Of the hundreds of awards received by Walt Disney throughout his career, the most impressive and celebrated are arguably his collection of Academy Awards. Commonly known as Oscars, several examples stand out as testaments to some of the key moments of Walt’s filmmaking career. Three of the Oscars are what are known as Honorary Oscars, awarded for special achievements in filmmaking. Another is the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which is bestowed upon film producers of great accomplishment at the Academy Awards.
Previously known as “Special Awards,” Honorary Oscars are awarded by the discretion of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to honor achievements in filmmaking not falling into the category of any existing Academy Awards. They are not necessarily awarded every year, but rather when deemed appropriate by the Board.
Of Walt’s Honorary Oscars, one was earned for the creation of Mickey Mouse. The Oscar was awarded in 1932, the same year a new category was added to the roster of existing Academy Awards: Best Short Subject, Cartoon. The Oscar for Best Cartoon went to Flowers and Trees, from the Silly Symphonies series; it was the first cartoon to make full use of the new three-strip Technicolor process. Incidentally, a cartoon from the Silly Symphonies would go on win in this category until the end of the series. The awards for Mickey Mouse and Flowers and Trees were Walt Disney’s first two Oscars.
In 1939, Walt received what is perhaps his most well-known award, a special Oscar for the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Oscar was specially designed to honor the film, featuring one full-sized Oscar statuette alongside seven smaller ones descending on stair steps, in reference to the title characters.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the highest grossing film of its time, and received unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike. Leading up to the Academy Awards, the film was under consideration to be nominated for Best Picture of the Year. However, because it was so unique and seemed so set apart for other films produced at the time, it was decided that a special award would instead be the appropriate validation.
The President of the Academy at the time was legendary filmmaker Frank Capra. It was Capra that allegedly came up with the idea of presenting the specially designed Oscar for the film. The Oscar was awarded to honor the film’s “significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon.”
Celebrated child actress Shirley Temple was selected to present the award to Walt onstage at the Oscars. Though Walt maintained that he didn’t make films solely for young audiences, it was felt that child actress Shirley Temple was the perfect person to represent the vast population of Walt’s young fans and admirers.
Though the Snow White Oscar is truly one-of-a-kind, one other example exists of a specially designed Academy Award: in 1937, famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen received a special Oscar for the creation of his dummy partner, Charlie McCarthy. It was a wooden Oscar statuette with a movable mouth, and was awarded to Bergen for his “outstanding comedy creation.”
In 1942, Walt received another Honorary Oscar for the creation of Fantasia, and more specifically for the film’s contribution to sound design. For the production of the film, designers and technicians at the Walt Disney Studios developed a new sound system, known as “Fantasound” that approximated the experience of hearing a live orchestra in a symphony hall. The system was the precursor to today’s Surround Sound, with speakers placed strategically around the sides and back of the audience chambers. Honored along with Walt Disney were Bill Garrity, John Hawkins, and the RCA Manufacturing Company. Fantasia conductor Leopold Stokowski was also awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1941 for his contributions to the project.
During that same year, Walt was honored with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. The award was purposed to honor “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” Producer David O. Selznick presented the award to Walt onstage at the Oscars. Walt was the youngest ever recipient of the award at the time, and he accepted the honor with tears in his eyes. He found it hard to speak, but said simply, “I want to thank everybody here. This is a vote of confidence from the whole industry.”
The award is a solid bronze bust of Irving Thalberg, a former vice president and head of the production division of MGM. As with special Oscars, the award is not given every year, but only when producers are deemed particularly worthy of the honor. Other honorees have included Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola.
A collection of Walt’s Academy Awards, including the Thalberg Award, can be seen on display in the lobby of The Walt Disney Family Museum. The special Oscar for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is currently on display in the Special Exhibition Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of the Classic.
Open Studio Coordinator
The Walt Disney Family Museum