Animation is not recognized as a serious art form very often. Oh sure, there are exceptions: Pixar, Disney, Ghibli, Laika, and the acclaimed R-rated Anomalisa. But the misconception persists that animation is kids stuff. Animated films are 90 minute diversions for kids with some clever jokes scattered throughout for the grown ups to chuckle over. We’re going to banish this misconception once and for all. The art and technology of animation has a rich history and has been an integral part of film since the days of silent cinema.
Here is the story of American feature animation in the 1920s and 1930s, as it was pioneered by Walt Disney (1901-1966). It’s a tale of failure, betrayal, and triumph. It doesn’t start with a mouse. Once upon a time begins with Walt at all of 21 years old in 1923, venturing out west to Movieland.
“It was July 1923. I packed all of my worldly goods – a pair of trousers, a checkered coat, a lot of drawing materials and the last of the fairy tale reels we had made – in a kind of frayed cardboard suitcase. And with that wonderful audacity of youth, I went to Hollywood, arriving there with just forty dollars. It was a big day the day I got on the Santa Fe California Limited. I was just free and happy!”
“It all started with Alice.”
By the time he was twenty years old, Walt was running his own cartoon studio, Laugh-O-Grams. The distributor for the Missouri based studio went bankrupt however, and Laugh-O-Grams with it. Hardly deterred by these grim prospects, the young Disney decided to seek his fortune in the Hollywood dream factory.
At Laugh-O-Grams, Walt had animated and produced “Alice’s Wonderland,” what was to be the first in a short subject series known as the Alice Comedies. These shorts, which starred child actress Virginia Davis, combined animation and live action. They weren’t the first to do so, but they were the first in which a live action character interacted with cartoons in an animated world.
“Alice’s Wonderland” was never formally released but it was screened for prospective distributors. One of them, Margaret Winkler, agreed to distribute the Alice films. Walt signed a deal with the M.J. Winkler Company on October 16, 1923, and the Disney company as we know it was born.
There is a certain charm to the Alice Comedies. More than just curios from a bygone era, these short films possess undeniable technical and imaginative flair. They are fascinating, not only because of the time, but because this was the Disney company’s humble yet innovative start. The Alice Comedies are in the public domain and available on youtube. I definitely recommend watching them. They’re impressive even today without green screens or CGI effects and they represent an important time in Disney, film, and animation history.
Over the next four years, Walt continued producing the Alice Comedies. There were 56 in total. Three more actresses would portray Alice: Margie Gay, Dawn O’Day and Lois Hardwicke. Dawn O’Day would later change her name to Anne Shirley, and was able to make the successful transition from child actress before her early retirement at age 26.
When Virginia Davis passed away in 2009, Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney remembered her fondly.
“Gini was a very special lady who always took great pride in the historic role she played in our studio’s history. In fact, she liked to remind everyone that it all started with Alice, not Mickey Mouse.”
Women were absolutely crucial to Disney’s success. Margaret Winkler signed Walt to his first contract, and this was after she had seen unfinished cartoon reels from a bankrupt studio. Walt was an inexperienced 21 year old kid. But she took a chance on him. It makes me wonder if a male distributor would have showed that much confidence in his vision and potential. And like Miss Davis said, it all started with Alice!
Art & Business
There were two additional key players in Disney’s early days.
Roy O. Disney (1893-1971) possessed business acumen and handled the financial affairs from the start. He was named CEO in 1929 and was involved in most major company decisions throughout his life. One of my favorite jokes is that anytime Walt had an ingenious but expensive idea, Roy had to remind him that money was indeed an object. But Walt ignored him and went ahead anyway, with Roy heaving a weary sigh. He was already in California when Walt arrived. Roy, who had been resting in a veterans hospital, signed himself out on October 16, the day Walt signed the contract with Winkler. It was the Disney Brothers Studio originally, but at Roy’s urging, the name was changed to Walt Disney Studios.
Ub Iwerks (1901-1971) was the first animator hired at Disney. He had followed Walt to California after the failure of Laugh-O-Grams. Ub was renowned for both his animation and technical expertise. For one of the studio’s projects, “Plane Crazy” (1928), he produced 700 drawings in a single day. 80-100 drawings is the standard amount for today’s animator. Although Ub left the studio in 1930, he returned ten years later. He was also the artist partly responsible for the most famous mouse in the world.
The Lucky Rabbit
Walt soon decided to move onto exclusively animated shorts, abandoning the live action-animation model. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit became Alice’s replacement. He first appeared in 1927’s “Trolley Troubles”, a Universal cartoon. By this time, Margaret Winkler had married Charles Mintz, who took over the company.
