THE WALT DISNEY COMPANYPrimary Product: Animated cartoons
Producing Since: 1922
Noted For: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Uncle Scrooge, Snow White, and much, much more
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Mickey Mouse. In fact, Mickey's early antagonist, Pegleg Pete, is a full three years older than Mickey himself!
Disney got his start in Kansas City, where, beginning in 1922, he produced animated advertisements and small vignettes for a local movie house. Newman's Laugh-O-Grams (named after the theater where they were shown) soon grew to be full-length (four to seven minutes) animated shorts. The people who worked with Disney on this series included Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, and Isadore "Friz" Freleng, all of whom would later achieve fame in animation. Very few of the cartoons in this series survive today.
In 1923, Disney moved to Hollywood, taking his crew with him, and started producing shorts for national distribution. His first series there was the "Alice" Comedies, about a live-action little girl's adventures with animated cartoon characters. Only Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell series is better remembered as an early example of mixing live action with animation. For financing, and getting the Alice series into theaters, Disney teamed up with distributor M.J. (Margaret) Winkler.
Disney produced Alice shorts at an average rate of about one every three weeks from 1923-27. After a few dozen, however, they grew stale, and were replaced in 1927 by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Oswald was a big hit, but the cost to produce his cartoons rose sharply — driven largely by Disney's constant efforts to improve his studio's output. In 1928, Disney asked Charles Mintz (Winkler's husband, who was by then running her business) for a budget increase, but Mintz had what he thought was a better idea. Disney must accept a cut in his budget, or Mintz would assign Oswald (which the distributor legally controlled) to another studio — and he'd already secured agreements from most of Disney's key employees to man it.
Disney let Oswald go, and returned to a studio that consisted only of himself, his brother Roy, and Ub Iwerks. Vowing never again to let anyone else own his work, he next released Mickey Mouse — and for the very first time, a Disney series failed to become an instant hit. He had trouble getting distributors interested in a character that looked more-or-less like Oswald with round ears.
Then came sound. Disney was the first to embrace the new technology, which he did with the third Mickey cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), and the effect was little short of electrifying. The studio immediately added sound tracks to the two earlier Mickeys (Plane Crazy and Galloping Gaucho, both 1928), and re-released them. Before long, everyone was doing sound cartoons, but by then, Mickey had become well established as animation's reigning superstar. And this time, Disney's studio got the profits.
Disney hired Carl Stalling, a theatre organist he'd known back in Kansas City, as animation's first musical director, and Stalling promptly suggested a cartoon based entirely on a musical score. Skeleton Dance (1929) was the first of the Silly Symphonies, a series that won all of the first six Academy Awards given in the category of animation. It was in a Silly Symphony, Flowers and Trees (1932), that Disney again became the first cartoon producer to embrace new technology — this time, color.
More classic characters followed — Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto and all were succeeding not just at the box office, but also as coloring books, toys, Big Little Books, and other licensed products. In 1930, a newspaper comic strip about Mickey Mouse started, followed in 1932 by Silly Symphonies. From there, Disney comics went on to become a prominent part of the company's burgeoning empire.
But Disney was constantly trying to push the envelope, and prove just what animation was capable of. In 1937, he premiered Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, animation's first successful feature-length film. Animated features are common today, but for many years, only Disney was able to succeed with them.
The Disney studio won the animation Oscar for Flowers & Trees (1932), Three Little Pigs (1933), The Tortoise & the Hare (1934), Three Orphan Kittens (1935), Country Cousin (1936), The Old Mill (1937), Ferdinand the Bull (1938), The Ugly Duckling (1939), Lend a Paw (1941), Der Fuehrer's Face (1942), Toot, Whistle, Plunk & Boom (1953), Winnie the Pooh & the Blustery Day (1968), and It's Tough to Be a Bird (1969). It was also nominated for Mickey's Orphans (1932), Building a Building (1933), Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935), Brave Little Tailor (1938), Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938), Good Scouts (1938), The Pointer (1939), Truant Officer Donald (1941), Reason & Emotion (1943), How to Play Football (1944), Donald's Crime (1945), Squatter's Rights (1946), Chip 'n' Dale (1947), Pluto's Blue Note (1947), Mickey & the Seal (1948), Tea for Two Hundred (1948), Toy Tinkers (1949), Lambert the Sheepish Lion (1951), Rugged Bear (1953), Pigs Is Pigs (1953), No Hunting (1965), The Truth about Mother Goose (1957), Paul Bunyan (1958), Noah's Ark (1959), Goliath II (1960), Aquamania (1961), and Symposium for Popular Songs (1962). In addition, it has won and been nominated numerous times in other categories; and in 1931, was given a Special Oscar for the creation of Mickey Mouse.
Walt Disney died in 1966, but the company he'd founded (which had branched out into live-action films in the 1940s and television in the '50s) continued to grow. In the 1980s, it brought revitalized versions of several of its characters out as half-hour animated TV series, including DuckTales (based on Uncle Scrooge) and Rescue Rangers (based on Chip'n'Dale), as well as creating new characters for that venue (such as Gummi Bears and The Wuzzles. It also started The Disney Channel, an entire cable network devoted to its product and similar films and series. Production on animated features accelerated, to the point where it now releases at least one every year. In addition to traditional cel animation, it has expanded into computerized animation, with such releases as Toy Story and A Bug's Life. In the 1990s, the studio started doing live-action versions of old cartoon characters, including Inspector Gadget and Mr. Magoo.
Today, The Walt Disney Company is a world-spanning media conglomerate. Cable stations, broadcast TV networks, movie studios, and magazine publishers are only part of its vast holdings.
And, as the story goes, it all started with a mouse.
Disney articles in Don Markstein's Toonopedia: