Episode 2 of our serial looking at the life and legacy of Walt Disney.
In the summer of 1928, Walt Disney was making the rounds all over Hollywood, looking for a distributor who would introduce the world to his plucky new pal, Mickey Mouse. No one was willing to take the chance. He had two shorts in the can, and no one was interested in them. Suddenly, inspired by the release of Al Jolson’s “Jazz Singer” the previous year, during a brainstorming session with his creative partner Ub Iwerks, he blurted out “I know! We’ll make them over with sound!”
It was a daunting proposition. Contrary to popular belief, Steamboat Willie was not the first cartoon with a synchronized soundtrack, but previous attempts had been lackluster. Walt knew he could make his mark by doing it better, but doing so would be a long, difficult, expensive process, and for a cash-strapped studio, this was a terrifying proposition. The added cost of incorporating sound was going to make it difficult for the cartoon to be profitable.
Walt traveled to New York City to create the soundtrack. He wired Roy, imploring him to do everything possible to get the money needed to make the picture, even if it meant selling Walt’s beloved car. After weeks of pounding the pavement, Walt managed to secure a two week run at the Colony Theater on Broadway. Steamboat Willie premiered there on November 18, 1928, ahead of the gangster movie “Gang War”.
It was a smash hit. Audiences began begging projectionists to delay the start of the main feature and replay Steamboat Willie. Some even bought tickets to the main picture, and left immediately after the short. “Gang War” has been completely forgotten by all but the most hardcore fans of early cinema. If people know anything about it at all, they know it as “the movie that ran after Steamboat Willie”. Never before had an eight minute animated short become a cultural phenomenon.
The world immediately fell in love with Walt’s mischievous new friend. In 1929, a new Mickey cartoon was released, on average, every three weeks. “The Opry House”, released five months after Steamboat Willie, featured the first instance of Mickey donning his now famous white gloves; in the late 20s and early 30s, Mickey and his growing group of pals routinely wore the gloves so that audiences could distinguish their hands from the rest of their bodies. By the time Mickey went technicolor in the mid 30s, the gloves had become such an iconic look for him that, with very few exceptions, he hasn’t taken them off.
Ever the intuitive businessman with one eye on the bottom line, Roy went to work developing a universe of merchandise for Mickey. By 1930, you could find Mickey on EVERYTHING. Watering cans. Coloring books. Halloween costumes. Candy. The Mickey Mouse wristwatch became the most popular timepiece in America. Mickey Mouse clubs began sprouting up in small towns and big cities across the country, and their rolls eventually reached more than 1 million members.
As America was plunged into the despair of the Great Depression, Mickey was often seen as a symbol of the strength and resiliency of the American people. He was small, scrappy, and had a limited number of resources and skills. Despite this, he always got the job done. He constantly managed to get into trouble, but he was incredibly good at getting out of it.
Walt Disney, who just six years earlier had been eating canned beans in a tiny studio in Kansas City, had made an indelible mark on global pop culture. People the world over knew his name. He had created the most beloved cartoon character in history. He received thousands of pieces of fan mail from all over the world, some of it addressed to Mickey, some to him. And he wasn’t yet 30 years old.
But the success that Mickey had brought to the Disney studio was beginning to take its toll. Walt was not yet a great delegator. He was anxious, obsessive, chain-smoking. He would often be at the office until 2:00 am or later. He was having a hard time stepping back.
Still, his fame and success solidified Walt’s desire to have a big family. “I want to have ten kids”, he’d say when he was growing up, “and I’ll spoil them all.” Lillian had her doubts. She was never convinced that motherhood was for her, but that was especially true when her husband practically lived at the office. Walt talked her into it, and by the spring of 1931, she was pregnant, and Walt was giddy. He began designing a big new house. But Lillian miscarried, and he poured himself back into his work. True to form, he insisted that he was OK. He wasn’t.
Three years of international celebrity, combined with the heartbreak of losing his chance to become a father, led him to a full-fledged nervous breakdown. At his doctor’s encouragement, in October of 1931, he took the first real vacation of his life. He & Lillian toured Washington DC, relaxed in Key West and Cuba, and took a steamship through the Panama Canal on their way back to Los Angeles.
The trip did exactly what his doctor hoped it would. He was more relaxed, able to let things go. He started an exercise regimen, went on long horseback rides with Lillian, and started playing polo, a passion that would stick with him for the rest of his life.
But even though the trip soothed Walt’s strung out psyche, it certainly had no effect on his artistic drive. He had used his early Mickey profits to fund a new project; the Silly Symphonies.
Steamboat Willie solidified his reputation in the animation industry as a pioneer, but with Silly Symphonies, he was now recognized as a genius. By synchronizing cutting edge animation with classical music tracks, he turned animation in a legitimate art form, and animators from all over the country noticed. They boarded trains bound for Los Angeles just for a shot at working with the Great Walt Disney, taking a risk on the dream of the Golden State, the same way he had done a decade earlier.
The Disney studio on Hyperion Avenue expanded, and its staff eventually grew to nearly 200 people. He made it an oasis of art, learning, and community. Walt brought in art professors for lectures and offered a safe space for his animators to hone their craft. Having become a household name, he wanted to create his own world, filled with his own people, who would continue to grow the entertainment industry by leaps and bounds.
