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“When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

Walt Disney                                                          Sydney Packer

 

Bob Thomas was born in 1922. Immersed in the entertainment industry, Thomas became engaged in writing. He appeared on a couple television shows, but his fame came from his biographies and film histories. Thomas has written biographies for Walt Disney and Joan Crawford. He has also contributed his efforts in countless E! True Hollywood stories. His lack of knowledge of the entertainment history is remarkable.

 

 

Walt Disney. When one hears this name, thoughts of Mickey Mouse, Disneyland and entertaining, family friendly movies comes to mind. But how much does the public truly know about this world famous entrepreneur? Bob Thomas’s biography—Walt Disney: An American Original—“reveals the Walt Disney his animators knew. An uncomplicated man.”1 Thomas’s detailed account gives insight into Disney’s life before, during, and after his fame and fortune; the good and the bad; the setbacks and the strides. Most intriguing, Thomas insists and reiterates countless times Walt’s unending determination to make it big in Hollywood, no matter how many seemingly great contracts he had to turn down. Every event—however insignificant it may be—played a role in Disney’s life and Thomas approaches every account with equal respect.

Thomas does a thorough job of detailing Walt Disney’s upbringing in beginning of the first unit of the book. Growing up, Walt recalls vivid memories of “Fairmont Park, a place of amusement two blocks from his Kansas City [Missouri] home.”2 Disney showed a large fascination with the entertainment world at a young age, although his father never understood or sympathized with Walt’s ambition to be a cartoonist. Thomas goes on to narrate Walt’s early jobs as a cartoonist and his move westward to up and coming Hollywood. After arriving in Hollywood, Disney concluded that the only way he could break into the movie industry was with cartoons. At the end of the first unit of the biography, Thomas details Walt Disney’s venture into the world of entertainment. Disney believed that Alice’s Wonderland—which he had created back in Kansas City—would be his ticket in. Walt soon learned that he could not achieve success all on his own. His brother, Roy, after being heavily persuaded by Walt, jumped onboard and together the two brothers opened a small store at 4649 Kingswell. “The store window bore the letters: ‘DISNEY BROS. STUDIO.”3 Thomas describes Disney Bros. Studio’s success with the Alice Comedies. Walt sent a letter to a cartoon distributor in New York, Margaret Winkler, asking if she would be interested in his cartoons. The brothers signs a contract with Winkler for a distribution of six Alice comedies—the first one reaching theaters in March 1924. Walt decided to step back from personally animating the cartoon and hired USB Ewers—a top notch animator from Kansas City—and devoted his full time to gags and stories; ending his career as an animator. Thomas’s insight on the young animator’s life continues as Walt proposed to Lillian Bounds, a young woman working “at the Disney Bros. Studio, applying ink and paint to the cartoon celluloids”—moved the studio to a lot at 2719 Hyperion Avenue—where the brothers planned to build a lager studio—and signed new contract with a distributor that coincided with the move.4 Roy Disney, who largely ran the financial side of the business, reasoned that a single name would have more box-office appeal and identification, and so the Disney Brothers Studio became the Walt Disney Studio. Thomas focuses on the creation of Oswald the Luck Rabbit, who filled Walt with hope that the distributors would continue to back the Walt Disney Studio. Oswald attracted a special audience: the cartoon animators of New York City—whose professionalism centered the entire animation business in New York. The popularity of Oswald prompted offers for the use of the character on merchandise, a first for Walt Disney’s career. But Oswald’s success did not translate into the renewal negotiations of Universal and the Walt Disney Studio. The depleting price per cartoon would mean a loss for the Disney studio, and ultimately Walt turned down the contract, vowing “never again will I work for somebody else.”5

