Early life: 1901–1920
Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901, at 1249 Tripp Avenue, in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. He was the fourth son of Elias Disney—born in the Province of Canada, to Irish parents—and Flora (née Call), an American of German and English descent. Aside from Walt, Elias and Flora’s sons were Herbert, Raymond and Roy; the couple had a fifth child, Ruth, in December 1903. In 1906, when Disney was four, the family moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri, where his uncle Robert had just purchased land. In Marceline, Disney developed his interest in drawing when he was paid to draw the horse of a retired neighborhood doctor. Elias was a subscriber to the Appeal to Reason newspaper, and Disney practiced drawing by copying the front-page cartoons of Ryan Walker. Disney also began to develop an ability to work with watercolors and crayons. He lived near the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway line and became enamored with trains. He and his younger sister Ruth started school at the same time at the Park School in Marceline in late 1909.
In 1911, the Disneys moved to Kansas City, Missouri. There, Disney attended the Benton Grammar School, where he met fellow-student Walter Pfeiffer, who came from a family of theatre fans and introduced Disney to the world of vaudeville and motion pictures. Before long, he was spending more time at the Pfeiffers’ house than at home. Elias had purchased a newspaper delivery route for The Kansas City Star and Kansas City Times. Disney and his brother Roy woke up at 4:30 every morning to deliver the Times before school and repeated the round for the evening Star after school. The schedule was exhausting, and Disney often received poor grades after falling asleep in class, but he continued his paper route for more than six years. He attended Saturday courses at the Kansas City Art Institute and also took a correspondence course in cartooning.
In 1917, Elias bought stock in a Chicago jelly producer, the O-Zell Company, and moved back to the city with his family. Disney enrolled at McKinley High School and became the cartoonist of the school newspaper, drawing patriotic pictures about World War I; he also took night courses at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In mid-1918, Disney attempted to join the United States Army to fight against the Germans, but he was rejected for being too young. After forging the date of birth on his birth certificate, he joined the Red Cross in September 1918 as an ambulance driver. He was shipped to France but arrived in November, after the armistice. He drew cartoons on the side of his ambulance for decoration and had some of his work published in the army newspaper Stars and Stripes. Disney returned to Kansas City in October 1919, where he worked as an apprentice artist at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. There, he drew commercial illustrations for advertising, theater programs and catalogs. He also befriended fellow artist Ub Iwerks.
In January 1920, as Pesmen-Rubin’s revenue declined after Christmas, Disney and Iwerks were laid off. They started their own business, the short-lived Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. Failing to attract many customers, Disney and Iwerks agreed that Disney should leave temporarily to earn money at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, run by A. V. Cauger; the following month Iwerks, who was not able to run their business alone, also joined. The company produced commercials using the cutout animation technique. Disney became interested in animation, although he preferred drawn cartoons such as Mutt and Jeff and Koko the Clown. With the assistance of a borrowed book on animation and a camera, he began experimenting at home. He came to the conclusion that cel animation was more promising than the cutout method. Unable to persuade Cauger to try cel animation at the company, Disney opened a new business with a co-worker from the Film Ad Co, Fred Harman. Their main client was the local Newman Theater, and the short cartoons they produced were sold as “Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams”. Disney studied Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Fables as a model, and the first six “Laugh-O-Grams” were modernized fairy tales.
In May 1921, the success of the “Laugh-O-Grams” led to the establishment of Laugh-O-Gram Studio, for which he hired more animators, including Fred Harman’s brother Hugh, Rudolf Ising and Iwerks. The Laugh-O-Grams cartoons did not provide enough income to keep the company solvent, so Disney started production of Alice’s derland—based on Alice’s Adventures in derland—which combined live action with animation; he cast Virginia Davis in the title role. The result, a 12-and-a-half-minute, one-reel film, was completed too late to save Laugh-O-Gram Studio, which went into bankruptcy in 1923.
Disney moved to Hollywood in July 1923. Although New York was the center of the cartoon industry, he was attracted to Los Angeles because his brother Roy was convalescing from tuberculosis there, and he hoped to become a live-action film director. Disney’s efforts to sell Alice’s derland were in vain until he heard from New York film distributor Margaret J. Winkler. She was losing the rights to both the Out of the Inkwell and Felix the Cat cartoons, and needed a new series. In October, they signed a contract for six Alice comedies, with an option for two further series of six episodes each. Disney and his brother Roy formed the Disney Brothers Studio—which later became The Walt Disney Company—to produce the films; they persuaded Davis and her family to relocate to Hollywood to continue production, with Davis on contract at $100 a month. In July 1924, Disney also hired Iwerks, persuading him to relocate to Hollywood from Kansas City.
Early in 1925, Disney hired an ink artist, Lillian Bounds. They married in July of that year, at her brother’s house in her hometown of Lewiston, Idaho. The marriage was generally happy, according to Lillian, although according to Disney’s biographer Neal Gabler she did not “accept Walt’s decisions meekly or his status unquestionably, and she admitted that he was always telling people ‘how henpecked he is’.” Lillian had little interest in films or the Hollywood social scene and she was, in the words of the historian Steven Watts, “content with household management and providing support for her husband”. Their marriage produced two daughters, Diane (born December 1933) and Sharon (adopted in December 1936, born six weeks previously). Within the family, neither Disney nor his wife hid the fact Sharon had been adopted, although they became annoyed if people outside the family raised the point. The Disneys were careful to keep their daughters out of the public eye as much as possible, particularly in the light of the Lindbergh kidnapping; Disney took steps to ensure his daughters were not photographed by the press.
