Walt Disney, the man who made us fly in the imagination

Walt Disney had left in 1923, at the age of 22 (he was born on December 5, 1901), for California, with a one-way ticket and $ 40 in his pocket, and after the war he was already the head of the most flourishing film industry in Hollywood. He died in Los Angeles on December 15, 1966.

With his unmistakable curvilinear signature, the name of Walt Disney has become a legend in the history of cinema. Winner of 26 Oscars, various awards and important international awards, Disney has thrilled and entertained generations of spectators, enjoying such great success that it is often considered as the inventor of cartoon animation. This technique actually existed for about twenty years, but it was Disney’s imagination and determination that made it soar.

Walter Elias Disney Jr., the fourth of five children, was born in Chicago in 1901 into a family of humble origins. His childhood years were difficult. His father, an authoritarian man, forced him to work long hours in family activities and did not spare him corporal punishment. The child consoled himself as he could: with drawing, a great passion right from the start; with the company of his brother Roy, a little older than him; with the beloved fairy tales that his mother read to him in the evening; and with the magic of Charlie Chaplin’s cinema. Drawing, cinema, fairy tales … on closer inspection, the ingredients for the future king of cartoons were all already there.

A difficult childhood. In fact, immediately after his artistic studies between Kansas City and Chicago, the boy began to devote himself to animation. The first steps in what will become his world, fantastic and all-encompassing, took them with his friend Ub Iwerks. Together they made shorts they called Laugh-O-grams. But the times were what they were, and financial difficulties were not lacking. So he moved to Los Angeles, hoping for more luck, which was in fact now within reach. The young Disney in fact made his way quickly, and in 1923 he founded his own production company, the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, together with his brother. Here he found himself working side by side with a petite and pretty girl named Lillian Bounds: he drew, she went over his drawings in ink.

The boss’s lack of artistic talent, and a certain nascent interest in him, led her to change jobs and become Walt’s personal secretary. And shortly after her wife. In 1925 they married and in 1933 they had their first and only biological daughter, Diane Marie.

To celebrate his birth, Walt announced that on the first day of any Disney film, the screening would be free for all orphans. A few years later they adopted their second daughter, Sharon Mae. Lilli and Walt will remain together until his death in 1966.  

In 1927, the series of Oswald the lucky rabbit was born, a character that Iwerks quickly transformed into a mouse by reworking some sketches. Lillian christened him Mickey Mouse – in Italy Mickey Mouse – and Disney himself gave him personality and voice. It was this lucky character, the very emblem of the Disney empire, who made his debut with sound. The 1928 short film was called Steamboat Willie and sparked a wave of enthusiasm in the audience.

The detective mouse. Not that Mickey Mouse was particularly funny or interesting, as historian Stephen Cavalier observes in his Cartoon, World History of Animated Film (Atlante, 2012), nevertheless the detective mouse established himself as “the upright individual who tries to control characters and the chaotic situations that gravitate around him, an amiable “hero” to which children – and parents – can refer ». A luminous and magical world, as Cavalier describes it, in which “the whole scenario is cleverly designed to be appreciated by every child but also by the child who is housed in every adult”.

A true pioneer of animation techniques, Disney was ready to risk bankruptcy in order to elevate his productions to a new art form. After the introduction of sound he experimented with the use of music and color to improve the atmosphere of his short films, which reached their most successful peak in 1933 with The Three Little Pigs . For Disney, animation was the tool with which to tell stories capable of arousing a wide range of emotions.

The first masterpieces. A vision that led, in 1937, to the making of the first feature film in the history of overseas animation: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . Costing much more than estimated, Snow White not only amply repaid the company (which grew to well over 1,000 employees), but paved the way for the production of many other classics, such as Fantasia and Pinocchio (both from 1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), up to the following Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953).  

In many of his films, however, Disney’s fantastical charge also takes on a deeper and darker dimension. According to Marc Eliot’s biography titled Walt Disney, Hollywood’s Dark Prince (Birch Lane Press), each feature reflects various aspects of the great theme that was close to his heart: the sacredness of the family and the tragic consequences of his passing away.

It is no coincidence that what often accumulates these films is the theme of abandonment and the search for real parents by the protagonist. A fact that would have personally obsessed Disney from a young age, since, unable to take part in the First World War because he was a minor, he discovered the non-existence of his birth certificate and the doubt that he had been adopted crept into him, so much so that he justified himself so were the punishments he suffered as a child.

In the company as in the family. Such a legacy led him to view his company as one big family, a disposition that made him particularly hateful the disputes that occurred with employees. His despotic character put a strain on his relationships with the numerous animators and, soon, the relationships became conflicting, especially as Walt did not want to acknowledge their creative contribution. What’s more: low wages, unjustified dismissals and union rejection brought relationships in the family business to open conflict.

In May 1941 the employees went on strike with a lot of pickets at the entrance of the cinema and the participation of several hundred demonstrators carrying signs with slogans and caricatures of the famous Disney characters. The struggle lasted for two months, until an arbitration recognized wage increases, paid holidays, the re-employment of the dismissed and the presence of the union. Disney tied it to his finger.

During World War II, Disney’s studios were also “enlisted” to produce propaganda films for the government. Among the dozens of titles, the best known – and also an Academy Award for best animated short film – is The Face of the Führer, with Donald Duck living the nightmare of being under the Nazi regime. It seems that President Roosevelt himself was conditioned by Disney’s clever propaganda and would have kicked off the long-range bombing strategy only after seeing the documentary film Victory Through Air Power , made to raise funds for the construction of airplanes. war.

propaganda and politics.  But Disney’s political and ideological commitment did not end with the end of the conflict. Indeed, the tensions of the Cold War and the beginning of the witch hunt that also hit Hollywood in the 1950s, saw Walt Disney in the front line against the “communist danger”. He began by removing a few pebbles from his shoe against his employees who had gone on strike years earlier: he testified to the Committee against anti-American activities (Huac) and denounced the infiltration of the communists in his company.

In the years of McCarthyism he was an informant of the FBI, directed by his friend J. Edgar Hoover, and in 1954 he became Special Agent in Charge, offering the agency a trusted man even behind the scenes of the fledgling television industry.

Disney found in the small screen, where he presented his programs, an opportunity to make the face of “Uncle Walt” as familiar and acclaimed as that of the great movie stars. But television proved above all an extraordinary tool to finance and promote his latest visionary creation: Disneyland, the amusement park that opened in the city of Anaheim, near Los Angeles, in 1955. Opened live on television, its extraordinary success did not go away. not even stopped with the disappearance of its own creator, ending up arriving in many large cities around the world where it continues to attract millions of families.

The latest masterpiece: Mary Poppins. Among the many creations of his career, Disney also left an indelible mark in cinema with the film Mary Poppins released in 1964, two years before his death. In an impeccable blend of live footage and animation, Disney painted the grand portrait of the eternal triumph of hope over cynicism, youth over old age, life over death. As the biographer Marc Eliot observes: “it is his great monument to immortality”.  

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