When young Walt Disney met fellow teenager Ubbe Iwerks in Kansas City, Missouri in 1919, neither man likely knew how fruitful their eventual partnership would be. With Ub’s talent and Walt’s ambition, the two pioneered the art of animation, in the process creating the most iconic cartoon character in history. But their partnership eventually ended in acrimony, leading to Iwerks’ leaving the Disney company to form his own animated studio–at least for a while.
After working together for several years on Disney’s “Alice Comedies”–a series of live-action/animated shorts featuring the characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (which Disney would famously adapt in full animated feature form in 1951)–Disney and Iwerks collaborated on the creation of an original character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald premiered in 1927, but his reign as Disney’s flagship character was brief. Walt lost control of his creation to his distributor, and embittered by the experience, he turned to Iwerks to create a new face for the Disney company. And soon enough, Mickey Mouse was born.
While Mickey became a huge hit–as did another new Disney series, the musical Silly Symphonies, on which Iwerks also worked–the friendship between Disney and Iwerks began to disintegrate under Disney’s growing demands. Iwerks believed that he was not receiving all of the credit he should have gotten as Disney’s proverbial right-hand man, and he chafed at Disney’s notoriously temperamental attitude. Disney, for his part, was frustrated by his distribution deal with Pat Powers, the owner of Celebrity Pictures, who was not paying Disney everything he was owed through the deal. Walt took out his frustration on his animators, and Iwerks bore the brunt of his displeasure. Angry and tired of the fractious working relationship, Iwerks signed a deal with Powers to leave Disney Brothers Studios and found an animation company under his own name.
Ub Iwerks’ own self-named animation venture, the Iwerks Studio, opened in 1930. Backed by Celebrity Pictures, with a distribution deal from major studio MGM, Iwerks was in an enviable position right out of the gate, making more money than he had ever made working with Disney. He hired a group of fresh animators to work with him (a group that briefly included a young Chuck Jones). His first creation under his own banner was an anthropomorphic musical frog named Flip, who debuted in the six-minute short Fiddlesticks.
Fiddlesticks, released in August 1930, is not exactly what you might call an “innovative” cartoon. As Michael Barrier points out in his book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (1999), Iwerks was stuck in an early-talkie mindset: “His first few cartoons presented synchronization as if it were entertaining in itself–as it had been, briefly, in his Silly Symphonies–rather than a way to strengthen already promising material.” Indeed, there is little in the way of a plot in this short; it’s all about the music and the movement as opposed to an actual story, and thus there’s little attempt to build an appealing character out of Flip (he doesn’t even get the chance to speak–instead, the little weirdo quacks!).
However, for all its relative blandness, Fiddlesticks is noteworthy for being the first synchronized sound two-strip Technicolor cartoon. Interestingly, when the three-strip color process was perfected a couple of years later, Disney produced the first cartoon in that mode, 1932’s Flowers and Trees–which would go on to win the first Academy Award for Animated Short Subject. (Fiddlesticks also appears to feature a thumb to the nose of Disney, as one of Flip’s animal costars is a violin-playing mouse who strongly resembles early concept sketches of Mickey Mouse.)
After the modest success of Fiddlesticks, most of Flip’s future adventures were shot in black-and-white as opposed to the costly, time-consuming Technicolor process. Over time, at the behest of MGM, Flip’s design changed from amphibious to a more obviously human-like characterization, all in an effort to challenge the notably more human-like qualities of Mickey Mouse and crew. Still, the changes did little to endear Flip to a public enamored with all things Mickey, nor could he compete with the appeal of other popular characters like the Fleischers’ Betty Boop. In all, Flip the Frog cavorted his way through just over three dozen shorts in the period between 1930 and 1933, until Iwerks retired the character.
Iwerks’ stab at independence did not last overly long. By 1936, he was forced to close his animation studio, and he became a sort of freelance animator, producing several Looney Tunes shorts at Warner Bros. and working briefly for Columbia Pictures’ animation division. In retrospect, however, it’s doubtful that the loss of the studio was particularly heartbreaking for Iwerks. Despite the initial success of the Iwerks Studio, the animator was never particularly happy in his new venture. By the end of the decade, he had to acknowledge to himself that his interests lay not in crafting new characters and stories, but in experimentation with the technology of the time, trying new, heretofore unseen tricks with the camera to better enhance the illusion at play. That realization brought Iwerks full circle: in 1940, Ub once again joined the Disney studio, albeit in a new capacity as a special effects wizard, whose technical innovations would enhance numerous Disney productions from Song of the South (1946) to Mary Poppins (1964) and beyond.