With the success of the Oswald cartoons, the Disney staff grew. There’s so much appeal in Oswald’s design along with his personality. The lucky rabbit was a mischievous character, full of trickery and bravado. He was popular and the only rabbit in a market dominated by cats. Walt wanted more money in order to try new things. But Charles Mintz wanted to cut costs. The goal was not to push the envelope, but to make the cartoons for cheap. Walt planned on leaving Universal and financing the shorts on his own, but that was not to be. Mintz owned the rights to Oswald. What’s more, he had even strong armed most of the Disney staff into leaving Walt and working for him instead.
The loss of Oswald affected Walt deeply. A character he had created was stolen from him. This was one of the major turning points of his career. He vowed that it wouldn’t happen again. But since Oswald was no more, what could he do?
A note – Disney’s current CEO Bob Iger, who has generated lots of goodwill in the post Michael Eisner era, negotiated for Oswald’s return to the Disney family. The lucky rabbit has a devoted following today.
Another note – the homicidal villain in Pixar’s Up, Charles Muntz, was modeled after Mintz. I imagine that Walt’s frozen head got a big kick out of that.
The idea for a new character came to Walt while he was on the train following his meeting with Mintz. The mouse’s name would be Mortimer. Mortimer Mouse. But remember how important women were to the Disney company? A woman came to the rescue yet again! This time it was Walt’s wife, Lillian, who rightly told him that the name was terrible and to change it to something else. Mortimer Mouse later became a sleazy rival to…
From Walt’s brain to Ub’s pencil.
Despite his visual similarities to Oswald, Mickey was an entirely new character. Walt wanted him to be like Douglas Fairbanks, a fearless and charismatic hero, whereas Oswald only put on a show of bravery. Mickey made his debut in “Steamboat Willie” (1928), the first cartoon with synchronized sound.
Mickey’s enormous popularity was instant and assured the Disney company’s staying power. He became the mascot, a position he still holds today. Mickey also appeared on plenty of merchandise, at first to prevent a similar Oswald situation.
Mickey was a lot more troublesome in the 1920s and 1930s. It wasn’t until much later that he became polite.
Here he is with Jimmy Durante in Hollywood Party (1934). There was also a short film following this sequence, “Hot Choc-late Soldiers.”
This series of 75 cartoons began in 1929 with “The Skeleton Dance” and lasted until 1939’s “The Ugly Duckling.” It was composer Carl Stalling who came up with the idea of short films that would feature characters other than Mickey, along with music.
Some of the most famous:
- “Flowers and Trees” (1932). The first shot in 3 strip technicolor and the first to win an Academy Award for best short subject.
- “Babes in the Woods” (1932).
- “Three Little Pigs” (1933). Featuring the catchy tune “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which became a popular morale booster during the Depression.
- “The Cookie Carnival” (1935).
- “The Old Mill” (1937).
This film concerns farm animals who seek refuge from a storm. There’s an ethereal quality to it that you can also find in Walt’s later full length features. I fell in love with this short, mainly because of the frogs who start croaking to each other, before more of them show up and form their own mini orchestra. And “The Old Mill” showcases some enchanting art. What I also found impressive was its realism. Sure the animals are cute and even a little cartoony, but in those few minutes, you sympathize with their plight. The storm is frightening.
“The Old Mill” and other Silly Symphonies served as practice for Walt’s feature films. Combining realism, art, and emotional complexity within the narrative are the defining features of a Disney animated film. He proved it was possible for cartoons to have depth.
Another important milestone: the irascible Donald Duck made his first appearance in “The Wise Little Hen” (1934) and eclipsed Mickey in popularity. He’s the only Donald we acknowledge in 2016.
Walt wasn’t going to devote all of the company’s resources to Silly Symphonies only. As always, he was looking ahead to the next great venture. Now he wanted to make a full length animated film, something that hadn’t been done yet in America. He announced his plans to adapt the Snow White fairy tale in 1934.
Those closest to Walt, Lillian among them, expressed skepticism and even outright disbelief. It simply couldn’t be done. Walt ignored the naysayers and production on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, dubbed “Disney’s Folly,” was underway.
There were numerous artists working on Snow White, but nine of them were pivotal animators who would become some of the most influential at Disney and the industry as a whole. They were Walt’s Nine Old Men, borrowed from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s nickname for his nine justices on the supreme court.
Les Clark (1907-1979)
The first hired in 1927 and the first to animate Mickey Mouse.
He was working at a lunch counter that Walt and Roy used to frequent and one day actually asked Walt for a job. Walt told him to bring his drawings to the studio and immediately after graduating high school, he went to work. And he continued animating until his retirement in 1976.
Marc Davis (1913-2000)
Also known as Walt’s Renaissance Man. Marc joined the studio in 1935.
He was an assistant animator on Snow White, someone with multiple artistic skills. Walt referred to him as his renaissance man because he was an animator, character designer, and story sketch artist. He would later design the attractions for the Disney theme parks. Some of the iconic Disney ladies that Marc designed were Alice, Tinker Bell, Princess Aurora and Maleficent, and Cruella de Vil.
