In the roaring ’20s, after WWI, Americans were coming into their own, developing a culture that was distinctly not European but also no longer a country of rugged settlers.
At 26, Walt Disney was on the train to success, literally. Riding from his upstart studio in Los Angeles to New York to finalize and increase a deal for a hit series about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
After arriving, he found he’d been double-crossed by a studio executive who secretly hired all but two of his animators away (the two refused to leave) and obtained rights to Oswald. Make the studio executive a partner in the studio Disney had created with his older brother, Roy, or find yourself destitute. Against his brother’s advice, Walt walked.
On the way back to Los Angeles, Walt realized he had to create a new character. There was a red ocean of animators at the time and they’d personalized every conceivable animal. Rather than focus on an animal people liked, he decided on one they didn’t, a rodent.
Walt drew a mouse with big ears, red velvet pants, and two white buttons. Mortimer Mouse, he told his wife, Lillian. No, she answered ー to stuffy ー Mickey Mouse. A different historian says it’s longtime Disney animator Ub Iwerks, who Disney met at his first job and who had refused to leave with the other animators, that dreamed up Micky. In any event, it doesn’t matter; they worked together and Disney was about to launch his personable rodent into a sustained success.
Ub owned 20% of the studio but left, frustrated after an aggressive Walt pushed him to finish a new film faster. His studio folded after six years and he returned to Disney’s which, by that time, had grown. Disney was happy to have him back. Had Ub retained his 20% ownership, he’d have been a millionaire in the 1930s. Had his heirs retained it they’d be worth $50 billion in 2019. Ub sold his shares, when he quit, for $2,920.
Disney’s cartoons were fun but often had a dark side. In their first color cartoon (and one of the first ever made), Three Little Pigs, released May 1933, a photo hangs on the wall of the house of a pig that shows sausages and another of a ham; both have the caption “Father”. He followed up with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, one of the first color full-length movies, in 1937 (financed by Giannini’s Bank of America and approved by Gianini personally). Snow White earned $8.5 million; tickets cost ten cents.
Over the years, Disney had its ups and downs, but mostly ups. They created a new type of theme park and moved into live-action films and TV. As of 2019, the firm has $60 billion per year in revenue and they are the studio executives.