Animator. Nationality: American. Born: Walter Elias Disney in Chicago, 5 December 1901. Education: Attended McKinley High School, Chicago; Kansas City Art Institute, 1915. Family: Married Lillian Bounds, 1925; children: Diane, Sharon. Career: 1918—in France with Red Cross Ambulance Corps, arriving just after Armistice; 1919—returned to Kansas, became commercial art studio apprentice, met Ub Iwerks; with Iwerks briefly in business, doing illustrations and ads; 1920—joined Kansas City Film Ad Co., making cartoon commercials for local businesses; 1922—incorporated Laugh-o-Gram Films, first studio, went bankrupt; 1923—to Hollywood, contract with M. J. Winkler, began Alice in Cartoonland series; soon joined by Iwerks; 1927—ended Alice series, began Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series; salary dispute with Winkler; formed Walt Disney Productions; 1928—Steamboat Willie released, first synchronized sound cartoon, featuring Mickey Mouse; made deal with Pat Powers for independent distribution; 1930—began distributing through Columbia; 1932—Flowers and Trees, first cartoon in Technicolor and first to win an Academy Award; released through United Artists; 1937—Snow White, first feature-length cartoon, marked innovative use of multi-plane camera, developed by Disney Studios; began releasing through RKO; 1941—strike by Disney staff belonging to Cartoonists Guild; Art Babbitt fired, later rehired; changes introduced included credit titles on cartoon shorts; 1944—"Mickey Mouse" is password on D-Day invasion of Europe; 1945—"True Life Adventure" series began, Disney's first live-action films; 1951–60—Disney developed several television programs; 1954—formed Buena Vista Distributing Co. for release of Disneyand occasionally other films; hosting Disneyland TV series (later Walt Disney Presents, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, The Wonderful World of Disney); 1955—Disneyland opened, Anaheim, California; The Mickey Mouse Club premiered on TV; 1960—Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color premiered on television; 1971—Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida. Awards: Special Academy Award, 1932; Special Academy Award for contributions to sound, with William Garity and John N.A. Hawkins, 1941; Irving G. Thalberg Award, 1941; Best Director for his work as a whole, Cannes Film Festival, 1953. Died: California, 15 December 1966.
Films as Director, Animator and Producer:
Newman Laugh-O-Grams series
Cinderella; The Four Musicians of Bremen; Goldie Locks and the Three Bears; Jack and the Beanstalk; Little Red Riding Hood; Puss in Boots
Alice's Wonderland; Tommy Tucker's Tooth; Martha
Alice and the Dog Catcher; Alice and the Three Bears; Alice Cans the Cannibals; Alice Gets in Dutch; Alice Hunting in Africa; Alice's Day at Sea; Alice's Fishy Story; Alice's Spooky Adventure; Alice's Wild West Show; Alice the Peacemaker; Alice the Piper; Alice the Toreador
Alice Chops the Suey; Alice Gets Stung; Alice in the Jungle; Alice Loses Out; Alice on the Farm; Alice Picks the Champ; Alice Plays Cupid; Alice Rattled by Rats; Alice's Balloon Race; Alice's Egg Plant; Alice's Little Parade; Alice's Mysterious Mystery; Alice Solves the Puzzle; Alice's Ornery Orphan; Alice Stage Struck; Alice's Tin Pony; Alice the Jail Bird; Alice Wins the Derby
Alice Charms the Fish; Alice's Monkey Business; Alice in the Wooly West; Alice the Fire Fighter; Alice Cuts the Ice; Alice Helps the Romance; Alice's Spanish Guitar; Alice's Brown Derby; Clara Cleans Her Teeth
Alice the Golf Bag; Alice Foils the Pirates; Alice at the Carnival; Alice's Rodeo (Alice at the Rodeo); Alice the Collegiate; Alice in the Alps; Alice's Auto Race; Alice's Circus Daze; Alice's Knaughty Knight; Alice's Three Bad Eggs; Alice's Picnic; Alice's Channel Swim; Alice in the Klondike; Alice's Medicine Show; Alice the Whaler; Alice the Beach Nut; Alice in the Big League
(Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Series)
Trolley Troubles; Oh, Teacher; The Ocean Hop; All Wet; The Mechanical Cow; The Banker's Daughter; Great Guns; Rickety Gin; Empty Socks; Harem Scarem; Neck 'n Neck
The Ol' Swimmin' 'ole; Africa Before Dark; Rival Romeos; Bright Lights; Sagebrush Sadie; Ozzie of the Mounted; Ride 'em Plow Boy!; Hungry Hoboes; Oh, What a Knight; Sky Scrappers; Poor Papa; The Fox Chase; Tall Timber; Sleigh Bells; Hot Dog
Films as Head of Walt Disney Productions, co-d with Ub Iwerks:
(Mickey Mouse Series)
Plane Crazy (made as silent, 1928, but released with synch sound); The Gallopin' Gaucho (made as silent, 1928, but released with synch sound); The Barn Dance; The Opry House; When the Cat's Away; The Barnyard Battle; The Plow Boy; The Karnival Kid; Mickey's Choo Choo; The Jazz Fool; Jungle Rhythm; The Haunted House
The Barnyard Concert (sole director); Just Mickey (Fiddling Around) (sole director); The Cactus Kid (sole director)
(Silly Symphonies Series)
The Skeleton Dance; E1 Terrible Toreador; The Merry Dwarfs (sole director)
Night (sole director)
The Golden Touch (sole director)
Other Films as Head of Walt Disney Productions:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Hand)
Pinocchio (Sharpsteen); Fantasia (Sharps teen)
The Reluctant Dragon (Luske, Handley, Beebe, Verity, Blystone and Werker) (+ ro); Dumbo (Sharpsteen)
Bambi (Hand); Saludos Amigos (Ferguson) (+ ro)
Victory through Air Power (Hand and Potter)
The Three Caballeros (Ferguson)
Make Mine Music (Grant); Song of the South (Jackson and Foster)
Fun and Fancy Free (Sharpsteen)
Melody Time (Sharpsteen); So Dear to My Heart (Luske and Schuster)
Ichabod and Mr. Toad (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad) (Sharpsteen)
Cinderella (Sharpsteen); Treasure Island (Haskin)
Alice in Wonderland (Sharpsteen)
The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (Annakin)
Peter Pan (Luske, Geronimi, and Jackson); The Sword and the Rose (Annakin); Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (French)
20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Fleischer); The Littlest Outlaw (E1 pequino proscrito) (Gavaldon)
Lady and the Tramp (Luske, Geronimi and Jackson); Davy Crockett and the River Pirates
The Great Locomotive Chase (Lyon); Westward Ho the Wagons! (Beaudine)
Johnny Tremain (Stevenson); Old Yeller (Stevenson)
The Light in the Forest (Daugherty); Sleeping Beauty (Geronimi); Tonka (L. Foster)
The Shaggy Dog (Barton); Darby O'Gill and the Little People (Stevenson); Third Man on the Mountain (Annakin); Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus (Barton)
Kidnapped (Stevenson); Pollyanna (Swift); Ten Who Dared (Beaudine); Swiss Family Robinson (Annakin); One Hundred and One Dalmatians (Reitherman, Luske and Geronimi); The Absent-Minded Professor (Stevenson)
Moon Pilot (Neilson); In Search of the Castaways (Stevenson); Nikki, Wild Dog of the North (Couffer and Haldane); The Parent Trap (Swift); Greyfriars Bobby (Chaffey); Babes in Toyland (Donohue)
Son of Flubber (Stevenson); The Miracle of the White Stallions (Flight of the White Stallions) (Hiller); Big Red (Tokar); Bon Voyage (Neilson); Almost Angels (Born to Sing) (Previn); The Legend of Lobo (Algar and Couffer)
Savage Sam (Tokar); Summer Magic (Neilson); The Incredible Journey (Markle); The Sword in the Stone (Reitherman);The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (Stevenson); The Three Lives of Thomasina (Chaffey)
A Tiger Walks (Tokar); The Moon-Spinners (Neilson); Mary Poppins (Stevenson); Emil and the Detectives (Tewksbury); Those Calloways (Tokar); The Monkey's Uncle (Stevenson)
That Darn Cat (Stevenson)
The Ugly Dachshund (Tokar); Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (Paul) (story under pseudonym Retlaw Yensid); The Fighting Prince of Donegal (O'Herlihy); Follow Me, Boys! (Tokar); Monkeys, Go Home! (McLaglen); The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (Neilson); The Gnome-Mobile (Stevenson)
The Jungle Book (commentary) (Reitherman)
By DISNEY, book—
Sketch Book, Old Saybrook, CT, 1993.
By DISNEY: articles—
"What I've Learned from Animals," in American Magazine, February 1953.
"The Lurking Camera," in Atlantic Monthly (New York), August 1954.
"Too Long at the Sugar Bowls: Frances C. Sayers Raps with Disney," in Library Journal (New York), 15 October 1965.
On DISNEY: books—
Rotha, Paul, Celluloid, the Film Today, New York, 1931.
Bardeche, Maurice, and Robert Brasillach, Histoire du Cinéma, Paris, 1935.
Field, Robert D., The Art of Walt Disney, New York,1942.
Eisenstein, Sergei, Film Sense, translated and edited by Jay Leyda, New York, 1947.
Clair, René, Reflections on the Cinema, translated by Vera Traill, London, 1953.
Manvell, Roger, and J. Huntley, The Technique of Film Music, New York, 1957.
Martin, Pete, (ed.), The Story of Walt Disney, New York, 1957.McGowan, Kenneth, Behind the Screen: The History and Techniques of Motion Pictures, New York, 1965.
Stephenson, Ralph, Animation in the Cinema, New York, 1967.
