March 26, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

Disney Academy Award Stories – Part Two

Suspended Animation #312

At the 1934 ceremony, Walt received an Oscar for the animated short Three Little Pigs that had gotten more than 80 percent of the votes of the Academy for the honor. It was the first award given that evening. Walt came up to the podium with his head covered in bandages because he had been injured in a polo match with Will Rogers, who was the emcee that night.

The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award is awarded to “Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”

The award was named for Irving Thalberg, legendary vice president and head of the Production Division of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who was responsible for developing MGM’s top productions. The award is not given every year.

The trophy is in the form of a bust of Thalberg attached to a rectangular base but is still considered as an “honorary Oscar.” The first recipient was Darryl F. Zanuck at the 1937 Academy Awards ceremony (held in 1938).

Three other honorees subsequently received that design between 1939 and 1942: Hal B. Wallis, David O. Selznick and Walt Disney. Walt Disney was the youngest ever to win it.

Producer David O. Selznick presented Walt with the award. Walt was so overcome with emotion that he openly wept. According to the trade newspaper Daily Variety (from a February 27, 1942 story headlined “Walt Disney Weeps as He Gets Oscar”) “[Walt] found it difficult to speak and was only able to say with great emotion: ‘I want to thank everybody here. This is a vote of confidence from the whole industry.’”

Actually, Walt said a little more. Presenter Selznick praised Walt for using classical music by Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky in Fantasia and stated that it “contributed to the musical education of the public.”

Walt replied to the audience, “Thank you so much for this. Maybe I should get a medal for bravery. We all make mistakes. Fantasia was one but it was an honest one. I shall now re-dedicate myself to my old ideals.”

I don’t think many people realize how easily Walt could be moved to tears. We are so accustomed to seeing him smiling and laughing and truly enjoying himself. He was deeply sentimental and often watching even rough cuts of some of his own films like Pollyanna or reading an emotional moment in a script would be enough to produce tears.

Actress Norma Shearer, Thalberg’s widow, went over to Walt when he returned to his seat and gave him a kiss. She did not care for the rendering of her late husband’s head on the trophy so, at her own expense, commissioned a new sculpture. She sent the new version to the first four winners (which included Walt) and the new version became the standard for many years.

Walt Disney wrote a personal letter on January 30, 1948, to Jean Hersholt, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, suggesting that James Baskett be awarded a special Academy Award for his work as Uncle Remus in Song of the South.

According to Walt’s letter, Baskett had not only brought to life the “immortal folklore character” of Uncle Remus, Disney argued, but was “a very understanding person and very much the gentleman.”

Disney was not alone in his praise of Baskett’s performance. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper was one of the many journalists who declared that he should receive an Academy Award for his work as well.

Baskett was handed the honorary Oscar on March 20th, 1948, for “his able and heartwarming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world” by actress Ingrid Bergman. He was the first African-American male to receive an Academy Award. (A small snippet of footage of Baskett accepting the award can be viewed here). Baskett tragically died of heart problems and complications from diabetes just months later on September 9th, 1948, at age 44.

Sidney Poitier was the first African-American male actor to win a competitive Oscar for his performance in the 1963 picture Lilies of the Field more than a decade later.

Jean Hersholt, President of Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, congratulates James Baskett, center, second African American to win an Oscar, for his special award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus in the 1946 Disney feature film “Song of the South” on March 20, 1948 in Los Angeles, Calif. Looking on is Ingrid Berman, who made presentation to Baskett. (AP Photo)

Walt Disney himself was a presenter at the Academy Awards three times. In 1937, he presented the Short Subjects awards. In 1943, he presented the Thalberg Award to Producer Sidney Franklin.

The third time on March 19th, 1953, Walt Disney presented the music awards at the 25th Academy Awards, the first year the awards were televised, held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

Host Bob Hope introduced Walt: “You know when we called Walt Disney and asked him to present the music award tonight, we said, ‘Walt with all the songs you’ve commissioned for your pictures and what with Fantasia and all, you would be the right man to do it. After all, think about how much you have done for music and Hollywood.’

“And his warm reply was ‘I would have thought it was the other way around’. In any case Walt fought his way through all the Oscars in his living room to our stage tonight. One of the great theatrical inventors of modern times, Mr. Walt Disney.”

Walt mangles several of the names of the nominees. Miklos Rosza became “Miklos Rosca.” Orchestra conductor Adolph Deutsch tried to loudly whisper to Walt the correct pronunciations from the orchestra pit but it didn’t help.

Walt changed the song title “Am I in Love?” to “I Am in Love!” and couldn’t make it all the way through Dimitri Tiomkin’s name. However, the highlight was when Alfred Newman who won for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture walked away from the podium, leaving his Oscar behind.

Walt Disney achieved a milestone at the March 25th, 1954, awards ceremony by becoming the individual with the most Oscar wins (four) in a single year up to that point. He won the Oscar in four award categories: Best Cartoon Short Subject: Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953), Best Documentary Short Subject: The Alaskan Eskimo (1953), Best Documentary Feature: The Living Desert (1953), and Best Two-Reel Short Subject: Bear Country (1953).

