WHAT are the three words in the English language beginning with Dw? Our boozey boys’ lunch suddenly took an intellectual turn when someone lobbed in this cracker of a question. Our bodies momentarily froze and we stared into the distance, slight frowns, deep in thought, competition now upon us. “Dwarf!” someone yelled, and at first I thought he was commenting on my height, but he was just triumphant to find the first word. As the mental search continued, I talked about the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
“Guys, speaking of dwarves, you know someone that I admire? Walt Disney. He was a genuine entrepreneur; a risk-taker and an innovator in an innovative industry.
As a child in the early 1900s, he loved to draw cartoons, and he honed his skills sketching for a neighbour, a retired doctor known as Doc. As a youth, he passed up acting and, erm, ambulance driving, to pursue this artistic passion. His talent was timely for the movie industry. Animation was proving popular, as silent films evolved from flickering black and white images into sound and colour. Popeye and Betty Boop became as big as Brad and Angie are today.”
“Fine Richard, but you don’t need to dwell on that!” someone interrupted with exaggerated exuberance.
But I continued. “By the early 1930s, Walt had started his own studio, gone bust and bounced back, and was riding high on the success of Mickey Mouse. That’s when he decided to risk everything and make Snow White, based on a fairytale he had liked as a child. It took three years and cost over $1m (£631,000) – a huge sum. Everyone thought he had gone dopey, and in Hollywood the project was disparagingly labelled as ‘Walt’s folly’. Walt’s wife Lillian wasn’t happy. ‘No one’s ever gonna pay a dime to see a dwarf picture, you idiot’, she said. Okay, I added the last two words, but do you get the picture about the picture?”
“Ah yes!” someone answered unbashfully. “Confidence in Walt had dwindled!”
“For the production, it is incredible how hands-on and what a driving force Walt was. He agonised over the storyline, and changed the plot to emphasise the dwarfs over the prince. He debated the choice of the dwarfs’ names, rejecting other choices such as Burpy and Flabby. Right decision there, Walt! And can you imagine the amount of effort involved in managing over 500 people and over 2m illustrations?”
“The movie was an instant success, the highest grossing movie to that time. Everyone loved it, Oscar included, even though kids peed themselves in abundance at the scary bits. With the release of the first-ever soundtrack, the music was popular too. The film’s success ushered in a ‘golden era of animation’ and enabled Walt to move on to things like Bambi, Dumbo and Peter Pan.”
“Interesting, Richard. But can we talk about something simpler? I think I might have dwunk too much.” Groans all around.
Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.