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100 Years of Disney

Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 16th October, 2023 6 min read

100 Years of Disney

Today (16/10/2023) marks the 100 year anniversary of Disney. On 16 October 1923, Walt Disney and his brother, Roy Disney, founded Walt Disney Studios (originally called Disney Brothers Studio). The roots of Disney's legacy can be traced back to Kansas City. There, Walt created a pilot cartoon called Alice's Wonderland (1923). This blended live-action and animation for the first time. After the bankruptcy of Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City, Walt decided to relocate to California where his brother lived in the hope of selling his cartoon there. On 16 October 1923, Walt and Roy signed a contract with New York distributor, Margaret J. Winkler, to produce six series of Alice Comedies. This was the birth of Walt Disney Studios.  

In 1927 Walt introduced his first fully animated series. It featured the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. A dispute soon arose with distributor Charles Mintz, who sought to reduce the fee for the next year of Oswald cartoons. To Walt's shock, he discovered that Mintz had double-crossed him by selling the Oswald character and signing four of Disney's lead animators for his own studio. Mintz’s aim was to produce Oswald cartoons at a lower cost.

In 1928 Walt therefore created a new character called Mortimer Mouse, later renamed Mickey Mouse. In May of that year Walt Disney Studios produced two silent films, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho, both of which featured Mickey Mouse. However, they were not that popular. Walt then made a third series — Steamboat Willie, which employed synchronised sound. This was released on 19 November 1928 and became the first post-produced sound cartoon — a landmark in the history of animation. Mickey's debut marked the beginning of a cultural phenomenon. From that moment, Disney's success and legacy grew. 

It was not until the 1930s that Walt Disney Studios began creating merchandise. In 1933, Walt hired merchandising executive, Kay Kamen. Within two years Kamen had made $35 million worth of sales just by selling Mickey Mouse merchandise. Walt is on record as having stated that this was more money than the cartoons made. 

On 12 December 1937, after three years of production, Disney released their first ever full-length feature film: Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. Costing the company $1.5 million, the film grossed an impressive $8 million and held the title as the highest grossing film until the release of Gone With The Wind in December 1939. The 1930s and 1940s were marked by the release of other Disney classics such as Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). 

The 1950s brought even more success with the release of Disney's first live-action film, Treasure Island. This decade also saw the studio release its first animated-film in eight years: Cinderella. This became Disney’s most financially successful film since Snow White. In was in the 1950s that Walt turned his attention to amusement parks — Disneyland opened in California on 17 July 1955. The 1960s and 1970s saw the release of more classic films — The Jungle Book (1967), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), Mary Poppins (1964), and The Aristocrats (1970).

“Bambi Comes to the Screen with Engaging Forest Buddies”, The Sketch, 12 July 1942.

The period stretching from the 1930s to the 1960s is often viewed as the golden age of animation. Disney’s films and merchandise became instant hits among all generations. The excitement generated by Disney’s productions can even be seen in British publications. British Online Archives hosts nine of the Illustrated London New’s sister titles. On 12 July 1942 The Sketch magazine released twelve illustrations from the upcoming film, Bambi, which was set to be released in August of that year. 
“Then it can’t be all Sex Appeal”, Britannia and Eve, January 1932.

In the January 1932 issue of Britannia and Eve, Sydney Tremayne wrote an article entitled “Then it can’t be all Sex Appeal”. This detailed the way in which Walt Disney had changed from a comic strip artist to a film producer. The article also considered the allure of Disney’s animations. Tremayne likewise reflected upon the popularity of the “greatest little film stars of them all – Mickey Mouse”. Indeed, Tremayne noted how in 1932 eight London West End cinemas were “playing Walt Disney cartoons at the same time”. He also observed, quite perceptively, how some

“people like films full of gun play, others films full of word play, some prefer drama, some comedy or song-plugged spectacle, but the appeal of the Walt Disney cartoons is universal.”

Tremayne went on to state that Disney cartoons are “pure cinema” because “they satisfy the gamut of human reactions”, consisting of a combination of “humour, romance, terror, suspense, movement, and melody”. One hundred years later this is still the case, no matter if you are 5 years old or 25 years old or 50 years old Disney films truly do have an universal charm. So today, on their 100th anniversary, it is only right if you watch your favourite Disney film to celebrate!

Happy 100th Anniversary Disney! 

If the primary sources featured within this article are of interest to you, you can have a closer look at them here.

Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.

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Notable Days


The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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