The death of Oswald’s short-lived career led to the birth of Mickey Mouse, and marked a new chapter in Walt Disney’s successful life. Thomas narrates Walt’s greatest creation in tremendous detail throughout the second unit of the book. Originally named Mortimer Mouse, but rejected by Lillian, Mickey Mouse appeared to be collaborative inspiration between Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Surprisingly, MGM congratulated Disney on the cartoon, but made no offer to distribute the big-eared mouse. Finding no immediate success, Walt needed an edge that no one else had thought of. In one question—“how the hell do we match the sound to the action of the cartoon?”—Mickey became the newest thing.6 Except for a few failed attempts, the motion picture has been mute throughout history. As music played, Walt calculated how many frames of cartoon would be required to match the tune—twenty-four frames per second. Walt traveled to New York, Thomas goes on to reveal, but Fox was too busy to deal with a small cartoon maker from the West Coast and Walt disliked RCA and Universal’s offers. But despite the constant rejection of Mickey Mouse, Walt witnessed the growing popularity of Mickey Mouse on his next visit to New York. Mickey flourished into a national craze and in 1929; Mickey Mouse Clubs sprang up all over the country. Moviegoers looked forward to the next installment of Mickey Mouse. Walt immersed himself in the improvement of the quality of his cartoons. Thomas speculates that this is most likely what contributed the most to Disney’s nervous breakdown in late 1931. Walt was known for challenging his artists and although many rose to meet the challenges, others did not. Each failure was a personal defeat to Walt. Financial troubles returned to the Walt Disney Studio and the jubilation that came along with the beginning of a contract with Columbia was wearing off. Money worries and the stress of leading a group of hot-blooded, talented artists began to affect Walt. Thomas describes Walt’s behavior as “irritable with his employees, snapping at them for minor offenses.”7 Lillian and Walt took a vacation to clear his mind and when he returned to Hollywood, he seemed like a new man. Disney's behavior improved along side his physical health. Thomas states that by 1931, the Mickey Mouse Club had a million members and that the friendly big-eared character was known in every civilized country of the world. The commercial salesmanship of Mickey Mouse seemed miraculous. The success of Mickey brought changes to the Hyperion studio. New offices were constructed in 1930, and in 1931 the new Animation Building and sound stage was completed. Veteran animators left New York to join the exciting new Disney team. Not even thirty years old yet, Disney had worked in the cartoon business for a dozen years and some of his subordinates had worked longer in New York, but viewed him as a “leader to be followed, and obeyed.”8 Animation—along with Walt Disney Productions—leaped forward in 1933 with The Three Little Pigs. The cartoon about three pigs who each build their homes out of straw, sticks, and brick and are attacked by a wolf reached success that was unparalleled in cartoon history. In November 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences gave its first award for a cartoon to Walt Disney for Flowers and Trees; Walt was also presented a special award for the creation of Mickey Mouse. All of this recognition and success only added fuel to the fire that was burning underneath Walt Disney’s creative mind.

In 1934, Thomas states, the Disney staff had grown from six to 187. The third section of Thomas’s book addresses the creation of the empire of Disney movies. Walt could never explain why he chose Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs for his first feature length film. His initial estimate of $500,000 for Snow White proved ridiculously low; the film would end up costing three times that amount, Thomas reports. On December 21, 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. Basking in the success of the movie, Disney is reported to have said “Sometimes people make you mad, and you want to prove something to them even though they mean nothing to you. I thought of the guy on the back platform when we had the premiere of Snow White.”9 Walt accomplished his attempt at proving himself to the people that had upset him over the year when Snow White grossed eight million dollars Snow White indicated the direction in which the Disney organization had to go. That year, Disney won an Oscar for Snow White, bringing new fame to Walt, and he found himself getting recognized when he appeared in public. Following in the wake of Snow White’s great success other Disney movies popped up one after the other: Pinocchio—the story of a wooden toy turned into a real boy; Bambi—the much more serious Disney film, in which all the characters are animals; Fantasia—Mickey Mouse’s new installment; and Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros—two films centered around Latin American culture and stories. In December 1941, military police officers took over the Walt Disney Studios in order to use the buildings as a base. With army units using the building as housing for eight months, the fast paced production of movies decreased rapidly. Walt abandoned preparations for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and shut down animation on Wind in the Willows. The Disney Company, pressured by the hovering military personnel, started producing animated war films—the most famous being Der Fuehrer’s Face, featuring Donald Duck and his friends comically singing in saluting Hitler.

The fourth and fifth sections of Thomas’s biography center around the creation of Disneyland, and later, Walt Disney World. Disneyland is one of Southern California’s main tourist attractions. Thomas describes each step of designing the themed amusement park. As Walt Disney Studios returned to making films geared towards family entertainment, Walt set out to make an amusement park that could appeal to everyone, young and old. He wanted to make a “place where parents can bring their children—or come by themselves and still have a good time.” 10 Thomas—who personally knew the Disney family—recalls Walt visiting county and state fairs, circuses, carnivals and national parks around the nation in order to study people responded to attractions, measure the walkways and observe how traffic flowed. Walt was particularly interested in the movement of people. He wanted his park to be comfortable and relaxed. The design of Disneyland—as they would call it—would consist of six realms: True-Life Adventureland, which would feature botanical gardens and the Rivers of Romance; The World of Tomorrow, containing moving walkways industrial exhibits, a monorail, and a freeway where children could drive; Lilliputain Land, including the Erie Canal barge ride where riders would go through famous canals and pass miniature towns with nine-inch people; Fantasyland, located within the ways of a medieval castle, featuring King Arthur’s carousel, and rides featuring Snow White, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan; Frontier County, with an authentic frontier street, stagecoach, pony express and a river boat that takes you on a lazy river ride; and Holiday Land, which would offer special attractions with the changing seasons. [1]1 On July 18, 1955, Disneyland opened its gates to the public and Walt was surprised by the overwhelming amount of people in attendance. Within seven weeks, over a million people had come to Disneyland. A few years later, Walt’s theme park was still receiving an immense amount of attention and it led him to think of opening another one on the other side of the country. Walt Disney World—which it would be called later on—was to be built in Orlando Florida. Sadly, Walt died before he could see the construction of the new amusement park. His older brother Roy took the lead on the project after his brother’s death. Roy witnessed the opening of the park, but unfortunately died only five short years after Walt.

