The category of “Short Subject (Cartoon),” as it seems to have been called at the time, was created for the fifth Academy Awards, for releases between August 1, 1931, and July 31, 1932. (This was the last year before the eligibility year and the calendar year coincided.) The winner that year was “The Flowers and the Trees.” It would take until 1940, a year in which no Disney short was even nominated, for the award to go to a studio other than Disney. Therefore, it was no difficulty for Disney to basically do a 1937 clip show and show the five animated shorts that had won as part of their advertising for their upcoming gamble Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
This is in some circles counted as Disney’s first feature; technically, it is exactly the same length as Saludos Amigos. On the other hand, that means it’s 41 minutes long, and if you cut everything that wasn’t already, you know, an Oscar-winning short, it’s about five minutes long. Because that’s all this is. It’s a string of those first five winners. Now, granted, three of the five are absolute classics; in addition to “The Flowers and the Trees,” you then get “Three Little Pigs” and “The Tortoise and the Hare.” And if “Three Orphan Kittens” and “The Country Cousin” aren’t great, they’re still better than Buddy, whose final cartoons for Schlesinger were in 1935.
The fact is, Snow White was a gamble. A huge one. Walt was risking the fate of the entire studio on it. This special served the dual purpose of putting a little more money in the studio’s coffers and reminding everyone that, hey, that Disney studio sure did put out quality animation, and you might want to put your quarter (apparently the average price of a movie ticket at the time) toward checking out their actual feature. “The Flowers and the Trees” sure is beautiful, right? And you’re still whistling “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” “The Tortoise and the Hare” sure is funny. And “Three Orphan Kittens” and “The Country Cousin” exist.
Disney’s fortunes in the category would wane. 1937 resulted in winner “The Old Mill,” one of the studio’s finest short subjects of all time. But “Der Fuehrer’s Face” of 1942 would be followed only by “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom” in 1953. Then “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” in ‘68. After that, it gets harder to be certain, as Walt is no longer personally credited as producer. In fact, that last one is posthumous. However, 1940—that year with no nominations in the Animated Short category—was also the first that the studio had a competitive win in another category, for Original Song and “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
The only way in which I’m opposed to the category’s opening up the way it has is that it means Disney isn’t doing experimental things with their shorts as much as they used to. The studio didn’t have a single winner in the category between 1969 and 2012 despite having nominees in pretty much every intervening year in one category or another. In no few of those years, I don’t think they even had a nominee. (This is proving difficult to track down without looking up every single short I don’t recognize after Walt died.) On the one hand, this shows a reduced likelihood of using the shorts as a laboratory for animation development. On the other hand, making shorts is a good way to get noticed for new directors, and more power to them.