The Hand Behind the Mouse Book Review

By Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy, with an introduction by Leonard Maltin, published by Disney Editions, hardcover, 264 pages, 16 pages of b&w photographs.

Though Ub Iwerks is most famous for his role in creating Mickey Mouse, his greatest talent was probably not as an animator.

It was while working as a film engineer for the Disney Studio for three decades that Ub probably came closest to wearing the mantle of “genius,” for a string of innovations and inventions that contributed as much to Hollywood magic as any shadow ever cast by a mouse.

However, the only job in Hollywood less celebrated than animator is that of engineer. For all the cleverness of his many photochemical mattes and panoramic camera rigs, Ub will always be seen as an animator.

That’s just the fickle nature of public legacies, even if his unique coupling of artistry and invention is his deepest legacy. 

 

Walt Disney was very lucky to have had such a capable employee in his earliest endeavors, and it is not a stretch to imagine that without Ub, there might not be a Disney Studio.

So much of the appeal of Mickey was attributed to the success of the animation synchronized to sound. Iwerks was the perfect man to pull this off. His speed, talent, and technical skills enabled Disney to rush “Steamboat Willie” to completion ahead of competitors, with a result that most could not imitate for years. 

Even Ub could not duplicate his success when he tried to go it alone a short time later. Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper now remain fascinating curiosities in animation history, and Iwerks eventually found very satisfying work back at Disney, but never again in the full capacity as animator.

It’s not that Ub Iwerks’ place in animation history has ever been in danger; it’s just been in need of clarification. Because he was enigmatic, and because he worked for so long at Disney, his actual contributions are still lost amid the myth-spinning of studio publicity. 

THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE is published by Disney Editions, yet it is the sort of book that finally sets the record straight. By publishing this, the authors (and the Disney corporation) have surely righted a wrong, giving credit where it is due. It’s co-written by Leslie Iwerks, who is Ub’s granddaughter, and John Kenworthy. 

Their research and presentation of contemporary opinions work nicely together, providing a revealing portrait. Some of the most insightful passages come from the Iwerks family, as their remembrances show just how wounded Ub was by frictions with Walt, and also how important their reconciliation was to him.

One thing that won’t go unnoticed by readers is the casual nature with which this book assures Ub’s initiative in creating Mickey. 

Granted, the Disney corporation has officially recognized his hand in this ever since it gave him the Legends Award postumously in 1989, but Ub’s role has always been painted in terms of how he colloborated with Walt to make Mickey. 

In this book, Ub takes on a more active and less subordinate role. That so much of the creation of Mickey was delegated to Ub has long been inferred, but never so forthrightly expressed in a book which bears the Disney logo.

Even readers very familiar with Iwerks are likely to find interesting new details, especially in regards to the early days of Ub and Walt, back in Kansas City. The anecdotes from the Iwerks Studio are also lots of fun to read. 

Animation fans might not find as much interest in the final chapters on Iwerks’ innovations as a film engineer, even though proportionate to his full career this section of the book could be much longer. It does, however, complete one’s appreciation of his vast achievements, and deserves to be read right through til the end.

THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE is very impressive and well researched. There are only a handful of unsubstantiated claims, such as the notion that a fading scene transition in the Iwerks Studio’s “Jack and the Beanstalk” had “set a new standard for a nonlinear, non-literal approach to time transitions in animation and film in general.” 

Also, the suggestion that the animators at Iwerks were “quite possibly the greatest animation staff ever assembled” won’t be taken too seriously. Nonetheless, these are small beefs within a notable book that Disney Editions must be applauded for publishing.It would surely have pleased Ub immensely to know that one day he would publicly be recognized for his creation of Mickey. However, even in this, he is measured in terms with which one might regard an engineer, or an athlete. Yes, Ub still inspires the modern generation of animators, but not because we marvel at his animation drawings of Mickey. It is because people are awed by the fact that he once turned them out at the staggering pace of seven hundred a day. One’s legacy is a fickle thing indeed, and with this book we finally know more about the man behind the hand behind the mouse.

A wonderful complement to reading this recommended book is a viewing of THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE: UB IWERKS, a documentary film written, produced and directed by Leslie Iwerks, which preceded her book by almost two years.The research and interviews for the film were made use of in the book, but the two are not simply duplicate presentations in different media. 

