It’s difficult to imagine any corporation with a more powerful influence on children than Disney. It catches us early and forms our first impressions on plenty of things. And, of course, Disney was started by Walt Disney, right? Well, partially. I recently became interested in Ub Iwerks (born Ubbe Iwwerks), the man who originally came up with Mickey Mouse. Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney got their start in animation together. They both worked for the same Kansas City ad firm as illustrators and then went into business together. This was in the early days of film—silent and black-and-white—when few took cartoons seriously (they hadn’t made much money yet, and that’s the true mark of seriousness). The major studios were starting to come together in Hollywood, so eventually Disney moved to California where, with his brother Roy, they began Disney Studios. Ub came to work with them.
The Hand behind the Mouse, by Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy, is a brief account of the life of Ub Iwerks, who was famously quiet but who went on to develop special effects that were far ahead of their time. Iwerks never really took his deserved credit for Mickey Mouse, noting that what you do with a creation is just as important as coming up with it. Walt Disney, he opined, was the one who did something with Mickey. At the same time, Disney claimed that Iwerks was the world’s greatest animator (as the subtitle proclaims). The two eventually split, with Iwerks forming his own studio and hiring some of the most famous cartoonists of his day. Hard times came, however, with the Depression and Second World War. Iwerks closed up shop and went back to work for the by now very powerful Disney.
His move back saw him increasingly in “special processes”—essentially engineering special effects—and he was innovating literally until the day he died. His imprint on not only Disney, but the film industry (he worked with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds), was substantial. He never, however, sought the limelight. All of this makes him a remarkable individual. He recognized Disney as the one with a vision and a brand, and also a business-savvy brother (Roy) who could help it all come together. Walt Disney died at 65, a couple years after I was born. Ub Iwerks died five years later. Together they had invented American childhood. Everyone knows Disney. It’s the top name in children’s entertainment, a corporate giant. I’m drawn to those, however, who fall between the cracks of history. This brief book tells the story of one such individual who should, in all fairness, be better known.