Magician of the Movies: The Life of Walt Disney by Bob Thomas

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Walt Disney was born on the 5th December 1901 in Chicago but his first memories are of the farm that his family lived on in Missouri, as his family moved there when he was young. Walter was the youngest of four sons (Herbert born 1888, Raymond born 1890, Roy born 1893, Walt born 1901) and he had a younger sister too (Ruth born 1903).

From the age of six, Walt helped around the farm, herding the pigs into their pen. He also already had a passion for painting and drawing. His Auntie not only thought he was good at painting, she thought it was a good way for him to express himself too, so she bought him a pad and some pencils. Walt was thrilled and began sketching as much as possible. A local doctor saw his sketches and asked Walt to sketch his stallion. The doctor was so impressed with the sketch he paid Walt five cents for it and hung it in his office.

A little while later, the same doctor was called to the family farm where Walt’s father had fallen ill. The doctor advised his father that if he continued to work the large farm on his own he could be headed for an early grave. As a result, the decision was made to auction off the farm and the family moved to Kansas City.

With the money raised from the farm, Walt’s father bought a newspaper dealership and Walt and his brother Roy would wake up at 3.30 in the morning and deliver the papers before school. After school, he had more papers to deliver except on Sundays, when Walt could go to the matinee performance of the variety entertainment show at the local theatre. In between the performances in the show they would play movies, including those of Charlie Chaplin. Walt was fascinated by Chaplin and would dress up and imitate his comic routine. His friends found it hilarious and at the age of 14 he even entered a Charlie Chaplin contest at a nearby theatre, winning unanimously.

One evening, Walt’s father announced to the family that they would be moving back to Chicago as he’d gone as far as he could with his newspaper business. Walt’s eldest three brothers had already left the household and Walt stayed in Kansas City to finish his schooling while his family moved.

Walt applied for a job that was known as a “news butcher”, a boy that walks up and down trains selling food, drinks, newspapers and magazines. He did this for two months and got to see most of the mid-west of the United States. After that, he wanted to see more.

When he was approaching 16 years of age, Walt joined his family in Chicago and went to high school. He also kept himself very busy by pursuing his art studies and working full time for the post office. He’d only got the job by lying about his age and saying he was 18, two years older than he was, but soon he was given the responsibilities of driving a truck for special deliveries and riding a horse for delivery pickups.

As America became involved in the First World War, Walt joined the Red Cross (again altering his age) and travelled to France as a driver. By the time he arrived in Paris, the war was over but much work remained for him, transporting supplies, carrying wounded and escorting important visitors. As the work eventually died down, Walt passed the time sketching and painting. He painted medals on people’s jackets and insignia on truck canvas covers, earning himself some money simultaneously. After over a year in France he returned home and decided he would be an artist.

Walt got a job in Kansas City creating drawings for an advertising company that focused on farms. He drew animals and other farm related items. After Christmas, the rush died down and he was let go along with a friend of his, Ub Iwerks. They went into business together doing art work for companies that didn’t have their own art staff. Walt also took a job as a cartoonist for a film ad company making commercials for movie theatres.

In this job he realised the current method of animation used by cutting out and moving drawings slightly for each frame was rather basic, so he went to the library and read as many books as he could on human movement and film cartooning. He learnt a more sophisticated method of film animation by drawing each frame with a slight movement and went further still by studying how cameras worked and built his own.

Walt drew political cartoons and sold them to movie theatres. He created a company (The Laugh-O-Gram Studio) and worked on more and more ambitious projects. Then disaster stuck when a distributor vanished with money earnt from Walt’s work, leaving him in a ton of debt. He put the company in bankruptcy but he got in even deeper debt to the point where he couldn’t afford to eat. He finally raised some money charging parents for movies of their new-born babies and went to California, specifically Hollywood.

Walt went to several studios to try and get a job as a director working with real actors but was rejected each time due to a lack of experience so he returned to making cartoons. A distributor wanted to buy his funny cartoon combining a live action heroine with cartoon figures called “Alice’s Wonderland”. This time he went into business with his brother Roy. In the Disney and Disney studio, Walt drew the cartoons and Roy learnt to use the camera and dealt with the finances. The Alice comedies were a hit and soon they hired more staff to help them, including his former partner Ub Iwerks. Walt also hired a girl to help colour in his drawings called Lillian Bounds, she would soon be Mrs Walt Disney.

After a while Walt created a cartoon about a rabbit with long ears called Oswald. This creation helped Walt become the leading maker of cartoons in the film industry but the contract they signed meant that the distributor owned Oswald and to cut costs they got rid of Walt and Roy and carried on making the cartoons. They were back to square one again.

The next character Walt created was a mouse with human elements such as hands and shoes. He called it Mortimer but his wife didn’t like the name so it became Mickey Mouse. The film industry was changing with the first films released containing the sound of the characters talking. Walt created the first ever cartoon containing talking and signing animals, even doing Mickey’s voice himself.

Mickey Mouse was first shown in individual theatres and then Walt sold the cartoons to a different distributor in each state. This made Mickey a star, capturing everyone’s hearts. Film companies were happy to work and distribute on Walt’s terms and he finally had become an independent producer. Mickey’s popularity grew worldwide from France to Mexico to Japan and Russia, with Mickey’s face being plastered on products such as clothes, watches and stationary.

