Originally posted August 23, 2010
I think it was Horace Greely who said, “Go West Young Man!” Well that is exact what Walt Disney did after the failure of his Laugh-O-Grams animation studio. Some have claimed that he went to Hollywood with the intention of starting another studio, but I cannot find any real data to support this claim. Quite to the contrary, and by his own words (which can be found in gallery 2 at the Walt Disney Family Museum), Walt feeling the sting from the what he thought scheming distributors, felt that he had missed his opportunity in animation, and so went to Hollywood to find work as an actor or director. He really thought his work at FilmAd qualified him to direct, but none of the studio in Hollywood at the time agreed. Finding no opportunities to direct, Walt’s brother Roy suggested that he re-examine his chances in “that” cartoon business.
During the life of Laugh-O-Grams, Walt and his animators had begun development of a story based on “Alice in Wonderland” using a combination of live-action performance with animation, called the “Alice Comedies.” He began shopping the idea around to a couple of distributors in New York, using a partially completed reel of the first story that he managed to arrange permission to use as a demo. You see, because of the bankruptcy of Laugh-O-Grams, he no longer actually owned the footage. When Margaret (M.J.) Winkler expressed an interest in distributing “The Alice Comedies”, Walt immediate went to his Brother Roy’s bedside at the VA Hospital to ask his advice. Roy left the hospital, against doctor’s advice, the two young men pooled their meager resources; and along with some seed money they receive from their Uncle Robert, they form a new company. The Disney’s arrange for Virginia Davis, the young star of the “Alice Comedies, and her family from Kansas City to Hollywood. Ub Iwerks and his family also moved from Kansas City at this time, and the Disney Brothers Studio was born, later to become Walt Disney Productions, and even later the Walt Disney Company.
Everyone knows about Disney and animation, there are dozens of books on the subject. I quite honestly possess only a cursory understanding of animation. I will say that I have learned a great deal more on the subject in the last year, and have a new found appreciation of animation of all kinds. It is an expensive, painstakingly laborious, and time consuming process even to do a mediocre job, but, to accomplish the quality that Walt demanded, even more so. Hence my new found appreciation for the ‘cartoons’ I have always enjoyed. I now more readily recognize and appreciate the intricacies of the animation process and the adoring touch of the artist as I view these films. A recent example of the caring and thoughtful efforts of the artist occurred to me while watching Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.” There is small and really inconsequence scene where Sully has just come to rest at the bottom of a snow covered slope, after crashing the makeshift sled he had just moments before been careening downhill on. Lying there on his stomach in the snow recovering for his harrowing ride, the animator had the presences of mind and care for his craft to show the breeze blowing through the valley by showing the hair on Sully’s back bristling in the wind. It is this attention to detail that I believe Walt himself would have appreciated. But, animation was only one aspect of the man’s talent. I’d like to focus more on those other talents.
As is the providence of many famous figures in history, I think Walt Disney is a personaliy who has been excessively romanticized by many of his fans and admirers, and likewise overly demonized by his critics and detractors. Enthusiastic fans claim he was a masterful artist, animator, and the brilliant businessman responsible for success of The Walt Disney Company, critics would have you believing his success was solely derived from his egotistical drive to exploit the talents of those around him for his own gratification. As is the case with most historical accounts, the story is jaded by the views and experiences of the teller, and truth is usually somewhere in the middle. Walt was neither a masterful artist nor animator. He was not a bad artist, as I don’t think anyone is a bad artist, as art is truly in the eye of the beholder. I have seen many ‘artistic’ pieces lauded be my contemporaries as spectacular for which I wouldn’t pay a dime, so I don’t think anyone can say who is or isn’t good. Walt’s genius, from what I’ve been able to discern, was in his ability to visual and construct a story that others would want to see. Walt was truly visionary in this area, early on in animations infancy, he saw more and explored techniques no one else considered. He smart enough in beginning to realize his limitations and to foster relationships with individuals that could help make his vision come to life. He would guide them toward the end product of that vision, now with genius come a certain degree of ego, the greater the genius, normally the bigger the ego.
Listening to and reading many accounts of both admirers and detractors, I think is safe to say that Walt was not immune to this condition. Many have said in vary degree of frustration that it always came down to Walt’s answer, that he would not listen to or consider other ideas. Yet, I have heard as many say that yes it was always Walt’ way or no way, but, that if you understood Walt, you could present your ideas in way that didn’t not challenge his vision, and he would listen. I have had the opportunity to work with a few different artists in different disciplines and that experience has left me with the feeling that most artists are very possessive of their work. I would imagine that Walt would not have gotten much real work done if he’d had had to salve all the egos that work on his productions. So, I would posit that if you had an idea that fit within Walt’s vision and did not directly challenge him as the boss, you did okay. Those who could deal with this position you did okay, if not, you probably moved on. While even the great Walt Disney had his failures, his ideas and visions were “on the money” more often than not.
Walt Disney, a brilliant businessman? Understanding his craft, and leading in a way that manages to get the most out of the people that work for you, in that aspect he was masterful. He always seemed to know how to put people together that would produce well, but, Walt as the fiscally responsible business administrator, not so much. Walt made any number of comments indicating his distaste for jobs of the “sharp pencil boys.” While he understood that he had to deal with limited budgets, he considered the quality of the end product over the costs.
We’ll leave it here for this blogisode, as my last was quite long and the last paragraph is liable to evoke some emotion from the fan base. Next we’ll start exploring the real financial master of the Disney operations, and relationship between the brothers and how I think it played in the success of the company.
Your comments or questions are always welcome. If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org