Pretty much everyone in the United States and many throughout the world has heard the name Walt Disney. And many would associate him with his most iconic character Mickey Mouse. And while Disney must be given much of the credit for the development of Mickey Mouse’s character and promotion, the Mouse was actually designed by another man, Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was a key partner for the success of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse even though for most fans who have been delighted by Mickey Mouse on screen, Iwerks is largely invisible.
Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy in The Hand Behind the Mouse: An Intimate Biography of the Man Walt Disney Called “The Greatest Animator in the World” attempt to inform readers to the achievements of Disney’s master animator. Iwerks met another young artist, Walt Disney, at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio in Kansas City. The two men would then be linked together as they moved onto the Kansas City Film Ad Company and started their own production company in the Laugh-O-Gram Studio. With the bankruptcy of their young endeavor the two men would separate with Walt Disney relocating to California and Iwerks obtaining salaried work as an artist. With contracts for cartoons in hand, Disney requested his friend join him at the Disney Brothers Studio to animate the Alice Comedy series, originally a Laugh-O-Gram product. Later, Iwerks would be the lead animator for the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon series. When Charles Mintz took control of the series from Disney, Iwerks who was one of the few animators to stay with Walt Disney. It was Iwerks that Disney looked to for the creation of a new replacement animated star. Iwerks drew a number of character designs including frogs, cows and horses. But it was a mouse that Walt Disney was drawn to, a mouse that would become Disney’s most popular character Mickey Mouse. In 1930, Iwerks would leave Disney and start his own cartoon studio, The Iwerks Studio. While Iwerks continued to push innovation, the Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper cartoon characters never found a profitable audience. The Iwerks Studio would eventually close and after completing contract work for Looney Tunes, Iwerks would return to Disney employment. But Iwerks would never again primarily be an animator. Instead Iwerks would place his formidable mind against the challenge of special effects in both animated and live action films. His work would even be seen outside of Disney production in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Iwerks would also contribute to Disney’s theme park projects, developing the camera for the Circarama, later named Circle-Vision, films. Iwerks would continue to work for Disney, challenged by interesting visual challenges, until his death in 1971.
My first question when picking up The Hand Behind the Mouse was would this book be fair and balanced? It is a Disney Editions book, but co-written by Ub Iwerks’ granddaughter. So would the legacy of Walt be lessened in discussing Ub, and likewise would the publisher push for an overly positive depiction of Walt Disney. The first potential conflict was Mickey Mouse. We have all heard stories of Walt Disney creating Mickey Mouse on the train ride back from New York after losing Oswald. Iwerks and Kenworthy’s version of this tale is that Disney asked Iwerks to work up several character models for him to choose from for his new animation star. Walt Disney selected the mouse! The book, and Disney company history, supports the view that the model of Mickey Mouse was fully Iwerks’ effort. But the book also makes it clear that the financial and critical success of the mouse was due to the efforts of Walt Disney. Iwerks drew the mouse, but Disney made him a star! The second source of conflict was Iwerks and his departure from the studio. The book discusses the tension that Iwerks felt in the studio as his efforts were downplayed but Disney’s were applauded. But the authors do not paint Disney as the “bad guy.” Instead they show him to be hurt by the desertion of a long-time friend and trusted partner. The book presents the situation as something that happened but does not point fingers at the split. Additionally, the book shows that despite Disney keeping his distance initially, he was excited for Ubwerks’ return and the ability to use his skills and intellect in his productions.
One incident that this book helped illuminate for me is Disney losing the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Iwerks and Kenworthy present this issue largely without commentary. But they do discuss the creation of the rabbit, which makes it clear that Oswald was not 100 percent the intellectual property of Disney or Iwerks. In fact it was representatives from Universal who suggested a rabbit and the name Oswald for a series they would distribute but Disney would produce. These facts make it appear that Disney was very much a contractor, who was fulfilling a request not generating exclusively owned content. In a time where intellectual property laws were in question, it is easy to see how Disney legally would not fight the transfer of Oswald to another studio. Walt Disney just would not have had a leg to stand on.
I really enjoyed The Hand Behind the Mouse! And I would highly recommend it. I got a glimpse into early animation, the early Disney studio, and the man who created our beloved Mousey leader. The book was highly readable, with me having a hard time to put it down. The only thing that slowed me down was the summaries of animated shorts I was not familiar with, much like a baseball book describing game action you did not actually witness. But many of these shorts are easily available to the reader. You may have missed this title and it is well worth your while pick it up this well researched and well written book.