Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – Walt Disney

Sep 30, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – Walt Disney

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, I can think of no more creative individual who has impacted so many people for so many years than Walt Disney. When and where was he born and what were his early years like?

Walter Elias “Walt” Disney was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901. When Walt was four, his father relocated the Disney family to a farm near Marceline, Missouri. It was while living there that Walt first demonstrated his drawing abilities, earning his first commission as an artist by producing sketches for a neighbor. Forced to sell his farm, Disney’s father relocated his family in Kansas City in 1911. There he received a paper route for the Kansas City Star, and he immediately put Walt to work delivering newspapers. As was the case with Billy Graham, Disney attributed his indifferent grades to the fact that delivering newspapers before school often led to his falling asleep during his classes.

The Disney family moved back to Chicago in 1917, and Walt began to attend McKinley High School. His high school career, however, ended well short of graduation because of the First World War. Hoping to serve in the American Army, Disney dropped out of school and tried to volunteer. But because he was only 16, the Army turned him down. Still hoping to help the war effort, Disney then joined the Red Cross to drive an ambulance. He was sent to France, but arrived after the armistice ending hostilities had been signed.

Once he left the Red Cross, Disney decided to return to Kansas City. It was there that Disney would establish himself as a commercial artist.

2) His early endeavors revolved around cartoons and Steamboat Willie. What were his first successes all about?

Arriving in Kansas City after his service with the Red Cross, Disney sought employment as an illustrator. Unsuccessful in this pursuit, Disney was helped by his brother Roy. Using one of his business connections, Roy arranged for Walt to work as a temp at Kansas City’s Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio. While working there, Disney became acquainted with a fellow artist named Ubbe Iwerks. The two decided to form their own firm, but the business soon failed. Both soon found work with the Kansas City Film Ad Company. It was there that Disney first became interested in animation. Originally, he tried to perfect a technique using cut-outs, but soon became convinced that creating individual cells was the better option for animation. This would become his stock in trade, and Disney soon started a new company called Laugh-O-Gram to produce animated shorts.

In 1923, he decided to relocate in Hollywood, and opened Disney Brother’s Studio. Disney’s first big success came in 1926 when his studio created a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Universal Studios. Encouraged by the popularity of the animated shorts featuring Oswald, in 1928 Disney sought to secure a higher fee from Universal, but that firm actually threatened to decrease his pay. Moreover, it turned out that Universal owned the rights to the character, leaving no room for Disney to negotiate. Instead, he chose to develop a new character.

With help from his friend Ubbe Iwerks, Disney created an animated mouse. Originally known as Mortimer, the character was renamed Mickey at the suggestion of Disney’s wife. The first two shorts featuring Mickey Mouse were not successful, but for a third attempt Disney added sound.

This animated short, known as “Steamboat Willie,” was instantaneously popular, and soon made Mickey Mouse the world’s most popular cartoon character.

3) Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck—and the list goes on. Why do you think Americans were so drawn to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and all of these beloved cartoon characters?

There are many factors that help to explain why Disney characters remain in such high esteem to this day.
First, the animation techniques that his studio utilized were revolutionary, and the quality of his work hold up remarkably well to this day.

Second, Disney’s characters all possessed traits that were immediately recognizable to the viewing audience.
Finally, and perhaps most important, Walt Disney was what we would call an incurable optimist. This sense of hope for the future infuses much of his most popular work, and has continued to resonate with the American people to this day.

4) As you may recall, Walt Disney also immortalized some famous Americans – Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” and Davy Crocket. Tell us about some of those movies that still ring true.

Walt Disney could have continued to produce only animated shorts and feature films, but he saw a commercial market for live action movies as well. His first two such efforts—“Treasure Island” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”—were both based on famous works of literature, and both were commercial successes. His next film was “Old Yeller,” which is one of the few films to have a 100% rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes. After he started a weekly television series, Disney chose to make films for use on that program.

His first such effort focused on the frontiersman Davy Crockett, and it became one of the most popular television shows of all time. Disney would follow this template with films that focused on other real-life Americans, ranging from Francis Marion to Johnny Clem. While taking some liberties with the actual history, these films were popular because they showed Americans displaying exemplary courage in extraordinary situations. Disney would continue to produce live action films until his death in 1966.

5) Color and cartoons and choral singing seems to be the hallmark of some of his later movies. I am thinking about the “Little Mermaid” for one—but what were some of the others?

Disney’s last few years were remarkably successful. In 1961, his studio released “101 Dalmatians,” which was the tenth-highest grossing film of the year. Two years later, Disney had even greater success with “The Sword in the Stone.” And one year later, Disney had his greatest success of the decade with “Mary Poppins.”

In 1966, he was overseeing the production of “The Jungle Book” when he passed away. That film would become the fourth-highest grossing movie in 1967. “Mary Poppins” and “The Jungle Book” were both worthy successors to the tradition that Disney had started with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” of incorporating songs that became American classics. Disney films seemed to stumble a bit after his death, but eventually by the time that “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King” appeared his studio had clearly rediscovered the winning formula.

6) His later years and his later endeavors- and what legacy has he left us? (Other than Disneyland and much beloved characters and stories).

If only for the fact that he brought joy to millions through his work, Walt Disney deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest Americans. But Disney deserves much more credit for other things that he did in his life. One of his lasting legacies will be the fact that he bequeathed a quarter of his fortune to the California Institute of the Arts. Future generations of artists will thus benefit from his largesse. This is not to say that Disney’s legacy is a totally unblemished one. A number of people considered him anti-Semitic, based on his strained relationship with certain individuals of the Jewish faith. In addition, some feel that Disney used racial stereotypes of African-Americans, notably the way that the crows behave in Dumbo. But Disney’s most recent biographer feels that Disney was not overtly racist or bigoted; rather, he was a product of his times.

Moreover, it should be noted that Disney gave a favorable treatment in a film to the New Mexican lawman Elfego Baca at a time when Hispanics were rarely shown on screen. Disney may not have been perfect, but his accomplishments seem to far outweigh the few negatives related to him.

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