Born in 1901, Walt Disney served briefly with the Red Cross in the closing stages of the First World War. After the War, he found a job with an advertising company. Walt was soon made redundant and, with a fellow ex-employee, Ub Iwerks, established his own business, the Laugh-O-Gram Company, making a series of silent movie satirical cartoons called Alice in Cartoonland. The cartoons were popular but distribution problems soon led Laugh-O-Gram Company into bankruptcy.
Walt moved to California to join his brother Roy who was recovering from tuberculosis there. The Disney brothers started a new business producing Alice in Cartoonland cartoons. The cartoons proved popular and the company soon hired Ub Iwerks and an assistant cartoonist, Lillian Bounds. Walt and Lillian married soon afterwards.
In 1927, Walt decided that he needed a fresh, new character and came up with a big-eared rabbit named Oswald. During a bitter dispute with his financial backers, Walt discovered that fine print in his contract meant that the backers owned the rights to Oswald. Walt promptly abandoned Oswald and began working to produce a new character. The result was Mortimer Mouse. He showed his drawings to Lillian who loved the mouse but hated the name. She suggested Mickey Mouse. (The Performo-Toy Company had been producing a toy called “Micky Mouse” since 1926. Some historians claim that Walt or Lillian would have seen this toy when they visited New York to meet with Universal Studios about Walt’s contract and that this suggested the name).
Walt made two silent Mickey Mouse cartoons, Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho, which failed to sell. In his third cartoon, Steamboat Willie, which premiered in November 1928, Walt added music and sound effects and it was huge hit. Music became a vital part in Disney’s future cartoons. Mickey’s first speaking cartoon was The Kanival Kid (1929) with Walt providing the voice (which he did until 1946).
Did you Know?
The first sound cartoon ever released was a 1928 RKO Aesop Fables cartoon called Dinner Time.
In 1931, the new Technicolor company granted Disney an exclusive contract to incorporate Technicolor into cartoons. The first of these cartoons, Flowers and Trees; Silly Symphony, won an Academy Award – the first of 29 won by his films.
Did You Know?
The first colour cartoon ever released was a 1930 MGM cartoon called Fiddlesticks.
Although technically and artistically superior, Disney cartoons were not as popular with audiences in the 1930s as more adult cartons like Betty Boop and Popeye. It was in the 1950s that the more conservative Disney product came to the fore because it was regarded as more suitable for television.
Disney’s next big project was a full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered in 1937. Snow White was a sensation and was followed by Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). During the Second World War, the Disney studios made training and propaganda films. After the War, they returned to full-length animated features with Cinderella but, by 1948, they felt that they had gone as far as they could with cartoons and turned to nature films, including the award-winning The Living Desert, and live-action movies – beginning with Treasure Island.
As the Disney studio’s focus moved away from animation, Walt’s interest turned to amusement parks. When taking his two daughters to amusement parks, Walt had become aware of their poor quality and began to plan the perfect park. To finance and promote his dream, Walt created two television series, Disneyland, which went to air in December 1954, and The Mickey Mouse Club which aired from October 1955. Walt’s Disneyland theme park opened in July 1955.
In the early 1960s, Walt began working with major corporations to develop exhibitions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. This led to the development of robot-like figures, which he called “audio-animatronics”, which were used in attractions such as It’s a Small World and Mr Lincoln.
Not content with having built his perfect amusement park, Walt began to dream of building the perfect city, which he called EPCOT. He bought a huge tract of land in Florida for his city but, in December 1966, Walt died from lung cancer. The Florida land was eventually used to build three theme parks – the first, Magic Kingdom Park, opened in 1971, the EPCOT Centre (a theme park, not Walt’s dream city) opened in 1982 and the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park opened in 1989.
The Disney organisation continued to expand after Walt’s death. New theme parks opened in Tokyo in 1983 and Paris in 1992. To counter diminishing audiences for family movies in the early 1980s, Disney established Touchstone Pictures to compete in the teenage and adult markets. By 1988, Disney became the top-grossing Hollywood studio.
In television, Disney launched the Disney Channel pay-TV service in 1983. Disney returned to broadcast television in 1985 with the Touchstone Division’s highly successful Golden Girls series.
New technology gave an impetus to animated features beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989, followed by Beauty and the Beast (1991), Alladin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) and then, in collaboration with Pixar Animation, Toy Story (1995), Monsters Inc (2001) and Finding Nemo (2003).