Creation of Mickey Mouse to the first Academy Awards: 1928–1933
To replace Oswald, Disney and Iwerks developed Mickey Mouse, possibly inspired by a pet mouse that Disney had adopted while working in his Laugh-O-Gram studio, although the origins of the character are unclear. Disney’s original choice of name was Mortimer Mouse, but Lillian thought it too pompous, and suggested Mickey instead. Iwerks revised Disney’s provisional sketches to make the character easier to animate. Disney, who had begun to distance himself from the animation process, provided Mickey’s voice until 1947. In the words of one Disney employee, “Ub designed Mickey’s physical appearance, but Walt gave him his soul.”
Mickey Mouse first appeared in May 1928 as a single test screening of the short Plane Crazy, but it, and the second feature, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, failed to find a distributor. Following the 1927 sensation The Jazz Singer, Disney used synchronized sound on the third short, Steamboat Willie, to create the first post-produced sound cartoon. After the animation was complete, Disney signed a contract with the former executive of Universal Pictures, Pat Powers, to use the “Powers Cinephone” recording system; Cinephone became the new distributor for Disney’s early sound cartoons, which soon became popular.
With the loss of Powers as distributor, Disney studios signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to distribute the Mickey Mouse cartoons, which became increasingly popular, including internationally. Disney, always keen to embrace new technology, filmed Flowers and Trees (1932) in full-color three-strip Technicolor; he was also able to negotiate a deal giving him the sole right to use the three-strip process until August 31, 1935. All subsequent Silly Symphony cartoons were in color. Flowers and Trees was popular with audiences and the Academy Award for best Short Subject (Cartoon) at the 1932 ceremony. Disney had been for another film in that category, Mickey’s Orphans, and received an Honorary Award “for the creation of Mickey Mouse”.
In 1933, Disney produced The Three Little Pigs, a film described by the media historian Adrian Danks as “the most successful short animation of all time”. The film Disney another Academy Award in the Short Subject (Cartoon) category. The film’s success led to a further increase in the studio’s staff, which numbered nearly 200 by the end of the year. Disney realized the importance of telling emotionally gripping stories that would interest the audience, and he invested in a “story department” separate from the animators, with storyboard artists who would detail the plots of Disney’s films.
Golden age of animation: 1934–1941
By 1934, Disney had become dissatisfied with producing formulaic cartoon shorts, and believed a feature-length cartoon would be more profitable. The studio began the four-year production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, based on the fairy tale. When news leaked out about the project, many in the film industry predicted it would bankrupt the company; industry insiders nicknamed it “Disney’s Folly”. The film, which was the first animated feature made in full color and sound, cost $1.5 million to produce—three times over budget. To ensure the animation was as realistic as possible, Disney sent his animators on courses at the Chouinard Art Institute; he brought animals into the studio and hired actors so that the animators could study realistic movement. To portray the changing perspective of the background as a camera moved through a scene, Disney’s animators developed a multiplane camera which allowed drawings on pieces of glass to be set at various distances from the camera, creating an illusion of depth. The glass could be moved to create the impression of a camera passing through the scene. The first work created on the camera—a Silly Symphony called The Old Mill (1937)— the Academy Award for Animated Short Film because of its impressive visual power. Although Snow White had been largely finished by the time the multiplane camera had been completed, Disney ordered some scenes be re-drawn to use the new effects.
Snow White premiered in December 1937 to high praise from critics and audiences. The film became the most successful motion picture of 1938 and by May 1939 its total gross of $6.5 million made it the most successful sound film made to that date. Disney another Honorary Academy Award, which consisted of one full-sized and seven miniature Oscar statuettes. The success of Snow White heralded one of the most productive eras for the studio; the Walt Disney Family Museum calls the following years “the ‘Golden Age of Animation’ ”. With work on Snow White finished, the studio began producing Pinocchio in early 1938 and Fantasia in November of the same year. Both films were released in 1940, and neither performed well at the box office—partly because revenues from Europe had dropped following the start of World War II in 1939. The studio made a loss on both pictures and was deeply in debt by the end of February 1941.
In response to the financial crisis, Disney and his brother Roy started the company’s first public stock offering in 1940, and implemented heavy salary cuts. The latter measure, and Disney’s sometimes high-handed and insensitive manner of dealing with staff, led to a 1941 animators’ strike which lasted five weeks. While a federal mediator from the National Labor Relations Board negotiated with the two sides, Disney accepted an offer from the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs to make a goodwill trip to South America, ensuring he was absent during a resolution he knew would be unfavorable to the studio. As a result of the strike—and the financial state of the company—several animators left the studio, and Disney’s relationship with other members of staff was permanently strained as a result. The strike temporarily interrupted the studio’s next production, Dumbo (1941), which Disney produced in a simple and inexpensive manner; the film received a positive reaction from audiences and critics alike.
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