Despite the efforts of his biographers, a background of legend is still hovering over the figure of Walt Disney (1901-1966). A repeated rumor assures that Disney was a European emigrant, probably Spanish, who arrived in the United States and who, later, for fear of suspicion, falsified his origin. The circumstances of his death have also been mythologized: many believed that Disney had been frozen with modern hibernation techniques.
According to this legend, his body would still remain like this with the vital signs suspended, waiting for a future in which he could wake up and new surgical procedures would repair his health. But the prosaic reality is that Disney’s corpse was cremated at the wish of his relatives. It should not be surprising, however, all this mixture of reality and fantasy around who went down in the history of Western culture as one of the most prolific, contradictory and influential cultivators of children’s imagination.
Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois. Fourth of the five children that Elias and Flora Disney had, his childhood was spent between financial difficulties and under the severity of his father, a carpenter by profession, who tried his luck in all kinds of businesses without ever managing to improve his battered economy. Eternally despised by his father, Walt grew up very close to his mother, a former teacher of German descent, and his brother Roy, eight years his senior.
In 1906, Elias Disney decided to start a new life on a farm near the small town of Marceline, Missouri, where Walt discovered nature and animals. Also then, his interest in drawing was born, which he shared with his little sister, Ruth. Elias Disney made his children work so hard keeping up the farm that the oldest two, Herbert and Raymond, decided to leave home to set up shop on their own back in Chicago.
the difficult beginnings
The precarious situation in which the family was left with the departure of the two young men worsened in the winter of 1909, when the father contracted typhoid fever and the disease forced him to sell the farm and move to Kansas City, Missouri, where he found a job as a newspaper delivery boy, a task in which Roy and Walt helped him. This meant a lower performance of little Walt at school, where he was never an outstanding student. After a couple of years, Walt, who occasionally earned some money selling caricatures of him, enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he learned the first notions of drawing technique. In those years of his adolescence he discovered the cinema , an invention that fascinated him from the first moment.
In 1917, five years after Roy Disney also left home, Elias Disney moved with his wife and two young children back to Chicago, where he tried his luck setting up a small jam factory. In the spring of 1918, Walt, aged just seventeen, forged his birth certificate and enlisted as a Red Cross soldier to fight in World War I. He arrived in Europe when there was already peace, but was stationed in France and Germany until September 1919. After graduation, he went to live with his brother Roy in Kansas City, where he sought employment as a draftsman.
His dream was to become an artist for the Kansas City Star, the newspaper he had delivered as a child, but he found work as an apprentice at an advertising agency, the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. With a salary of 50 dollars a month, in that job he met Ub Iwerks , a young man his own age and exceptionally gifted at drawing, with whom he became friends. When the two lost their jobs, they set up their own company, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. The company lasted barely a month, since Walt preferred to accept a secure job, although he convinced his new bosses to hire Iwerks. In that job both learned the still very rudimentary techniques of film animation.
Restless and innovative by nature, Disney borrowed a camera and set up a modest studio in the garage of his home, where, with the help of Iwerks and working nights, they produced their first animated film. The film caught on and they got new commissions until Disney, not yet twenty-one years old, convinced Iwerks to try their luck as entrepreneurs again with a company they called Laugh-O-Gram Films. With a production based on traditional stories, things went well for them until the bankruptcy of their main client dragged them into bankruptcy as well.
In 1923, after futilely trying to get over the hump, Disney emigrated to Hollywood. The burgeoning film industry had made Hollywood a land of promise. Disney believed that with his experience as a cameraman he would get a job as a director, but no studio wanted his services, so he decided to set up his own company again with his brother Roy as a partner. On October 16, 1923, the Disney Brothers Studio signed its first major contract, but it was still insufficient to cope with its financial difficulties. Even then, Walt revealed what would later be a constant in his company: that he was capable of resorting to any stratagem to get the business off the ground. In 1924,
On July 13, 1925, three months after his brother Roy got married, Disney married Lillian Bounds, a young employee of his studio, with whom he had two daughters: Diane Marie, born on December 18, 1933 when the marriage already ruled out that they could have children, and Sharon Mae, whom they adopted in 1936. In the spring of 1926, and after having had to change locations because the company was growing, the two brothers changed the name of their company, which was renamed the Walt Disney Studio. But the studio suffered a major setback when its main client took the rights to Oswald the rabbit, a character created by Disney who had starred in several short films.
