A couple of weeks ago, my friend and editor David Swindle published an open letter to me dividing the history of Disney animation into ten eras and encouraging me to explore the history of Disney through the same frame of mind. Here is the first in a series looking at the eras of Disney history.
As the United States slid into the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s, Disney’s output grew tremendously in quality and quantity. Walt and his team of animators and writers released plenty of entertaining product, but they also experimented, honing existing techniques and developing new ones. A struggling nation loved what it saw and couldn’t get enough.
Disney’s output during this time period reflects a uniquely American can-do spirit, one that helped this country survive the Great Depression in both determination and innovation. Here are ten great examples.
10. “The Golden Touch” (1935)
The 1935 cartoon “The Golden Touch” carries a special significance not because of any achievement but because of its failure – and because Walt himself directed it. The short, which tells the story of King Midas, has more of the feel of an episode of the Twilight Zone than a charming Disney animated cartoon.
Walt took control of “The Golden Touch” after a period in which he had criticized his directors repeatedly. He had not directed a cartoon in five years. The short, with only two characters, ran long on time and budget. The characters lack the appeal and much of the humor of typical Disney characters, and the story takes a dark turn with little of the typical Disney optimism at the end.
As a direct result of the failure of “The Golden Touch,” Walt learned to trust his talented directors, and he allowed them to continue to create, which of course allowed him to oversee the company that would change entertainment forever.
9. “Mickey’s Mechanical Man” (1933)
Mickey Mouse portrays an inventor in the 1933 short “Mickey’s Mechanical Man.” He trains his robot invention to fight the gorilla Kongo Killer, and he and Minnie discover that the Mechanical Man goes berserk, looking to pummel anything that resembles the ape, when Minnie honks her car horn. In the ring, Kongo Killer nearly knocks the robot out, until Minnie runs to the parking lot and grabs her horn. Mickey’s Mechanical Man wins the fight.
Mickey’s skill as an inventor and his desire to win at all costs represent the enterprising spirit that shone through in America in spite of the troubles of the Depression – Minnie’s clever solution stands in for an ingenious American spirit as well. Audiences surely could see a little of themselves in Mickey & Minnie Mouse.
8. “Donald’s Better Self” (1938)
In the cute 1938 short “Donald’s Better Self,” Donald gets involved in a war between the proverbial devil and angel sides of his own nature. Donald’s alarm goes off, and he knows it’s time to go to school (because his Better Self tells him so), but after getting dressed, he follows the advice of his Worse Self to blow off school, go fishing, and smoke an apparently potent pipe.
Fortunately, Donald’s Better Self possesses a feisty streak and isn’t afraid to beat the Worse Self into submission or give Donald a kick in the rear when he needs it. In the end, Donald waddles up the walkway to the school building.
Audiences in any era can identify with the battle between their good and bad natures, but Donald’s desire to better himself by going to school had to resonate with Depression-era moviegoers who desperately wanted to rise above their station in life. Many of them did follow Donald’s example.
7. “The Grasshopper and the Ants” (1934)
The 1934 short “The Grasshopper and the Ants” used one of Aesop’s best loved fables to tell a tale with a timely message in a way only Disney could. In Disney’s version, Hop the Grasshopper not only lives a life of leisure, but he also believes, in the words of his song, that “The World Owes Us a Living.” He mocks the hardworking ants as they prepare for winter.
When winter comes, Hop learns the hard way that his refusal to work has come back to haunt him. He begs the ants for help, and they take care of him and teach him the value of work and preparation. He becomes an entertainer to the ant colony.
The message of “The Grasshopper and the Ants” had to have resonated with Depression-era audiences. The notion that effort and preparedness – along with helping others – pays off provided a marked contrast to the New Deal message of using the government to bail out individuals. It took a movie studio to sound that call.
6. “The Ugly Duckling” (1931/1939)
In 1931, Disney made “The Ugly Duckling” for the Silly Symphonies series. The simple, black and white short loosely interpreted Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale. In it, a hen somehow hatches a duck egg with her own eggs, and rejects the duckling until it saves her chicks from falling over a waterfall in the aftermath of a tornado. The animation is charming, and the action is still more gag-oriented.
Eight years later, the studio remade “The Ugly Duckling” in Technicolor as the final Silly Symphonies short. This second cartoon follows Andersen’s story much more closely with a more refined story and sophisticated humor. The latter version of “The Ugly Duckling” closed out the series on a high note, winning an Oscar.