Bessy, Maurice, Walt Disney, Paris, 1970.
Kurland, Gerald, Walt Disney: The Master of Animation, New York, 1971.
Maltin, Leonard, The Disney Films, New York, 1973, revised edition, 1984.
Thomas, Frank, and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, New York, 1982.
Bruno, Eduardo, and Enrico Ghezzi, Walt Disney, Venice, 1985.
Mosley, Leonard, The Real Walt Disney, London, 1986.
Schickel, Richard, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney, London, 1986.
Culhane, Shamus, Talking Animals and Other People, New York, 1986 + filmo.
Taylor, John, Storming the Magic Kingdom, New York, 1987.
Grant, John, Encyclopaedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters, New York, 1987.
Thomas, Frank, and Ollie Johnston, Too Funny for Words, New York, 1987.
Holliss, Richard, and Brian Sibley, The Disney Studio Story, London, 1988.
Duchene, Alain, Walt Disney n'est pas mort!, Paris, 1989.
Ford, Barbara, Walt Disney, New York, 1989.
Grover, Ron, The Disney Touch, Homewood, Illinois, 1991.
Jackson, Kathy Merlock, Walt Disney: A Bio-bibliography, Westport, CT, 1993.
Merritt, Russell, Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney, Gemona, 1993.
Fanning, Jim, Walt Disney, New York, 1994.
Smoodkin, Eric, (ed.), Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom, New York, 1994.
Thomas, Bob, Walt Disney: An American Original, New York, 1994.
West, John G., Jr., The Disney Live-action Productions, Milton, WA, 1994.
Eliot, Marc, Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, A Biography, Deutsch, 1995.
Finch, Christopher, The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom, New York, 1995.
Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, editors, From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, Bloomington, Indiana, 1995.
Cole, Michael D. Walt Disney: Creator of Mickey Mouse, Springfield, NJ, 1996.
Watts, Steven, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life, Boston, 1997.
Sherman, Robert B., and Richard M. Sherman, Walt's Time: From Before to Beyond, Santa Clarita, California, 1998.
On DISNEY: articles—
"The Mechanized Mouse," in The Saturday Review of Literature (New York), 11 November 1933.
Mann, Arthur, in Harper (New York), May 1934.
Bragdon, Claude, "Straws in the Wind," in Scribner's Magazine (New York), July 1934.
Boone, Andrew R., "A Famous Fairytale is Brought to the Screen as the Pioneer Feature Length Cartoon in Color," in Popular Science Monthly (New York), 1938.
Jeanne, René, "Comment naquirent les dessins animés," in Revue des Deux Mondes (Paris), 15 March 1938.
Moellenhoff, F., "Remarks on the Popularity of Mickey Mouse," in American Imago, (Detroit, Michigan) no. 3, 1940.
Boone, R., "Mickey Mouse Goes Classical," in Popular Science Monthly (New York), January 1941.
Ahl, Frances Norene, "Disney Techniques in Educational Film," in The Social Studies, December 1941.
"Walt Disney: Great Teacher," in Fortune (New York), August 1942.
"Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck Work for Victory," in Popular Science Monthly (New York), September 1942.
Mosdell, D., "Film Review," in Canadian Forum, November 1946.
Wallace, Irving, "Mickey Mouse and How He Grew," in Colliers (New York), 9 April 1949.
"A Silver Anniversary for Walt and Mickey: Disney's Magic Wand Has Enriched the World with Birds, Beasts and Fairy Princesses," in Life (New York), 2 November 1953.
"Disney Comes to Television," in Newsweek (New York), 12 April 1954.
Fishwick, Marshall, "Aesop in Hollywood: The Man and the Mouse," in Saturday Review (New York), 10 July 1954.
"Cinema: Father Goose—Walt Disney: To Enchanted Worlds on Electronic Wings," in Time (New York), 27 December 1954.
McEvoy, J.P., "McEvoy in Disneyland: A Visit with the Wonderful Wizard of Filmdom," in Reader's Digest (Pleasantville, New York), February 1955.
"A Wonderful World: Growing Impact of the Disney Art," in Newsweek (New York), 18 April 1955.
Powell, Dilys, "Hayley Mills on the Pickford Path," in New York Times, 13 August 1961.
Sadoul, Georges, "Sur le 'huitième art'," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1962.
Special Disney issue of National Geographic (Washington, D.C.), August 1963.
"The Wide World of Walt Disney," in Newsweek (New York), 31 December 1963.
Whitaker, Frederic, "A Day with Disney," in American Artist (New York), September 1965.
Aubriant, Michel, "Le vrai Walt Disney est mort il y a des années mais ne soyons pas injustes . . . ," in Paris Presse, 21 December 1966.
Comolii, Jean-Louis, and Michel Delahaye, "Le Cinéma à l'expo de Montréal," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1967.
"Disney without Walt . . . Is Like a Fine Car without an Engine. Will the Great Entertainment Company Find a New Creative Boss? Or Will It Slowly Lose Momentum?," in Forbes (New York), 1 July 1967.
Tucker, N., "Who's Afraid of Walt Disney," in New Society, no.11, 1968.
Gessner, Robert, "Letters to the Editor: Class in Fantasia," in The Nation (New York), 30 November 1970.
"The Ten Greatest Men of American Business—As You Picked Them," in Nation's Business, March 1971.
Pérez, F., "Walt Disney, una pedagogía reaccionaria," in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 81–83, 1973.
Murray, J.C., "Lest We Forget," in Lumiere (Melbourne), November 1973.
Stuart, A., "Decay of an American Dream," in Films and Filming (London), November 1973.
Special Disney issue of Kosmorama (Copenhagen), November 1973.
Canemaker, J., "A Visit to the Walt Disney Studio," in Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), January 1974.
Sklar, Robert, in Movie Made America: A Social History of American Movies, New York, 1975.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Dream Masters," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1975.
Smith, D.R., "Ben Sharpsteen . . . 33 Years with Disney," in Millimeter (New York), April 1975.
Beckerman, H., "Animation Kit: Movies, Myth and Us," in Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), September 1975.
Brody, M., "The Wonderful World of Disney: Its Psychological Appeal," in American Imago (Detroit, Michigan), no. 4, 1976.
"Disney Night at the A.S.C.," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), February 1977.
Paul, W., "Art, Music, Nature and Walt Disney," in Movie (London), Spring 1977.
Schupp, P., "Mickey a cinquante ans," in Sequences (Montreal), January 1979.
Canemaker, J., "Disney Animation: History and Technique," in Film News (NewYork), January-February 1979.
Hulett, S., "A Star Is Drawn," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1979.
Canemaker, J., "Disney Design: 1928–1979," in Millimeter (New York), February 1979.
Barrier, M., "'Building a Better Mouse': Fifty Years of Disney Animation," in Funnyworld (New York), Summer 1979.
Smith, D.R., "Disney Before Burbank: The Kingswell and Hyperion Studios," in Funnyworld (New York), Summer 1979.
Cawley, J., Jr., "Disney Out-Foxed: The Tale of Reynard at the Disney Studio," in American Classic Screen (Shawnee Mission, Kansas), July-August 1979.
"Journals: Tom Allen from New York," in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1981.
Griffithiana (Gemona, Italy), no. 34, December 1988.
CinémAction (Conde-sur-Noireau), no. 51, April 1989.
Kosmorama (Copenhagen), vol. 35, no. 188, Summer 1989.
Animatrix, no. 6, 1990/1992.
Cineforum, no. 319, 1992.
Skoop, October 1992.
Plateau, no. 2, 1993.
The South Atlantic Quarterly, no. 1, 1993.
New York Times, 6 May 1993.
New York Times, 8 May 1993.
Positif, no. 388, June 1993.
New York Times, 13 July 1993.
New York Times, 18 July 1993.
Newsweek, 26 July 1993.
* * *
Before Walt Disney, there was Emile Cohl (the "first animator," who made over 250 films in the early years of the twentieth century); Winsor McCay (whose Gertie the Dinosaur, created in 1914, was the original animated personality); John Randolph Bray (the Henry Ford of animation, whose technological and organizational contributions revolutionized the art form); and Otto Messmer, inventor of Felix the Cat, the Charlie Chaplin of animated characters and the most popular cartoon creation of the 1920s, entertaining audiences before Mickey Mouse ever uttered a squeak.
So why is Walt Disney synonymous with animation? How could Fantasia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Bambi have been re-released to theaters every few years and then marketed to home video, to delight generations of children? Simply because no other animator ever duplicated the Disney studio's appealingly lifelike cartoon characters and wonderful flair for storytelling.
First, Disney was an innovator, a perfectionist who was forever attempting to improve his product and explore the medium to its fullest potential. He was the first to utilize sound in animation, in Steamboat Willie, which was the third Mickey Mouse cartoon. The soundtrack here is more than just a gimmick: for example, in an animal concert, a cow's udder is played like a bagpipe and its teeth are transformed into a xylophone. The musical accompaniment thus emerges from the background, becoming an integral element in the film's structure.
In Flowers and Trees, Disney was the first to utilize three-strip Technicolor in animation, a process devised by Joseph Arthur Ball: three different negatives, each recording a primary color, replaced the single camera film previously used. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length cartoon feature: during the production, Disney staffers developed the multiplane method of realistically creating the illusion of perspective and depth. The camera, operated by several technicians, filled an entire room. A sequence was drawn and painted on several panes of glass, with each one carefully placed and rigidly held down. Cels of the animated characters were placed on the various planes, which would then be moved past the camera at varying speeds. Those close to the camera would go by rapidly; those in the rear would be moved more slowly.
