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).
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.
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.