Ollie Johnston (1912-2008)
Hired in 1935, Ollie started out as an apprentice animator on short films before he became a directing animator on the feature films. Ollie primarily is known for his sensitivity in depicting friendships in Disney films. Frank Thomas said that Ollie’s warmth made all the difference in the characters.
“You’re not supposed to animate drawings. You’re supposed to animate feelings.”
Milt Kahl (1909-1987)
Hired in 1934, Milt was often assigned the most difficult characters, usually human males. But he was just that good (and he knew it and reminded everyone else).
Milt Kahl is revered today for his superior draftsmanship. Just look at those hands! He mentored none other than Brad Bird when he was a teenager. I seem to be the only one who thinks this, but in addition to his artistic knowledge, Milt passed on the more sardonic aspects of his personality to Brad as well.
Ward Kimball (1914-2002)
Ward’s specialty was comedy which makes sense, considering his irreverent brand of humor.
Two of Ward’s scenes were actually cut from Snow White, but he would later gain recognition on other Disney features. His style was described as the “antitheses of the traditional Disney style.”
Eric Larson (1905-1988)
Initially nursing journalism aspirations, his plans changed once he started at the studio as an assistant animator.
Eric later taught the new generation of animators at Cal Arts, the school founded by Walt Disney in 1962. Some of his adoring pupils included Pixarians John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, and Joe Ranft; Disney alums Glen Keane, Ron Clements, John Musker, and Andreas Deja; and the greatest weirdo of them all, Tim Burton.
John Lounsbery (1911-1976)
After joining the studio in 1935, John worked on a number of Pluto shorts before transitioning to directing animator on the feature films. Working under Norm Ferguson, John helped with the Old Witch in Snow White.
At the time of his death, he was still working on The Rescuers (1977). According to one Disney site, John was shy but that didn’t prevent him from animating some bold and energetic characters.
Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman (1909-1985)
My personal favorite of the Nine Old Men and easily the handsomest.
Woolie was highly adept at animating action sequences, such as the famous battle between Prince Philip and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959). He was also responsible for the magic mirror in Snow White.
“It was a romance from the start. The minute you know you can make a drawing move, the static drawing loses its appeal: movement is life. Animation represents the greatest breakthrough in 20th century art.”
Frank Thomas (1912-2004)
Ollie’s best friend! Frank came to Disney in 1934. He animated the dwarfs crying over Snow White in her coffin, along with other watershed moments in Disney films, like the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp and Bambi and Thumper on ice. Frank was also the only one of Walt’s nine to travel with him on his goodwill tour of South America in 1941. Because of his superb ability to convey emotion, he was christened the Laurence Olivier of animation.
“Until a character becomes a personality, it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal.”
Other notable artists and animators: Art Babbit, Bill Peet, Ken Anderson, Fred Moore (redesigned Mickey Mouse), Bill Tytla (“animation’s Michelangelo” and Grumpy’s lead animator), Gustaf Tenggren (background designer on Snow White), and Joe Grant.
There were women too, of course. At the time, women couldn’t be animators at any of the studios, but they were vitally important in the production of animated films.
The ink & paint girls were hidden gems. Because they weren’t allowed to animate (I know), their contributions are actually much more appreciable as a result. Inking and painting was a meticulous task that required the most precise fingers. The white gloved girls (most of them were in their late teens and early 20s) in this department were required to trace over the drawings on cel sheets with paint.
This 2010 Vanity Fair article shone a much needed spotlight on these women.
“I came to realize they were real-life models for the dedicated working girls who populated movie screens in the 30s and 40s. Neither downtrodden factory workers nor madcap flappers who jumped into fountains, they may have been caught in a sand trap of repetitive, highly precise work where eyes strained, waistlines shrank, and some even fainted, but they loved what they did and wanted to be the best.”
While things have changed, animation is still widely considered a boys club, with a few notable cracks in the glass ceiling. The ink & painters produced quality work, refining the lush art that eventually appeared onscreen. They deserve as much credit as any of Walt’s boys. Hand drawn animation is almost obsolete in this country, but if you ever think about how these women did their jobs by hand with no computers or technology, it should make your eyes widen in awe.
With Snow White, Walt and his artists accomplished a great deal. The film opened to a packed Carthay Circle theater with celebrities in attendance, such as Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and Marlene Dietrich. It was the highest grossing film of all time until Gone With the Wind in 1939. It laid the foundation for the Disney animated musical. During the 1990s, the tradition was revived by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. The film also won an honorary Oscar, along with seven dwarf statuettes.
The resounding success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was partly responsible for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Even Orson Welles’ magnum opus Citizen Kane (1941) borrowed from the animated film.