Walt learned from these shorts the value of plussing a property – a skill he took into the live action, television, and theme park realms. Plussing allowed Walt, the studio, and the Imagineers to make great productions even better – and they still do it today!
5. “Just Mickey” (or “Fiddling Around”) (1930)
As the country sank into the Great Depression, Mickey Mouse’s popularity soared. Audiences saw in the cartoon rodent a symbol for the country as a whole – a plucky underdog (or undermouse?) who always seemed to make the best of a tough situation and emerge from danger relatively unscathed.
The first Mickey Mouse short of the 1930s is also one of the simplest, yet it somehow captures Mickey’s fierce determination like no other. The aptly titled “Just Mickey” (though some copies bear a title of “Fiddling Around”) stars Mickey by himself on a stage giving a violin concert. He will not allow anything – a heckler, his own emotional reaction to the music, or his violin literally breaking in two – to stop him from completing his set.
“Just Mickey” displays Mickey Mouse as the perfect metaphor for the United States at the outset of difficult times. Nothing would keep this country from emerging triumphantly from the toughest of circumstances.
4. “Flowers and Trees” (1932)
Before 1932, audiences only saw cartoon short films in black and white and sometimes in primitive color, but Walt Disney took advantage of a new process to innovate animation yet again. His animators had already begun working on “Flowers and Trees” as a black and white short, but once Walt saw the tests of a new, three strip Technicolor process, he had them go back to the drawing board to complete the film in color.
“Flowers and Trees” is a simple depiction of anthropomorphic foliage and flora interacting with each other over the course of a day, but it contains enough comedy, drama, and romance to remain interesting for its seven-plus minutes. And in color, the cartoon becomes more breathtaking and beautiful than it could ever be in black and white.
The cartoon won the inaugural Oscar for short animation, and for Disney, there was no turning back.
3. “The Old Mill” (1937)
The 1937 short “The Old Mill” introduced one of the most important innovations in the history of animation. Former (and future) Disney animator – and Walt’s old friend – Ub Iwerks invented the multiplane camera in 1933. Disney artist William Garity perfected the invention, which allowed for filming of several planes of cels moved around at one time to add dimension to an animated shot.
The studio planned to debut the multiplane camera in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but they decided to test it on a short. “The Old Mill” depicts, well, an old mill, along with the creatures who make the mill their home as they brave a thunderstorm. The multiplane camera effects add a depth to each scene that truly sets it apart.
“The Old Mill” also feature realistic depictions of animal life, startling storm effects, and dramatic tension rarely before seen in a cartoon, and the studio put all of these to work in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The short won an Oscar for its powerful, groundbreaking visuals.
2. “Three Little Pigs” (1933)
More than any other short film of the 1930s, “Three Little Pigs” exemplifies the spirit that survived the Great Depression. It’s a story that everyone was familiar with, but Disney told it in a way that was both memorable and inspiring. And it became one of the most popular animated shorts of the decade.
The cartoon – and its massive hit theme song, Frank Churchill’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” in particular – resonated with Depression-weary audiences who realized that the nation needed a positive attitude to defeat the economic Big Bad Wolf.
Even though it took World War II to pull America out of the doldrums of the Depression (thanks to the New Deal and its misguided policies), the American people took solace in watching a trio of cartoon pigs defeat the enemy they so feared.
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
It was one of Hollywood’s most ambitious undertakings to date. Some wags referred to it as “Walt’s Folly,” and a few of the animators doubted it could be done. Upon seeing a rough cut, Roy Disney anonymously told his brother to “stick to shorts.” But it didn’t take long for Walt Disney and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to prove that animation could enter the realm of feature films.
In 1934, Walt Disney just decided that he wanted to make an animated feature, and like most things Walt decided, that was just that. He chose the story of Snow White because he believed it had everything an animated feature needed to be successful.
He sold his team of artists on the project and put them to work studying how to draw more realistic human and animal forms. He took new filmmaking technology to new heights. The film was a huge gamble, but it paid off in both acclaim and box office.
In a business filled at the time with formula pictures and studios that rarely strayed beyond the tried and true, Walt Disney and his team of animators took cartoons to a whole new level and inspired a legacy of innovation that continues today. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs could not have succeeded without Walt’s infectious and uniquely American can-do attitude.