Not only was his Hyperion Avenue family expanding, his biological family was, too. Lillian had given birth to their first daughter, Diane, in December of 1933. Walt loved being a father every bit as much as he expected to. Even with his busy schedule at the studio, he would insist on driving them to school every morning. When it came to being a father, Walt was hooked.
The staff at the Disney studio would tell the story for years to come. One evening in October 1934 Walt sent the staff off for an early dinner, but told them to hurry back. For the next two hours, he put on a one man show on the Hyperion sound stage, acting out every scene from a century old Brother’s Grimm Fairy Tale about a beautiful young princess and her evil stepmother. His idea was groundbreaking; produce a feature length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
It’s important to note that this project wasn’t just a matter of telling a longer story. Animation had matured and grown in the past generation, but short films were still gag driven. They were designed to tell a silly story, make you chuckle, and wrap it up in 5 or 6 minutes. But Walt wanted to see if a cartoon could make you cry. Could an animated story churn up emotions in you and touch you in a way that would stick with you for the rest of your life? Walt was certain it could.
Roy wasn’t so sure, but by this point, he knew better than to doubt his visionary kid brother. He took the idea to their longtime financiers at Bank of America. They approved funding the project, but they would keep a close eye on development. They set a strict production schedule and budget, and insisted that Walt stick to it.
Walt completely immersed himself in the project. He brought animals into the studio so his artists could bring them to life. He knew the stakes were high, and his inner perfectionist and workaholic came out. The pace of development was glacial.
Snow White would require more than 200,000 individual drawings. They hired hundreds more animators to take on the additional workload. Many of the ink and paint artists were young women making $8 a week, just under $150 in today’s money. They worked 12 hour days, and some of them even began to lose their eyesight. As the project stretched into its second, and then third year of development, Roy had to meet with Bank of America constantly to ask for more funds. The initial budget of $250,000 ballooned to nearly $1.5 million. Walt even mortgaged his house to help finance the project.
On New Year’s Day 1937, just 11 months to the premiere, not a single animation cell had been filmed. Trade papers began to take notice of delays and skyrocketing costs, and labeled the film “Disney’s Folly.” The World Premiere was held at Carthay Circle Theater in Hollywood four days before Christmas 1937. It was a Hollywood gala event, with the biggest movie stars of the day in attendance. Walt was beside himself with anxiety and had a vice grip on Lillian’s hand all night.
The moment the majestic castle appeared on screen, the audience was lost in awed amazement. They laughed at the antics of the dwarfs, and hissed at the evil queen. Their emotional investment would hit a fever pitch in the film’s climactic moment; the apparent death of Snow White. Wall Street journal writer Ron Suskind described the moment like this: “Clark Gable and Carol Lumbard are weeping. They don’t know what hit them. What hit them is that they crossed the barrier from the life they lived to the eternal world where myth lives in all of us, and Disney provides the passage.”
When the curtain fell, the audience rose. A thunderous ovation. Walt Disney had struck animation gold yet again. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs went from being “Disney’s Folly” to being a genuine cultural phenomenon. Once it went into wide release in February of 1938, lines wrapped around the block in large cities and small towns across the country, and then around the world. It became the highest grossing picture of all time. Roy paid off the studio’s $2.3 million debt to Bank of America in cash. Harvard & Yale gave Walt honorary master’s degrees. Albert Einstein declared it “the greatest movie ever made.” Walt was not yet 40 years old.
His monumental success on the heels of Snow White inspired him to reconnect with his parents in Chicago. He had had only sporadic contact with them since moving to California, but now he insisted that Flora & Elias join him and become a part of his happy home life. Walt & Roy bought them a house in Hollywood as a 50th anniversary present.
In 1938, Walt was beginning work on his next feature, an adaption of an Italian children’s story, The Adventures of Pinocchio when he received a call at the office. His parents had been complaining about the gas furnace at their new home and though Walt had sent studio repairmen to the house, they hadn’t found a problem. One night, they suffered carbon monoxide poisoning as they slept. Elias survived. Flora did not.
Walt went to the funeral, then back to work. He never spoke of her death again. Generations of fans have made note of the fact that many Disney protagonists are motherless or have a tragic family life, a factor that often drives their quest and provides the emotional heartbeat of the film. This could be evidence of the long held idea that Walt never forgave himself for essentially buying the house that killed his mother.
Whatever the motivation behind it, he continued to pour himself into his work. But Walt still felt that he wasn’t a Hollywood insider, and that the studios didn’t acknowledge animation as legitimate cinema. And he wasn’t wrong; even though Snow White became the most celebrated movie of 1938, when the Motion Picture Association of America released its ten nominees for the best picture Academy Award, Snow White wasn’t one of them. He did receive an honorary Oscar for his innovation the following year, but he saw it as an “honorable mention”. By 1939, he became determined to do whatever it took to make his immortal mark on the entertainment industry one way or another. But late that summer, the world shifted.
On September 3, 1939, two days after the German army invaded Poland, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany.
For the second time in a generation, the world was plunged into war.
Even though the United States wouldn’t join the war until more than two years later, it quickly became clear that the largest and deadliest war in human history would change everything.
Everything for England, Germany, France, the United States…and the Walt Disney Studio.
Join us next week as we explore the ways in which World War II affected not only affected the Disney Studio, but how it changed Walt forever.