successful partnership with his brother and friends, a new marriage and a cartoon character to call his own — or so he thought.
In time, Winkler’s husband, George Mintz, took a much more proactive role in Disney’s productions and it became clear pretty soon neither man worked well with one another. Mintz slowly but surely won over Disney’s animators to work directly for him instead, grabbing some visionary artists that come time would be the brains behind some of the infamous “Looney Tunes” characters.
Disney’s best friend Iwerks in the end was the only key animator not to flip sides. By 1928, Mintz had also delivered a huge defeat to Disney when he informed him that Universal had won over the rights to Oswald. When Disney realized he had lost everything to Mintz, he gave up on Oswald and continuing to work for him and Winkler.
Later that year, Disney took a train ride that would change his suddenly falling fortune and which would simultaneously introduce the world to an iconic figure and kick off the rise of one of the most powerful and influential companies in modern American history.
By 1928, Disney had lost everything but his family and best friend when he boarded a train during a business trip. At this moment, he was merely a down on his luck animator that had failed time after time over the last decade. Now as he watched the landscape change with each passing mile, a figure popped into his mind and his life. An animated rodent that would be known more than the United States president was all over the world.
Out of nowhere, according to him, a happy mouse popped into his head with a smile and a wave to say “Hi.” He quickly drew a rough sketch. By the time he returned home, he and Iwerks worked together to create the final draft. Not a cat, not a lucky rabbit; just a friendly mouse. This was going to be their replacement for Oswald. Disney wanted to call him Mortimer, but his wife hated that name. She came up with Mickey. Thus, Mickey Mouse was born.
Mickey Mouse first appeared in a short known as “Plane Crazy;” two shorts later, he was headlining the first cartoon short accompanied with sound: “Steamboat Willie.”
Mickey’s popularity exploded soon after, and in an incredibly smart move Disney’s brother Roy secured licensing deals to bring plenty money in with the rodent’s success through toys, lunch boxes and many other products directed at kids. Disney began to voice Mickey himself, and in time both he and the mouse became as much a celebrity power couple in Hollywood as any other film stars or studio executives.
The Walt Disney Company grew out of this success and this time they would call the shots and distribute their own shorts. Mickey would be joined by his romantic interest in Minnie Mouse and then by his friends Goofy, Donald and Daisy Duck, and even his dog Pluto. Of course, a villain was needed, which is where Pete came in handy. The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf would join soon after, followed by more side characters. Before he knew it, Disney and his brother were wealthy men and receiving special recognition from the Academy Awards as well.
By the end of the 1920s, Walt Disney, an ambitious young man who had started the decade without much to his name and just laid off from work, had revolutionized the animation industry and taken an amiable cartoon mouse to personal celebrity. And he was just getting started…
Past the 1920s, Disney’s studio would grow to the point that come the late 1930s he would oversee the first ever full-length animated picture in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” launching the would be start to what would become one of the most powerful and popular movie companies in Hollywood’s history. Not to mention the first of a slate of films that would come to define childhood memories, inspiration, and personal film heroes.
During his 50s, he invented a new type of recreational activity when he dreamed up Disneyland, launching the highly lucrative amusement theme park industry and creating a magical world that millions across the globe save up to visit each year. During his twilight years in the 1960s, he had come up with the idea of a futuristic city — EPCOT. (It would end up a theme park instead). To his untimely death due to lung cancer in 1966, Walt Elias Disney was dreaming up new and big things.
Today, a century later, the Walt Disney Company has its reach on almost every type of entertainment and recreational activity out there. The top box office growing films, theme parks that get among the most numbers of tourists, various successful resort hotels across the world, a successful cruise line and so on. It’s hard not to be aware that the all powerful Disney company exists.
And yet this all started with a down on his luck animator taking a train ride one afternoon in 1928 who happened to decide to draw a mouse. After all, Disney himself always reminded people, “It all started with a mouse.”