Just as significantly, however, Disney was a master organizer and administrator. As a result, from the 1930s on, the Disney Studio practically monopolized the animation industry. He established an industrialized assembly line, employing hundreds of animators and technicians who regularly churned out high-quality, Academy Award-caliber product. In the early 1930s, he opened distribution offices in London and Paris. He instigated large merchandising campaigns to reap additional profits via T-shirts, toys, and watches. Today, Disneyland and Disneyworld are living monuments to his memory. And it is not surprising that Disney eventually stretched his talents beyond pure animation, first combining cartoons with actors and, finally, producing live-action features, wildlife documentaries, and television series. In 1950, he produced Treasure Island, his first non-animated feature. In 1953, he made his first nature documentary, The Living Desert. The following year, he premiered his weekly television anthology series, which aired for decades. And he established the Buena Vista company as a distribution outlet for his films.
Yet Walt Disney's ultimate legacy remains his animated stories, and the narrative elements which lifted them above his competition. His characters are not just caricatures who insult each other, bash each other with baseball bats, or push each other off cliffs. They are lifelike, three-dimensional creatures with personalities all their own: they are simple, but never simplistic, and rarely, if ever, fail to thoroughly involve the viewer.
It is virtually impossible to rank the best of Disney's animated features in order of quality or popularity. Snow White, with its enchanting storyline and sweet humor, remains a joy for audiences many decades after its release. It is the perfect romantic fairy tale, with Snow White and her Prince Charming in a happy-ever-after ending, the comic relief of the lovable dwarfs, and the villainy of the evil Queen. The film's financial history is typical of most Disney features: originally budgeted at $250,000, it eventually cost $1,700,000 to produce. It earned $4.2 million in the United States and Canada alone when first released; by the mid-1990s, it had grossed over $175-million.
Jiminy Cricket singing "When You Wish Upon a Star" is the highlight of Pinocchio. Bambi is easily the most delicate of all Disney features. And there is Fantasia, a series of animated sequences set to musical classics conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite, Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and Beethoven's Symphony No.6 in F Major, among others. Fantasia is ambitious, innovative, controversial—how dare anyone attempt to visually interpret music?—and, ultimately, timeless.
Since Disney's death in 1966, his studio has had its failures and triumphs. After a dry spell in the late 1960s and 1970s, it established a subsidiary, Touchstone Pictures, which successfully debuted in 1984 with the PG-rated Splash. In the intervening years, the studio struck deals with the likes of Bob and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films and Merchant-Ivory Productions, and marketed such traditionally un-Disney-like fare as Pulp Fiction, Kids, Pretty Woman, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But the studio remains mostly synonymous with animation. In the 1990s, it produced a string of animated features which ranks with its classics of decades past: The Lion King, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. As of 1996, The Lion King rated number five on Variety's list of all-time money-earning champs, taking in over $312 million. Also ranked in the top 50 were other animated and non-animated Disney fare, which certifies the studio's status as a major Hollywood player: Aladdin (number 16, $217-million); Toy Story (number 24, $182 million); Pretty Woman (number 26, $178 million); the previously mentioned Snow White (number 29); Three Men and a Baby (number 34, $167 million); Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (number 42, $154 million); Beauty and the Beast (number 49, $145 million); and The Santa Clause (number 50, $144 million).
In 1991, Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. And in 1995 came Toy Story, a groundbreaking feature produced completely on computer.
An essay on Walt Disney would be incomplete without a note on Mickey Mouse, the most famous of all Disney creations and one of the world's most identifiable and best-loved characters. Appropriately, Disney himself was the voice of Mickey, who was originally named Mortimer. The filmmaker himself best explained the popularity of his mouse: ". . . Mickey is so simple and uncomplicated, so easy to understand, that you can't help liking him."
With pen, pencil, ink, and paint, Walt Disney created a unique, special world. Max and Dave Fleischer, Walter Lantz, Chuck Jones, and many others may all be great animators, but Disney is unarguably the most identifiable name in the art form.
Disney, Walt 1901-1966
Walter Elias Disney and his brother Roy established the Walt Disney Company in the late 1920s to produce short animations. The company’s first synchronized-sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), featured Mickey Mouse, a character that became one of the best-known icons in the world. In the wake of the nineteenth-century transformation of the oral tradition of fairy tales into a literary tradition by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and others, Disney, in the early decades of the twentieth century, employed technological advances to turn literary fairy tales into animations. The first feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), paved the way for the Disney brand of family-oriented celluloid fantasies targeting children as their primary audience.
A 1941 strike by Disney animators seeking more recognition, along with economic hard times, crippled the company, but World War II (1939–1945) reenergized the Disney Company through government commissions. The Three Caballeros (1944) was made at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs to promote “Good Neighborliness” between North America and Latin America. The conservative Disney also served as a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent from 1940 to his death in 1966. The public image of “Uncle Walt” with a gentle smile and with roots in rural small-town America is the result of mythmaking, which masks Walt Disney’s traumatic childhood and distrustful personality. Disney’s vendetta against striking employees of his studio in the 1940s betrays not only a suspicious and controlling character but an anticommunist obsession. His hidden career as a secret informant in the last two decades of his life gives a perverse twist to the family entertainment Disney has come to symbolize.
The Disney television show went on the air in 1954. Theme parks proved to be far more successful than animations and live-action films and television. Disneyland in Anaheim, California, opened in 1955, followed by Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in 1971. Tokyo saw the Japanese version of Disneyland in 1983, France in 1992, and Hong Kong in 2005. Having languished after Walt Disney’s death, the Disney Company resurged under Michael Eisner in the 1980s. Disney has now grown into a global business conglomerate of film studio, television network, cable company, magazine, merchandise bearing various Disney logos, theme parks and resorts, and other ventures, with revenues totaling over $25 billion around the turn of the century. Disney also works through the Touchstone label, Miramax Films, Buena Vista International, and other business entities to produce and distribute less family-oriented shows.
With its increasing monopoly of media and entertainment, Disney has given rise to the phenomenon of Disneyfication, that is, trivialization and sanitization. The key to the success of the “Magic Kingdom” is indeed carefully controlled, heavily edited images of childhood innocence and fun. Yet what appears to the child to be happy tunes and carefree joy often veils sexist, racist, ageist, and neo-imperialist reality. From Sleeping Beauty to the Little Mermaid to Mulan, every Disney female lead embodies idealized Euro-American beauty in facial features, balletic physique, and youth-culture obsessions. These Disney females, including the sword-wielding Mulan, ultimately derive their meaning in life through male characters. The blatant racism in the happy plantation African Americans in The Song of the South (1946) and the slant-eyed, buck-toothed, pidgin-speaking Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp (1955) and The Aristocats (1970) has gone underground, occasionally resurfacing in, for example, the cruel, hand-chopping Arabs in Aladdin (1992) and the stereotypical, “multicultural” duo of “kung fu” Mulan and her familiar, the blabbering Mushu dubbed by Eddie Murphy.
Theme parks best exemplify the Disney culture of control. The enclosed environment of these sites separates visitors from the outside world, encouraging consumption in the guise of family fun. Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland is, of course, a shopping mall. Various adventures at Disneyland are centrally themed to formulate a narrative and to shape consumer perception. Even Disney employees with smiling faces are trained in “performative labor”: they are not so much working as role-playing; they are cast members in the Disney discourse of happiness.
Any critique of Disneyfication faces the challenge that animated fantasy is customarily regarded as devoid of ideology, notwithstanding the fact that the racial, gender, national, and capitalist undertones of Disney have repeatedly been the subject of study. Adults’ nostalgia for childlike simplicity and pleasure further leads to an acquiescence to Disney’s ahistorical and apolitical universe. Assuredly, growing up anywhere in the world, one is invariably nurtured on Disney’s breast milk of superior quality in terms of ingenuity and craftsmanship. To contend that consumers have been fed with something aesthetically refined but culturally suspect is likely to provoke vigorous opposition. Yet the 1995 defeat of the proposed 3,000-acre Disney theme park in Virginia’s Civil War battlegrounds signals the potential of grassroots resistance to corporate greed and expansionism. With the shadows of the omnivorous, lawsuit-happy Disney Company looming over the twenty-first century, new battles will be fought far away from Virginia. Globalization has brought Disney to every corner of the world. In the company of giants such as McDonald’s, Nike, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft, Disney’s transnational operations will continue to perpetuate Americanization globally, but it remains a severely constricted vision of America, one enjoyed principally by middle-class visitors to Disney World and passive consumers of Disney culture.
SEE ALSO Children; Culture; Racism; Sexism
Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, eds. 1995. From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Giroux, Henry A. 1999. The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Smoodin, Eric, ed. 1994. Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom. New York: Routledge.
Walt Disney's name has not always been synonymous with childhood. In the 1930s his work was seen as populist and avant-garde. It was considered populist because, three decades earlier, he had been born into poverty, and his cartoons had the simple outlines of folk art. (They were seen as "his" cartoons even though, as the story goes, one of his animators had to teach him to draw his signature Mickey Mouse.) Disney's cartoons were considered avant-garde because the cinema was a new art form, and at this time when photography still had only dubious claims to artistry and live-action motion pictures could be seen merely as moving photographs, animated cartoons could make a greater claim to artistry. The preeminent name in the art of animation–thanks to Mickey Mouse, the Silly Symphonies, and "The Three Little Pigs"–was Walt Disney.
Early in his career Disney was both a popular success and the darling of intellectuals. Between 1932 and 1941 his work won thirteen Academy Awards, and he was granted honorary degrees by Yale and Harvard. The philosopher Mortimer
Adler rhapsodized about Disney's greatness, as did the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein; the French filmmaker René Clair called his artistry sublime; the artist David Low called him the most significant graphic artist since Leonardo. The film historian Lewis Jacobs referred to Disney as the most acclaimed of current directors: Disney's willingness to plow profits into new technology and to take financial risks to achieve desired effects was, for Jacobs, a sign of artistic integrity–not, as it would later be construed, entrepreneurial savvy.
