Anyone that knows me knows I am a huge fan of the 1910s-1930s. I love the work of Charlie Chaplin, Clarence Ashley, Washington Phillips, and Elsie Segar more than I will probably ever like Tom Cruise, Lady Gaga, or Robert Kirkman. Not to say anything bad of artists and actors from this day and age – just … we all have our preferences. I knew about Elsie Segar, George Herriman, W.W. Denslow, and Winsor McCay prior to trying to learn to draw. Ub Iwerks was a different story. I discovered Ub through diving into a study of Walt Disney (specifically early-Disney). It’s through that study – and discovering Ub – that I discovered the book A Mouse Divided: How Ub Iwerks Became Forgotten and Walt Disney Became Uncle Walt.
This story is gripping – and I would suggest it for anyone who is a fan of Disney, animation, art, or who is trying to start a business. Why? Throughout its pages, Mr. Ryan builds a story of two men who would build one of the largest companies in world history. Their destinies would be intertwined whether they wished it or not. Walt Disney is shown as very much a man who started from nothing and never gave up. Because of his perseverance, his string of bankruptcies would lead to the creation of a multimedia powerhouse. This was not something he could do alone. At his right hand in his early days was Ub Iwerks – an animation and technical genius.
It’s at this point that the book resonates for me. For anyone just starting out on a new path in life, self-doubt can be a constant companion. Recognizing and playing to one’s strengths is essential. In A Mouse Divided, Jeff Ryan presents the strengths and personalities of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks – and how these two men were essential in the rise of the House of Mouse. And, when it becomes time for Ub Iwerks to decide if he will stay with Disney, the book makes it understandable why he wouldn’t. Here though, is the rub.
Walt Disney pressed on through the 1930s – and Disney the company survived. Disney played to his strengths. Ub didn’t – at least not initially. Disney would keep pressing on, and he would go on to build a team to give to his company what Ub had before. The character study is immense, intense, and informative for anyone trying to start a business – or trying to start over. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. You shouldn’t expect it to be. And more often than not, the two strongest determinants to success are recognizing and playing to your strengths – and simply pressing on when everyone else thinks it would be mad to keep going.
If one is merely seeking a book on Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, the early history of Walt Disney Studios, or animation, this has you covered. You won’t go wrong adding this book to your library. Here, for me, the fact that Jeff Ryan is able to include as thorough a picture of Iwerk’s studio (for the time it is in existence) as he does and what went on there is a bit of a gem.
There is one last point in the book that Mister Ryan makes that – in retrospect – almost brings me to tears. The author explains the almost seeming absence of Mickey from the movies as Disney progresses on to today. The movies, America, and the world are not what they were when Mickey Mouse first debuted in 1928. In so many ways, I wish they were. Optimism is never, ever a bad thing. At its heart, optimism keeps us going when the world tells us to do everything but that. That optimism, coupled by sheer small-town niceness and decency characterized Midwestern boys made good.
That niceness and optimism would become the hallmark of their most famous creation – in a world that first embodied – and then sorely needed – niceness and optimism more than ever. Walt Disney Studios, in this world of ours, I wonder if Mickey Mouse isn’t needed now as much as he ever has been.