Book Review: Walt Before Mickey Disney’s Early Years 1919-1928 by Timothy S. Susanin

Walt before Mickey: Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928by Timothy S. Susanin. 2011. 384 pp.

About The Author
Currently, Timothy S. Susanin acts as the general counsel for a Fortune 500 Company. Previously, he served the Federal Government and the NAVY JAG as counsel. Obviously, Susanini is no stranger to laborious and meticulous research. Walt Before Mickey is proof of that.

The Review
By far, this is one of the most comprehensive books about any single period of Walt Disney’s life. The author presents a detailed look at a very short time in Walt Disney’s career when he was working professionally before the creation of Mickey Mouse.  Walt Before Mickey starts with a short look at Walt’s life and moves through his first jobs in Kansas City until the formation Kaycee Studios, his first studio, in 1921. The majority of the book recounts Walt’s time in other Kansas City studios, the Laugh-O-Gram years and the formation of the Disney Bros. Studios in Los Angeles. As expected, the book does end before the creation of Mickey Mouse.

There are several themes throughout most Disney biographies: consistent and early failure paired with an unchallenged sense of destiny; bringing together the best people; and managing people with visionary leadership. Walt Before Mickey spends a indulgent amount of time describing such events. I have read the major biographies on Walt Disney and I am always shocked by the nexus of animation that occurred and grew out of Kansas City. Most biographers agree that the landscape of animation would be vastly different without Disney pulling together artists from his local Kansas City environs.

The strength of this book could be considered its weakness; we see an almost daily look at Walt’s life. We meet all of the characters that worked with, influenced or helped a young Walt Disney as artist. It is rendered as more than a litany of names and census information yet we are accorded quite a bit of detail about everyone he worked with. The author delved deep and researched when these people married, moved and passed away. This book will prove too much for enthusiasts not vested in Walt’s career.

Is it more than we need to know?
Any researcher or librarian will tell you how important the bibliography, index and notes sections are when vetting a research title. 125 of the 340 pages in this book are allocated to the research side of Susanin’s endeavors. This is a boon to all future researchers. Susanin has uncovered dates and times that were previously unknown and there is never any doubt to the efficacy of the research. You might feel bogged down when you read about an individual restaurant owner–where he lived, when he married and when he died–but the information has finally been collected, preserved and presented. 

This is a book that I really enjoyed; Susanin has a comfortable style that blends rote facts and figures into a pleasing narrative. I offer the admonition that this work is pretty geeky. When you have a book dedicated to a ten-year period, you are going to bring to light a lot of information.

Who Should Read This?
Obviously, devotees of Walt Disney and his career will love this book. Anyone looking to piece together a compendious view of the fledgling studios or the people that propelled Walt will find a mass of information. Fans of Michael Barrier, Didier Ghez, John Canemaker and Charles Solomon will find the research and writing enthralling. This is a book that goes deep and pulls no punches about Walt and the choices he made in Kansas City and the early days in Los Angeles. If you have an interest in scholarly research about Disney, then this is a book you need to own.


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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Walt Before Mickey Disney’s Early Years 1919-1928 by Timothy S. Susanin

  1. Donnie, this is a tough question because they are different works and look at the same time period in such a different way.

    Walt Before Mickey is more academic and offers more substance.

    Walt Disney’s Missouri is an easier read (easier to digest) but it is glossier than WBM. Which could be a negative or a positive.

    WDM is better for beginners although it does give an amazing sense of geography.

    WBM is going to be loved by researchers and people that want to dig a little deeper.

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