The Golden Age of Disney
“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.” (Walt Disney, 1954)
Experimenting with Sound and Colours
The Golden Age of animation started with the first sound cartoons in 1928. At that time Walt Disney gained popularity with his series of Mickey Mouse cartoons. Everything began with a short animation called “Plane Crazy”, which was a silent film, just like all previous Disney’s works. It was soon followed by “The Gallopin’ Gaucho”, but it was not as successful as its predecessor. This is when the concept for sound animation started. Pat Powers, an Irish business person, sold Disney a Cinephone system – a sound-on-film technology – which was the key to Disney’s first Mickey cartoon with a sound called “Steamboat Willie”. It guaranteed a howling success and the company continued to use soundtracks in all future projects (Pallant, 2011).
In 1929 Disney released a new series entitled Silly Symphonies. The first animation – “The Skeleton Dance” – was fully animated by Ub Iwerks. Even though both Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies were successful, Walt Disney fell out with his distributor – Pat Powers – over money. Powers responded by proposing Disney’s head animator – Iwerks, a deal to create his own animation studio. As a result, Disney signed a new distribution contract with Columbia Pictures. Ub Iwerks launched his own projects, but eventually he shut his studio and returned to Disney in 1940. (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.48)
In early 1930s Mickey Mouse became extremely popular worldwide and Disney signed a new contract with Technicolour company to create the first three-strip full-colour animation called “Flowers and Trees”. It was quite an experimental project – the animation was already in production, when Walt Disney decided to convert it to colour cartoon (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.50). This almost ruined him financially, but in the end the animation came out ahead. “Flowers and Trees” was a first cartoon to win an Oscar – it happened in 1932, during the 5th Academy Awards (Glenday, 2014: p. 208).
Silly Symphonies reached its peak of glory in 1933, when Disney created his most successful short – “The Three Little Pigs”. The story was both socially and culturally significant during The Great Depression, cartoon’s main song “Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Wolf” became a national hit (Mollet, 2013: p.48).
In 1930s Disney revolutionised Mickey Mouse cartoons by changing character’s design. Models appeared more flexible and could perform more complicated movements (Solomon, 2007). In 1932, the show received a special Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject. Disney started creating new characters such as Pluto (1930), Donald Duck (1934), Goofy (1932) – they soon got their individual cartoons. Donald’s temperament made him Disney’s second most popular cartoon character. He first appeared in “The Wise Little Hen” in 1934 (Mollet, 2013: p.52).
Disney never stopped experimenting, in 1937 he invented a multiplane camera and picked “The Old Mill” as its so-called “guinea pig”. The animation showed what could be done with visual imagery without including a dialogue (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.61). The idea turned out to be successful and was soon used in Disney’s first feature-length animated film.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the true Golden Age begins
Back in June 1934 Walt Disney announced the idea to make his first feature length animation based on the “Snow White” (1854) fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. He believed that the plot has a decisive impact on an animated film. The production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was based on Disney’s previous techniques (Norman Rockwell Museum, 2013). He imagined his heroine as a very realistic and believable character – however, Disney’s workers had no experience in animating humans. This is when company decided to make its first realistic animation of human figure. In November 1934 created a short called “The Goddess of Spring”. The main character – Persephone, was a key-stepping stone in designing the figure of Snow White, but she was not realistically alive. Disney hired a professional dancer to help animators understand the importance of realistic movements and face expressions (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.58).
Despite the financial questions, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” finally premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on December 21st, 1937. The standing ovation at the end of presentation proved that Snow White achieved the long-awaited success. It is believed to be the most influential animation in the history (Meyer, 2016: p.14). It cost Disney over one million dollars and over 62 people were involved in the production (John C. Flinn Sr. 1937), but at the end the animation was a spectacular success. It is one of the top ten performers in the North American box office (adjusted for inflation) (Meyer, 2016: p.14).
1940s: Financial Distress and War Propaganda
After the release of Snow White, the studio continued with producing even more complicated animations. Only 3 years later, they released Disney’s second animated feature film called “Pinocchio” (February 7, 1940) – even though it cost twice as much, it was not as successful as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. A few months later, on November 13, “Fantasia” saw the light of the day in its complete form. During production, Disney came up with the Fantasound system – it was a new stereophonic sound reproduction technology, that was designed by Disney’s engineers to improve the dramatic presentation of motion picture and replace the sound-reproduction system (Garity, William E.; Jones, Watson, 1942). Even with such a technological improvement, “Fantasia” received mixed reviews and was considered a financial failure.
Due to money difficulties, Walt Disney had to tighten the purse strings. In 1941 a low-budget feature film, “Dumbo”, was released. Even though it was cheaper, the production process was rough – in May 1941, over 200 Disney employees went on strike (Gabler, 2006). However, “Dumbo” was the first successful animation since Snow White premiere.
