On February 26, 1942, Walt Disney took the stage at the 14th annual Academy Awards at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and began to cry.
Disney was there to accept the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which is periodically issued to celebrate producers who have had a consistently high quality of work. But instead of going along with the celebration, he issued an apology for making one of the most famous films in movie history -- an apology that has barely surfaced publicly since.
The Academy provided both the audio and a transcript to The Huffington Post, the latter of which is available in full at the bottom of this article.
"'Fantasia,' in a way I feel like I should have a medal for bravery or something," Disney said. "We all make our mistakes, I know, but it was an honest mistake."
Many people now remember "Fantasia" as a hallowed masterpiece of innovative movie-making, and the film was well-received among critics. But in the months after its release on November 13, 1940, there were those who considered the film a financial disaster. The ambitious movie had required a multi-million dollar budget -- an incredibly high price tag at the time -- but debuted right as the U.S. was in the thick of sending resources to Europe during World War II and there just wasn't that much money to keep the entertainment business afloat. Disastrously low box-office numbers threatened the still-young company.
"The hard reality is 'Fantasia' came out and really didn't do well," Disney historian Jim Hill told The Huffington Post.
The Walt Disney Company's plan to screen the movie in special theaters where special crews equipped Disney's own costly "Fantasound" system further exaggerated the film's financial problems. The tickets to the limited theaters did sell in droves, but the plan wasn't remotely scalable.
When Walt took the stage at the Biltmore, "Fantasia" had already won two "Special Awards," one "advancements in sound" and one for music, as the Academy described them to HuffPost. But he still appeared to feel the need to reassure the industry of his and his company's vision, and to apologize for and to distance himself from the movie in question, saying he had just gone through "the toughest year" of his life.
"I'm well aware of the high ideals that this award symbolizes, and I sort of feel like I should rededicate myself to those ideals," he said. "I've been through a very trying year, the toughest year. I hope there's never another one like it."
In retrospect, Walt was still just starting his major motion picture career in 1942 and about to achieve two decades of unprecedented dominance in the animation sphere, where he would release movies such as "Bambi," "Peter Pan" and "One Hundred and One Dalmatians." In 1955, Disneyland would open.
But in the years since that speech in 1942, The Walt Disney Company has understandably buried the moment of vulnerability in its storied history, a forgotten moment in which one of the most famous men in movie history admitted failure.
If history wouldn't later decide Walt was a genius, "Fantasia" may have been only remembered as a flop. "The Disney archives and the company has so deep-sixed this moment," said Hill, who has also blogged for The Huffington Post.
You can understand why. As Hill sarcastically stated, "That's what you want on the [movie] box, 'We're not doing that again!'"
"It then becomes hard to say, 'The Disney classic!'" he laughed.
Disney noted to HuffPost that the introductory speech to Walt's award was congratulatory to the animator.
David O. Selznick, who gave the speech, referred to Walt near the end of the intro as, "the man who during a single year created a new art for with 'Fantasia,' attempted a marriage of media with 'The Reluctant Dragon,' and gave us the most enchanting creations of all time, 'Dumbo.'" Selznick did not refer to "Fantasia" elsewhere in the speech. The representative from the company also said that the Walt Disney Archives had not "buried" Walt's speech.
Here is the full text of Walt's 1942 acceptance:
I find myself speechless. I knew that there was something here tonight; this is way beyond my expectation. I've got a lot of thanking to do. First, for the little short subject award which we're very proud of. My musicians for their music -- it's going to be hard to get along with them now, I know. "Fantasia," in a way I feel like I should have a medal for bravery or something. We all make our mistakes, I know, but it was an honest mistake. But this, this is too much.
I'm well aware of the high ideals that this award symbolizes, and I sort of feel like I should rededicate myself to those ideals. I've been through a very trying year, the toughest year. I hope there's never another one like it. And coming after that year, I sort of feel, I'd like to feel that it's more than an award for past conscientious efforts, honest mistakes. I like to feel that it's sort of a vote of a confidence for the future. And I want to thank the members of the Academy, my friends, everybody. Thank you.
This post has been updated to include comment from Disney.