The First Official Walt Disney Biography (1937) - Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, I shared the first few pages of the 1937 press release biography of Walt Disney from RKO, which was distributing the Disney cartoons and would soon release Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For some, it may be hard to think there was a time when the life and achievements of Walt Disney were relatively unknown, even to newspapers and magazines.

Today, we continue that story with Walt's arrival in Hollywood in 1923:

"For three months he tramped around Hollywood, trying to interest someone in it; they all said the same thing: they couldn't use the idea, but their New York office might consider it. Since it was out of the question for him to take the print to New York, Walt sent it East with a prayer, prepared to wait for years, or for all he knew, forever.

"Things looked pretty black. His only comfort was that his brother Roy was also in California with an immense amount of sympathy and encouragement for what Walt was trying to do - and with $250. They formed a partnership.

"It was a tough proposition to get financial backing: nobody in Hollywood had ever heard of these Disney boys. An Uncle Herbert, with whom they lived for a short time, lent them $500; they breathed easier and let out their belts. (Korkis comment: ACTUALLY IT WAS UNCLE ROBERT. HERBERT WAS WALT'S BROTHER.)

"Then suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, came an order from an independent distributor in New York for a series of pictures like the sample reel Walt had sent East. Feverishly they rented the back end of a real estate office; bought an old camera, rigged up stands and tables out of old dry goods boxes.

"Walt taught Roy how to use the camera, and he himself started drawing night and day. With the aid of two girls they hired for $15 a week apiece, they made the first Alice cartoon. (Korkis Komment: Alice's Day At Sea) Busy as they were, there must have been time for romance, for one of those two girls, Lillian Bounds, later became Mrs. Walt Disney!

"The two boys rented a cheap room and ate their meals in a cafeteria, in order to make their small capital last as long as possible. One would get a meat order, the other vegetables; then they would split them at the table. Sometimes they ate at home; Roy would leave early, while Walt still bent over his drawing-board (they made six "Alice" subjects before they hired another artist) and fry a steak, or ham and eggs.

"We cooked, ate, and slept in that one room, and had to walk about a mile before we reached the bathroom," Walt remembers. "And yet when I think back, we had a grand time in those days."

"Finally they decided Walt could no longer do all the drawings, so he sent for the boy with whom he had started in the commercial art business, Ubbe Iwwerks, in Kansas City. Ubbe had become a fair animator; but they soon needed still more help, so Walt summoned more of the boys from back home.

"Alice was discontinued about this time; Walt's next creation for the New York distributor was "Oswald the Rabbit." Oswald was quite successful; but Walt was beginning to strain at the leash. He was not satisfied; there were things he wanted to do to improve the cartoons, and they took money. He decided to go to New York for a conference with the chief; and Lillian Bounds, who was now his wife, went with him.

"Unfortunately, the chief was not in agreement with Walt's ideas of expansion and improvement. The cartoons were selling, people liked them -- why spend more money? And was this young spendthrift Disney necessary to their success, anyway? In short, there was a break, and the Disney outfit was out on the street for its pains.

"Walt, wiring Roy, who was running the Hollywood studio, that everything was all right and he was on his way home, was full of misgivings.

"And well he might be - because the New York company took over most of the boys who had come on from Kansas City to work with Walt, and went on producing "Oswald" without him. On the train going back to California, Walt and his wife soberly talked things over.

"He had a studio, a few loyal men, including the faithful Iwwerks, and nothing to do. They had their home, and a little money saved - and no definite deal in sight. The only answer was to create a new character and make pictures himself.

"But what character? Cats, dogs, rabbits . . . all had been used. "About the only thing that hasn't been featured is -- I've got it!" he cried, jumping to his feet. "A mouse! My Mickey Mouse! Why didn't I think of it before?"

"All the way across the continent on the train Walt Disney worked enthusiastically on the first Mickey Mouse scenario. Mrs. Walt Disney helped with suggestions and encouragement. Mickey must, of course, have a sweetheart, his girl . . . they called her Minnie Mouse.

"Their excitement grew with the miles; they could hardly wait to start working, to tell Roy and the others at the studio. They'd keep quiet about this new series, make it in the garage at home, just as they had in the old days. The scenery sped by unnoticed.

"Back in Hollywood, the first move was a studio conference. Roy and the others were enthusiastic about the new plan. They quickly finished several "Oswald" subjects that were in work for the New York company, and then started their own enterprise with fresh vigor.