Modern critics tend to dismiss the film for its so called antiquated portrayals of gender. Some people even think that the decade is responsible for this regressive view. First of all, the 1930s were an excellent decade for women in film. Women of the 30s were independent, bold, demure, and funny. You’ll find more variety watching a pre code or screwball comedy than you will today. But hey, if you’re looking for well rounded female characters in film today, know where you’ll find them? Animation! If anyone believes that Snow White‘s depiction of women is problematic, 1937 should not be the basis for that belief.
Snow White isn’t passive and takes her life into her own hands. After the huntsman spares her life, Snow White flees into the forest, where each shape and sound becomes a sinister foe. Here’s this little girl running for her life in kitten heels. Wouldn’t a normal person be terrified? And look at that, no prince comes to her rescue. She makes it out herself; terrified, traumatized, but all on her own. Even after that ordeal, she begins to formulate a plan. Now for a smile and a song. She’ll worry about possibly being murdered later.
Snow White may not be the most well developed character, but her virtues stand out in sharp contrast to what passes as a Strong Female Character. She’s kind, good, innocent, and sweet. She’s also compassionate and shrewd. She assumes that the dwarfs are actually orphans because of their squalid living conditions. And she has an ingenious idea. She’ll cook and clean for them in exchange for room and board. That’s mighty clear eyed thinking for a helpless young woman.
Also, the prince never saved Snow White; the dwarfs did. Once the evil queen was dead, her life was no longer in danger. All the prince did was kiss her awake. That kiss is controversial, but fairy tale romances are often far fetched, and a kiss usually breaks the spell. What’s more, the prince was surrounded by witnesses. So I don’t think it’s all that worrisome, but that’s just me. There’s no kiss in the original Grimms story, but the prince does ask if he can keep Snow White’s coffin in his castle. Which is creepy.
The Principles of Animation were also being developed at the studio during this period. Art and animation techniques were improved and Walt’s animators had been receiving additional training at the Chouinard Art Institute since 1929. Sloppy work would not be tolerated. The look of cartoons would be revolutionized.
Something I find frustrating about the Deconstruction of the Walt Disney Myth is the insistence by some to disregard his contributions to art and film. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs wasn’t the first animated film. Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) was. Achmed is a significant film, because its director was a woman and her silhouette animation is breathtaking. There’s no need to smugly point out that Snow White wasn’t the first. Many people have gaps in their film knowledge because Hollywood and the world have always prioritized the achievements of white men over everybody else.
But Snow White was the first full length animated feature in the United States. Unlike Reiniger’s masterpiece, Walt’s film contained emotional thrust in the narrative. Frank Thomas’ scene of the dwarfs crying was crucial. Walt was trying to prove that animated films could hold the attention of audiences and that they could form emotional bonds with cartoon characters. He wanted to place animation on the same level as live action. He succeeded, to an extent.
Today, conventional Hollywood “wisdom” tells us that multiple animated films playing in theaters at the same time is a glut. Never mind that animated films consistently out perform live action ones at the box office. Critics will wonder why animated films have to explore complex themes (like learning disabilities in Finding Dory) but then also wonder why Cars 2 didn’t do the same. These critics will find fault with animated films from studios that don’t follow the Pixar pattern. And remember, if something is G rated, it’s absolutely not worth your time because there’s no “adult” humor or sexual content.
Something else critics don’t understand:
animation is not a genre.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs isn’t a children’s film with occasional winks to the sophisticated adult audience. Children weren’t even allowed to see it in England because it was too scary! There’s nothing saccharine or dishonest about this timeless work of art, still as captivating today as it was in 1937. It’s got action, drama, peril, humor, songs, and heart. Walt simply doesn’t have an equal when it comes to fairy tale adaptations. His films balanced all the sweetness and absurdity of fairy tales with the terror of them too. And today, his closest successor is Hayao Miyazaki, along with the filmmakers at Disney and Pixar, who don’t cater to adults that have been forced into watching animated films with their children.
Walt Disney was a pro at assembling the finest talent for collaborative art. His artists, animators, and ink & paint girls crafted memorable scenes and characters that are fully ingrained in America’s collective imagination. What started with Alice just continues to grow.
“Around here however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
D23 – the official Disney Fanclub
Deja View – veteran Disney animator Andreas Deja’s blog
Snow White Archive
Vintage Mickey Mouse
The Walt Disney Family Museum
Marc Davis: Renaissance Man by various authors
Two Guys Named Joe by John Canemaker
My overheated brain
If you made it this far, thanks so much for reading! Here’s a picture of Walt gnawing on a chicken to reward you for your efforts.
I wrote this post for the Classic Movie History Project blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Fritzi of Movies Silently, and Ruth of Silver Screenings. Click on the banner below for more amazing posts on the movies and the people who made them!