Walt Disney failed many times during his life, but he never failed at persistence. After losing the intellectual property rights to Oswald the Rabbit and all but one of his staff in February 1928, Disney and Iwerks created Mickey Mouse. By May of 1928, Mickey Mouse was appearing for the first time in a single test screening of the short “Plane Crazy.” However, neither it nor Disney’s second short, “The Gallopin’ Gaucho,” found a distributor. But Disney wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. His third short, “Steamboat Willie,” followed the path of The Jazz Singer and used synchronized sound to create the first post-produced sound cartoon. This success gave him the leverage to sign a contract with Pat Powers, a former Universal executive, to use the “Powers Cinephone” recording system which became Disney’s distributor and very popular.
Carl Stalling, professional composer and arranger, was the next to join Disney to help improve the quality of music. It was Stalling’s suggestion to develop the Silly Symphony series and “The Skeleton Dance” came out in 1929. More local artists were hired to keep up with the highly successful Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series. Still, Disney and his brother felt like they were getting less than their rightful share of profits from Powers. At first, Disney tried cutting costs, and then asked Powers for more money. Powers refused and hired Iwerks away from Disney. Thinking Disney would fold without Iwerks, Stalling resigned shortly thereafter.
Suffering a nervous breakdown, Disney and Lillian went to Cuba for a vacation and a cruise to Panama. Upon his return, Disney signed Columbia Pictures to distribute Mickey Mouse which was continuing to rise in popularity.
Always eager to try new technology, Disney began filming “Flowers and Trees” in full-color three-strip Technicolor and was able to get the sole right to use the three-strip process until Aug. 31, 1935. In 1932, “Flowers and Trees” won the Academy Award for best Short Subject (Cartoon) and “Mickey’s Orphans” received an Honorary Award “for the creation of Mickey Mouse.”
Disney expanded as his success grew. In 1933, he hired a story department to ensure emotionally gripping stories that would interest the audience. By 1934, he was ready to try a feature-length cartoon and began the four-year production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As Disney worked, the industry predicted bankruptcy and named the project “Disney’s Folly.” Disney spared no expense in its production. The cost was $1.5 million, three times over budget. It premiered in December 1937 and was the most successful motion picture of 1938. By May 1939, it had grossed $6.5 million.
As with most businesses, Disney felt the pinch of World War II. Again, he survived and continued to expand as new technology came along. One of his biggest ventures was theme parks which, as everyone knows, is still going strong even after his death in 1966.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News for over ten years. She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.firstname.lastname@example.org.