Disney Vintage Movie Posters

The word “Disney” has become virtually synonymous with animation. Since the earliest days of moving pictures, the Disney company has built its empire one movie at a time, resulting in such timeless and beloved classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, Fantasia, Dumbo, and countless others. And, let’s not forget Mickey, the Mouse who started it all.

Well, that’s not exactly true. The story really begins on Dec. 5, 1901, when Walter Elias Disney, the fourth son of Elias and Flora Call Disney was born in Chicago, Ill. Several years later, the Disney family packed up and left the bustling metropolis for a simpler, quieter life on a farm in Marceline, Mo. It was here that Walt’s lifelong fascination with art began (his one unpleasant memory of childhood was when he got in big trouble for drawing pictures on the side of the family barn in sticky tar).

His school years also imbued young Walt with a love of acting and theatrics, and he especially enjoyed the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, who he looked to as an inspiration, even in later years (in fact, Walt often credited the spirit of Chaplin’s character, The Little Tramp, for at least part of the inspiration for Mickey Mouse). He drew cartoons for his school newspaper, and eventually attended the Art Institute of Chicago. After serving for a year as an ambulance driver in France during World War I, Walt returned home and attempted to revive his artistic career.  He eventually teamed up with Ub Iwerks, and together the pair formed their own commercial art studio. It was to be a partnership that would eventually have a lasting influence on American popular culture.

At this time, animation was in its infancy, with crude, black and white subjects – typically favorites from the daily comic strips, like Krazy Kat, Felix the Cat, and the Katzenjammer Kids – playing to an audience fascinated by the novelty of seeing drawings move. But Disney wasn’t satisfied with the current state of the art, and he set out to improve the process. Working by night in his father’s garage, which he converted into an animation studio, Walt read everything he could find on the techniques of animation, and was soon making short subjects flavored with local interest for the Newman Theater. His “Newman Laugh-O-Grams” were a first, tentative step into a new world.

Walt soon had others working for him, and managed to raise an amazing $15,000 to fund “Laugh-O-Gram Films.” The money soon ran out, however, and Walt was forced to liquidate the company. He moved to Hollywood, and after one abortive attempt at acting, returned to animation. Taking a half-finished film from the Laugh-O-Gram days, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, he managed to sell a series of Alice shorts to a film distributor, and, taking on his brother Roy as his business manager, Disney was finally off and running.

The Alice series was a moderate success, and Walt even found time to get married during its production. When Alice started to run out of steam, Walt turned to a new creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. An even bigger success, it was Walt’s naiveté about the realities of the film business, and the unscrupulous dealings of his new distributor, Charlie Mintz, that eventually did in Oswald and did Walt the biggest favor of his life.

Once Oswald became a success, Mintz, behind Disney’s back, began to hire virtually all of Walt’s staff away from him, promising them more money. When Walt went east to attempt to negotiate a more favorable contract for new Oswald cartoons, he soon found that he no longer had much of a staff and, in fact, due to contract wrangling, Mintz and Universal owned all the rights to Oswald (happily, Iwerks – co-creator of Oswald – stayed with Disney). Devastated, Walt returned home. On the journey back west, he knew he had to come up with a new character, one that he would retain all the rights to, and envisioned a charming mouse named Mortimer. At a suggestion from his wife, who found the name Mortimer to be too pretentious, Disney renamed the mouse Mickey, and animation history was made. As soon as he returned home, Disney and Iwerks began work on three new cartoons featuring his new star rodent.

Mickey wasn’t an instant success, however. There were plenty of cartoon animals around (including Oswald, whose cartoons continued by Mintz and his stolen staff). Response to the silent Plane Crazy, the first cartoon to star Mickey Mouse, released on May 15, 1928, was indifferent. How to make Mickey stand out from all the other anthropomorphic antics on screen?

The answer was simple. Release one of the three cartoons with synchronized sound. Steamboat Willie was the one chosen, the third Mickey cartoon produced (after Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, which, while the second produced would be the third released, on Dec. 30, 1928).  The result? A smash hit upon its debut on Nov. 18, 1928. The public loved it. Steamboat Willie was intended as a parody of Buster Keaton’s popular film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), just as The Gallopin’ Gaucho was meant to parody Douglas Fairbanks’ The Gaucho (1927). Unfortunately, these comparisons are largely lost to today’s audiences. While Steamboat Willie was not the first cartoon to be released with synchronized sound (Fleischer Studios had already explored this territory several years earlier), it was the first to achieve widespread fame. A piece of trivia: Walt Disney himself can be heard in this cartoon as the voice of both Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Mickey Mouse quickly became the cornerstone around which the rest of the Disney Empire was built, an empire that, today, literally stretches from one corner of the globe to another. There’s a story that’s told, perhaps apocryphally, about Mickey being banned in Romania. According to the story, officials feared that children would be afraid of an image of a ten-foot mouse projected on a movie screen, and so proactively banned the cartoons from being shown.