Mickey Mouse Triumph
Determined to cut out the middleman henceforth, Disney conceived (during a train ride from Hollywood to New York) Mortimer, a little mouse later renamed Mickey at his wife’s suggestion and shaped by Iwerks. This is how Disney told it, but, in reality, the paternity of Mickey Mouse has always been a source of controversy, and currently Iwerks himself tends to be attributed. In October 1928, when Disney was looking for a distributor for the two films he had produced with Mickey Mouse as the lead, the first sound film was shown. Anticipating other producers who thought that innovation was temporary, Walt rushed to incorporate sound into a third Mickey film, Willie on the Steamboat.(1928). A good imitator of voices and accents, Disney made his little mouse and his girlfriend, Minnie, speak in his own voice to cut costs. The film, released on November 18, 1928 in a New York theater, was a resounding success with the public and critics.
In 1929, with his exceptional sixth business sense, he authorized several companies to reproduce the image of Mickey Mouse on their products, incorporating white gloves and shoes to prevent hands and feet from disappearing against dark backgrounds. On January 13, 1930, a vignette of the popular character began to be published (with Disney as the writer and Iwerks as the cartoonist) in several newspapers in the United States, and that same year a book of Mickey drawings was published that was reissued numerous times.
Addicted to work, for whom he stole many hours of sleep, Disney had a serious health crisis that forced him, at the end of 1931 and when the Mickey Mouse club already had a million members, to take a long vacation with his wife. . Back in Hollywood, he joined a sports club where he practiced boxing, calisthenics, wrestling and golf. Shortly thereafter he discovered equestrianism and eventually polo, of which he was a fanatic for the rest of his life. A hobby that he cultivated with as much passion as his fascination with trains and miniatures.
With Mickey Mouse as the flagship of a company on the rise, Disney believed that it should not rest on its laurels or get bored making only movies of the famous little mouse, which in 1932 was the first Oscar he would receive during his career. Backed by a team of excellent draftsmen and illustrators, he displayed his full creative spirit in the first series of his Silly Symphonies (1932). Made in Technicolor, the various short films that made up this production meant in their time an experiment in the expressive use of color. In November of that same year, the Disney studio became the first to have its own school of cartoonists and animators.
A year later, on May 27, 1933, he premiered the silly symphony that made number thirty-six and was to have an unexpected success: The Three Little Pigs . Unintentionally, his famous song From him Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? it became a song of hope for millions of Americans trying not to be devoured in real life by the Great Depression. In 1934, when his studio had 187 people, Donald Duck was born, a character with an irascible and perverse character, who came to join the dogs Pluto and Goofy.
When he had already made a name for himself in the Hollywood industry, Walt Disney undertook a risky and unprecedented initiative: to produce the first animated feature film in the history of cinema. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) showed not only that Disney and his team were animation virtuosos, but that cartoons could be a whole film genre. The film grossed four million dollars, a record for the time, but it left Disney in debt until 1961 because of the repayment of the credits that it had to ask for, since the initial budget of $500,000 for the film had ended up tripling.
In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , the multiplane camera was used for the first time, capable of suggesting depth of field thanks to an ingenious system of superimposing five sheets filmed in the same plane to simulate distance, and a new Technicolor system. The film was the first example that the animated cinema of the Disney school had a solid narrative procedure, in which the human characters were described from the “look” of humanized animals or fantastic beings. Disney’s taste for the dark and his style of suggesting rather than openly showing terror was also evident in the film.
The 1940s was a period of great activity at Disney, characterized both by the consolidation of the style initiated with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and by the contradiction that Walt felt between his artistic tendency towards innovation and risk and the need to serve a market not given to novelties and experiments. A reflection of this was the lukewarm response of the public to the following films coming out of his “factory” of dreams. Pinocchio (1940), translation of the famous book by Carlo Collodi , was praised as one of the masterpieces of animated cinema by critics; $2,600,000 was spent on it, and it was a commercial disaster.
The same thing happened with Fantasia (1940), which cost $2,300,000. In it cartoonists and animators combined the evolution of cartoon characters with the music of Stravinsky , Dukas , Beethoven , Ravel , Bach or Tchaikovsky . Considered a masterpiece by some and an insulting caricature of classical music by others, Fantasia was not the “total work” that Walt Disney had envisioned and desired. These commercial failures opened an important economic gap in the company, palliated shortly after by the consecutive successes of Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942).
