Ub Iwerks —
Memories of a Brief Encounter

The Hand Behind the Mouse: An Intimate Biography of the Man Walt Disney Called “The Greatest Animator in the World,” by Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy. New York: Disney Editions, 2001. 264 pages. $24.95 (US)/$34.95 (Canada).

The recent publication of The Hand Behind the Mouse reminded me of my one and only encounter with Ub Iwerks, who ever since I can remember was someone I had always idolized. I really didn't know too much about him, except there was his name on the credits as director of some of the most important animated films ever made, including Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance. Although he was not unknown to film critics during the early days of talking pictures, his work for Disney was almost forgotten after he left to form his own company. Unfortunately, the Disney publicity machine during the next few decades did little to keep his name alive.

Back in the 1960s, as a student at the University of Southern California's Cinema Department, I managed to have Iwerks honored by the local branch of Delta Kappa Alpha (DKA), the honorary cinema fraternity. Actually my nomination of Iwerks did not really excite the membership and was accepted only after their first choice, Bob Hope, declined.

During that period, the Cinema Department had taken over one of DKA's two annual banquets as a big fundraising event for the department's benefit, at which people like Harold Lloyd and Mary Pickford would be honored. The membership really had little to do with planning these black tie events, let alone picking the honorees; however, we did continue to have our own more modest banquets on alternate semesters. It was at one of these dinners that Iwerks was honored with Anne Bancroft.

The honorees often did not know the difference between the two varieties of DKA banquets and when Iwerks showed up at the rather low-key student-run event in a tux, he somehow seemed just right in his tux, looking very much like the character actor Donald Crisp in one of his more prim and proper roles.

I really don't recall much who was there from the animation industry besides Iwerks, his wife Mildred and his two sons, Dave and Don, except Chuck Jones and his wife Dorothy, who had been Ub's secretary back in the 1930s. (The two met during Chuck's brief stint at the Iwerks Studio before settling in at Leon Schlesinger.) Dorothy was especially effusive about Iwerks, proclaiming him an absolute genius, citing The Skeleton Dance as a prime example of his talent as an artist. However, the most memorable part of the evening was Iwerks' acceptance speech, in which he recalled the time during production of Steamboat Willie when he helped demonstrate how the film's music and picture would be synchronized. (Wilfred Jackson provided a very similar account to Michael Barrier, which is quoted on page 52 of Barrier's book, Hollywood Cartoons.)

It was one of those magical moments which was almost ruined by my sudden realization that no one (including myself) had thought to have the event filmed or at least tape recorded. Many years later, when Ub's granddaughter, Leslie, began compiling material for her 1999 feature documentary, The Man Behind the Mouse, which she made for Disney Pictures, she eagerly sought footage of the DKA banquet. And it was at a screening of a work print of the film at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that I finally confessed to her that alas no such footage existed.

Despite my faux pas, Leslie finished her film and, in collaboration with John Kenworthy, went on to write this excellent companion book, which very much stands on its own. While much of the material involving Iwerks early days at Disney will be familiar to many, what is most interesting is how it fills in the details of his later career (as well as his personal life). There is not only much about the films made at the underrated Ub Iwerks Studio and the artists whose careers were nurtured there, but also a good account of union activity there. (The first serious attempt to organize an animation union happened there.) In addition, there is much about Iwerks' pioneering work in special effects, mainly at Disney, but also on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. The book's main fault is its paucity of images, which are largely confined to snapshots, and almost no stills, not even from Iwerks' famed Flip the Frog films. Otherwise, the book is highly recommended.

—Harvey Deneroff
October 16, 2001

© 2001 by Harvey Deneroff

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