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Walt Disney Page 10

by Bob Thomas

  In his reply, Walt admitted his disappointment with Oswald but defended the animation of Ub Iwerks, “whom I am willing to put alongside any man in the business today.” Walt denied repeat-action paddings; the repeats had been used for comic effect. He conceded that Oswald could be made “a younger character, peppy, alert, saucy and venturesome, keeping him also neat and trim.” But Walt cautioned against too much plot, because “by the time you have a story really started it is time to iris out, and you have failed to make the audience laugh.”

  Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney’s first venture into the all-cartoon medium, provided an important lesson for the young film maker. He realized what he had known instinctively: that a strong, attractive central character was essential; and that a good storyline was needed, but too much plot could destroy laughter. He also learned that film-company committees could throttle creativity.

  Walt and Ub worked late every night to transform Oswald into a more appealing cartoon figure. Walt admitted to Mintz upon delivery of the second Oswald, “This picture is far from being what I am working for in the future. I want to make Oswald have more personality and really create a likable character, and I believe that with a little time and patience on the part of you and Universal, that we will be able to develop a knockout series. We are changing the rabbit still more from the way he looks in this picture. We have eliminated the suspenders and changed his face considerably in the third one. I am also installing a new motor-drive on the camera to eliminate a certain unevenness in the photography that has been noticeable in the past. I believe this will give much cleaner and better stuff in the future.”

  With the third Oswald, Walt was still pleading with Mintz to remain patient “and give us a chance to get started.” Oswald the Lucky Rabbit soon began to fulfill Walt’s hopes. The rabbit became softer, more appealing, and the situations were funnier. Walt stinted on nothing. He refused to employ cycles—the repeat action which could save hours of work at the animation table. He insisted on photographing the rough animation and viewing it in a projection room. If it seemed to work, then Walt authorized the production process to continue. If not, the sequence went back to the animator. Such meticulousness was expensive, and the cost of the Oswald cartoons climbed. But the added quality paid off.

  Reviews in the trade press helped draw the attention of film exhibitors. Film Daily wrote of Trolley Troubles, first of the cartoons to be released: “…As conductor on a ‘Toonerville’ trolley, Oswald is a riot. This and the two following in the series you can book on pure faith, and our solemn word that they have the goods.” Motion Picture News found Great Guns “chock full of humor” and predicted, “This series is bound to be popular in all types of houses if the present standard is maintained.” Said Moving Picture World: “In addition to striking a new note in cartoon characters by featuring a rabbit, these Disney creations are bright, speedy and genuinely amusing….The animation is good and the clever way in which Disney makes his creations simulate the gestures and expressions of human beings adds to the enjoyment. They should prove worthwhile attractions in any type of house.” Movie audiences responded to Oswald from the beginning of the series. Oswald was also attracting a specialized audience: the cartoon animators of New York City. They had watched the Alice Comedies with interest. They were overwhelmed by the original humor and fluid style of the Oswalds.

  The growing popularity of Oswald prompted offers for use of the character on merchandise. Oswald first appeared on a chocolate-coated marshmallow candy bar made by the Vogan Candy Corporation of Portland, Oregon, the wrapper bearing the message: “Watch for OSWALD in Universal Pictures.” The Philadelphia Badge Company issued a button with Oswald’s likeness, and the Universal Tag and Novelty Company offered an Oswald Stencil Set. The Disney company received no royalty for the reproduction of Oswald, which Walt considered good publicity for the cartoon series.

  Walt hired more artists, and Ub and his fellow animators began turning out an Oswald cartoon every two weeks. Universal and Mintz were obviously happy with the results; checks for $2,250 came promptly after the delivery of each new cartoon. Walt and Roy felt so encouraged by their prospects that they bought adjoining lots on Lyric Avenue and built identical prefabricated houses for $7,000 apiece.