After the sketch on The Dance of the Hours , by Amilcare Ponchielli , which he co-directed with Norman Ferguson in Fantasia using the pseudonym T. Hee, Walt Disney abandoned the field of directing to dedicate himself almost exclusively to the task of directing the fledgling empire. The film company he had so modestly started fifteen years earlier had become. On May 6, 1940, he completed construction on his new Burbank studios, earning him the nickname “Wizard of Burbank.”
Designed by himself with the aim of facilitating the work of his employees, those studios had twenty large buildings, separated by streets named after his characters. The company’s workforce was around 2,000 employees, from whom Disney demanded a high level of creativity and production in exchange for very low wages, although he never spared any expense when making his films and always personally led a private life without luxuries. no ostentation.
On November 10, 1940, he began collaborating with the FBI, after the then director of the federal investigative agency, J. Edgar Hoover , had tried on several occasions to recruit the film producer as an agent to provide him with any information or details. about the presence of subversive elements (communists, syndicalists or anarchists) in Hollywood. However, Disney’s first political dalliances had a more progressive character and dated back to 1938, when he joined the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers, an association of independent producers and filmmakers opposed to the absolute domination of the big Hollywood studios. From that group, which included figures such as Orson Welles or Charlie Chaplin, Disney was drifting towards an ideology close to the North American Nazi party and a strongly anti-Marxist sentiment.
In 1941, a newly formed illustrators’ union at his company threatened the “Wizard of Burbank” with going on strike demanding better wages. Disney tried to personally avoid the conflict by addressing a speech to his employees, but they, to his astonishment, since he conceived the company as a large family, did not let him get past the first sentences. On May 29 of that year, the Disney studios were almost paralyzed by a strike in which most of the workers participated and that lasted a whole year. The conflict ended when the company agreed to allow workers to freely choose their union, including the leftist Screen Cartoonists Guild.
The agreements that led to the end of the strike were signed by Roy Disney, since Walt was traveling through various countries in South America. Several films came out of that long trip basically aimed at the Latin American public. Among them, Greetings, Friends (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1945), in which he combined cartoons and flesh and blood actors. In 1943, many of his best cartoonists left him to found the UPA (United Productions of America), where, among others, the myopic character of Mister Magoo would be born.
Once World War II ended , in which Disney had agreed to film propaganda films for the US government, he left the presidency of his company, giving the position to his brother Roy, but he only kept that decision for a few months and at the end of 1945 he returned. to occupy the presidential seat. Upon his return, he laid off more than 400 employees, saying the company was in crisis and had to honor an agreement with the Screen Cartoonists Guild to give cartoonists a 25% pay raise.
Reaffirmed in his anti-Marxism and collaborator with the FBI until his death, Disney promised to abort any element that would attack the North American nation in the meeting held on November 24 and 25, 1947 at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, which culminated in the so-called Waldorf Declaration, in which many film producers pledged to collaborate with the Commission on Un-American Activities in the “witch hunt.”
In August 1948 he made a trip with his daughter Sharon to film images in Alaska, and with the material he made the series of shorts titled Real Life Adventures . Her brother Roy opposed the project (by then they were already so far apart that they only saw each other after making an appointment with their respective secretaries) and predicted an uncertain fate for this type of documentaries. He was wrong, since the first of them, entitled Seal Island (1948), was not only profitable, but was awarded an Oscar in the short film category.
Almost at the end of the forties, Disney received an interesting proposal from Howard Hughes : an interest-free loan of one million dollars in exchange for his help in a field (the film sector) that the Texan billionaire did not know and in which he wanted invest. With that money, Disney launched 18 new projects, including Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953). After a very expensive foray into futuristic cinema with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), he returned to cheaper projects that were in tune with the pride of being American.
By then, his company was no longer the queen of cartoons. Warner Brothers was beginning to give him serious competition with the star of his Looney Tunes series , Bugs Bunny. That rabbit was the counterpoint to the candid, apolitical and sexless Mickey Mouse, who in the early fifties experienced his lowest moments of popularity, although he continued to be Disney’s favorite character and the emblem of his empire.