Despite the success of Mickey Mouse, Walt wasn’t happy with just making those cartoons all his life. He came up with a new set of cartoons called “Silly Symphonies”, which utilised the new technology of sound within film and rather than having one star character, featured a different subject each time. It allowed Walt to experiment and introduced the audience to a whole array of new characters such as Donald Duck, Goofy and the Three Little Pigs.

The experimentation didn’t stop there. As soon as colour was introduced into film, the Disney studio signed an exclusive two year deal with Technicolor to make cartoons in colour. Their first colour Silly Symphony called “Flowers and Trees” was a huge success and won them an academy award. Walt then received a second Oscar for the creation of Mickey Mouse. By 1931, his studio employed 100 people and produced a cartoon every fortnight.

In 1933, Walt and Lillian had their first child, a daughter called Diane, their second daughter, Sharon, joined the family three years later. He was in the prime of his life and decided to take on his biggest challenge to date – a feature length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The basic story already existed but they needed to make the characters interesting to get an audience to sit through a cartoon for 80 minutes. They gave each dwarf a name to match their characteristics and also gave each one a distinctive style of movement, for example Happy skipped about whilst Sleepy plodded around.

The film cost $1.7 million and premiered at the end of 1937. The large cost and long development time was justified as the film was a nationwide success and earnt the studio millions. Walt immediately commissioned three more feature length cartoons (Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia).

The Second World War meant that Disney lost their entire European market and the high costs of feature films forced them to stop making them. Nazi propaganda had created anti-American feeling in South America so Walt was asked by the US government to travel there to try and improve relations, as his films were popular there. He established a studio in Brazil and created a film called “Saludos Amigos” which highlighted friendship and proved a huge success in both North and South America. Walt also produced propaganda cartoons for the US government, including Donald Duck paying his income tax in an attempt to get Americans to do the same and fund the War, which they did. Finally, Walt even produced a film called “Victory Through Airpower” that Sir Winston Churchill personally asked to watch.

After the war, Disney returned to feature length cartoons. Cinderella was an instant hit. Alice in Wonderland was a flop. Peter Pan, another hit. Then instead of relying on existing children’s stories, Disney produced Lady and the Tramp. The public loved it.

Walt then turned to real-life adventures. He hired nature photographers and film teams to film animals in their wild habitat and then created 30 minute nature films with their footage of the animal’s lives moulded into a story, accompanied by music and some comedy elements.

Walt noticed he was beginning to get strained and decided to have a rest from the studio. He was moving to a new house with his family and decided to build a railroad around the house. He spent hours learning how to operate steam engines and build railroad cars and once it was built took guests on his miniature train (only 1/8th the normal size) for the half a mile journey.

From a young age, amusement parks always fascinated Walt Disney. When he was older, he took his daughters to the parks around Los Angeles but was disappointed with them. He vowed to one day build his own amusement park and when he built his new studio, bought 50 acres rather than the 20 he needed, with a view to building his park next to it. The popularity of the studio meant it expanded to use all the land, but Walt never forgot his dream. When he travelled the world, he made a point of travelling to places of amusement such as fairs and zoos and noted what people enjoyed and what they didn’t.

Eventually, Walt began financing his new amusement park with his own money. He planned to call it Disneyland and it would have four kingdoms. Adventureland containing wild animals, Frontierland based on the Wild West, Fantasyland containing a castle and Tomorrowland containing adventures themed in the future. He agreed to make a television series in exchange for the TV network helping fund the park. The program would be called Disneyland and promote the amusement park at the same time.

The park was built in Anaheim on the outskirts of Los Angeles and contained many features Walt had worked on and perfected throughout his life: cartoon characters, live animals, music and a railroad. It opened in 1955. The opening day was a disappointment for Walt. It was supposed to only be open for people specially invited but people had entered with counterfeit tickets and the queues were far more than they could handle. People got irate queuing for rides and rubbish was strewn everywhere. For the next two weeks, Walt stayed in the park, researching what needed to be done and improving it.

Firstly, he hired extra workers to clear all the rubbish and keep the park clean. His reasoning was that if the part is ultra clean, people will respect it more and the cleaning will be reduced in the long term. Secondly, he hired his own ushers rather than outside workers. They would feel more pride in their job and the park and would treat the public as guests in a friendly manner, rather than just customers.

The problems were fixed in a fortnight and within seven weeks, over a million people had visited the park, spending 30% more than expected. Walt was not finished there. As his imagination whirred, he came up with new ideas and improvements. To finance these he looked to television again and he created The Mickey Mouse Club, a TV show shown five times a week.

In 1965, Disneyland welcomed its fifty-millionth visitor. People had visited from over 100 countries around the world and Walt’s imagination and hard work had increased the number of major attractions from 22 to 57.

After Disneyland, the Disney organisation expanded immensely. Income grew to over $110 million. Disney films such as Mary Poppins were shown across the world. Disney products including books, toys and music flew off the shelves. Walt didn’t change much; he still preferred to relax in his family home rather than enjoying the Hollywood social life. He now had seven grandchildren to enjoy and spend time with.

At the end of 1966, Walt went to hospital for a check-up and it was discovered he had a lung condition. He needed an operation but it was too late and he died on the 15th December, aged 65. His brother Roy made sure all the plans Walt had would be implemented in the years to come, continuing the Disney success for many future generations.

Walt Disney said that he thought young people need a sense of direction. Having a goal to aim for will give them a reason to be curious and seek knowledge. He believed a person should devote all his talent and energy into achieving their goal so that no matter whether the goal is achieved or not, they’ll know that they have been alive.

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