Disney's audience included both young and old. Critics often praised his films for addressing the young, the old, indeed "artists, intellectuals, children, workers, and everyday people the world over," to quote the Atlantic Monthly in 1940. Consider the Disney merchandise of the 1930s, which included not just Mickey Mouse dolls but also ashtrays, beer trays, negligees, and Donald Duck Coffee. (Disney pioneered tieins and cross-merchandising, and the corporation is now the industry leader in cross-promotion.)
In the 1940s Disney's productions continued to be popular with the general public, but his reputation among critics and intellectuals waned. In the 1950s it plummeted. This shift may have resulted from Disney's decision to include human figures in his feature-length cartoons, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, and that these figures imitated real life only imperfectly. Perhaps disenchantment derived from the bitter strike at Disney Brothers Studios in 1941, or from the experimentalism of The Three Caballeros in 1945. Perhaps, too, critics resented the fact that Disney simply did not focus as much on his cartoons as he had in the past, producing live-action films, nature documentaries, television programs, and theme parks, launching what has been called the first multimedia empire.
Disney's reputation continued to suffer in the 1950s. The reason may have had something to do with the advent of television. Previously cartoon shorts had been an expected part of an evening's entertainment at the movies, no matter how sophisticated the feature film. But in the decades following World War II, cartoons appeared less often in the theater and more often on Saturday morning television. Eventually, they were regarded as strictly for children.
In other words, once Disney's cartoons came to be seen as suitable only for children, and once he himself became Uncle Walt to millions of viewers, Disney's cartoons were no longer suitable for intellectuals. In a twentieth-century intellectual climate where anything considered juvenile was suspect (a very different climate from that of the nineteenth century) Disney's productions were devalued.
Some critics disapproved of Disney's works even in the 1930s. As a Mickey Mouse book was placed on the recommended reading list for New York City schools in 1938, Louise Seaman Bechtel, in the Saturday Review of Literature, regretted "the pressing semi-reality of all the hurrying scenes in color on the screen, the over-elaborated story and crowded canvas" of the film Snow White. In later decades one of the louder salvos was fired by the librarian Frances Clarke Sayers, who in a 1965 letter to the Los Angeles Times (later expanded into an article for the Horn Book Magazine ) made an often-quoted statement bemoaning the obviousness of Disney's work, particularly its violence, mediocrity, vulgarity, and its "pretending that everything is so sweet, so saccharine, so without any conflict except the obvious conflict of violence." Other critics include Richard Schickel, who in his The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (1968) lamented, "In this most childlike of our mass communicators I see what is most childish and therefore most dangerous in all of us who were his fellow Americans."
I'm Going to Disney World!
In recent years Disney's popularity with the general public has soared. Disney products are seen as cute, safe, and cheerful. The company's CEO Michael Eisner claimed, in the 2001 annual report, that Disney's various studios had been number one at the U.S. box office for six of the previous seven years and number one internationally for five of them.
He added that Disney was the largest publisher of children's books in the world and that more than a billion people worldwide had used a Disney product during the previous year. Giants slugger Barry Bonds exclaimed, upon hitting his record-breaking homerun in 2001, "I'm going to Disney World!," and in the wake of terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush advised the American public, "Go down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed."
Yet cultural critics and film historians continue to accuse the entertainment company of reinforcing corporate, patriarchal, ethnocentric, and imperialistic values by modifying, for instance, traditional tales such as "Snow White," "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," and "Beauty and the Beast." Only in Disney's version is Snow White such a happy housewife for the dwarfs. While traditional tales with oral sources have been altered throughout their history to reflect the concerns and biases of individual tellers and transcribers, once Walt Disney Productions (as the company is now known) creates a version of a story–whether it is a traditional tale or a classic text such as Pinocchio or Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Winnie-the-Pooh –Disney's version becomes the standard one for millions of children. The Little Mermaid 's underwater witch is now visualized around the world as a drag queen named Ursula, and the American Indian Pocahontas is a brunette Barbie.
Other cultural critics and historians find points of contestation in Disney's films. In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture Elizabeth Bell found visual images of strength and discipline in the fairy-tale heroines, whose bodies were modeled on those of classical dancers. Lori Kenschaft, in her essay "Just a Spoonful of Sugar? Anxieties of Gender and Class in Mary Poppins, " reminded us that not everyone experiences a film such as Disney's Mary Poppins in the same way, especially in this age of multimedia and fast-forwarding: whereas one individual might register the energy of the chimney sweeps in the film, another viewer might pick up on the film's intermittent critiques of class and gender.
The company struggled financially in the 1930s and 1940s, achieving stability only in the late 1950s, and since Walt Disney's death in 1966 the corporation has experienced a number of ups and downs. In 1999 and again in 2002 Fortune magazine called it the "world's most troubled entertainment giant." Nevertheless, it is one of the largest media corporations in the world, firmly ensconced in the Fortune 100, with annual revenues of more than twenty-five billion dollars. Its holdings include Touchstone Pictures, Miramax, the Disney Channel, Radio Disney, Hyperion Books, Hollywood Records, the various theme parks, and the television networks ABC and ESPN. It is arguably the most influential corporation in the world. For Disney gets us young and helps to shape our understanding of who we are, getting us to whistle while we work, to be unafraid of the big bad wolf, to wish upon a star that some day our prince will come, indeed to accept Disney products as the spoonful of sugar that helps any medicine go down, in this small world after all.
Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, eds. 1995. From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Kenschaft, Lori. 1999. "Just a Spoonful of Sugar? Anxieties of Gender and Class in Mary Poppins. " In Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children's Literature and Culture, ed. Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
The Project on Disney. 1995. Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Sayers, Frances Clarke, and Charles M. Weisenberg. 1965. "Walt Disney Accused." Horn Book Magazine 40: 602–611.
Schickel, Richard. 1968. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Smoodin, Eric, ed. 1994. Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom. New York: Routledge.
Watts, Steven. 1997. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Beverly Lyon Clark
During his career, Walt Disney found ways to make children of all ages believe in a certain kind of magic. His films brought talking animals to life. His theme parks transported people to distant lands or make-believe castles. And through Walt Disney Productions, the Disney name became one of the most famous and trusted brands in the world. His company promoted him as a carefree man whose only goal was to "bring happiness to the millions." In business, however, Disney was demanding, seeking perfection in his art and total control of his business.
"When does a person stop being a child? Can you say that a child is ever entirely eliminated from the adult? I believe that the right kind of entertainment can appeal to all persons, young or old."
Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the fourth son of Elias and Mary Disney. He also had a younger sister. In 1905, the Disneys moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri. Disney later recalled the small-town atmosphere of the town when he built Disneyland. His family moved again in 1911, settling in Kansas City. Mr. Disney began a successful paper route, and Walt and his brother Roy helped him. Walt also showed an early interest in art, copying a popular comic strip and making up his own.
By high school, with his family now living in Chicago, Disney was winning recognition for his art, publishing his cartoons in the school paper. In 1918, about a year after the United States entered World War I (1914-18), Disney lied about his age to volunteer as a Red Cross ambulance driver. He arrived in Europe shortly after the war ended and spent most of his time as a chauffeur for army officers. In his free time, he kept drawing cartoons.
When he returned to the United States in 1919, Disney settled in Kansas City and began his career as an artist. His first job was at a commercial art studio, drawing animals in farm-equipment catalogues. Disney later worked for the Kansas City Slide Company, which created advertising films for local companies. Disney began to study the new art of animation for the ads, then began experimenting with his own cartoon films. By 1921, he was working on his own on the side, making short cartoons he called Laugh-O-Grams. Disney officially incorporated the company in 1922 and produced cartoons of fairy tales. The next year, however, the company went bankrupt. Disney took a half-finished film of Alice's Wonderland, which combined live actors with cartoon figures, and headed for California.
Walt Disney's earliest animation may have been a flip book he made for his sister when he was nine years old. He drew a series of pictures on different pieces of paper. Flipping the pages made the figures appear to move.
The Daring Animator and His New Company
Disney set up a studio in his uncle's shop so he could finish Alice's Wonderland and make other films like it. His brother Roy was also in California, and he loaned Disney money to get his company off the ground. The two brothers went into business together, forming Disney Brothers Studio. By 1924, the "Alice" cartoons were playing in theaters on the East Coast and receiving positive reviews. Disney's personal life was also improving, as he started dating Lilly Bounds, a young woman he had hired to work at the studio. They were married in June 1925 and eventually had two daughters, one of them adopted.
Although Disney and his company struggled financially during the early years, he did well enough to buy a new studio and hire more workers. Disney was also constantly looking for new opportunities. In 1928, while coming home from a business trip in New York, he had an idea for a new cartoon creature, a mouse. Disney wanted to call him Mortimer Mouse; his wife suggested Mickey instead. Mickey became Disney's first cartoon star.
Around the same time, Disney saw that sound films, then a novelty, would change Hollywood. Matching music with cartoon action, however, was not easy, and Disney demanded perfection. At one point he sold his beloved car to finance a recording for one of his cartoons. Disney also worked hard, sometimes falling asleep in his studio after working late into the night.
After the success of Mickey Mouse and other short cartoons, Disney began planning his first full-length feature. In 1934, an excited Disney acted out the story of "Snow White" for his staff, playing all the roles. He was convinced the film would be a success. Once again, Disney was right in guessing what people would pay to see. As Time magazine wrote many years later, Disney had "a deep, intuitive identification with the common impulses of common people."