In 1953, after winning a new Oscar for best documentary with The Living Desert , he began talks with the ABC television network to cede the broadcast of his films to the new invention. Unlike other Hollywood producers, who considered her a threat, Disney believed that television was an excellent means of disseminating her products. A year later he began making films specifically for television, the part of his artistic production most reviled by critics. Criticism that would also rain years later with Mary Poppins(1964), his first feature film with only real actors. But Disney didn’t care, because those movies gave him the money he needed to make a project he had cherished for a long time come true: build a huge amusement park based on his characters.
A workaholic and perfectionist, the film producer designed every detail of Disneyland, which opened its doors on July 17, 1955, in Anaheim, California. This park, with an extension of 120 hectares, cost 17 million dollars, and Main Street USA, its main street where hundreds of actors dressed as characters walked, perfectly recreated the main street of Marceline, the town where she lived her childhood Disney, who that summer of 1955 was already the grandfather of the first of the ten grandchildren he had.
Multimillionaire and winner of twenty-nine Oscars, in the sixties he had established himself as one of the most well-known and beloved characters in the world, but his health was failing, and his entire empire entered into a struggle for succession. A heavy smoker and fond of alcohol, he died on December 15, 1966 in Los Angeles, California, a victim of lung cancer, after having supervised the sketches of Disney World, a Disneyland-style theme park but more focused on adults, which would open its doors in 1971 in Orlando, Florida (in 1983, the company opened Tokyo Disneyland in Japan and in 1992 the Euro Disney in Paris opened its doors).
The “Wizard of Burbank” had died without seeing the completion of The Jungle Book (1967), Disney’s second most commercial film since the time of Snow White and directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, who took over the production of the Disney animated features. until 1981. After years of heavy production and few notable successes, the Disney studios once again became kings of the cartoon genre with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King .(1994). With the death of Disney, one of the fundamental names of popular culture of the 20th century entered the legend. With varying success, they would try to replace him with figures as disparate as his brother Roy O. Disney, his nephew Roy E. Disney and his son-in-law Ron Miller. But only executive producer Michael Eisner proved to be a worthy successor to him.
-Laughter is America’s most important export.
-There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.
-The era we are living in today is a dream of coming true.
-Somehow I can’t believe that there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secrets of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C s. They are curiosity, confidence, courage, and constancy.
-A man should never neglect his family for business.
-The worst of us is not without innocence, although buried deeply it might be.
-After the rain, the sun will reappear. There is life. After the pain, the joy will still be here.
-Leadership means that a group, large or small, is willing to entrust authority to a person who has shown judgment, wisdom, personal appeal, and proven competence.
-Fantasy and reality often overlap.
-The important thing is the family. If you can keep the family together — and that’s the backbone of our whole business, catering to families — that’s what we hope to do.
-There’s nothing funnier than the human animal.
-Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards – the things we live by and teach our children – are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings.
-You reach a point where you don’t work for money.
-You can’t just let nature run wild.
-The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.
-I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.
-Do a good job. You don’t have to worry about the money; it will take care of itself. Just do your best work — then try to trump it.
-The more you like yourself, the less you are like anyone else, which makes you unique.
-A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.
-All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.
-All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.
-Why worry? If you’ve done the very best you can, worrying won’t make it any better.
-First, think. Second, believe. Third, dream. And finally, dare.
-Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it’s done right.
-The difference between winning and losing is most often not quitting.
-All you’ve got to do is own up to your ignorance honestly, and you’ll find people who are eager to fill your head with information.
-Everyone falls down. Getting back up is how you learn how to walk.
-Never get bored or cynical. Yesterday is a thing of the past.
-Courage is the main quality of leadership, in my opinion, no matter where it is exercised. Usually it implies some risk — especially in new undertakings. Courage to initiate something and to keep it going, pioneering and adventurous spirit to blaze new ways, often, in our land of opportunity.
-People often ask me if I know the secret of success and if I could tell others how to make their dreams come true. My answer is, you do it by working.
-When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do. And one thing it takes to accomplish something is courage.
-Crowded classrooms and half-day sessions are a tragic waste of our greatest national resource – the minds of our children.
-Adults are interested if you don’t play down to the little 2 or 3 year olds or talk down. I don’t believe in talking down to children. I don’t believe in talking down to any certain segment. I like to kind of just talk in a general way to the audience. Children are always reaching.
