100 Years of Disney History: Part One (1920s-1940s)

by | Oct 15, 2023 | Uncategorized

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Disney Company, and the celebration is in full swing at Disney parks around the world. 100 years brings with it many significant moments and historical milestones, and we decided to take a brief tour through each decade and pick out some of our favorites. We’re going to confine our list to two selections in each decade, but that alone made for some tough decisions! To make things more interesting, we’re going to leave out the openings of each of the Disney parks (those are pretty much a given!) and instead try and dig a little deeper and talk about those moments that may not be the first to come to mind but are just as important in their own special way. We’ll begin our journey in the 1920s, as a young animator and his brother opened the doors to their very first cartoon studio.





Walt Disney Files for Bankruptcy

This might seem like an odd place to start our “Most Significant Moments in Disney History” list, but hear me out! This story takes us back to the early 1920s when a young, ambitious Walt Disney started his Laugh-O-Gram Films studio, accompanied by the legendary Ub Iwerks. Walt had lofty artistic ambitions, which in the early years culminated with the creation of the Alice Comedies (which combined live-action with crude animation). Despite Walt thinking that these new cartoons would revolutionize the industry, he was unable to find a distributor to take his films. This setback forced Walt to file for bankruptcy in July 1923. Instead of giving up, however (Walt would later famously say, “I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young”), Walt moved to Los Angeles and into his uncle’s garage. He eventually found a distributor for his first Alice cartoon, and with a new contract in hand, he and his brother Roy opened the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio on October 16, 1932. This would be a recurring theme throughout Walt Disney’s life: ambitious visions, the company falling into dire financial straits, and a resurgence as Walt’s dream becomes a reality and begins a new era in Disney’s history.


Walt Disney Gets Fired

Boy, we’re starting on a couple of sour notes, aren’t we? Our next story takes place in 1928 when Walt Disney was basking in the success of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a character created under Universal’s direction, who distributed the cartoons. Walt was traveling to New York to renegotiate his contract, an exercise he assumed to be a formality. Much to his surprise, however, Charles Mintz (his distributor) had other ideas. First, he informed Walt that he intended to cut his pay. This was unacceptable, and Mintz piled on this unexpected turn of events by informing Walt that he, not Disney, owned the rights to Oswald and that he had also hired away the bulk of Walt’s animators. A dejected Walt returned home, but once again, he did not give up (see a theme here?). Instead, he decided he would create his OWN new character, one that he would never relinquish. And thus, Mickey Mouse was born.




Expanding the Frontiers of Animation

Many people might not realize this today, but Walt Disney was not just a pioneering animator. He was also an animation innovator, and he and his company incorporated and invented several new technologies that would soon become standards in the industry. The first of these was synchronized sound, which first appeared in the 1928 cartoon short Steamboat Willie (which also marked the public debuts of Mickey and Minnie Mouse). Another early innovation was the use of color, first seen in the 1932 Silly Symphonies short Flower and Trees. This innovative cartoon was the first to utilize the new three-strip Technicolor process. OK, we have color, and we have sound. What else could Walt possibly do?


The Multiplane Camera

Creating the illusion of depth had always been an ambition of early animators. Different techniques had been employed throughout the years, starting with the idea of having transparent elements (foreground, background, and so on) layered on top of each other and moving them ever so slightly in relation to each other with each frame to create the illusion of motion. In Plane Crazy, Walt and his animators actually shot a sequence of a first-person view of a plane flying toward the ground by stacking up books one at a time underneath the art!
However, the invention of the Multiplane camera would truly revolutionize animation. Building on an early iteration invented by Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney and his team led by William Garity invented this innovative device. Standing nearly two stories tall, the camera consisted of seven frames that allowed animators to layer and reposition different scene components, moving each frame independently to create a highly immersive illusion of depth and motion.




The Animators Strike

The 1940s was a tumultuous time in Disney’s history. The outbreak of World War II put a financial strain on the company as European markets were closed, and various pieces of the Studio were commandeered for use in the war effort. But one of the biggest blows to the company (and an emotional blow to Walt Disney) was the Animators Strike of 1940. The Screen Cartoonist’s Guild had set their sights on Disney after a prior strike at Fleischer Studios. After several months of intense negotiations, the strike was finally settled, but the wounds it left on the company were there to stay. Once again, though, Walt would pull himself up by his bootstraps and live on to fight another day.


Goodwill Tour of South America

One of the ways in which the war affected Disney was in the United States’s efforts to strengthen their diplomatic and political relationships with South America. The government instituted a series of Goodwill Tours with Hollywood luminaries, and that, of course, included Walt Disney. Walt saw this as an opportunity to do some research for new projects, so he agreed to lead a small group on a tour of several South American countries. (Disney Legend Mary Blair would be one of those who went on the trip). The trip proved to be a great success and inspired the package films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. The trip provided the Studio with a much-needed influx of revenue through the movies and gave Walt a welcome break from the stress of the strike and the financial burden the war had placed on the company.

And so Disney was poised to enter the 1950s with renewed optimism. Things were looking brighter, but the Studios were still in a precarious state. What they needed was a miracle, and that miracle came in the form of a famous Disney Princess….

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