Although Connecticon began its life as an anime convention, it has grown to encompass all types of media from anywhere in the world, including American animation. And what is more American than Walt Disney? This year at Connecticon XVII Elizabeth Von Teig’s panel “Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks: Pioneers of Animation” took a look at the early years of Disney’s and Disney animator Ub Iwerk’s careers.
I admit I got to Von Teig’s panel just a minute or two late, at the moment that Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney’s first big hit cartoon character, was stolen. The rabbit had his own series and was popular, so taking the rights from Disney was a given–a dirty given, but a given nonetheless. Oswald would be reclaimed by the Disney company in the early 2000s.
However, as basically everyone knows, the theft of Oswald was a setback, because eventually, Mickey Mouse formed. Von Teig mentioned that although Disney’s “Steamboat Willy” is generally thought of as the first talky cartoon, Max Fleischer had his own first, but it has been pretty much forgotten because it wasn’t very good, and most theaters didn’t have speakers installed yet.
Rather than watch the familiar “Steamboat Willy,” we watched “Plane Crazy,” the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon made. It was released after “Steamboat Willy,” however. It began life as a silent cartoon and sound was added when it was clear that talkies were picking up. The cartoon is about Mickey trying to get an airplane to fly properly, and the subject was partially inspired by the then-popular aviator Charles Lindberg.
Von Teig had some commentary during the short, pointing out that Ub Iwerks’s Mickey was chaotic and often did crazy things to scare or coerce Minnie to show him some affection. Although Iwerks’s ideas were approved of by Disney, Iwerks did the majority of the legwork in terms of drawing and seemingly in planning as well.
In 1930, Ub Iwerks was offered a studio of his own by MGM, and frustrated from working with Disney, Iwerks gladly took the the offer. Around this time, Disney began to write Iwerks out of the Mickey Mouse “mythology.” Around this time, Disney began the “train myth,” that purports that Mickey was invented and drawn (by Disney himself) on a train ride. Von Teig pointed out that the Walt Disney Family Museum has on display the very first drawing of Mickey Mouse, signed by none other than Ub Iwerks.
Von Teig then showed us two Ub Iwerks shorts. One was “The Skeleton Dance,” one of his last with the Disney studio and considered a Halloween classic. The next was “Balloon Land,” a short Iwerks did at MGM at just about the time he was “running out of ideas.” Von Teig also added that the short was also “probably [composer] Carl Stalling’s worst work.” Although “Balloon Land” had a good gag or two, it ultimately falls flat.
Von Teig cited part of Iwerks’s failure as the fact that Iwerks was attempting to create cartoons for an adult audience, which wouldn’t really exist in the mainstream until The Simpsons. Iwerks also paid his animators the best of any animated studio, which sapped his funds.
In 1946, Iwerks’s studio was bought by Leon Schlessinger, then absorbed into Warner Brothers. This also absorbed Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones, all well-known for their Loony Tunes shorts. However, Iwerks didn’t stay with this incredible crew for long. He worked on two Porky Pig shorts and went back to Disney, though his failing eyesight had him sign on as an engineer rather than an animator.
Disney was in dire financial straights thanks to new technology, like the multiplane camera, and his feature-length films. Disney had actually met with then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II to keep the studio open to focus on propaganda and educational films, which had allowed the studio to scrape by. We watched and discussed shorts like “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire,” which taught housewives to save cooking grease for the war efforts. We also discussed “Spirit of ’43,” which is a cartoon about Donald Duck doing his taxes. Then we watched the infamous short “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” in which Donald Duck has a nightmare about living in Nazi Germany. The short has not aged well for many very obvious reasons.
During the fifties, Disney became more focused on his theme parks, and Iwerks had become the most important engineer in the industry. He worked on the effects in Disney films like Mary Poppins, as well as the animatronics of the Disney theme parks. Von Teig mentioned that Iwerks sometimes stepped outside of the Disney realm as well, working on the effects of films like Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds.
While Disney died in 1966, Iwerks didn’t die until 1980. Unfortunately, Iwerks still wouldn’t really be recognized for his work for another twenty years. Von Teig pointed out that Iwerks has gained much more recognition from the early two thousands onwards for his incredible achievements and contributions to the Disney name.
Connecticon XVII ran from July 12 to July 14 in Hartford, Connecticut. For more coverage on the convention, keep on checking N3rdabl3 throughout the week!