After doing everything from drawing newspaper cartoons, designing advertisements and studying at the Kansas City Art Institute, and no doubt inspired by the amazing work of artists like Winsor McCay who brought the loveable Gertie the Dinosaur to life years earlier, Walt Disney would finally found his own animation studio alongside his brother Roy O. Disney in 1923, with Roy handling the business side of the company while Walt handled the creative side. That humble but important studio that was founded 100 years ago this year was initially known as the Disney Brothers Studio but would come to be known by its current name The Walt Disney Company starting in 1986, which means that one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates on the planet was essentially built on the foundation of animated shorts.
This early period in Disney history was clearly not a time when Walt Disney was at his creative peak, especially since back then he was essentially an independent producer who was at the mercy of Hollywood producers. Before the Disney studio was founded, Walt and animation star Ub Iwerks were contracted to animate on the Laugh-O-Gram series of short films along with rising animation stars like Friz Freleng, Hugh Harman and future Bosko voice actor Carman Maxwell. The Laugh-O-Gram animators didn’t make a lot of money and Walt was so poor that he reportedly lived in his office and took baths once a week at the time, but the positive reaction from audiences who saw the Laugh-O-Grams inspired Walt to pursue the animation medium further, using the money he earned freelancing on educational shorts to finance his most ambitious film to date: Alice’s Wonderland (1923), a unique live-action/animated hybrid film starring young Virginia Davis as a girl who interacts with animated characters in a cartoon world, with Walt’s intention to reverse the gimmick of the Fleischer Studios’ Out of the Inkwell series which featured cartoon characters like Koko the Clown leaping off the page and interacting with a live-action world. New York distributor Margaret Winkler, who previously handled Felix the Cat, bought the idea and Disney’s Alice Comedies took off, lasting from 1924 to 1927 with four different actresses playing Alice total over the course of the series. Walt always wanted to stand out and push the envelope with his films and the Alice Comedies were definitely unlike other films at the time.
In 1926, at the same time that construction of a new California studio was completed and the newly dubbed Walt Disney Studio opened on Hyperion Street in Los Angeles, Winkler handed the Alice distribution rights to her husband Charles Mintz who took over the series in 1927. Upon that transition, Mintz decided the Alice films were too costly and technically restrictive and requested Walt Disney create an animated star like Felix the Cat for Universal Pictures instead, so Walt and Ub Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, his girlfriend a cat named Ortensia and his rival Peg-Leg Pete the bear (who first appeared as a rival to Julius the cat in the Alice Comedies and would later morph into Mickey Mouse’s feline rival Pete). Oswald’s first cartoon Trolley Troubles (1927) was Universal’s most successful film to date and Oswald rivalled both Felix the Cat and Koko the Clown in popularity while bringing Walt and Roy untold amounts of wealth, but when Walt attempted to negotiate a raise with Mintz, Mintz founded his own animation studio (which would later come to be known as Screen Gems) and took away Disney’s animation staff and his character Oswald, whose series was taken over creatively by future Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz.
While Walt’s character was gone and his team of animators abandoned him (except Ub Iwerks), this would turn out to be a seminal event because it not only led to the creation of Mickey Mouse but it also convinced Walt never to sell the rights to his characters away again, and that decision would incidentally make The Walt Disney Company one of the wealthiest companies in the world.
After Mickey Mouse became a celebrity due to the popularity of the groundbreaking 1928 sound film Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney’s name was put on the map and other Disney cartoon stars followed, including Mickey’s girlfriend Minnie Mouse, Mickey’s dog Pluto and his friends Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck and Goofy. These characters have all been Disney mainstays for decades ever since they made their public debut in the 1920s and 1930s, appearing not only in short films but also feature films, comics, television series and video games, remaining popular to this day. Meanwhile Disney’s music-themed Silly Symphony cartoon series, created by Carl Stalling, advanced the animation medium further by introducing more personality, pathos, artistry and depth to the stories that animated films told. Thanks to the advancement of technology like the multiplane camera, the depth was literal! In the 1930s, thanks to the technical mastery and narrative sophistication of the Silly Symphonies, Disney became the studio that all the most talented animators viewed as the El Dorado of the animation industry. Three Little Pigs (1933) with its distinct personality animation, hit song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and popularity with Depression-era audiences is often seen as a prime example of the greatness of the Silly Symphonies, but there were a lot of greats in that series, not the least brilliant of which were The Skeleton Dance (1929), Flowers and Trees (1932), The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934), The Flying Mouse (1934), The Tortoise and the Hare (1935), Music Land (1935), Woodland Café (1937), The Old Mill (1937) and The Ugly Duckling (1939) to name a few that I found memorable.
After introducing a few more popular characters like Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie and the chipmunk duo Chip and Dale, plus further experimentations with the live-action True-Life Adventures which highlighted animals in nature and the People & Places series which highlighted other cultures, production on theatrical shorts began slowing down in the era of television. These days Disney releases short films alongside their feature films more than other studios, but the occurrence is still kind of rare. Although everything that people love about Disney from the feature films to the theme parks to Disney Channel to Disney+ would not exist if not for those shorts films.