Today, I am going to start a new series on this blog. If you’ve read some of my previous work on this blog, you know that a few of my interests include history, moviemaking, and Disney. If you haven’t picked up on that yet, might I suggest some light reading for you: On Plot Holes & Talking about Writing, where I discuss the writing of Beauty & the Beast (2016) and the online reaction to it, and On Historical Revisionism & Wonder Woman, where I talk about how Wonder Woman (2017) plays up historical fallacies surrounding World War I.
In this series, I want to take a look back at Disney’s history and give a quasi-academic overview of the various trends and historical perspectives that influenced these movies that a lot of us grew up with. Is this just an attempt by me to justify doing a Disney marathon when I have other work to do? Yes, but doing work that I choose for myself is more fulfilling. Also, has anyone used “Quasi-Academia” for a blog title yet? I might be rebranding.
To keep this series from turning into a stream of movie reviews for movies from the 1940s, I’m going to be looking at broad trends in the various eras in Disney history. Disney history can be broadly divided into seven eras (at least how I’m defining them): the Golden Age (1937 – 1942), Wartime Era (1942 – 1949), Silver Age (1950 – 1967), Dark Age (1968 – 1988/1989), Renaissance (1989 – 1999), Post-Renaissance/Second Dark Age (1999 – 2008/2009), and the Second Renaissance/Revival Era (2009/2010 – present day). If you notice the lack of concrete dating on some of these eras, that’s because there’s some wiggle room when it comes to which movie belongs in which era. For each of these seven eras, I will be watching the animated movies they contain and discussing the broad themes, artistic trends, and historical context that can be found in them.
One era I want to discuss now, though, as a preview of what’s to come and to provide some context for my first part is the beginning of Disney animation before Snow White. The rest of this post will be dedicated to that era: Disney’s Beginnings (1919 – 1937).
It all begins, as things often do, with Walt Disney. Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago, Illinois. He spent his early years in Missouri, where he developed a love for drawing. In 1919, after a brief stint in the Red Cross, he got a job as an artist at the Pesmen-Rubin Commerical Art Studio in Chicago, where he worked as a commercial artist and met Ub Iwerks.
Disney and Iwerks tried a number of different projects together before making it big. Laugh-O-Grams, short cartoons based on fairytales, led to the creation of their first studio, which folded in 1923. That was the same year Disney moved to Los Angeles to be with brother Roy and got his big break when film distributor Margaret Winkler commissioned six shorts based on Disney’s earlier adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Disney convinced Iwerks to move out to L.A. in 1924, and the two began work in the newly created Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio.
In 1926, Winkler’s husband Charles Mintz took over her role as the distributor of the Alice comedies. When Mintz needed a new series to distribute through Universal Pictures, Disney and Iwerks came up with a fun, lovable mascot by the name of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In 1928, contract negotiations with Mintz, who had never seen eye-to-eye with Disney, fell through. Many of the artists Disney had convinced to work with him left to work with Mintz, and it was revealed that Mintz, not Disney, held the rights to use Oswald. If Disney wanted to continue to work, he’d need to find a new mascot. He and Iwerks finally settled on a design based on the pet that ink artist and Disney’s wife, Lillian, had adopted while working on the old Laugh-O-Grams. I shouldn’t have to explain who this mascot is.
Throughout the 1930s, Disney produced a tremendous amount of short cartoons, both with Mickey and without. This is the main reason I’m discussing them here instead of in their own separate post: there are just too many. Like most things in the early days of film, a lot of work was produced, and not a whole lot was saved. Disney eventually creating the corporation to end all corporation means we have most of his shorts, but there are still some that are hard to find or simply lost to time.
Still, Disney’s success has to be attributed to the quality of his work, not just the volume of it. He was always eager to embrace new technology if it would help him tell stories in new ways, whether it be sound with Steamboat Willie (1928) or the use of three-strip Technicolor in Flowers and Trees (1932). Disney won 2 Academy Awards for Best Short Cartoon in this era for Flowers and Trees and The Three Little Pigs (1934), as well as an Honorary Award in 1932 for creating Mickey Mouse.
After 1934, Disney began to look towards his most ambitious project to date: a full, feature-length animated picture. In hindsight, it’s easy to see Disney artists beginning to experiment with techniques to achieve this impossible task, particularly in The Goddess of Spring (1934), where they started to work out how to animate humans realistically, and The Old Mill (1937) which first used the multiplane camera.
“Disney’s Folly,” as this movie was called, went three times over budget. Everyone believed it could only lead to Disney’s bankruptcy. Instead, it led to an empire. In the next part of this series, we will examine the story of one of the most important films in movie history as we discuss The Golden Age. Until then, thanks for reading.