Who knows Walt Disney? The whole world. Who knows M.J. Winkler? Absolutely no one. And yet, without M.J. Winkler, there simply would not have been a Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse would never have seen the light of day, Snow White would have remained asleep and Space Mountain would probably be the name of a NASA program.

The prehistory of the Disney empire can be summed up in this one name of M.J. Winkler.

We are in 1923. Walt Disney has just left Kansas City where he went bankrupt, to throw his last professional hopes in California. He just sold his only camera to buy a train ticket, has 40$ in his pocket, and wears a suit loaned by a friend. He has in his luggage the unachieved film he is working on “Alice’s Wonderland”, a short film mixing real and animated characters.

In California, he sends a dozen of sollicitation letters to producers, but his requests remain unanswered. When they are not polite refusals. The situation is critical. He is 21, lives at his uncle’s place, and his brother Roy provides for him. He’s about to give up animation.

He receives only one positive reply, signed “M.J. Winkler”. The name has a good reputation in animation and production circles. It is known and recognized on the market, and yet few know it to be a woman’s name. Margaret J. Winkler has indeed the habit of signing with her initials to disguise her feminine condition in an environment which is largely dominated by men. She may be the first woman to produce and distribute animated films, but she hides it.

Born in Hungary in 1895, she debuted in Hollywood as a personal assistant to Harry Warner, founder of Warner Bros. Her talent and flair were that obvious that Harry Warner encouraged her to found her own animated film distribution company, which she did at the age of 26. Thus was born in 1921 Winkler Pictures, whose reputation is quickly established.

Margaret J. Winkler has indeed a crucial role in the careers of Max and Dave Fleicher, the creators of Betty Boop and Popeye, and Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan, the creators of Felix the Cat.

But her most crucial role will undoubtedly be that of mentor to Walt Disney. Intrigued by the concept of a real little girl evolving in a drawn environment, Margaret buys from Walt Disney the negative of the famous unachieved film, “Alice’s Wonderland” and asks him to develop the character of Alice in a series of twelve episodes, which she undertakes to produce and distribute. 

Proof that she is betting on the talent of this young unknown and inexperienced artist, she pays upfront an undertaking of completion of “Alice’s Wonderland” and the idea of a series whose design actually depends on an animation studio who went bankrupt in Kansas City. In doing so, she offers Walt Disney a stable professional future, which will culminate in the career we know.  

And so was born on October 16, 1923 the first Hollywood studio entirely dedicated to animation, Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. On closer inspection, the date is highly symbolic since it is on this same date that Margaret signs the Walt Disney contract. Walt will put the funds advanced by Margaret J. Winkler to good use, bringing together the needed dream team and fancy equipment to develop the “Alice” series. 

The role of Margaret J. Winkler in the career of the young Walt could have been confined to the financial dimension. It is not the case. Although she is only 28 years old, she brings already solid flair, talent and know-how to Walt Disney’s service. She maintains constant correspondence with him, helps him improve his designs and sets up cutting-edge marketing and communications techniques that ensure the notoriety of the short films produced under his aegis. She is one of the first producers to publish sales figures for her productions as self-promotion, to place advertising inserts and ensure national and international visibility for the animated characters she distributes. She fully understands the effects produced by the smart combination of production, distribution, marketing and communication.

The collaboration between Margaret and Walt ended in 1928 – Margaret married and abandoned her career. She will still have produced 56 episodes of “Alice” and 26 episodes of “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”, whose character developed in 1927 by Walt Disney announces the upcoming Mickey Mouse. The collaboration will have been fruitful, to say the least.  

To this day, Walt Disney Studios are the oldest animation studios in the Western world. Without Margaret J. Winkler, Pixar, Marvel, Disneyland and Disney + would never have existed. And yet, the name of this shooting star, whose career was short and brilliant, remains absolutely unknown to the general public.

First female producer of animated films, first female member of the “Motion Picture Producer’s Guild”, first woman included in the list of “Prominent Film Folks” alongside a David O. Selznic, M.J. Winkler left so little traces of her that today there is almost no information on this great figure of animation.

Margaret J. Winkler, who hid behind her initials, has cultivated many secrets, the first of them remaining … the meaning of that famous “J”.

The entire article is in Faust Magazine, and it’s over here.

March 26, 2021