Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Hand Behind The Mouse, Part 1

Okay, so I’ve been delaying long enough, it’s time to start the serious discussion of Ub Iwerks, the man who designed Mickey Mouse.

Yes, I know, we’ve all heard that story about Walt riding back from New York and sketching out the little guy on a train. It’s not true. That is, if you believe the book and film, The Hand Behind The Mouse, by Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy. But more on that later. Since we are about to begin on the first films that Ub did for the Hollywood studio, let’s look at what we can learn about Ub and Walt before that time.

We know from earlier that Ub and Walt met while working at Pesmen Rubin Commercial Art Studio, then formed their own studio, called Iwerks-Disney. This bond between the two men must have been strong, because Ub at the time was caring for his mother, as the only source of income. To risk that on a venture with Walt had to be a challenge.

Walt, with Ub’s blessing, left to take a job at Kansas City Film Ad, leaving Ub to run the business. It was not a good idea. Ub Iwerks was a gifted artist, and likely one of the best animators to ever pick up a pencil, but he was not a good businessman. He was not a showman or a salesman, both of which Walt excelled at. Iwerks-Disney folded, and Walt was able to get Ub a job at Kansas City Film Ad.

These two had to have been fast friends, because even with Ub’s financial situation, Walt was the one who left first and started making money at Film Ad, while Ub handled the bankruptcy proceedings at Iwerks-Disney. They did share some similarities – both were trying to move in different directions from their fathers. We discussed Walt and Elias earlier, but Ub was taking up the slack for his father, who left the family when Ub was young.

Both men grew interested in animation early on, and began to experiment with the form while still working at the Kansas City Film Ad company. Their boss, A.V. Cauger, allowed them to take home a camera to play with things. While most Walt Disney biographies have only Walt working in the garage to create new films, these Ub Iwerks bios place him in the room with Disney. Is this true?

This is where there is difficulty with The Hand Behind the Mouse. In no other literature or interviews have I ever seen that Ub was involved with Walt’s animation experiments at the Bellefontaine Avenue garage. But in both the book and documentary, it is asserted that he was involved and helped Walt animate the first Laugh-O-Gram, Little Red Riding Hood.

Image courtesy of

I’m not saying I don’t believe the Ub version of things, because it’s very obvious that the Walt Disney Company glossed over the contributions of anyone except Walt for many years. Even Roy O. Disney did not get the credit he so richly deserved for many years. But there is no way to say conclusively at this point one way or another. This is where I have trouble watching and reading these projects.

Eventually, Laugh-O-Gram Films would be founded, and Ub would be right in the middle of animating those early fairy tales. What did he contribute, and how was it vital to the process? Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the Ub influence and how the perspective of The Hand Behind the Mouse reconciles with other Walt Disney bio information.

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