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Ub Iwerks: The Hand Behind the Mouse

Posted on Jun 25, 2013 by in Blog | 0 comments


Ub Iwerks Self Portrait
with Flip the Frog

Born Ubbe Eert Iwerks in Kansas City, Missouri on March 24th 1901.

Ub Iwerks was working as a commercial artist for Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio in Kansas City when in 1919 he met Walt Disney who was also a commercial artist. Both Iwerks and Disney then found themselves employed for the Kansas City Slide Newspaper Company as illustrators later to become The Kansas City Film Ad Company. It was there that Disney was inspired to start an animation business, Ub was his first and ultimately his most important employee. He was blessed with a skill as a speedy illustrator, not to mention that they had become good friends.

His style was ever-present in those early Disney cartoons. Of course he was also the creator of Mickey Mouse. Starting in 1922 Ub was the chief animator for the  Laugh-O-Gram series. After that studio went bankrupt in 1923 Ub followed Disney to Los Angeles to work on a the Alice Comedies, a mix of live action and animation. When that series ended Disney asked Ub to create a new character and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was born. Ub not only created the character but animated the entire first episode himself. When Universal signed on as distributor Oswald was changed  in 1927.

When Charles Mintz raided Disney’s animation studio in the spring of 1928 and stole the rights to Oswald, Ub was the only one to stay with Walt. After the Oswald debacle Disney quit Universal vowing to never work with a character that was not his own. Ever loyal Ub stayed with Walt who had him working on new ideas for characters. Ub drew dogs, cats, frogs etc. but none of these characters appealed to Disney. Ub created a cow soon to be Clarabelle and a horse who was to become Horace Horsecollar but these were also abandoned. Ub then got an idea from an old sketch by Hugh Harman drawn in 1925 of mice hanging around Walt in a photograph and Mortimer Mouse was born soon to become Mickey. Ub animated all of the first Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies shorts. It was recognized early on that Ub was the premiere talent at Disney Productions. Iwerks soon found himself unable to keep up with Disney’s demand and realized that he was not getting the recognition he deserved. There was a tempting deal from Pat Powers to start up his own studio. So Ub left Disney to work with Powers in 1930. Disney and Powers had not seen eye-to-eye as Disney had used his Cinephone sound system without credit. Karma prevails as Powers had actually stolen the technology from DeForest Phonofilm.

Maybe Walt was just a better businessman but Ub never had the creative or financial success as Disney. Ub secured a contract with MGM as distributor and he had fairly popular characters with Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper but the studio just couldn’t keep up with the rivalry that was Disney and Fleischer. He just couldn’t afford the talent that they could. Flip and Willie were dull compared to the efforts of his competitors. Powers withdrew his support and the studio closed down in 1936.  His cartoons were distributed in the home movie market in the 1940s. He had made a series of his own cartoons called ComiColor which were based on fairy tales and they too would enjoy home movie distribution in the 1940s by Castle Films.

In 1937 he did four Looney Tunes shorts with Porky and Gabby Goat but Bob Clampett took over. Then he went to Columbia in 1938 for two years before he decided to return to Disney in 1940.

Walt put Iwerks talent to good use and set him up to work developing special visual effects. He developed the process to combine live action with animation as was displayed in “Song of the South” (1946). He also developed the process to xerox cels. Ub proved to be as talented in technical development and helped Disney to excel for decades going on to the phenomenal success of Mary Poppins in 1964. He went on to work for the Imagineering department working on many of the techniques in the theme parks in the 1960s. In 1963 he won an academy award nomination for his work on Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.

Ub is, of course, best known for the creation of Mickey Mouse and his own studios Flip the Frog. His legacy is his speed and a nutty sense of humor. Chuck Jones said of him Iwerks is Screwy spelled backwards. That about sums it up.

Ub died in 1971 of a heart attack in Burbank, California. He was 70 years of age.

Here are 5 links to Leslie Iwerks documentary “Ub Iwerks: The Hand Behind the Mouse” about her grandfather.

Partial Filmography (with links wherever possible):

Special Effects

1963: The Birds

1963: The Parent Trap

1961: Pollyanna

1960: Ten Who Dared

1960: Toby Tyler

1959: The Olympic Elk

1952: Beaver Valley

1950: Fun and Fancy Free

1947: Song of the South

1946: The Reluctant Dragon

Director, Animator and/or Producer
(Flip the Frog, Willie Whopper, ComiColor, Mickey Mouse, and Warner Brothers)

1941: Porky’s Super Service

1937: Porky and Gabby

1937: Happy Days

1936: Dick Whittington’s Cat

1936: Tom Thumb

1936: Ali Baba

1936: Little Boy Blue

1936: Balloon Land

1935: Sinbad the Sailor

1935: Mary’s Little Lamb

1935: Old Mother Hubbard

1935: Humpty Dumpty

1935: The Three Bears

1935: Simple Simon

1935: Hell’s Fire

1935: Summertime

1935: The Brementown Musicians

1935: Insultin’ the Sultan

1935: Little Black Sambo

1934: The Good Scout

1934: The Brave Tin Soldier

1934: The Headless Horseman

1934: Don Quixote

1934: Jack Frost

1934: Viva Willie

1934: The Valiant Tailor

1934: Puss in Boots

1934: The Queen of Hearts

1934: Rasslin’ Round

1934: The Little Red Hen

1934: Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp

1934: Chinaman’s Chance

1933: Soda Squirt

1933: Techno-Cracked

1933: Jack and the Beanstalk

1933: Stratos Fear

1933: Cuckoo the Magician

1933: Flip’s Lunch Room

1933: The Air Race

1933: Funny Face

1932: The Goal Rush

1932: The Music Lesson

1932: Room Runners

1932: Phoney Express

1932: The Office Boy

1932: Nurse Maid

1932: What a Life

1932: The Bully

1932: The Milkman

1932: School Days

1932: Stormy Seas

1932: Laughing Gas

1931: Spooks

1931: Africa Squeaks

1931: The Village Smitty

1931: Ragtime Romeo

1931: The New Car

1931: Movie Mad

1931: The Soup Song

1931: The Village Specialist

1931: Jail Birds

1931: Autumn

1930: Fiddlesticks

1930: Arctic Antics

1930: Summer

1930: The Village Barber

1930: Cuckoo Murder Case

1930: Puddle Pranks

1930: Springtime

1929: The Skeleton Dance

1929: The Karnival Kid

1929: The Barnyard Battle

1929: The Opry House

1929: Steamboat Willie

1929: Hell’s Bells

1928: Plane Crazy

1927: All Wet

1927: Great Guns!

1927: The Mechanical Cow

1927: Oh Teacher

1927: Trolley Troubles

1923: Alice’s Wonderland

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