How Two Brothers and a Rodent Changed the World

Posted by Michael Pinto on Oct 16, 2009 in Animation |

Walt and Roy Disney

On this day in 1923 two brothers founded an animation studio to produce a series of cartoons for Margaret J. Winkler. Margaret started out as a secretary at Warner Brothers during the silent film era which then branched into cartoons in 1917. Her breakthrough came in 1922 when she put together Pat Sullivan and Felix the Cat. Based upon that success she formed her own distribution company, but had a then falling out with Pat. So Margaret was on the lookout for a replacement when some kid called Walt Disney showed her a pilot reel for a film called Alice’s Wonderland which featured a live-action girl in an animated setting.

Margaret liked what she saw so much that she wanted to produce a series of films which would be known as the Alice Comedies. It was because of this Walt and his brother Roy (who was the crucial business side of the business) incorporated the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio as equal partners. By 1924 the first film in the series came out which was titled Alice’s Day at Sea, and by 1926 upon moving to a larger studio changed their name to The Walt Disney Studio.

The films did well but the real breakthrough for Disney was their next project which was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Disney Studios didn’t create Oswald, but their high quality workmanship put him on the map and made him a hit. However sadly for our two brothers the rabbit wasn’t very lucky for them. Universal which controlled the distribution of the films demanded that Disney take a 20% budget cut using their ownership of the rabbit as motivation. To further pressure Disney they went the extra step and even secretly hired most of the animators to a direct contract.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

However the Disney brothers didn’t give into that demand and walked away. Only a handful of employees remained loyal to a company that had the rug pulled out from underneath. While finishing off their last Oswald cartoon (they were pros after all) the remaining loyal staff pulled together to create a character that would be the symbol of the company over eighty years later: Mickey Mouse!

Mickey Mouse in Plane Crazy

On May 15, 1928 the short film Mickey Mouse in Plane Crazy was released, but poor Mickey didn’t take off as audiences found the mouse to be a bit too crazy. But Disney stuck with the series and didn’t give up, and with the release of the second film Steamboat Willie a few months later Disney had a hit. While Plane Crazy was a silent film Steamboat Willie made use of synchronized sound which was a brand new technology at that point.

Steamboat Willie

Walt Disney was always able to produce high quality animation, but his use of combing that with music and voiceovers was a sort of real magic. That combination really clicked with the audience, and set Disney films apart from the pack. Oswald the Rabbit would hop into obscurity, however Mickey marched boldly ahead and by 1932 would be seen in glorious technicolor. These short films gave the studio the breathing room to work on a feature length film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and that film was so successful that it was the Star Wars of its day.

Walt Disney talking about some crazy idea for a film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

In the years ahead the studio would have many ups and downs — but that takeoff was all made possible by the hard work of two brothers and their cartoon rodent.

Walt and Roy Disney

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