-Children are people, and they should have to reach to learn about things, to understand things, just as adults have to reach if they want to grow in mental stature.
-Childishness? I think it’s the equivalent of never losing your sense of humor. I mean, there’s a certain something that you retain. It’s the equivalent of not getting so stuffy that you can’t laugh at others.
-I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether he be six or sixty. Call the child innocence.
-I don’t believe in playing down to children, either in life or in motion pictures. I didn’t treat my own youngsters like fragile flowers, and I think no parent should.
-I have long felt that the way to keep children out of trouble is to keep them interested in things.
-Why do we have to grow up? I know more adults who have the children’s approach to life. They’re people who don’t give a hang what the Jones’ do. You see them at Disneyland every time you go there. They are not afraid to be delighted with simple pleasures, and they have a degree of contentment with what life has brought – sometimes it isn’t much, either.
-You’re dead if you aim only for kids. Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.
-Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination. But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.
-It’s a mistake not to give people a chance to learn to depend on themselves while they are young.
-Animation offers a medium of story telling and visual entertainment which can bring pleasure and information to people of all ages everywhere in the world.
-Animation is different from other parts. Its language is the language of caricature. Our most difficult job was to develop the cartoon’s unnatural but seemingly natural anatomy for humans and animals.
-Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation.
-In our animation we must show only the actions and reactions of a character, but we must picture also with the action. . . the feeling of those characters.
-I try to build a full personality for each of our cartoon characters – to make them personalities.
-I think a good study of music would be indispensable to the animators — a realization on their part of how primitive music is, how natural it is for people to want to go to music — a study of rhythm, the dance — the various rhythms enter into our lives every day.
-I think you have to know these fellows definitely before you can draw them. When you start to caricature a person,you can’t do it without knowing the person. Take Laurel and Hardy for example; everybody can see Laurel doing certain things because they know Laurel.
-Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.
-When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity.
-Mickey Mouse popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner.
-I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.
-Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.
-I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the Park (Disneyland). I want to feel they’re in another world.
-Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.
-We did it Disneyland, in the knowledge that most of the people I talked to thought it would be a financial disaster – closed and forgotten within the first year.
-Disneyland is a show.
-I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral.
-You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality.
-We are not trying to entertain the critics. I’ll take my chances with the public.
-We allow no geniuses around our Studio.
-Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.
-We have created characters and animated them in the dimension of depth, revealing through them to our perturbed world that the things we have in common far outnumber and outweigh those that divide us.
-At first the cartoon medium was just a novelty, but it never really began to hit until we had more than tricks… until we developed personalities. We had to get beyond getting a laugh. They may roll in the aisles, but that doesn’t mean you have a great picture. You have pathos in the thing.
-I take great pride in the artistic development of cartoons. Our characters are made to go through emotions.
-I wanted to retain my individuality. I was afraid of being hampered by studio policies. I knew if someone else got control, I would be restrained.
-My greatest reward is that I have been able to build this wonderful organization.
-I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.
-I never called my work an ‘art’. It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.
-I believe in being a motivator.
-I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with ‘expressing’ myself with obscure creative impressions.
-I am not influenced by the techniques or fashions of any other motion picture company.
-I am corny, you know? But I think there are just about 140 million people in this country who are just as corny as I am.
-I am in no sense of the word a great artist, not even a great animator; I have always had men working for me whose skills were greater than my own. I am an idea man.
-When I was a kid, a book I read advised young artists to be themselves. That decided it for me. I was a corny kind of guy, so I went in for corn.
-I don’t make pictures just to make money. I make money to make more pictures.
-I have never been interested in personal gain or profit. This business and this studio have been my entire life.
-Money doesn’t excite me, my ideas excite me.
-Most of my life I have done what I wanted to do. I have had fun on the job.
-I dream, I test my dreams against my beliefs, I dare to take risks, and I execute my vision to make those dreams come true.
-Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.
-I don’t like formal gardens. I like wild nature. It’s just the wilderness instinct in me, I guess.
-I do not like to repeat successes, I like to go on to other things.
-I’d say it’s been my biggest problem all my life… it’s money. It takes a lot of money to make these dreams come true.
-I have no use for people who throw their weight around as celebrities, or for those who fawn over you just because you are famous.
-Whenever I go on a ride, I’m always thinking of what’s wrong with the thing and how it can be improved.