"It was a big chance to take, with so little money - but everyone had faith in Walt's new character. Quietly and swiftly they worked, in the garage, on their first Mickey Mouse, and when the film was ready to be run off, there was great suspense. At the preview, however, a little of the first enthusiasm fell off, for the picture was rather disappointing. However, Walt sent it off to New York with fervent hopes.

"But nobody in the East seemed to want Mickey Mouse. Such a small creature did not create a ripple in an industry which had just been topsy-turvy by a new element - sound. Al Jolson's Jazz Singer had just been released, and was bidding fair to revolutionize moving pictures. The first Mickey cartoon was silent - and of coarse no producer, however, farsighted, could visualize a cartoon in synchronization.

"In spite of its failure to sell, Disney went right to work on a second Mickey, also silent; but during its making he realized that synchronized cartoons were not only possible, but inevitable. Number 2 cartoon went begging, while they planned the third for sound.

"When this print was finished, Disney took it to New York. Half of his mission was to sell the picture, but the first half was to get it synchronized, since that had been impossible in Hollywood. This third Mickey Mouse was Steamboat Willie, the first to be shown publicly.

"But Walt, as he tramped the streets again, money getting low, almost despaired that it would ever be shown. He was worried about the studio, which was just getting by financially. He approached sound company after sound company, but either their prices were too high or they would not take the job of setting Mickey in motion. Finally he found one company which was interested and whose price was fair.

"But again there was dissension. With the boys in his studio, Disney had worked out his own method of synchronization. He knew it would work, but New York musicians refused to use it. Patiently Walt saw them try their own method and admit the result was a miserable failure.

"Eventually they followed his advice, using the same system which is used today in the Disney Studio, which he had patented a year before. This system is used quite generally in the animated cartoon industry.

"When Steamboat Willie was shown, distributors were enthusiastic, but no deal went through. Nobody could understand why this young Disney would not sell out his idea. They tempted him with fancy prices, but he kept insisting it was his pictures he wanted to sell, not his company.

"I wanted to retain my individuality," he says, glad now that he did. "I was afraid of being hampered by studio policies. I knew that if someone else got in control, I would be restrained, held down to their ideas of low cartoon cost and value."

"After staying in New York several weeks, he decided to release Mickey Mouse independently, and after making the necessary arrangements, returned to Hollywood. It was a big undertaking, to produce and distribute the pictures himself; but with the help of his brother Roy, he knew they could do it, and that it would be a much happier arrangement than selling out."

Years later I was able to purchase at another convention a yellowed, dog-earned, occasionally scotch taped RKO "Biographical Sketch of Walt Disney" released in 1951.

It is 20 pages long, but five of those pages are devoted to an impressive year-by-year listing of Walt's awards beginning in 1932 and ending in March 1951. One page is devoted to Walt's feature length pictures to date including two yet to be released. The other 14 pages are devoted to the biography of Walt Disney.

The first eight pages are very similar (often word for word) to the 1937 version with some interesting trimming like the opening paragraphs that in 1937 assumed that little had ever been written about Walt that no longer appear in this later version.

This 1951 version also makes the corrections that I indicated in my notes like Walt arriving in Hollywood with forty bucks in his pocket rather than zero and that it was Uncle Robert and not the wrongly identified Uncle "Herbert" who helped Walt.

It still mistakenly identifies Alice in Cartoonland as a "fairy tale," but it does include an additional paragraph that states:

"There is a story in one of these early projects that shows the consistent reasoning of Disney, over a long period of years. Today, experts credit Walt with an entirely new diversion in films, the combination of cartoon and live action on the same screen.

"Yet 27 years ago, in the dank little room at the back of a the real estate office, Walt Disney had used the cartoon-live action technique for a film titled Alice in Cartoonland. It was abandoned for technical and acute financial reasons, but Walt kept it in mind all these years, ready to spring on the movie going public at a propitious moment."

Unfortunately that paragraph opens up a lot of misunderstandings. Most animation and Disney fans can spot the misleading information in that paragraph. First, Walt didn't invent cartoon-live action interaction. In fact, Walt was quite public about crediting one of his top competitors, Max Fleischer, and the Ko-Ko the Clown cartoons (which combined an animated clown with live action) as an inspiration for the Alice comedies.