  The Oswald contract was scheduled to conclude in February of 1928. Walt treated Lilly and himself to a train trip to New York for the renewal negotiations with Mintz and Universal. Before leaving Los Angeles, Walt received a hint of impending trouble from Ub Iwerks. There were indications, Ub suggested, that Mintz’s brother-in-law was doing more on his fortnightly visits to the Disney studio than merely collecting the completed Oswald and the lobby poster which Ub created for each new chapter. Ub had become suspicious of the confidential talks that George Winkler had been having with the other animators at the studio. Walt was inclined to dismiss Ub’s suspicions, and he went off to New York with an air of optimism.

  Mintz greeted Walt and Lilly cordially, and they were joined at lunch in the Hotel Astor by Margaret Winkler Mintz, who had started Walt’s career by distributing the Alice Comedies. The conversation was warm, but Walt detected a hollow note in Mintz’s geniality. Jack Alicoate, editor of Film Daily, stopped at the table, and Mintz introduced him to the young producer of the Oswald cartoons. “Oswald—oh, yes,” said Alicoate. “I’ve heard nice things about them, especially the nice grosses.” Walt was pleased, but he noticed that Mintz seemed disturbed by the remark.

  Negotiations for the new Oswald contract were held in Mintz’s office on 42nd Street. Walt began by suggesting that in view of the unquestioned success of Oswald, the price per cartoon should be raised from $2,250 to $2,500. “I’ll give you eighteen hundred,” Mintz replied.

  Eighteen hundred dollars for each cartoon would mean a loss for the Disney studio. Walt asked for an explanation. “Either you come with me at my price, or I’ll take your organization away from you,” Mintz announced. “I have your key men signed up.”

  Walt couldn’t believe it. Had Mintz actually plotted to steal away the Disney animators? And would his “boys,” to whom he had taught the cartooning trade in Kansas City, desert him to work for Mintz? Walt told Mintz he needed time to consider the ultimatum. Walt hurried back to the hotel and telephoned Roy the news of Mintz’s bombshell. Roy made an investigation and discovered that virtually all of the animators except Ub Iwerks had committed themselves to Mintz.

  Mintz pressed for a decision, and Walt tried to stall. He found an ally in Alicoate, and the trade-paper editor arranged interviews at Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. But neither company expressed interest in releasing Oswald. Now Mintz played his trump card: by contract, Oswald was the property of Universal Pictures, not Walt Disney. Walt was disheartened. All of his hard work and creative effort had created a valuable property which he didn’t own. When he told Lilly the sorrowful news, he vowed, “Never again will I work for somebody else.”

  Charlie Mintz made another offer: He would pay for the costs of producing each cartoon, providing liberal salaries for studio employees, and sharing 50 percent of the profits. Walt had no intention of accepting the offer, but he asked for time to consider it. He hoped he could persuade Universal executives to intervene. “Give us a decent break,” he pleaded, but Universal sided with Charlie Mintz.

  “Well, we are still hanging around this Hell Hole waiting for something to happen,” Walt wrote his brother on March 7. “Before you get this letter I hope you will have had a wire containing good news. I can’t rush things any faster—just have to do the best I can. BUT I WILL FIGHT IT OUT ON THIS LINE IF IT TAKES ALL SUMMER. It sure looks like a fight to the finish—Charlie is very determined to get absolute control of everything and will do everything in his power to gain his end. But unknown to him we have a stronger power on our side.”

  Walt told Roy of waiting in the hotel room for a telephone call from Universal with the hope that “they will take advantage of the situation and give Charlie the air and deal direct with us. But I
guess that is hoping for too much. But don’t worry. I really do feel that everything will turn out all right. Anyways I believe that whatever does happen is FOR THE BEST.”

  Walt retained his calm attitude in messages to Roy, adding requests to turn off the water heater and make sure that his female dog did not become pregnant. “Keep your chin up,” Walt advised his older brother. “We will be able to laugh last—that’s the best laugh of all.”

  Finally there was nothing to do but concede defeat. Walt paid a last visit to the office of Charlie Mintz to say he could not accept the offered terms; Mintz could have Oswald. Surprisingly, Walt evidenced no rancor. He offered the older man advice: “Protect yourself, Charlie. If my artists did it to me, they’ll do it to you.” The triumphant Charlie Mintz refused to believe that Oswald could ever be wrested away from him. But that was what later happened.