The film illustrates Ub’s personality better and makes a stronger case for his emotional disappointments, while the book provides more details about his career and fleshes out his own studio experiences more. 

Of course, the documentary offers actual clips of his filmwork, and the book includes interview material that didn’t make it to the final cut of the film. 

Below is my account of the premiere, at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood, October 1999.

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Although the story of Ub Iwerks is not an obscure one, it has always deserved a proper retelling. Iwerks has repeatedly been recognized as the one truly indispensable man behind the success of Walt Disney’s fledgling studio, yet somehow few people feel like they “know” who Iwerks really was. 

He avoided the spotlight. He was a tinkerer, not a showman. Even when he ran his own studio, he preferred workman-like endeavors that might be done alone in quiet. He was a prodigious animator who drew better than his business partner Walt, drew faster than any animator on either coast, and yet spent most of his life working not as an animator but as a film engineer.

The director of this film, Leslie Iwerks, is Ub’s granddaughter. She was too young when Ub died to ever have known him, and perhaps her own desire to understand her grandfather gives this film some urgency. 

Despite her relation, this is an uncloying documentary that is able to recognize Ub’s greatest drawbacks– his idiosyncratic humor and the failure of his creative vision to ever invent, or be capable of inventing, his own popular cartoon characters.

However, the strangeness of Ub’s cartoons makes for some great moments in this documentary, a sort of celebration of pre-Hays Code audacity. In fact, the film’s score actually brightens some of the cartoon clips far better than the original soundtracks did. 

And it becomes clear that what worked for Mickey in the late 1920s (there was a small window of opportunity at the birth of sound film for Ub’s humor to be wholly compatible with the public’s taste) would no longer work for Flip the Frog in the 1930s.

Leslie’s directorial debut is an impressive one. She has gathered lots of excellent clips and manages to make an engaging narrative of this quiet pioneer’s life.

Ub is remembered for what he did, not what he said, and throughout the film we hardly ever find evidence of Ub actually speaking, or writing. 

The notable exception, his 1963 Academy Award acceptance speech, is humorous for its brevity; he says, “My sincere thanks” and exits the stage. By this point in the film, we are actually craving to hear his voice.

His personality is mostly articulated through photos, silent clips, film work, and revealing moments, like the anecdote that he stopped bowling the moment he rolled a perfect 300, feeling he had mastered the sport, then moved on to other recreational goals. Others fill in for Ub’s silence. 

Two commentators seem to provide the majority of the observations: Leonard Maltin and animator Mark Kausler. Their comments are astute, especially Kausler’s remarks on why Iwerks would have felt so creatively undermined by Disney’s changing of his film timing. 

Others we hear from include Roy Disney, Joe Adamson, Russell Merritt, Dave Smith, John Lasseter, Richard Edlund, Chuck Jones, and Don Iwerks. Leslie’s own observations are narrated by actor Kelsey Grammer.

One of the most newsworthy and heartening aspects of this film, though, is the Disney Company’s embrace of it. 

In previous years, it would have been impossible to imagine the studio acknowledging that “the hand behind the mouse” would be anyone besides Walt himself. 

Surely two individuals must be credited with this loosening of policy: firstly, Theodore Thomas, whose film “Frank and Ollie” finally convinced Disney chieftains that the charming publicity of such documentaries could not possibly tarnish the Disney luster; and most importantly, Roy Disney, who almost single-handedly greenlit this picture, giving Leslie Iwerks the privilege to tap the vast resources of the Disney archives.

The screening I attended at the El Capitan premiere was even a bit star-studded: Marc Davis, Ed Friedman, Virginia Davis, and other Disney luminaries. 

At one point, Roy Disney humbly took a seat at the side of the theater, right next to me. I was surprised by this, especially since a bloc of seats had been roped off in the center section. 

I started doubting that this man actually was Roy Disney, quietly sitting by himself, no entourage, just wanting to see the movie. 

Surely such a ranking executive of the Disney Company and the nephew of Uncle Walt could at least assume that the reserved seating was for him! 

Then a woman walked over and seemed equally surprised, stating “Roy, you’re sitting over there.” He obliged, moving to his assigned seat.

That Roy would be so unassuming is kind of endearing. That he did such a favor for the family of Ub Iwerks is downright touching. 

It’s nice to think that amid the sprawling bureaucracy of Disney today, that at least some very small part of it can still come off like a family business that remembers a favor once done many years ago.

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