That'll Work: A Tribute to Walt Disney

In Memoriam: Walter Elias Disney

Walt Disney was never a man to give what we would think of as praise to those in his employ. Nor did he ever truly criticize. If something his artists did wasn’t up to par, Walt would say, “That’s not right for my picture.” If it was up to par, Walt Disney’s gold medal expression was, “That’ll work.” Never did he say, “well done,” or “excellent,” or anything that was even slightly over that little top. The funny thing is, the expression, “That’ll work,” works perfectly as praise, regardless. Look at it this way: Walt Disney was always looking for improvement. Never was the last movie or short subject “good enough” to keep him from encouraging his animators or musical composers from improving for the next one. His animation was top of the proverbial line. By 1927, while working with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, other animation studios were looking over their shoulders at what Walt and his boys were doing, desperate to do as well or to find their own niches before Disney stomped them out. Therefore, since Disney’s animation was so good, since each piece was better than the last, any praise more expressive than, “That’ll work,” would simply have been redundant.

Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks with Mickey Mouse c. 1929

Walt Disney and his good friend and co-worker, Ub Iwerks, suffered several false starts in the animation business in their home town of Kansas City, Missouri. When their co-venture, Laugh-o-Gram Studios, failed in 1923, Disney and Iwerks parted company. Iwerks stayed in Missouri; Disney moved to California to begin a new studio with his brother, Roy. At this point, Walt had less than $40 to his name and only a single print of his “Alice in Cartoonland” short film.

An image from one of the "Alice in Cartoonland" shorts c. 1925

Working from their Uncle’s garage in Hollywood, Walt and Roy found a new producer for his Alice series; M. J. (Margaret) Winkler agreed to produce the Alice series, so long as Walt and Roy could maintain the level of excellence that Walt had achieved with Ub Iwerks. Walt was a gifted sales person and very creative, but he was not the draftsman that Ub Iwerks was. It didn’t take him long to realize that, without his friend from Missouri, the new Disney Brothers’ Studio wouldn’t work. So, with no more arm twisting than a letter and friendly invitation, Walt convinced Ub to move to Hollywood to join the new studio. Walt had been right. With Ub Iwerks doing the vast majority of the animation, what would eventually become the Walt Disney Studios was going to work, but not with Alice. While the quality was maintained under Iwerks’ pencil, the limitations of Alice cartoons grew tiresome for audiences. Furthermore, M. J. Winkler turned over her animation department to her new husband Charles Mintz at Universal Studios, and he wanted a new character for his own animation department. With the demise of the Alice series and a new boss, Walt and Ub invented a new character that would work for them: Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit.

Walt Disney with his brother, Roy Disney c. 1930
Logo for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Oswald was a success, plain and simple, especially with Ub Iwerks now doing all of the drawing. Walt had the abundant ideas, Ub executed them while also executing any challenges that got in his way. Iwerks was also able to be more expressive with the new character, now that everything was fully animated—no live-action Alice character. He began to establish personality in Oswald, which was a novelty in animation. The humour grew less and less slap-stick oriented as Iwerks worked himself into his own works. The success was so great, however, that Charles Mintz, according to film historian and critic, Leonard Maltin, stole Oswald and many of Disney’s lesser animators. Since Walt didn’t own Oswald, he essentially lost him to Universal Studios, putting Walt, Roy and Ub in the awkward position of hunting down a new character that would work for them. Walt had been playing with the idea of a mouse and was able to sketch out some drafts, but Ub refined the character in his own inimitable style, and, in a matter of two weeks, single-handedly, drew the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon: “Plane Crazy,” inspired by the famous record-breaking transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh.