In December 1941 the US entered World War II, what immediately affected Disney. The only feature film that was still in production was “Bambi” (Gabler, 2006). Because of the war, studio focused on making propaganda shorts – “Saludos Amigos” (1942), “The Three Caballeros” (1944), “Make Mine Music” (1946), “Fun and Fancy Free” (1947), “Melody Time” (1948) and “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” (1949) – the collection of Disney’s six package films. However, his shorts weren’t as popular as the Mickey Mouse ones. In 1943 studio released “Victory Through Air Power” – a documentary feature film.
Leaving in a blaze of glory
In 1950 Disney released “Cinderella” – after a decade of struggling, Disney achieved a huge success and his new production gained popularity among the world. The story of Disney’s new princess erased the financial distress by earning $7.9 million (Gabler, 2006). Thereby, Walt Disney could continue his previous projects.
Studio released a series of live-action nature documentaries, but “Alice in Wonderland” was Disney’s centre of attention. Animation had its premiere in New York City and London on July 26, 1951. Disney’s goal was to create a story, where a real person interacts with cartoon world (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.26). Even though it was not as financially successful as “Cinderella”, the animation impressed audience favourably. Three years later, Disney came up with Alice’s follower – “Peter Pan”. Walt believed it was much better than his previous animation, what was proven by positive reviews and higher income (Gabler, 2006).
“Lady and the Tramp” (1955) was a first animation in CinemaScope – a lens series used for widescreen projections. Because of animating in the widescreen process, the premiere was delayed and the whole production took twice as much time as standard animations (Gabler, 2006).
At that time, The Golden Age of Disney seemed to reach its peak. Before dying of lung cancer in 1966 (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.174), Walt Disney finished the production of “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) and “101 Dalmatians” (1961). First animation was made using the new Super Technirama system, then studio switched to Xerography technique.
The death of Walt Disney brought his company to so-called Disney Dark Age. Even with such a tragic ending, The Golden Era created Disney’s best-known productions and made a mark in the history of animation development. It changed the way people see cartoon animation – not only as entertaining show, but as piece of art educational for all of us. We owe Disney’s love for experiments, the greatest development in motion picture industry – from basic sound cartoons to advanced full-feature animation masterpieces. With today’s era of 3D modern animation, we should never forget that “it was all started by a mouse” (Walt Disney, 1954).
Disney, Walt, 27 October 1954, “What Is Disneyland” television program, Walt Disney Productions. Available at: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2duap9
Flinn, John C. Sr., 1937, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” Review for Variety Magazine. Available at: http://variety.com/1937/film/reviews/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-1200411503/
Gabler, Neal, 2006, “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.” Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York
Garity, William E.; Jones, Watson, 1942, “Experiences in Road-Showing Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers.” Prelinger Library, Volume 39. Available at: https://archive.org/stream/journalofsociety39socirich#page/6/mode/2up
Glenday, Craig, 2014, “Guinness World Records 2014” Guinness World Records Limited
Lee, Newton; Madej, Krystyna, 2012, “Disney Stories: Getting to Digital” Springer New York Dordrecht Heidelberg London. Available at: https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.mdx.ac.uk/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-1-4614-2101-6.pdf
Meyer, Andrew, 2016, “Animation or Cartoons: An American Dilemma” Seattle Pacific University, Honours Projects. 40. Available at: http://digitalcommons.spu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1058&context=honorsprojects
Mollet, Tracey, 2013, “Historical ‘tooning: Disney, Warner Brothers, the Depression and War 1932-1945” The University of Leeds Institute of Communications Studies. Available at: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/4961/1/Historical%20Tooning.pdf
Norman Rockwell Museum, 2013, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Educator and Family Guide” The Walt Disney Family Museum® Disney Enterprises, Inc. Available at: http://www.nrm.org/pdfs/WDFM_NRM_SnowWhiteGuide_150dpi.pdf
Pallant, Chris, 2011, “Demystifying Disney: a history of Disney Feature Animation” Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
Solomon, Charles, 2007, “The Golden Age of Mickey Mouse” The Walt Disney Family Museum – Special Exhibit Articles. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20070301100751/http://disney.go.com/disneyatoz/familymuseum/exhibits/articles/mickeymousegoldenage/index.html
Figure 1 Steamboat Willie 50th anniversary poster, 1978. Available at: LINK
Figure 2 From “The Three Little Pigs” (US, 1933, dir. Burt Gillett). Screenshot from: LINK p.50
Figure 3 From “The Wise Little Hen” (US, 1934, dir. Wilfred Jackson). Available at: LINK
Figure 4 A frame grab from the 1934 cartoon, Goddess of Spring. Available at: LINK
Figure 5 Snow White Theatrical release poster, 1937. Available at: LINK
Figure 6 The Fantasound installation in the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. Screenshot from: LINK
Figure 7 Disney animators’ strike, May 1941. Available at: LINK
Figure 8 Propagandist illustration for Coronet magazine, 1942. Available at: LINK
Figure 9 Alice in Wonderland (1951). Available at: LINK
Figure 10 The Last Photo of Walt Disney, Disneyland Park, 1966. Available