Disney Legend Ward Kimball, who had directed Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, had hoped to be able to walk up and accept the Oscar. However, he was told that since Disney was nominated for multiple awards, “it would be a better show to have Walt go up each time. And it was,” grumbled Ward when I interviewed him in 1996.

After receiving his fourth Oscar that evening, Walt told the audience, “Just gotta say one more word. It’s wonderful, but I think it’s my year to retire.”

Disney’s Ben and Me (1953) was also nominated in the Best Two-Reel Short Subject category along with Bear Country. It was the only animated cartoon in that category.

As Walt’s niece, Patty remembered, “Tom Jones, a Studio publicist, was assigned to take Walt to the Academy Awards one year. Walt told [his wife] Lilly not to bother coming to the event because he didn’t think he was going to win anything. So Walt went to the awards and got so many that the press took photos of him holding all these Oscars.

“When Tom drove Walt home, Lilly wouldn’t let him in the house because she was so mad that he told her to stay home. She was furious because it had been a big night and she wasn’t with him. So Tom had to drive Walt back to the Studio and [Walt] had to sleep in his apartment at the Studio that night.”

The largest single collection of Oscars outside of Hollywood is at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

Walt Disney (right) displays the four Oscars he won at 26th annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 25th, 1954 with Elizabeth Taylor (center) and Michael Wilding (left).


  • Just recently I was watching the Mickey Mouse Club serial “Annette”, whose segments were introduced by youngest Mouseketeer Karen Pendleton. At the beginning of the introductory teaser episode, Karen pronounced the star’s name “Annette Funnysello,” and I thought: oh, for heaven’s sake, those two girls had been working together from Fun with Music Day to Talent Round-up Day every week for several years by this point. If Karen still didn’t know how to pronounce Annette’s surname properly, couldn’t the director, or Jimmie Dodd, or Annette herself have corrected her?

    But after hearing Walt Disney mangle the names of those composers at the Academy Awards, now I’m thinking: maybe that was how Walt pronounced it!

    • At the 1961 Academy Awards, Annette Funicello accepted a special Juvenile Oscar on behalf of Hayley Mills, star of Walt Disney’s “Pollyanna”, who was filming in England at the time. She was introduced by the first recipient of that award, Shirley Temple, who had the decency to pronounce her name correctly.

  • Thanks for these fascinating backstage stories. These shed light on Disney that can’t be found anywhere else. Good to see the picture of James Baskett receiving his award. The brilliance of his portrayal is one of the under-appreciated aspects of Disney. He is truly one of the best leading actors ever to grace a Disney film.

    • Here is something I recently discovered so it doesn’t appear in my book WHO’S AFRAID OF THE SONG OF THE SOUTH:

      According to columnist Hedda Hopper’s autobiography that I recently read, the Academy Board of Governors was opposed to the honorary Oscar to James Baskett because “Baskett played a slave and the feeling was that Negroes should play only doctors, lawyers and scientists” in order to be recognized with an award.

      Jean Hersholt, the president of the Academy, argued in Baskett’s favor until 4 a.m., at which point he gave his ultimatum: “If he doesn’t receive an Oscar, I shall stand up tomorrow night and tell the world the whole disgraceful story.” The board gave in and actress Ingrid Bergman gave Baskett his Oscar.

      I keep forgetting how much Disney and animation information is only available in books like biographies. I am a huge fan of James Baskett and his work and his life was cut much too short due to diabetes.

      • The next to last scene proves that Uncle Remus was the best doctor in the world.

      • And of course he wasn’t playing a slave. An EX-slave, maybe, but the movie takes place well after the war.

      • Amen, Jim.

  • Thanks so much Jim, for this post. Makes me tear up to see how far the Academy Awards broadcasts have fallen since 1953-54. The broadcast moved along at a good pace, and the winners speeches were thankfully brief. It’s great to see what Dimitri Tiomkin looked like! In the ’54 kinescope, it’s interesting that they chose a still from the remake of “Orphans’ Benefit” instead of the nominated short, “Rugged Bear”. Also did you notice that “Rugged Bear” was distributed by RKO Radio, and “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” was handled by Buena Vista Distribution? Maybe “Rugged Bear” was the last Disney cartoon that RKO put out? I’ll bet Jerry knows the answer to that question!

  • Ah, Keefe Brasselle… who went from playing Eddie Cantor on-screen to writing “The CannaBal$”…

  • I was 16 years old when I wrote requesting tickets to the 25th Academy Awards on my newly printed Hale Studio stationary. Much to my surprise we got 6 tickets. What an experience for a want-to-be-filmmaker to have. This was the second televised broadcast of the Oscars. I had actually seen about 90% of the nominated films and that made it even more exciting. The Disney wins were a highlight as was Audrey Hepburn winning for ROMAN HOLIDAY. Audrey was appearing in the play ONDINE in New York and thus received her Oscar there. New starlet Kim Novak had been the person that ushered us to our seats. We were excited for Walt for we had just toured his studio a few days prior and watched as they worked on painting the cells for LADY AND THE TRAMP. Seeing these clips brings back a lot of fond memories.

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