Mickey Mouse scuffling his hair in order to more resemble aviator, Charles Lindbergh. "Plane Crazy" (1928)

They had definitely found for themselves a character that would work for them. Mickey Mouse was successful, but his success came at a time when interest in animation as a whole began to wear thin. Once again, Walt and his team, which, by now, included the wives of the three men, found themselves searching for the answer: a synchronized sound cartoon. With Mickey Mouse as their star, late in 1928, the first sound cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” was released to the public. So popular was he, that, in subsequent cartoons, sometimes the Mickey Mouse cartoon got top billing over the feature film. “With Roy keeping the enterprise on solid financial ground, . . . Walt wrote the story lines and gags, [and gave] Mickey his own voice, personality and soul. Ub drew the layouts, concept designs, and animation.” In essence, Mickey was the alter ego of Walt himself, as Walt was the original creator of the character and provided the voice and stories, and also since both Walt and Mickey spent plenty of time in the public’s eye. 

Two parodies of Norman Rockwell's Triple Self Portrait with a caricature (by Peter Emslie) of Walt in the middle. Other artists unknown.

Even so, Ub Iwerks’ contribution to the life of Disney’s number-one star cannot be ignored. In time, it would be proved that Disney Studios could not work without Ub Iwerks, but also that Ub Iwerks could not work on his own long without the dynamism of Walt Disney.

Mickey Mouse starring as the titular character in the 1928, Walt Disney Studios synchronized sound animated short, "Steamboat Willie."

Yes, Mickey Mouse was a success now. Sound animation thrust the Disney studio to the head of the world animation line, but Walt, always looking to improve and advance his animation art, heeded the advise of Carl Stalling, the musical genius behind “Steamboat Willie,” who suggested a second series of cartoons separate from Mickey Mouse and something to contrast with him: a series with no central character but based on music alone to capitalize on the sound cartoons all the more. And so was born the “Silly Symphony” series in 1929.

 

An opening scene from "Skeleton Dance," the first in a series of animated shorts called Silly Symphonies, produced by Walt Disney Studios between 1929 and 1939.

So Disney now had two separate series to work with. For Mickey Mouse, who was so popular, there was little more than refining the character and building “personality animation” more and more. For the Silly Symphonies, however, Walt added even more. This series became an educational tool for Disney animators—a school for advancing animation as an art form. Mickey was already so popular that he didn’t even receive colour until three years after the Silly Symphonies did. But the Symphonies were the first cartoons to be in full colour: “Flowers and Trees” in 1932; they were the first to use the multi-plane camera: “The Old Mill” in 1937; they introduced the character of Donald Duck, in “The Wise Little Hen” in 1934, and they were the series that became goal oriented—leading to the first, full-length animated motion picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. So it is correct to see Disney’s animated movies as extensions of the Silly Symphony series rather than as part of the Mickey Mouse series. And all along the way, the phrase that said it all for any new gag, any new character, any new musical style, any new story that met Walt’s high standard remained, “That’ll work.”

 

Walt Disney himself, c. 1960

Over the next 30 years, during his 40-year career, Walt Disney oversaw the production of 21 full-length animated movies, dozens of live-action films, and hundreds of animated shorts. With each new element, Disney raised the bar and found ways of helping his crew exceed their own expectations. There are few people world wide who have not been touched by Disney’s art that his studio perfected. He left a legacy of animation such as no other studio has ever touched, even while they, too, deserve praise. While Disney animation did, at one point, need to be rekindled, even so, it remains the top studio in animation, even over Pixar, these days. But, while the inhabitants of earth look to him, even today, with a sense of awe and wonder, with great praise and admiration, the powers that rule over humanity said to Walt on December 15, 1966—50 years ago today, “That’ll work, Walt,” and he was gone. 

I was just a child of four years, but I remember. I was deeply saddened because all my short life my family had gathered to watch Walt Disney on TV every week. I was in high school when “The Wonderful World of Disney” was still aired every Sunday evening, just after dinner time. There is not a single animated film made by Disney studios that I do not own and watch, from time to time, with great admiration. As an art lover, I put Disney animation at the pinnacle, not just of animation, but of art itself, as though all the centuries of humanity learning to paint, learning to create different genres of music, learning the best methods of telling stories all culminated into the art of animation. Indeed, that’ll work!

A promotional poster for "Flowers and Trees," (1932) the first work of animation in full colour
Born and raised in the prairies of the U. S., A. J. Mittendorf now lives in British Columbia, Canada working as a teacher and tutor of English for hig... read more

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