Iwerks stayed with Disney for another few years, but left the studio in 1930 to produce his own cartoons (Flip the Frog was the primary result). Many see Iwerk’s departure, after Cactus Kid (1930), as a turning point for both Disney and Mickey, who would continue to appear in animated shorts until 1953, and in other venues up until the present day. Never one to rest on his laurels, Disney also was an early adopter of color film techniques. Flowers and Trees (1932), Disney’s first color short, won an Academy Award in its debut year. Mickey’s first color appearance was in The Band Concert (1935), although Donald Duck preceded him in this regard, having appeared in color in 1934, with the release of The Wise Little Hen. Shortly thereafter, every subsequent Disney cartoon would be released in glorious full color.

Mickey continues to set records worldwide. In 1978, he became the first animated character to win a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Due to his popularity as a write-in candidate, Mickey has been a frequent contender for some of this nation’s highest offices (interestingly, Donald Duck is the more popular choice in Finland and Sweden).


The output of posters for the animated films of Walt Disney can be separated into three easy categories: pre-Mickey (1922-1927), Mickey and Characters (1928-1936), and finally the feature animated film posters and shorts (post 1937).

Up until the beginning of the feature film era (starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937), posters for Disney films consisted merely of a one sheet (27" X 41") or similar format, such as the 30" X 40" poster. Lobby cards for the shorts are almost non-existent other than a very small handful of “stock” cards that might have been produced in the early to mid-1930s. There were no lobby card sets issued for the animated shorts, and they did not come into existence until Snow White and the Disney animated features.

Rarest and most difficult to find, of course, are the pre-1928 short posters. One or two copies of posters promoting some of the Alice shorts are known to exist, due largely to the star of the series, Virginia Davis, who acquired and kept a copy in her youth, and retained them into her later years, at which time she sold them. These early duo-tone posters, printed primarily in blue, black and white, have realized exceptional prices on the rare occasions that they have been offered at auction. A poster for Alice in the Jungle (1924) brought $18,400 in the October 2002 Heritage auction. Collectors can look forward to their July 14th auction, when Heritage will offer the one sheet to Alice Gets in Dutch (1924).

After Disney discontinued the Alice series – and before the development of Mickey – he created the Oswald. Unfortunately, very few examples of Oswald posters are known to exist. Heritage offered the full-color stock sheet to this series in their March 2005 auction, which brought $6,900. This represents the earliest full-color Disney poster known to exist.

Beginning with the first Mickey Mouse cartoon in 1927, Plane Crazy, Disney was in partnership with Columbia, who acted as his distribution arm. Collectors will have a rare opportunity to bid on a very early example, The Mad Dog (1932) one sheet, in the upcoming Heritage Summer auction, with a pre-auction estimate of $30,000-50,000.

Arguably, the most beautiful examples of poster art ever produced for the studio are the gorgeous stone lithograph one sheets produced during the short reign of United Artists as Disney’s distribution company. Disney left Columbia in 1932. He struck a deal with UA, and his creativity blossomed.

The UA posters are considered the “holy grail” for animation collectors, with many of the shorts films represented by only one or two known examples. Heritage sold an un-restored copy of The Mad Doctor (1933) in March 2006 for a staggering $138,000. Other examples sold by Heritage include Mickey’s Nightmare, the first short produced under the UA banner, which sold for $54,625 in the same auction. In their upcoming vintage movie poster auction, the only known poster copy of In Ye Olden Days (1933) will be offered, with a pre-auction estimate of  $75,000-100,000. Also offered will be another UA gem, The Klondike Kid, which not only features Mickey and Minnie, but Peg Leg Pete. This poster boasts a pre-auction estimate of $50,000-75,000.

Disney has left an indelible mark on the world. We’re fortunate, as collectors of movie ephemera, to own these beautiful examples of his unmatched legacy.