Building New Worlds
Creating animated films let Disney invent worlds that did not exist and gave him the control he craved. During the 1940s, he had an idea for a real world that he could also shape as he chose. Bob Thomas quotes him in Walt Disney: An American Original: The concept of Disneyland "started when my daughters were very young, and I took them to amusement parks on Sundays.… I said to myself… why can't there be a better place to take your children, where you can have fun together?"
At the new home Walt Disney built for his family during the 1940s, he included a half-mile railroad track for his own model train, which was large enough to carry several people at once.
In 1952, Disney formed a second company, Walt Disney Inc., to build his new theme park. He later changed the name to WED Enterprises. Out of WED came the Imagineers, the designers of new rides and new technologies that could make Disney's dreams come to life. One Disney idea was creating moving models of people that could talk. WED created these figures, called Audio-Animatronics.
Michael Eisner: The "Outsider" Who Saved Disney
In 1984, Michael Eisner became the first person with no personal connection to Walt Disney to lead Walt Disney Productions. And unlike most Americans, Eisner had never even grown up on Disney films as a child. He admitted that he first saw them with his own children. But like Disney, Eisner seemed to have a flair for the creative. And like the company's founder, Eisner could be difficult to work with, as he fought to have things done his way.
The product of a wealthy New York family, Eisner was born in 1942. He originally planned to study medicine, but found himself drawn to entertainment. After college, Eisner took a job at NBC, then moved over to ABC, where he worked with Barry Diller, one of the rising young television executives of the 1960s. During the 1970s, Eisner scheduled such hit shows as Happy Days and Welcome Back, Kotter. From television he moved to motion pictures, working for Diller at Paramount Pictures. Eisner, as president, helped Paramount regain its position as one of the top studios in Hollywood.
When Disney Productions first considered hiring Eisner, some important investors questioned if he was the right person to run the company. As he wrote in his autobiography Work in Progress, Eisner told them they needed someone with creativity to keep the company growing. "In a creative business," he said, "you … have to be willing to take chances and even to fail sometimes, because otherwise nothing innovative is ever going to happen." When Eisner got the job, he found ways to make money from old Disney products and created new animated classics to revive the Disney image.
During the 1990s, Eisner's moves made Disney one of the most successful stocks in the United States. But Eisner's personal style, considered arrogant by some, did not please everyone who worked for him. Disney developed a reputation as the cheapest film studio in Hollywood. And Disney's movement away from strict family entertainment into more "adult" content upset some people who felt Eisner was betraying Disney's wholesome image.
Disney under Eisner was also criticized for being too concerned with making money and controlling markets, instead of offering good entertainment. But in 2002, Eisner insisted to Fortune that he and the Disney company were still committed to quality. "There are two ways to make money in entertainment," he said, "the high road or the low road. The low road is a road that I don't choose to be on."
Disney, however, was not content with just building theme parks. He wanted to create a whole town. In the early 1960s, Disney's company began buying thousands of acres in central Florida. Part of the land would become a second theme park—Disney World—but Disney wanted to use some of it for a planned community, the "City of Tomorrow." In October 1966, Disney gave an interview describing his vision.
Bob Thomas quotes him as saying, "It's like the city of tomorrow ought to be.… It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities."
Disney called his idea the Environmental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Today's EPCOT features exhibits on science and technology, along with tributes to several foreign countries, but it is not the town Disney envisioned. Celebration, a nearby planned community the company opened in 1998, is probably closer to what Disney had in mind.
Disney's comments on EPCOT were some of the last public statements he ever made. A lifelong smoker, he died of lung cancer just a few months later, on December 15, 1966. Newspapers around the world mourned the loss of a man who had brought so much happiness to children and adults.
For many years, people spread a rumor that Walt Disney had ordered his body frozen after his death, hoping it could be unfrozen years later when doctors had a cure for cancer. The rumor was untrue.
For More Information
Eisner, Michael, with Tony Schwartz. Work in Progress. New York: Random House, 1998.
Masters, Kim. The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip. New York: William Morrow, 2000.
Schweizer, Peter, and Rochelle Schweizer. Disney: The Mouse Betrayed. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc. 1998.
Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.
Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Boroughs, Don, et al. "Disney's All Smiles." U.S. News & World Report (August 14, 1995): p. 32.
"From the Archives." Time (December 28, 1998): p. 14.
Gabor, Andrea, and Steve Hawkins. "Of Mice and Money in the Magic Kingdom." U.S. News & World Report (December 22, 1986): p. 44.
Gunther, Marc. "Has Eisner Lost the Disney Magic?" Fortune (January 7, 2002): p. 64.
Huey, John. "Eisner Explains Everything." Fortune (April 17, 1995): p. 44.
Koepp, Stephen. "Do You Believe in Magic." Time (April 25, 1988): p. 66.
Koselka, Rita. "Mickey's Midlife Crisis." Forbes (May 13, 1991): p. 42.
Schickel, Richard. "Walt Disney." Time (December 7, 1998): p. 124.
Streisand, Betty. "Shareholders Smell a Rat." U.S. News & World Report (March 3, 1997): p. 59.
Vinzant, Carol. "Eisner's Mousetrap." Fortune (September 6,1999): p. 106. Wiegner, Kathleen K. "The Tinker Bell Principle." Forbes (December 2,1985): p. 102.
Buena Vista Online Entertainment. [On-line] http://www.bventertainment.go.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).
Disney Online. [On-line] http://www.disney.go.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).
The Walt Disney Company
Walt Disney was one of the great pioneers of filmmaking and the creator of several classic films, most notably his feature-length animated films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. Disney, who grew up almost without a childhood, found a way to amuse himself as an adult by making cartoons and filling them with characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Creator of cartoons, live-action movies, theme parks, and television programs for the whole family, Disney introduced wholesome family entertainment on a world scale, and was one of the major entertainment forces of the twentieth century.
Walter Elias Disney, known throughout most of his life as Walt Disney, was born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois. He had three older brothers and a younger sister. He and one of his older brothers remained especially close throughout Disney's lifetime and pursued the same business together.
Disney's parents, Elias and Flora Disney, came from farming backgrounds, Elias from Canada and Flora from Ohio. Walt's father was a strong influence on the entire family. A stern religious fundamentalist, he readily disciplined his children with his belt. He also denied the children toys, games, and sporting equipment associated with childhood, and this experience may have had some impact on Disney's later passion for the entertainment of children.
Growing up in the Disney family was further complicated by the father's pro-union activism and his political support of the socialist presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, as well as his tendency to change jobs frequently. The family was forced to move to both rural and urban areas all over the Midwest, from Chicago to Marceline, Missouri, to Kansas City, Missouri, and back to Chicago. Disney's father worked in farming, railway shops, carpentry and contracting work, and newspaper distribution. The family was always on the verge of financial collapse, and everyone in the family who could do some kind of work, like deliver newspapers, did.
Disney, according to his brother and lifelong business partner Roy, always enjoyed country life. He loved the animals he encountered, some of which may have inspired him to create cartoon animals in his later career in filmmaking.
Disney had a difficult time gaining an education because of his family's constant moving and his need to work to help support the family. When he was 16, though, he was able to join an art class at the Chicago Academy and Fine Arts, where he developed his modest drawing skills.
Disney dropped out of high school at age 17 to serve in World War I. He had tried to follow his brother Roy into the Navy but was rejected because he was underage. He was accepted as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross after altering the birthdate on his application. He served in France for a short time and returned to the United States in 1919. After returning from the war, he moved on his own to Kansas City, Missouri, where he worked a variety of jobs as a commercial artist and cartoonist.
Disney met Lillian Bounds, one of the employees in his first cartoon-film studio in the early 1920s, and they married on July 13, 1925. The marriage lasted a lifetime, and they produced two daughters.
Disney was known as a perfectionist and a demanding man. Some people saw him as self-centered, and he seemed often baffled when people disagreed with him. He was described by friends and coworkers as a driven man, even "a workaholic." Disney's personal life was filled with paradoxes. He smoked constantly, yet seemed to dislike this bad habit in others. Politically, he was the total opposite of his father. Disney joined the Republican Party in California and remained a firm political conservative. Though he loved country life, he spent most of his life in cities. A complex man, he suffered two nervous breakdowns in his life, one at age 30, and another a decade later, after half the cartoonists of his company went out on strike against him in a dispute about his labor practices.
By 1960, Disney had become a wealthy man, despite many ups and downs in his career. Just as he neared the pinnacle of his career, after having won five Oscars for his production of the movie Mary Poppins, he learned that his lifetime of cigarette smoking was to have consequences. He had surgery for lung cancer in 1966. Though he appeared to be recovering, he had a relapse and died on December 15, 1966.
Disney received more than 700 awards for his creative achievements, including an honorary Academy Award in 1939, four Academy Awards in 1954, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. He was also honored with the Freedom Foundation Award later that same year.
By 1922, Disney had set up his first small cartoon-production company in Kansas City with Ub Iwerks, whose drawing ability and technical inventiveness were prime factors in Disney's eventual success. Their business soon failed, though, and Disney took a job with an ad service that made cartoon advertisements to be shown between movies at the local theater. Disney gained a basic understanding of the medium and, anxious to get back out on his own, moved to Hollywood, California, in 1923 and started a business with his brother Roy. Out of his "garage" operation there, Disney filmed a live performance with cartoon figures from Alice in Wonderland. He expanded on this idea with the creation of a series called Alice in Cartoonland. He produced 56 of these cartoons in three years and in 1927 returned to a straight cartoon format with his Oswald the Rabbit series, producing 26 of these cartoons in less than two years.
