06 June 2009

Ub Iwerks' Rep: From Flip to Flop

Why did Ub Iwerks leave Walt Disney's employ in January 1930? For leave he did, and fast; enticed by an offer that, according to Michael Barrier and John Kenworthy, Iwerks at first didn't realize was masterminded by Pat Powers, Disney's own distributor.
Conflict with Walt himself is thought of as the main reason for the split, with the suggestion that Walt took Ub's talent for granted. But another reason has been leveled, too. At the same time that Iwerks got bad vibes from his longtime friend and employer, he is also said to have received a growing number of good vibes, plaudits, and credits from voices outside the studio. This external praise, as much as any internal strife, may have convinced Ub that departure was in his best interest. Once he made that departure, the praise continued quite strongly for a time—seemingly validating Iwerks' action.

Most of us haven't seen actual examples of this praise before, but today I'm presenting two for your reading pleasure. The first example, from Germany's Reichsfilmblatt in 1930, was reprinted in Storm and Dre├čler's superb Im Reiche der Micky Maus (1991). Coming on the cusp of Iwerks' independence, this early announcement of his solo productions explains that
Following the exemplary success of capricious little Mickey Mouse, a new star has now turned up in sound film heaven: Flip the Frog. Again it is Ub Iwerks, the ingenious creator and artist of Mickey, who has taken a great hop forward. His Flip is far more capable than the spindly mouse of mimicking and mocking the posturing and fussing of humanity...
Yet a better, if briefer, clue to the admiration Iwerks received came months earlier in fall 1929—in an item I don't think has ever been reprinted. When Columbia Pictures—again through Pat Powers—first contracted to release Disney's Silly Symphonies, its four-page "press sheet" was remarkably frank about how at least certain parties viewed the Disney/Iwerks relationship. "Walt Disney is head of the studio," Columbia's corporate voice explains, "but the artist who perfects the details is named 'Ub' Iwerks. He is assisted by a staff of 'animators' [sic], who follow his sketches and continuity..."
Reality notwithstanding—the same presskit calls "Oswald the Cat" an earlier Disney creation and scrupulously avoids mentioning Mickey, a non-Columbia property until 1930—the implication could not be more clear: Disney was the businessman, Iwerks the artiste and director. The back page's biography of Disney, calling him a "child of fate," certainly lavishes Walt with purple prose, yet still cannot walk back that first impression.

(Momentary break to discuss the poster art illustrated in Columbia's presskit: I've seen these one-sheets before, but never any for El Terrible Toreador (1929) until now. The poster and presskit call the film The [sic] Terrible Toreador, but that's actually a mistake; though the original titles are not on DVD, collectors possess them—see image at left—and they carry the commonly accepted El at title's start.)

Only some time after Iwerks' split did the first impression begin to recede. Later in 1930, another German article was entitled "The True Creator of the Mickey Mouse Films." It contended that
The creator of the now world-famous Mickey Mouse is the American film producer Walt Disney. The original concepts for Mickey and his inamorata Minnie stem from him, as do all the ideas for the Mickey Mouse film treatments. The artist Ub Iwerks, falsely credited as the father of the Mickey Mouse films, was initially an employee of Walt Disney. He has long since been expelled from the Disney firm.
From hero to pariah overnight. What a crazy trip.


Nic Kramer said...

I recall reading in "The Hands Behind the Mouse" that he got very upset when at a restarunt, a boy came to Walt and Ub's table and asked for an autograph and Walt suggest to Ub to draw Mickey and while Walt sign his name. Ub was so mad that he ran out of the resturant.

Joe Torcivia said...

"From hero to pariah overnight. What a crazy trip."

WOW! Animation is just like politics!

Jerry Beck said...

Another great post David. I have never seen in person any of those Columbia Silly Symphony lobby cards as mentioned (and shown) in the pressbook. If they still exist, they must be very scarce. Thanks for posting information on this kind of material.

J.V. (AKA "White Pongo") said...

In one issue of the Fleischer 'Animated News' Iwerks' name is indicated on a list of famous visitors to the studio. The exact date of his visit or why he was there is not given however.

Ryan said...

Amazing info as always, David. I'm not sure we can really point to one thing or another as the sole reason that Ub left Disney, but your information about outside praise makes a lot of sense.

It was obvious that Ub felt he was the reason behind Mickey's success, but it seems logical that clippings such as these would enhance that notion. Then, an incident like Nic mentioned would easily have set him off.

Great stuff from El Terrible Toreador as well. I just reviewed it on my blog yesterday. It's...interesting.

The Coyote Never Wins said...

Fascinating stuff. I never knew that Ub had ever been singled out for praise for his animation work during his lifetime, let alone before he left Disney--and let alone as the artist behind Mickey Mouse. Thank you for posting this.

Jan said...

Hey, David!!

Your post on Ub Iwerks was extremely interesting. Thanks. Actually, one of my favourite cartoons of the 30's, 'The Brave Tin Soldier', is an Ub Iwerks Comicolor cartoon!
I have a Disney-related question for you, David, that I've always wanted to know the answer to. Why is Goofy allowed to engage in what is borderline adulterous behaviour in 'Two-Gun Goofy'? Not only does Goofy allow himself to be sexually excited by the blonde cowgirl in that short while thinking of his baby son (?!?!!), but he also welcomes and very much enjoys an erotically-charged kiss from her in the end!! I find this unacceptable today; how was it permitted in a 1952 cartoon?

Best Wishes,


Anonymous said...

This is amazing reading, as usual! I'd wish this blog could be updated more often.