Also Alice in Cartoonland was made in Kansas City. The first Hollywood made Alice comedy was Alice's Day at Sea and that was followed by nearly fifty other installments of the series.

The additional six pages are a very brief and quick overview of Walt's contributions during the fourteen years since 1937 and aren't nearly as detailed or interesting as those first eight from 1937. However, there was a section that concentrated on Walt himself that I feel is of interest in sharing with the readers of MousePlanet. Here is that section:

"As everybody knows, Mickey Mouse got a grand welcome from the public, and his popularity grew with each subsequent release by leaps and bounds. The Studio and the Disney business grew in proportion. Now Walt was able to expand as he wished, to experiment with the money which was coming in, to better his product. He didn't even have time to think of 'going Hollywood' and still drove around in an old Ford and lived in an unpretentious bungalow.

"Walt thinks one reason people like his films is because so much effort is made to give them adult as well as child appeal. Children, he says, laugh at entirely different things from those which amuse grown people. Where the subject matter is a little deep for children, amusing action must be injected to hold their interest.

"It seems strange to learn that just a few years ago, this young man, who has been so successful in making grown-ups chuckle and children scream with laughter, learned to play. And yet, when you think back over his short life of activity and achievement, you will see that there was not time for much of anything but concentration on an idea.

"Something very close to a nervous breakdown taught him that life is sweet and work is not everything. He realized then that he had forgotten to play. But after he rediscovered the joys of swimming, riding, and badminton, he knew the old saying about all work and no play was true.

"Hollywood night life does not appeal to him. It takes too much energy, he claims-and besides, he likes a good night's sleep so his mind will be fresh for work. He is a firm believer in the five-day week for people of the creative or industrious type. He knows from his own experience that folks of his type work too hard.

"The Disneys' married life has been ideally happy. They have two teenage girls-Diane and Sharon. Both Walt and his wife enjoy moving pictures, and in his Holmby Hills home he has complete projection equipment and runs pictures three and four nights a week. He reads topical and scientific as well as literary magazines.

"He enjoys reading the great amount of fan mail which comes to the studio, some of it from the motion picture industry itself, and from admirers all over the globe. Many letters are simply addressed to 'Mickey Mouse, Hollywood, California'.

"Since Walt entered the feature-length field in 1937 with Snow White, the studio mail has grown to great proportions, as each new feature leaves a new group of characters that remain permanently in the hearts of Disney fans-whether it be Dopey, Jiminy Cricket, Dumbo, Bambi, Thumper and Flower from Bambi, or Gus & Jaq from Cinderella.

"Walt Disney is also one of the nation's foremost and most ardent railroading fans. His interest in this diversion ranges from miniature equipment to scale model operation on track laid around his Holmby Hills estate. Railroading elements often are incorporated in his pictures.

"Nowhere else are the Disney characters such real people as they are around the Disney studio. They have distinct personalities which their stories must always fit. This naturally narrows down the choice of stories for Mickey and his friends.

"It is hard to believe that Walt Disney, who has created something so unique and imaginative, so truly beautiful, thinks he has only begun and can see 'wonderful new expansions in the cartoon the greatest medium of fantasy'. He speaks of it thus, as naively as if he had not already made it so. 'The possibilities are absolutely unlimited,' he says.

"It pleases him that artists, some of the best draughtsmen in the trade, seem to want to work for him. He understands the problems that confront a creative person, and is therefore a sympathetic employer. He is always interested in the ideas of everyone around the studio, unless they pertain to business affairs, which are entirely supervised by his brother Roy.

"Because Disney and his fellow workers characteristically live and work in plans for the future, rather than the achievements of the past, no picture of the Disney establishment would be complete without a glimpse of the outline of things to come. Among them are an all-cartoon musical version of Peter Pan and an elaborate musical animation of Sleeping Beauty."

To me, it is fascinating to look at these "lost" biographical sketches of Walt done by RKO studio when Walt was at the peak of his animation career. Much of this information does appear in some form in the many biographies of Walt that can be purchased today but some, including the tone, does not.

In any case, MousePlanet readers now have a glimpse that they won't be able to find elsewhere.



  1. By notsolittlemermaid

    Thanks so much for posting this fascinating glimpse into Walt's life, as told long ago. I love the "flavor" of the writing of yesteryear. I kept picturing the DCA Partners statue as I was reading it.

  2. Discuss this article on MousePad.