By about 1927, Disney began looking for a new approach to his cartoons and a new character. He came up with a mouse character called Mortimer, but his wife Lilly thought the name was too stiff and convinced Disney to go with Mickey instead. Mickey Mouse came to life in 1928, first as a pilot, then as an adventurer, a sort of pirate-character. Late in 1928, after seeing the first sound movie, The Jazz Singer, Disney decided to make the first all-sound, talking-and-music cartoon, with Mickey Mouse starring as "Steamboat Willie."
By 1936, eight years later, critics and fans alike agreed that Mickey Mouse was the most recognized figure in the world. Songs were written about him. Watches had his face on them. He could be found everywhere. Disney was called "a genius."
During this time, Disney studios launched other successful cartoon characters, including Donald Duck and Pluto. Although he had stopped actually drawing the cartoons himself by 1927, and relied on a staff of animators to implement his ideas, Disney himself was the voice of Mickey Mouse in all the cartoons from 1928 to 1946. Disney's cartoons, both short and full-length features, won many awards. During the 1930s, the Disney cartoons were a phenomenon of worldwide success. This success led to the establishment of immensely profitable, Disney-controlled, sidelines in advertising, publishing, and franchised goods, which helped shape popular tastes for nearly 40 years.
Disney expanded his business rapidly, creating new studios and a training school for animators. It was these students, using state-of-the-art technology, who made possible the first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Other costly animated features followed, including Pinocchio and Bambi.
In the 1940s, despite his many successes, Disney produced a series of financial "flops," including a film now regarded as a classic, the animated feature Fantasia. Fantasia did poorly at the box office, and Disney was devastated. Then half his artists went on strike against him, protesting his dictatorial style. Some say that if it were not for a government contract he obtained to produce service-related training films, Disney might have gone bankrupt by the end of World War II.
Luckily, he was able to reexamine his studio operations and pursue other directions successfully. During the 1950s he made a series of live-action feature movies, such as Treasure Island, and his favorite, So Dear To My Heart. With the advent of Seal Island, Disney moved into wildlife films, and expanded production of live-action pictures, which led to many other family films. His elaborate production of Mary Poppins, which won five Academy Awards two years before Disney's death, was one example of a successful family film that used occasional animation and plenty of music.
In 1954, Disney also began to do something revolutionary for the time: he began to produce for television, which had been the traditional "enemy" of the movie business. During the 1950s, Disney joined with American Broadcasting Company TV productions and made a fortune producing Davy Crockett and The Mickey Mouse Club for television exclusively. By the time of his death, Disney had more than 280 television shows to his name.
Disney also began to develop his famous Disneyland theme parks, the first opening in 1957 in Anaheim, California. Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, was not completed until after his death, in 1971. Disney's vision was to interconnect all his many business ventures so that one would help the other; in other words, seeing his work on TV would cause people to want to go to Disneyland, and going to Disneyland would cause people to want to see family-oriented Disney movies.
Disney's dream of creating a city of the future was realized in 1982 with the opening of EPCOT, which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a real-life community of the future. Disney theme parks have continued to expand with the opening of Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom.
Chronology: Walt Disney
1923: Produced his first cartoon series, "Alice in Cartoonland."
1928: Created Mickey Mouse.
1937: Produced first great critical and financial success, Snow White and Seven Dwarfs.
1941: Began making training and instructional films for the armed forces.
1954: Appearance of the television show, Disneyland.
1954: Received four Academy Awards.
1955: Opened Disneyland theme park.
By the 1960s, Disney had created a diversified empire, founded on the animal icons, like Mickey Mouse, that had first brought him such fame. The Disney empire is noted for its traditional family values, wholesome middle-class productions, and high level of quality control. Today, the Walt Disney Company, with the creation of Touchstone Pictures, has branched out to a broader range of films. Disney also owns Hollywood Records, and even has its own cruise line. It is a multibillion-dollar enterprise with undertakings all over the world.
Social and Economic Impact
The impact of Walt Disney's career has been felt throughout much of the twentieth century. His creation of wholesome cartoon characters and first-rate animation made Disney what British cartoonist David Low called "the most significant figure in graphic arts since Leonardo." After Disney's death, his classic films continue to be shown, the TV Disney Channel broadcasts his work to TV audiences 24 hours a day, and his theme parks in America and elsewhere (including Tokyo and Paris) sell his wholesome vision of America as a mecca. Disney's impact on childhood entertainment is almost immeasurably great and, at the time of his death, Disney's business empire was estimated to be worth over $100 million a year. In addition, Disney created a new university, the California Institute of the Arts. Disney once said, "If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something." "Walt Disney" continues to be a household name in American homes.
Sources of Information
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The name "Disney" is synonymous with children's entertainment. Disney movies, television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) shows, and animated characters help create some of the happiest and most magical childhood memories. "Disney" is also the name of the founder of a moving picture empire: Walt Disney (1901–1966), a visionary who in 1923 formed Walt Disney Productions and began producing experimental animated short films. Little did he imagine that this modest beginning would evolve into an entertainment industry giant that would create classic animated short subjects and features, live-action films and television series—and even spawn fantasy-oriented theme parks.
The first Disney series was called Alice in Cartoonland and mixed live-action and animation. Among the individual titles in the series were Alice's Wild West Show (1924), Alice's Egg Plant (1925), and Alice Chops the Suey (1925). In 1927, Disney and Ub Iwerks (1901–1971), a fellow animator and special-effects wizard, created a series of short films based on a character named Oswald the Rabbit. The following year they conjured up Mickey Mouse, the character who is most closely associated with Disney—and the creation that put Disney on the Hollywood map. Plane Crazy (1928) and The Gallopin' Gaucho (1928), the first two Mickey Mouse cartoons, were silent. The next, Steamboat Willie (1928; see entry under 1920s—Film and Theater in volume 2), was a talkie, with Disney himself providing Mickey's trademark squeaky voice.
Audiences were entranced by the singing, dancing, and talking mouse. Disney followed this success with his Silly Symphonies cartoon series, the first of which was The Skeleton Dance (1929). What made this series distinctive was that the scenarios and characters' movements were created in conjunction with the sounds of a prerecorded music track. The most famous was The Three Little Pigs (1933), which introduced the hit song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" Meanwhile, Mickey Mouse continued starring in Disney cartoons. He was eventually joined by a host of animated pals, including Pluto (1930), Minnie Mouse (1933), Donald Duck (1934), and Goofy (who first appeared as Dippy Dawg in 1932).
In the early 1930s, Disney worked with the Technicolor corporation, to add color to his cartoons. His first colored short, Flowers and Trees, won an Academy Award in 1932, and Technicolor signed an exclusive agreement to color Disney's animations.
Disney had long desired to produce a feature-length animated film. At the time, no one had ever chanced such an expensive and risky endeavor. In 1934, he began to realize this dream, all the while aware that he was gambling with the future of his flourishing company. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the initial Disney animated feature, was released to great critical and commercial acclaim. The key to its success was that its characters were not artificially or excessively portrayed but rather were presented as distinct personalities who believably expressed emotion. In addition, the film featured original musical numbers. Snow White was followed by Pinocchio (1940); Dumbo (1941); Bambi (1942); Cinderella (1950); Alice in Wonderland (1951); Lady and the Tramp (1955); 101 Dalmatians (1961); and many others. Easily the most ambitious early Disney feature was Fantasia (1940; see entry under 1940s—Film and Theater in volume 3), made in conjunction with conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977). Fantasia was a bold attempt to unite classical music and the movements of animated characters.
In 1941, a number of Disney animators went on strike, in protest of Disney's authoritarian command of the studio and what by then had evolved into a formulaic (systematic) animation style. Many eventually resigned and established their own animation studio, United Productions of America (UPA). Disney survived the crisis and soon became heavily involved in the war effort, producing a series of propaganda and training films during World War II (1939–45). Among them were the feature documentary Victory through Air Power (1943), which included live-action and animation, and Der Fuhrer's Face (1943), in which Donald Duck lampooned Adolf Hitler (1889–1945).
With the post–World War II era came the production of a short nature documentary, Seal Island (1948), whose success prompted a "True-Life Adventure" series of feature-length follow-ups. The Living Desert (1953) was the first. The studio also produced its initial live-action feature, Treasure Island (1950). Subsequent features ranged from Rob Roy—The Highland Rogue (1954) to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Davy Crockett —King of the Wild Frontier (1955; see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3) to Old Yeller (1957) and Pollyanna (1960). During the 1960s, the studio produced live-action comedies, beginning with The Shaggy Dog (1959) and including The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and The Parent Trap (1961). Mary Poppins (1964; see entry under 1960s—Film and Theater in volume 2) was not the first film to feature animation blended with live action, but it became one of the most beloved.
During the 1950s, television sets were fast becoming staples in American homes, and Disney eagerly entered the TV marketplace. In 1954, he began a weekly anthology series that initially was known as Disneyland. This series was broadcast for decades under different titles and on different networks. Disneyland was followed by a classic afternoon children's series called The Mickey Mouse Club (1955–59; see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3). In 1955, Disney opened Disneyland, the company's first fantasy theme park, on 160 acres of land in Anaheim, California. That same year, he established his own film distribution company, Buena Vista.
The company suffered artistically in the wake of its founder's death in 1966. In general, Disney movies lost their sparkle. On the upside, Walt Disney World, a second theme park, opened in Orlando, Florida, in 1971, but the studio's entertainment output was mired in mediocrity. A low point came in 1979 when top animator Don Bluth (1938–) and a number of colleagues left Disney to form their own company, citing the studio's artistic and commercial deterioration.
