American Pop Culture

In the roaring ’20s, after WWI, Americans were coming into their own, developing a culture that was distinctly not European but also no longer a country of rugged settlers.


At 26, Walt Disney was on the train to success, literally. Riding from his upstart studio in Los Angeles to New York to finalize and increase a deal for a hit series about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

After arriving, he found he’d been double-crossed by a studio executive who secretly hired all but two of his animators away (the two refused to leave) and obtained rights to Oswald. Make the studio executive a partner in the studio Disney had created with his older brother, Roy, or find yourself destitute. Against his brother’s advice, Walt walked.

On the way back to Los Angeles, Walt realized he had to create a new character. There was a red ocean of animators at the time and they’d personalized every conceivable animal. Rather than focus on an animal people liked, he decided on one they didn’t, a rodent.

Walt drew a mouse with big ears, red velvet pants, and two white buttons. Mortimer Mouse, he told his wife, Lillian. No, she answered ー to stuffy ー Mickey Mouse. A different historian says it’s longtime Disney animator Ub Iwerks, who Disney met at his first job and who had refused to leave with the other animators, that dreamed up Micky. In any event, it doesn’t matter; they worked together and Disney was about to launch his personable rodent into a sustained success.

Disney Grows

Ub owned 20% of the studio but left, frustrated after an aggressive Walt pushed him to finish a new film faster. His studio folded after six years and he returned to Disney’s which, by that time, had grown. Disney was happy to have him back. Had Ub retained his 20% ownership, he’d have been a millionaire in the 1930s. Had his heirs retained it they’d be worth $50 billion in 2019. Ub sold his shares, when he quit, for $2,920.

Disney’s cartoons were fun but often had a dark side. In their first color cartoon (and one of the first ever made), Three Little Pigs, released May 1933, a photo hangs on the wall of the house of a pig that shows sausages and another of a ham; both have the caption “Father”. He followed up with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, one of the first color full-length movies, in 1937 (financed by Giannini’s Bank of America and approved by Gianini personally). Snow White earned $8.5 million; tickets cost ten cents.

Steamboat Willie

Over the years, Disney had its ups and downs, but mostly ups. They created a new type of theme park and moved into live-action films and TV. As of 2019, the firm has $60 billion per year in revenue and they are the studio executives.

Color Movies

Though not the first color movie, The Wizard of Oz left an indelible mark. Swapping from the old world of black and white to color the world flew over the rainbow. Movies have never been the same since.

Kalmus, an MIT alum, created a process for color movies and ramped up a company, Technicolor. Initially, there was little interest in the added expense of color films; color movies did not attract significantly larger audiences.

Eventually, Walt Disney bought a short-term exclusive user contract for some period of time and released color cartoons. Exclusivity ended in 1935 but Disney continued using the process, releasing Snow White, a blockbuster, in 1937.

The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (both 1939) created an expectation of color movies.

Mainstream color movie predated mainstream color still photography. With their large audiences, movies justified the cost of color processing whereas still photos did not.

Color movies were technically difficult to create correctly. To ensure quality, Herbert’s wife Natalie worked with movie studios. Her role at Technicolor resulted in an enormous 400+ credits on IMDB.

Eventually, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, Jr. created modern color film in 1935, with three layers of emulsion on one layer of film. They were classical musicians, not chemists, but ended up working with and selling their innovation to Kodak that named the film Kodachrome.