Monday, April 28, 2014

Walt and Tom - Persistently Seeking Perfection

Don't be nervous Mr. Disney. They only cost $186,000 each.

One of the less explored areas of Walt's life are the three times which he spoke of reaching the end of his rope. The first was in 1931, the same year that Mickey Mouse was born.  His description of the event is a bit stoic:

"I guess I was working too hard and worrying too much.  I was expecting more from my artists than they were giving me, and all I did all day was pound, pound, pound.  Costs were going up; each new picture we finished cost more to make than we had figured it would... so I cracked up.  I became irritable and I couldn't sleep. I reached a point where I couldn't even talk over the telephone without crying. I was an emotional flap."

Diane describes her fathers' trouble as due to an "acute attack of perfectionism." I don't think she made that clinical phrase up.  Another thing Diane mentioned was Walt's feelings about films that he'd just completed. He'd repeatedly say; "I'm sick of it.  There are too many things wrong with it. I'm sick of it."

There is an interesting parallel here with another great inventor; Thomas Edison.

In 1901, Orison Swett Marden interviewed Edison and asked: "What makes you work? What impels you to this constant, tireless struggle?" Edison's reply was fascinating;
"I like it. I don‘t know any other reason. Anything I have begun is always on my mind, and I am uneasy until it is finished; and then I hate it... when it is all done and is a success, I can‘t bear the sight of it. I haven’t used a telephone in ten years, and I would go out of my way any day to miss an incandescent light."

Can you imagine Walt saying that about Disneyland?

A review of Walt's professional accomplishments and failures up to 1940 may help set the stage here:

Jan, 1920 - Walt and Ubbe Iwerks form Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. The business survives for a month. (Setback 1)

1922 - Walt quits Film Ad and incorporates "Laugh-O-gram Films" with $15,000 from local investors.

July, 1923 - "Laugh-O-gram Films" files for bankrupcy. Walt moves to Hollywood planning to become a director. (Setback 2)

October 16, 1923 - Walt & Roy sign a contract with M.J. Winkler to distribute Alice's Adventures.

Febuary, 1924 - Disney Brothers' Studio opens.

March, 1924 - The first "Alice Comedies" reaches theaters.

July 13, 1925 - Walt marries Lillian.  He later joked: "I couldn't afford to pay her, so I married her!"

1927 - The renamed Walt Disney Studios is contracted to make Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  As a work for hire, all rights are owned by Winkler/Mintz. When costs overrun expenses and Walt tries to re-negotiate, Mintz offers an unacceptable ultimatum. Walt quits, essentially loosing everything. (Setback 3)

November 18, 1928 - "Steamboat Willie" opens in New York to rave reviews. Film companies come calling. Distributors clamor for more Mickey. Walt signs a contact with Pat Powers, who primarily wants to promote his Cinephone sound system, and returns to California with a check for $2500. 

1929 - Walt hires a lawyer in regards to the deal with Powers. Ub Iwerks signs a contract to work for Powers, which stuns Walt.  (Setback 4) Mickey Mouse Clubs spring up all over the country.

1930 - Walt breaks off negotiations with Pat Powers, suspecting him of being crooked. Disney can't afford a lawsuit, so he walks away and starts over. (Setback 5)

In 1934, Walt decided it was time to try for a full length animated feature.  The story was Snow White. He initially estimated that it would cost $500,000 to produce.  By the time the two million drawings were combined together into the 83 minute movie, that would balloon to $1,488,422.74.  The studio was deeply in debt.

For the first half of production, Walt would be intimately involved.  In 1935, he would begin to exhibit many of the same symptoms he did four years earlier; crankiness, sleeplessness. This time he was treated with thyroid injections, which only made things worse.  Roy suggested he and Walt take Lillian and Edna on a European Vacation as a wedding anniversary present and "for putting up" with them for so long. The trip did the trick. When Walt returned he told his secretary to call the doctor and tell him that he was cured and, with regard to the thyroid injections; "He can shoot those things in his own butt from now on."

Although Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would earn $8 million in its first release, the costs of studio expansion and making Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia and Pinocchio, plus Walt's ever present need to push the envelope and wow the audience, would keep the Disney Studio on the financial roller coaster all the way thru 1940.  By that time the company had 1000 employees and a brand new $3 million studio.  Roy called Walt into his office one day to discuss the situation.  While explaining that they owed the bank $4.5 million, Walt broke out into laughter.  Roy demanded to know what was so funny. Walt replied;

"I was just thinking back. Do you remember when we couldn't borrow a thousand dollars? And now we owe four and-a-half million... I think that's pretty damn good."

(Remember, this is just the first half of the story. At this point Walt is still just making movies. Disneyland and EPCOT are just a gleam in his eye.)

The third incident happened after they had moved into the new studio in 1939.  The building was air conditioned in order to provide a comfortable environment for the animators, with temperature and humidity control for the ink and paint staff.

Walt was working late one evening and happened to be there at 10:30 when the air conditioning shut down for the night.  He describes the experience;

"Whoooooooo, like submerging in a submarine.  I yelled, but there was nobody around.  I ran over to the window and clawed and scratched, trying to get it open. All I did was cut up my fingers. I finally had to break the window so I could breathe."

Walt had ordered all the window handles removed to prevent them being opened and destroying the benefit of the air conditioning. That sounds like a panic attack to me.  Again, I'm not a professional, but the irrational fear of suffocation while in a large well ventilated space fits the bill.

What is truly amazing is that over the years Walt kept coming back, somehow keeping up his spirits, holding to his standards over and over, thru setback after setback, until he finally triumphed.

Given all he would eventually accomplish, I suppose a "nervous breakdown" had to be expected. Sometimes, it's a fine line to walk between brilliance and insanity. Whether you prefer to call it an attack of acute perfectionism, post traumatic stress disorder, or just working too hard, Walt bounced back and overcame it. That was his way. He was an optimist.

Dave Kelley might say that Walt had Creative Confidence. One thing I know for sure is, if you quit, your progress will stop.

I'm glad Walt wasn't a quitter.

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