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Documentary explores the story of Walt Disney’s shadow

By Peter Crimmins Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday November 14, 2001

It’s been said that 1,000 years from now the most enduring American contributions to the world will be the Constitution, baseball and jazz. We might like to think of that as our legacy, but the most visible icons of America will probably be the curvy script of Coca-Cola and the rounded ears of Mickey Mouse. 

However, the logo of the Walt Disney company fares in the coming era, its origins are being complicated by a documentary film screening at the Fine Arts Cinema in Berkeley. “The Hand Behind The Mouse: The Story of Ub Iwerks” attempts to set the corporate history straight regarding the little guy with the squeaky voice. 

Ub Iwerks met Walt Disney when both were low-level draftsmen in Kansas City. Together they embarked on a creative business partnership creating short animated commercials and announcements for a local movie theater. The film traces a period of failed business dealings before Iwerks and Disney sat down together to brainstorm a new cartoon character, which would eventually become Mickey.  

The name Ub Iwerks may sound strange to most people. For one thing, it’s a Dutch-German name whose grunting vowels don’t have the sparkly lilt of “Walt Disney.” More significantly, Ub Iwerks has been all but erased from popular history of American culture. This is the man whose influence reached to include Chuck Jones and Carl Stalling, who achieved animation immortality with Bugs Bunny. 

“The Hand Behind The Mouse” was created in 1998 by Iwerks’ granddaughter, Leslie, who will make an appearance at the Fine Arts Cinema on Sunday, Nov. 18th to speak with the audience. Although just an infant when Ub passed away, through research and interviews Iwerks put together a thumbnail sketch of her grandfather.  

“From what I gathered by looking at all his artwork page and page, and cell by cell, what I do know of him is that he was a very quiet man,” said Iwerks by telephone from Los Angeles. “But he had a dry wit about I him, and a quiet humor. And a wacky humor. If you think about it, Iwerks spelled backwards is ‘screwy.’” 

The story she tells, however, is not the discovery of her grandfather – not a “personal documentary” of the kind which has gained artistic cache in recent years due to Marlon Riggs’ inferior imitators. She doesn’t need that. The repercussions of global popular culture and the implication of corporations controlling their own history have automatically raised this film’s ante. 

Iwerks said she had been wanting to tell the real story of her grandfather and his place in the pantheon of popular animation since she was a girl. The added bonus is that in doing so, it also lends a peek into the operation and motivation of the Disney company. To viewers with only a passing interest in animation history, the indirect portrayal of a business giant is the more interesting subplot. 

This December marks Walt Disney’s 100th birthday and the Walt Disney Company is aggressively advertising its year-long “100 Years of Magic” celebrations by digging up old archival footage of Walt on radio and television, and presenting Disney’s seemingly phenomenal – and prolific – artistry and engineering. The phrase oft repeated in this campaign comes from one of Disney’s early television appearances: “We must never forget, it all started with a mouse.”  

As a corporate slogan, it’s great. But all the publicity material coming from the Walt Disney Company make no mention of Iwerks, the man who developed the look of Mickey (then named Mortimer and thankfully changed later). Mickey’s first cartoon was called “Plane Crazy” and Iwerks, in a superhuman bout of frenetic drawing, drew all of the thousands of cells needed to make that three-minute short in a manner of a few weeks. 

The Walt Disney Company not only uses Mickey as its familiar corporate logo, but for years it projected Disney as its frontman. Disney was a recognizable presence on the company’s weekly television show to introduce programs and new company projects. It’s corporate identity was as much about Disney warm familiarity as Mickey’s round ears. 

In the popular imagination, the company was associated with Walt Disney, and it would be naïve to assume that was a happy accident. The price paid for identifying a huge company’s projects as a single man is that the artists and engineers who upheld the company’s vision – people like Iwerks – got brushed under the rug. 

Perhaps the greatest irony of this film is the very first image you see during the opening credits. The Walt Disney Company funded this film, and Roy Disney,Jr., Disney’s nephew and a vice president of the company, appears in the film remembering Iwerks and his contributions to Disney the man and Walt Disney the company.  

Iwerks said he shied away from speaking directly about the origins of Mickey. 

“Never did he (Roy Disney, Jr.) specify or give a point of view on how Mickey was created,” she said, “but certainly indirectly supported my viewpoint in funding the movie and never saying anything different.” 

To lob criticism at the stranglehold which the Walt Disney Company has on the imaginations of young children is like throwing dirt clods at the side of a barn; their cultural misdemeanors are many: Celebration, U.S.A., “Pocahontas,” the revitalization of Gilbert Godfried’s career. But “The Hand Behind The Mouse” presents the qualities that made Walt Disney a likeable friend, a successful businessman and a good guy to work for.  

“I call this the Walt and Ub story, because they were two sides of the same passion,” and each inspired the other, said Iwerks.  

As an employee of Disney, Ub Iwerks developed multi-plane animation cameras, an animation Xerox process which virtually eliminated hand-inking cells, the wetgate printer which removed scratches from film footage, perfected a process to bring live-action and animation together and a list as long as his arm of other innovations.  

“That was one thing Ub really liked and respected about Walt, was that he didn’t have a budget to do what he needed to do,” said Iwerks. “He would have an idea, share it with Walt, and Walt would say: ‘Great, can we adapt it or can we use it on this film or this attraction?’ So they would immediately go and create a prototype of something that would save the company thousands and thousands of dollars.” 

If Ub Iwerks gave Disney the things he needed to make his company succeed, Walt in turn gave Iwerks an open playing field and nearly limitless facilities to make whatever his mind could fancy, which sounds like an engineer’s dream job.