Bringing Forth The Mouse

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The Skeleton Dance has no story and no characters at all. It is set in a graveyard in the smallest hours of the night, when the skeletons emerge from their graves and vaults, dance together for a few minutes, and then, with the coming of dawn, climb back into their resting places. It is such an innocently conceived movie that it is hard to imagine its frightening anyone. Yet its grotesque quality must have seemed remarkably advanced to audiences that had seldom seen such sophisticated iconography at the movies.

Its dividends for Disney were not to be counted merely in box-office terms. Indeed, after a year of work and the completion of twenty-one films, Disney had little to show for his efforts economically. What The Skeleton Dance did was provide diversity, forming the basis for a series of films in which, free of the artistic conventions and story lines imposed on him by Mickey and his “gang,” he could experiment with techniques. He even had one or two large financial successes with the Silly Symphonies, though at first his distributors insisted on a very strange billing: “Mickey Mouse Presents a Walt Disney Silly Symphony.”

Meantime, it was becoming clear to Disney that his deal with Powers was not working out. Throughout this year of extraordinarily hard labor, he and his brother had been unable to get a full financial report from their man in New York. Instead, he would send them checks for three or four thousand dollars, which was enough to keep going but nothing like what the Disneys felt they should be getting for their widely acclaimed Mickey series. Even more disturbing was the rumor that Powers was trying to make off with Ub Iwerks. Powers had been led to believe, not totally erroneously, that Iwerks was the real talent at the Disney studio. If he could be lured away and set up in his own shop, Powers hoped he might find himself in much the position Disney was now in—a producer with a possibly unlimited future. In any case, Powers planned to use the threat of hiring Iwerks as a way of bringing Disney to satisfactory terms on a new contract. Disney and his wife again entrained for New York, this time taking a lawyer. In Powers they found a man who had outsmarted himself. He had not counted on the mouse’s great success. Planning Disney’s creation as no more than a loss leader in the promotion of his sound system, Powers had neglected to make a tight contract with Disney; it ran for only one year, with no renewal option. From the moment Powers realized that Mickey Mouse was far more valuable than his Cinephone, he had been trying, legally or extralegally, to bind Disney to him.

Now Powers’ strategy became clear. He greeted Disney by showing him a telegram from his Los Angeles representative indicating that Iwerks had just signed a contract with Powers to produce a cartoon series of his own. He also refused to let Disney examine his books to determine what money was due him, unless he agreed to a new contract. Of course, Powers informed him coolly, he was free to undertake a costly, time-consuming court fight for a fair accounting. On the other hand, Powers assured the young producer that he did not wish to appear unreasonable. If Disney agreed to sign the new contract, not only would he receive the sums due him for his last year’s labor, but Powers would tear up his new contract with Iwerks and agree to pay Disney $2,500 a week in the future. Disney asked for a little time to think things over, and he later recalled that it was not until he was walking back to his hotel that the full magnitude of the $2,500-a-week offer struck him. It was more money than anyone had ever mentioned to him before, and he remembered muttering the figure aloud, to the wonderment of various passersby. The impressiveness of the sum was undoubtedly a mistake on the part of Powers, as indeed was his whole shabby strategy, since it was based on a fundamental misreading of his man. The $2,500 figure had the effect of confirming Disney’s own estimation of the value of what he was doing. It also indicated to him that he was not without bargaining strength himself.

Before he left home his brother had told him that he must obtain an immediate cash advance from Powers in order to keep the studio operating, and so, when he returned to the distributor for further discussions, he casually mentioned the need for cash. Anxious to indicate his good will, Powers drew a check for $5,000, and Disney stalled him until it cleared. Then he promptly broke off the negotiations. He made no attempt to retain Iwerks, who, with Powers’ backing, set up his own shop and, for a while, produced a series called Flip the Frog . It did not catch on, perhaps because Iwerks lacked the one talent everyone who ever worked for Disney agrees that Walt had in abundance—that of story editor. He certainly lacked .the Disney brothers’ ability to control costs and to cope with the fast-talking financial world beyond the studio door. Within a few years Iwerks was hack at work for Disney, where he has remained ever since—on a business-only basis. Witnesses report that Disney carefully looked the other way when passing Iwerks on the lot or, at best, spoke to him in monosyllables. Iwerks’ mechanical genius was of enormous value to Disney, but his moment of disloyalty was never forgotten.