In 1984, the studio formed Touchstone Pictures, a subsidiary that would produce and release a more adult-oriented product. The first Touchstone film was Splash (1984), a romantic comedy about a man who falls for a mermaid. The comedy was a box office smash. Other hits followed, including Down and Outin Beverly Hills (1985), Three Men and a Baby (1987), Stakeout (1987), Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Pretty Woman (1990), and Sister Act (1992). Pretty Woman, which made a star of its leading actress, Julia Roberts (1967–), offered a modern-day twist on the Cinderella story in that it was the tale of a prostitute who is romanced by a millionaire.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, Disney recaptured its status as an animation giant. The production of a series of features—including The Black Cauldron (1985), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994; see entry under 1990s—Film and Theater in volume 5)—enchanted a new generation of youngsters. Disney expanded its empire to include video distribution; a cable TV (see entry under 1970s—TV and Radio in volume 4) station; book publishing; Broadway (see entry under 1900s—Film and Theater in volume 1) show production; and the ownership of hotels, real estate, professional sports teams, and the ABC television network, which it purchased in 1996 for $19 billion. By this time, the company had also evolved into a merchandising giant. Decades earlier, it had marketed a line of Mickey Mouse watches that were treasured by coming-of-age baby boomers (see entry under 1940s—The Way We Lived in volume 3). In the 1990s, the company opened numerous stores in malls (see entry under 1950s—Commerce in volume 3) and storefronts across the globe. On sale were Disney-related T-shirts (see entry under 1910s—Fashion in volume 1), pins, figurines, mugs, and stuffed animals—and the latest designs in Mickey Mouse watches.
Across the years, the Disney studio has savored its successes and rode out its rough times. Other motion picture production companies have evolved into mega-giant corporations, and others have produced animated films and children's entertainment. None remains as synonymous with childhood, magic, and Americana as Disney.
For More Information
Bailey, Adrian. Walt Disney's World of Fantasy. New York: Everest House, 1982.
Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American AnimatedCartoons. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library, 1987.
Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.
Smith, Dave. Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion, 1996.
Solomon, Charles. The Disney That Never Was: The Stories and Art FromFive Decades of Unproduced Animation. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
An American filmmaker and businessman, Walt Disney created a new kind of popular culture with feature-length animated cartoons and live-action "family" films.
Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 5, 1901, the fourth of five children born to Elias and Flora Call Disney. His father, a strict and religious man who often physically abused his children, was working as a building contractor when Walter was born. Soon afterward, his father took over a farm in Marceline, Missouri, where he moved the family. Walter was very happy on the farm and developed his love of animals while living there. After the farm failed, the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where Walter helped his father deliver newspapers. He also worked selling candy and newspapers on the train that traveled between Kansas City and Chicago, Illinois. He began drawing and took some art lessons during this time.
Disney dropped out of high school at seventeen to serve in World War I (1914–18; a war between German-led Central powers and the Allies—England, the United States, and other nations). After a short stretch as an ambulance driver, he returned to Kansas City in 1919 to work as a commercial illustrator and later made crude animated cartoons (a series of drawings with slight changes in each that resemble movement when filmed in order). By 1922 he had set up his own shop as a partner with Ub Iwerks, whose drawing ability and technical skill were major factors in Disney's eventual success.
Off to Hollywood
Initial failure with Ub Iwerks sent Disney to Hollywood, California, in 1923. In partnership with his older brother, Roy, he began producing Oswald the Rabbit cartoons for Universal Studios. After a contract dispute led to the end of this work, Disney and his brother decided to come up with their own character. Their first success came in Steamboat Willie, which was the first all-sound cartoon. It also featured Disney as the voice of a character first called "Mortimer Mouse." Disney's wife, Lillian (whom he had married in 1925) suggested that Mickey sounded better, and Disney agreed.
Disney reinvested all of his profits toward improving his pictures. He insisted on technical perfection, and his gifts as a story editor quickly pushed his firm ahead. The invention of such cartoon characters as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Minnie, and Goofy, combined with the clever use of music, sound, and folk material (as in The Three Little Pigs ), made the Disney shorts of the 1930s successful all over the world. This success led to the establishment of the hugely profitable, Disney-controlled sidelines in advertising, publishing, and merchandising.
Disney rapidly expanded his studio operations to include a training school where a whole new generation of artists developed and made possible the production of the first feature-length cartoon, Snow White (1937). Other costly animated features followed, including Pinocchio, Bambi, and the famous musical experiment Fantasia. With Seal Island (1948), wildlife films became an additional source of income. In 1950 Treasure Island led to what became the studio's major product, live-action films, which basically cornered the traditional "family" market. Disney's biggest hit, Mary Poppins, was one of his many films that used occasional animation to project wholesome, exciting stories containing sentiment and music.
In 1954 Disney successfully invaded television, and by the time of his death the Disney studio had produced 21 full-length animated films, 493 short subjects, 47 live-action films, 7 True-Life Adventure features, 330 hours of Mickey Mouse Club television programs, 78 half-hour Zorro television adventures, and 280 other television shows.
Construction of theme parks
On July 18, 1957, Disney opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California, the most successful amusement park in history, with 6.7 million people visiting it by 1966. The idea for the park came to him after taking his children to other amusement parks and watching them have fun on amusement rides. He decided to build a park where the entire family could have fun together. In 1971 Disney World in Orlando, Florida, opened. Since then, Disney theme parks have opened in Tokyo, Japan, and Paris, France.
Disney also dreamed of developing a city of the future, a dream that came true in 1982 with the opening of Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). EPCOT, which cost an initial $900 million, was planned as a real-life community of the future with the very latest in technology (the use of science to achieve a practical purpose). The two principle areas of EPCOT are Future World and World Showcase, both of which were designed for adults rather than children.
Disney's business empire
Furthermore, Disney created and funded a new university, the California Institute of the Arts, known as Cal Arts. He thought of this as the peak of education for the arts, where people in many different forms could work together, dream and develop, and create the mixture of arts needed for the future. Disney once commented: "It's the principal thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures. If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something."
Disney's parks continue to grow with the creation of the Disney-MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom, and an extensive sports complex in Orlando. The Disney Corporation has also branched out into other types of films with the creation of Touchstone Films, into music with Hollywood Records, and even into vacations with its Disney Cruise Lines. In all, the Disney name now covers a multi-billion dollar enterprise, with business ventures all over the world.
In 1939 Disney received an honorary (received without meeting the usual requirements) Academy Award, and in 1954 he received four more Academy Awards. In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) presented Disney with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in the same year Disney was awarded the Freedom Foundation Award.
Walt Disney, happily married for forty-one years, was moving ahead with his plans for huge, new outdoor recreational areas when he died on December 15, 1966, in Los Angeles, California. At the time of his death, his enterprises had brought him respect, admiration, and a business empire worth over $100 million a year, but Disney was still mainly remembered as the man who had created Mickey Mouse almost forty years before.
For More Information
Barrett, Katherine, and Richard Greene. Inside the Dream: The Personal Story of Walt Disney. New York: Disney Editions, 2001.
Green, Amy Boothe. Remembering Walt. New York: Hyperion, 1999.
Logue, Mary. Imagination: The Story of Walt Disney. Chanhassen, MN: Child's World, 1999.
Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Disney, Walter Elias
DISNEY, WALTER ELIAS
Walt Disney (1901–1966) was a major business pioneer of the twentieth century. He created cartoons, live-action movies, imaginative theme parks, and wholesome family entertainment on a global scale. Having himself grown up almost without a childhood, Disney found a way to find the child in everyone by making cartoons and filling them with amusing characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
Born in 1901, Walt Disney had a difficult upbringing. His father Elias, a restless and unsuccessful carpenter and farmer, was a stern religious fundamentalist who readily disciplined his children with his belt. He also denied the children toys, games, and sporting equipment. This experience may have had an impact on his son's later determination to look on the sunny side of life. As the father changed jobs, the family moved frequently: from Chicago to Marceline, Missouri, to Kansas City, Missouri, and back to Chicago. Because of the family's constant traveling and the necessity for the children to contribute to the household's income, Disney's formal education ended at the ninth grade. At age 16, hoping to become a newspaper cartoonist, he joined an art class at the Academy of Fine Arts to develop his drawing skills.
In 1919, after a stint as a driver in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps during World War I (1914–1918), Disney moved to Kansas City, Missouri. There he worked at a variety of jobs as a commercial artist and cartoonist. With another young artist, Ub Iwerks, he formed his first small cartoon-film production company in the early 1920s. Along with brief animated advertising films, the company produced a series of animated fairy tales, "Alice in Cartoonland." With Disney's brother Roy as business manager, the little film company moved to Hollywood and produced 56 "Alice" films in three years. They also introduced the "Oswald the Rabbit" series, producing 26 of these cartoons in less than two years.
Mickey Mouse came to life in 1928, first as an airplane pilot, then as an adventurer and a sort of pirate-character. After viewing the first sound movie, "The Jazz Singer," late in 1928, Disney decided to make the first talking-and-music cartoon: Mickey Mouse as "Steamboat Willie." (He used his own voice for Mickey.) Soon, Mickey was joined by a girlfriend, Minnie. Their popularity led to the invention of such familiar characters as Donald Duck, Pluto, and Goofy. By 1936, eight years after the mouse with human characteristics appeared on the scene, Mickey Mouse had become one of the most widely recognized personalities in the world. Throughout the 1930s Disney continued to make both long and short cartoon features, many of which later became classics, including "Snow White," "Pinocchio," and "Dumbo."
In the 1940s, despite his many successes, Disney produced a series of financial failures, notably "Fantasia," a very different animated film set to classical music and later regarded as a classic. Disney was devastated when "Fantasia" did poorly at the box office and when half his artists went on strike to protest his dictatorial style. The training films combining live action with cartoon characters that he made for the federal government during World War II (1939–1945), however, turned Disney in a new and very successful direction.