  Walt and Lilly packed their bags for the melancholy trip home. Walt sent a final telegram to Roy:


  THE birth of Mickey Mouse is obscured in legend, much of it created by Walt Disney himself. He enjoyed telling the tale of how he dreamed up the mouse character on the train trip back from the Oswald disaster and how Lilly objected to the name of Mortimer Mouse and so he made it Mickey Mouse instead. He also hinted that the character originated with a pet mouse that played around his drawing board in Kansas City. Both stories had basis in fact, but the real genesis of Mickey Mouse appears to have been an inspired collaboration between Walt Disney, who supplied the zestful personality and the voice for Mickey, and Ub Iwerks, who gave Mickey form and movement.

  When Walt and Lilly arrived at the Santa Fe station on a March Sunday morning in 1928, he gave no hint to Roy of the catastrophe that had befallen their enterprise in New York. Not until they arrived at their twin homes did Roy finally inquire: “Tell me about it, kid—what kind of a deal did you make?” Walt admitted cheerfully, “We haven’t got a deal,” and he related the events leading up to the final break with Mintz. But before Roy could become depressed, Walt quickly added: “We’re going to start a new series.”

  Walt and Roy agreed on the new venture; now they faced the problem of how to get it started. Three more Oswalds had to be completed and delivered to Mintz, and the defecting cartoonists would not be leaving until June. Walt and Ub concocted a storyline to capitalize on the recent transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh, and Ub began the animation behind a locked door. If someone knocked, he quickly buried the new drawings and substituted Oswald. Ub drew the new cartoon, titled Plane Crazy, at a phenomenal rate—seven hundred drawings a day, breaking Bill Nolan’s record of six hundred a day for Krazy Kat.

  The rest of the animation process was not easy to hide within the studio, so Walt built a makeshift workshop in his garage on Lyric Avenue. Lilly, Edna and Walt’s sister-in-law, Hazel Sewell, did the inking and painting of Ub’s animation. Walt took the completed “cels” to the studio at night, and a loyal employee, Mike Marcus, operated the camera. Each morning before the animators arrived, all evidence of Plane Crazy was removed.

  The cartoon was completed and scheduled for a preview at a Sunset Boulevard movie house on May 15, 1928. As was his custom at previews, Walt handed the theater organist a dollar so the cartoon gags would be punched over with music. The reception was good, though not overwhelming, and Walt was encouraged to begin production on a second picture, The Gallopin’ Gaucho. Now he was able to make the cartoon without the cloak-and-dagger secrecy; the Oswald renegades had left. Their departure had perplexed a newcomer at the studio, Wilfred Jackson. During his first week, the former art student noted that the animators laughed and chattered over their work, but on Saturday they took their seat cushions, visors and other personal things with them. “They’re a strange bunch,” Jackson mused; “they have fun together all week, but they don’t trust each other enough to leave their personal belongings at the studio.” On the following Monday he learned what had happened when only Ub, Les Clark, Johnny Cannon, three of the woman inkers and the janitor returned to work.

  Walt sought a distributor for Mickey Mouse. He showed Plane Crazy to executives at MGM; they congratulated him but made no offer. Realizing that the series would have to be sold in New York, where the major companies maintained their business offices, Walt engaged a New York film dealer, E. J. Denison, to find a distributor.

  “I feel that I can make good cartoons and that they can be placed with a good distributor if the matter is handled right,” Walt wrote Denison. “But the time is short and there would be no second chance this year if we get off on the wrong foot.” Walt wanted an advance of $3,000 per cartoon and was willing to grant one- or two-year options for twenty-six cartoons annually at a minimum length of five hundred feet. He concluded: “It is our intention to carry on an advertising and exploitation campaign that should, in a very short time, along with good pictures and a good release, make the name of ‘Mickey Mouse’ as well known as any cartoon on the market.”

  Denison tried to interest major distributors in Mickey Mouse, but the results were discouraging. Denison withdrew, and Walt was faced with an unsold series and mounting costs. Meanwhile the revolution of sound had commenced.