Thomas’s thesis is clearly stated in the foreground of the book. “This biography will attempt to trace the development of his creative processes, together with a picture of the man and his time”. 12 With the successes and failures of Walt Disney’s career, Thomas examined his personality, social life and business relationships. Thomas writes for the reader to understand the significance of what this man’s life has left for the rest of the world. Thomas aspires for the reader to enjoy reading about Walt’s creations, but to really learn who the man behind the mouse was, as well. As a successful entrepreneur, Walt set a high standard for other animators of the time. Thomas has the details that very few have access to--having been granted access into the Disney archives—and personally knowing Walt Disney. This historiography seems clear; while not published until 1976, the achievements of Walter Disney have resonated throughout the world since the 1930s.

Numerous critics have had the opportunity to read and review Thomas’s Walt Disney: An American Original. Marshall Deutelbaum of the Library Journal commented in 1976 that “Disney’s life many not have been entirely exemplary, as Thomas suggests at several points.” 13 Whit Stillman of the National Review in 1980 is not quite as harsh on Thomas’s book in saying that Thomas has “produced a more comprehensive and straight-forward biography.” 14 Both reviews compare Thomas’s book with Richard Schickel’s book The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney. Negatively portraying Disney, Schickel’s book is disliked in both critiques. While on the other hand, Thomas’s book is talked of highly and it is no secret that both writers would prefer Thomas’s.

The influence of the Eastern United States is apparent in Walt Disney’s work. From early on, Walt was always looking towards New York, where the cartoon industry was centered around, for approval and critique. It was only until after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that some patrons from New York City eagerly wanted to work for Disney. But still, it was no walk in the park for Disney to find distributors. Turned down numerous times, it was obvious to Walt that big New York corporations had no time for a small animator from the West Coast.

California proved to be the place for Walt. Opportunities surrounded him in Hollywood as “films were approaching the status of an industry” and he thrived in the entertainment business.15 He was able to open a studio close to the hub of the movie industry and was accepted by Hollywood, while at the same time New York rejected him. Southern California also provided the area where his dreamed of amusement park would materialize. Disney’s success drew attention to the little city of Anaheim as the rest of the United States anticipated the next installment of Disney entertainment. Walt had originally asked Thomas “to write a book about the animation at the studio.” 16 With a head start on the biography, Thomas got to know Walt on a personal level. Thomas realized that the picture of Walt Disney in the public mind changed during his lifetime and afterwards. At the beginning, he was viewed as an inventive, creative genius whose work was admired by intellectuals as well as the masses. From Disneyland on, he became more of a builder and a cosmic dreamer. Twenty-five years after his death, the figure of Walt Disney has grown more remote. The creator of the huge Disney enterprise needed to have his story told straight. So Thomas looked toward California to provide him with the information he needed.

Bob Thomas’s Walt Disney: An American Original offers a clear depiction of a historical figure who left a mark on the entire civilized world. The details offered and the events described come from real life accounts and the memories of Walt’s family and close friends, “who wanted to see Walt’s story written.”17  A young boy drawn to Hollywood by the enticing lure of the entertainment business ended up being one of the most famous names in modern day history.

 

1. Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: The Walt Disney Company, 1994: 10.

2. Thomas, Bob 33.

3. Thomas, Bob 73.

4. Thomas, Bob 77.

5. Thomas, Bob 86.

6. Thomas, Bob 90.

7. Thomas, Bob 104.

8. Thomas, Bob 111.

9. Thomas, Bob142.

10. Thomas, Bob 111.

11. Thomas, Bob 247.

12. Thomas, Bob 18.

13. Deutelbaum, Marshall. "Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney." Library Journal (1976): 1877.

14. Stillman, Whit. "Walt Disney: An American Original, by Bob Thomas." National Review (1980): 488-89.

15. Thomas, Bob 69.

16. Thomas, Bob 6.

17. Thomas, Bob 5.