Following the war, Disney made many films combining live-action and cartoons, including "The Song of the South." His company also produced very popular full-length animated films, including "Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland," and "Peter Pan." In the early 1950s Disney made a popular series of nature films. His film career was capped by "Mary Poppins" in 1964, for which he won five Academy Awards.
By the mid-1950s Disney had begun to produce such television shows as "Davy Crockett" and "The Mickey Mouse Club." At the same time, he was also developing the first of his famous Disneyland theme parks. The first Disneyland, near Los Angeles, California, opened in 1955. Disney's brilliant move was to integrate all his business ventures, using his television programs to motivate people to visit Disneyland, intending Disneyland to inspire parents and children to attend family-oriented Disney films. Disneyland was such a success that later the Disney company opened another theme park, Disney World, near Orlando, Florida.
By the 1960s Disney had created a very diversified entertainment empire, built on cartoon themes, animal icons, nostalgic sentiment, and a high level of quality control. His imagination, highly-developed merchandising skills, and uncanny ability to tap into the fantasies of children of all ages ensured that his company would thrive long after his death from lung cancer in 1966.
See also: Amusement Parks, Entertainment Industry, Movies
Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms. New York: Abrams, 1995.
Mosely, Leonard. Disney's World. New York: Stein and Day, 1985.
Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.
Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Walter Elias Disney
Walter Elias Disney
An American film maker and entrepreneur, Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) created a new kind of popular culture in feature-length animated cartoons and live-action "family" films.
Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, IL, on December 5, 1901, the fourth of five children born to a Canadian farmer and a mother from Ohio. He was raised on a Midwestern farm in Marceline, Missouri, and in Kansas City, where he was able to acquire some rudimentary art instruction from correspondence courses and Saturday museum classes. He would later use many of the animals and characters that he knew from that Missouri farm in his cartoons.
He dropped out of high school at 17 to serve in World War I. After serving briefly overseas as an ambulance driver, Disney returned in 1919 to Kansas City for an apprenticeship as a commercial illustrator and later made primitive animated advertising cartoons. By 1922, he had set up his own shop in association with Ub Iwerks, whose drawing ability and technical inventiveness were prime factors in Disney's eventual success.
Initial failure sent Disney to Hollywood in 1923, where in partnership with his loyal elder brother Roy, he managed to resume cartoon production. His first success came with the creation of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. Steamboat Willie was the first fully synchronized sound cartoon and featured Disney as the voice of a character first called "Mortimer Mouse." Disney's wife, Lillian, suggested that Mickey sounded better and Disney agreed.
Living frugally, he reinvested profits to make better pictures. His insistence on technical perfection and his unsurpassed gifts as story editor quickly pushed his firm ahead. The invention of such cartoon characters as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Minnie, and Goofy combined with the daring and innovative use of music, sound, and folk material (as in The Three Little Pigs) made the Disney shorts of the 1930s a phenomenon of worldwide success. This success led to the establishment of immensely profitable, Disney-controlled sidelines in advertising, publishing, and franchised goods, which helped shape popular taste for nearly 40 years.
Disney rapidly expanded his studio facilities to include a training school where a whole new generation of animators developed and made possible the production of the first feature-length cartoon, Snow White (1937). Other costly animated features followed, including Pinocchio, Bambi, and the celebrated musical experiment Fantasia. With Seal Island (1948), wildlife films became an additional source of income, and in 1950 his use of blocked funds in England to make pictures like Treasure Island led to what became the studio's major product, live-action films, which practically cornered the traditional "family" market. Eventually the Disney formula emphasized slick production techniques. It included, as in his biggest hit, Mary Poppins, occasional animation to project wholesome, exciting stories heavily laced with sentiment and, often, music.
In 1954, Disney successfully invaded television, and by the time of his death, the Disney studio's output amounted to 21 full-length animated films, 493 short subjects, 47 live-action films, seven True-Life Adventure features, 330 hours of Mickey Mouse Club television programs, 78 half-hour Zorro television adventures, and 280 other television shows.
On July 18, 1957, Disney opened Disneyland, a gigantic projection of his personal fantasies in Anaheim, CA, which has proved the most successful amusement park in history with 6.7 million people visiting it by 1966. The idea for the park came to him after taking his children to other amusement parks and watching them have fun on amusement rides. He decided to build a park where the entire family could have fun together. In 1971, Disney World, in Orlando, FL, opened. Since then, Disney theme parks have opened in Tokyo and Paris.
Disney had also dreamed of developing a city of the future, a dream realized in 1982 with the opening of EPCOT, which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. EPCOT, which cost an initial $900 million, was conceived of as a real-life community of the future with the very latest in high technology. The two principle areas of EPCOT are Future World and World Showcase, both of which were designed to appeal to adults rather than children.
In addition to his theme parks, Disney created and endowed a new university, the California Institute of the Arts, known as Cal Arts. He thought of this as the ultimate in education for the arts, where people in many different disciplines could work together, dream and develop, and create the mixture of arts needed for the future. Disney once commented: "It's the principle thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures. If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something."
Disney's parks continue to grow with the creation of the Disney-MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom, and a extensive sports complex in Orlando. The Disney Corporation has also branched out into other types of films with the creation of Touchstone Films, into music with Hollywood Records, and even vacationing with its Disney Cruise Lines. In all, the Disney name now lends itself to a multi-billion dollar enterprise, with multiple undertakings all over the world.
In 1939, Disney received an honorary Academy Award and in 1954 he received four Academy Awards. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Disney with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in the same year Disney was awarded the Freedom Foundation Award.
Happily married for 41 years, this moody, deliberately "ordinary" man was moving ahead with his plans for gigantic new outdoor recreational facilities when he died of circulatory problems on December 15, 1966, at St. Joseph's Hospital in Los Angeles, CA. At the time of his death, his enterprises had garnered him respect, admiration, and a business empire worth over $100 million-a-year, but Disney was still remembered primarily as the man who had created Mickey Mouse over two decades before.
The best book on Disney is Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney (1968). A useful source of technical information is Robert D. Feild, The Art of Walt Disney (1942). The most intimate portrait of Disney is by his daughter, Diane Disney Miller, The Story of Walt Disney (1957). Biographies of Disney appear in both the 1952 and 1967 issues of Current Biography. Disney's obituary appears in the December 16, 1966, issue of New York Times. □
Walter Elias Disney (December 5, 1901–December 15, 1966) was a motion picture and television producer and entrepreneur. After a childhood and youth in the Midwest, Walt Disney entered the field of animated cartoon films in the 1920s and ultimately achieved world fame with the creation of Mickey Mouse. He went on to a long and successful career producing cartoons, feature-length films, and wildlife documentaries, then branched out into television during the 1950s and broke new ground in that medium as well. He also pioneered the concept of theme parks with Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the latter in progress at the time of his death.
Although Disney achieved recognition in a variety of fields during his life, his lasting reputation as an artist rests on his work in animated cartoons. The Disney studio introduced technological innovations and a new level of artistic brilliance into animation, transforming a relatively crude medium into a dazzling and sophisticated form. The years of this transformation, and Walt Disney's peak years as an artist, were the 1930s and early 1940s—a period corresponding almost exactly to the Great Depression—during which Disney produced a series of one-reel Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons, then ambitiously tackled the making of feature-length animated films. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney's first full-length animated film, was a commercial success that captivated audiences and demonstrated the viability of the genre. By the early 1940s, in films like The Old Mill (1937), Snow White, and Fantasia (1940), the studio had established a standard of artistic excellence in animation that has never since been equaled.
The Depression years lent more than a backdrop to this creative phenomenon; they had a direct bearing on the process. In the early 1930s, when Disney's explosive growth was beginning, numerous artists were drawn to his studio out of simple necessity. Veterans of the period have testified that, in those bleak economic times, jobs for artists were exceedingly scarce. Cartoonists, fine draftsmen, skilled painters, and other artists flocked to the Disney studio, grateful for a chance at steady employment. Disney, in turn, displayed an uncanny knack for assessing the varied gifts of these artists, and encouraged them to use their distinctive abilities to elevate the quality of the films.
In addition, the films themselves reflected the spirit of their time. Mickey Mouse, created in 1928, gradually achieved nationwide recognition during 1929, and thus the rise of his popularity coincided with the onset of the Depression. Mickey, with his humble barnyard origins, made an ideal mascot for an America faced with hard times; his unflagging good cheer and plucky resourcefulness seemed to symbolize the indomitable spirit of the country. In his very first film, Plane Crazy, he improvises an airplane out of an old jalopy and other found objects, and in many succeeding films he similarly makes do with whatever unlikely items may be at hand.
An even more striking morale builder was the 1933 Silly Symphony Three Little Pigs. In this immensely popular cartoon, a nation facing a figurative "wolf at the door" saw the title characters defeat their Big Bad Wolf through a combination of optimism and hard work. The Pigs and their taunting theme song, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" sparked a nationwide craze in 1933, and observers have often seen the film as an antidote to the Depression. Other Silly Symphonies like Grass-hopper and the Ants and The Wise Little Hen (both 1934) entertainingly stressed the benefits of diligence and industry.
The happy antics of Mickey, the Pigs, and other Disney creations made life a little more bearable for millions of Americans during the 1930s. Small wonder that those same Americans continued to reward Disney with their loyal support in succeeding decades.
Barrier, Michael. Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. 1999.
Greene, Katherine, and Richard Greene. The Man behind the Magic: The Story of Walt Disney. 1991.
Isbouts, Jean-Pierre, director. Walt: The Man behind the Myth. 2001.
Kaufman, J. B. "Three Little Pigs: Big Little Picture." American Cinematographer 69, no. 11 (November 1988): 38–44.
Merritt, Russell, and J. B. Kaufman. A Companion to Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies. 2004.
Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. 1997.
J. B. Kaufman