  Except for a few abortive experiments, the motion picture had been mute throughout its history. On October 6, 1927, with the premiere of The Jazz Singer at the Warners’ Theater in New York City, the motion-picture medium was changed forever, although most of the film moguls were slow to realize it. Not Walt Disney. He recognized sound as an inevitable addition to the art of animation. Even though the first two Mickey Mouse cartoons had not found a buyer, he planned a third, this one to be synchronized to sound.

  Walt and Ub borrowed from a successful Buster Keaton comedy for the third Mickey Mouse, Steamboat Willie. The action in the first part of the cartoon was to be syncopated to an old vaudeville tune, “Steamboat Bill,” the last half to “Turkey in the Straw.”

  “But how the hell do we match the sound to the action of a cartoon?” Walt pondered. He himself had only a passing acquaintance with music. Wilfred Jackson, whose mother was a music teacher, brought a metronome to the studio, and he and Walt devised a way to time music to the flow of film through a sound camera—twenty-four frames per second. While Jackson played on his harmonica, Walt calculated on a blank music sheet how many frames of cartoon would be required to match the tune.

  The mechanics had been solved. But would audiences accept dialogue and song from cartoon characters? For a quarter-century Krazy Kat, Koko, Oswald and all the other animated figures had spoken not a word, and cartoon producers feared the tenuous illusion of reality might be destroyed when the characters opened their mouths to speak.

  On a warm July night, Walt invited his workers to bring their wives to the studio. Roy operated the projector outside a window—to lessen the noise of film running through sprockets. Walt, Wilfred Jackson, Johnny Cannon and Ub stood behind the bedsheet-screen in front of a microphone. As Mickey and the villain, Pete, appeared on the screen, Jackson played “Steamboat Bill” on his harmonica. Ub accompanied him with washboard and sliding whistles, Cannon punctuated the action with sound effects, and Walt delivered the minimal dialogue. Each man in turn went out in front of the bedsheet to observe the illusion as the reel was replayed, and each concluded that the device would work. The wives, Walt noted, were more concerned with discussions of babies and recipes. Steamboat Willie was completed as a silent, with music and sound effects cued by marks on the film.

  Talkies had created chaos in Hollywood, with the major companies monopolizing sound equipment and thwarting efforts of independent producers to convert their films to sound. The Disney brothers concluded that Walt should use their remaining resources to journey alone to New York, where sound systems were more readily available.

  Walt stopped in Kansas City to confer with his old friend Carl Stalling, the theater organi
st who had advanced the brothers $275 when they needed it badly. Walt persuaded him to perform another service, and Stalling hastily composed a musical score for Steamboat Willie, timing it to the beats that Ub had marked on the film.

  With the can of film under his arm and the musical score in his suitcase, Walt arrived confidently in New York on the day after Labor Day, 1928. He found the film industry in a state resembling Paris of 1789. The sound revolution had brought disarray to all the film companies, with producers scrambling to find recording systems that were efficient and cheap. Walt called on Jack Alicoate, the trade-paper editor, who referred him to experts in sound recording. Some of them advised Walt to record on phonograph records, as several of the big companies were doing. Walt was unconvinced. A record could get lost or broken, he reasoned; and the projectionist could start the record in the wrong groove. With sound and action out of synchronization, the illusion would be destroyed. Walt was convinced that the sound had to be recorded on the film itself.

  He began making the rounds. Fox was too busy taking orders for its Movietone system to bother with a small cartoon maker from the Coast. RCA brusquely agreed to take on the assignment; Walt insisted on seeing what the company could do. He was shown an experiment in recording an Aesop’s Fables cartoon. Walt wrote his reaction to Roy and Ub: “MY GOSH—TERRIBLE— A lot of racket and nothing else. I was terribly disappointed. I really expected to see something half-way decent. BUT HONESTLY— it was nothing but one of the rottenest fables I believe that I ever saw, and I should know because I have seen almost all of them. It merely had an orchestra playing and adding some noises. The talking part does not mean a thing. It doesn’t even match. We sure have nothing to worry about from these quarters.”


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