A long overdue post on Walt Disney (1901-1966) today. I have only dragged my feet to this point because Disney is one of those figures who is so major, and possesses so many facets (cartoonist/animator, film producer, television showman, theme park mogul, etc), that a single post seems not enough. But now I have referenced him or his companies hundreds of times, and I want something “general” to link to. I’ll undoubtedly add more later, for the topic is complicated.
My introduction to the Disney brand was through the weekly television program The Wonderful World of Disney (originally broadcast under other names: Walt Disney’s Disneyland, Walt Disney Presents, and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.) While Walt may not have been cryogenically preserved as many seem to believe, he was most definitely cinematically preserved, and his old wrap-arounds as host were often still incorporated into the programs, though he had already died in the middle of the previous decade. When Disney appeared onscreen, there was import to it. He was an eminence, like Santa Claus. Folksy and friendly, but sort of all-powerful. The show had a magazine format; in retrospect you see that it was like a primer on all of his corporation’s various enterprises: they showed cartoon shorts, clips from classic Disney films, nature films, serialized adventure dramas, plugs for the theme parks and films, etc. The whole family watched this show together; it aired in the 7pm slot on Sundays if I recall correctly. Among our favorite features were the Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett segments starring Fess Parker, a distant relation on my paternal grandmother’s side (she was a Parker of the same family). My dad had been an aspiring artist in his youth and was a gifted caricaturist, and had grown up on a farm (as Disney had spent part of his youth on a farm), so there was plenty of appreciation for Disney’s brand of entertainment in our house. Indeed, I suspect that I owe my first name — Travis — at least partially to the hero of Disney’s Old Yeller (1957).
Later, during the nostalgia boom that followed the success of Happy Days, there were daily after-school airings of 20 year old syndicated episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club. This show featured wraparounds starring a group of kids in mouse ears (Mickey Mouse hats), the most famous of whom was Annette Funicello, followed by Cubby O’Brien. This show also featured anthologized content from across the board. I was especially fond of a western serial called “Spin and Marty”. Very good indoctrination, yes, comrade?
At the same time, though Walt was dead, the company was still focused on releasing family films to cinemas, with occasional re-releases of classics. This was pre-home video, so long before I ever saw the classic films in their entirety, I saw lesser product like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Love Bug. So the classic films had an aura of legend about them. Access was limited, even more than today. And likewise the two major theme parks, which anchored the bottom of both American coasts like fairyland pinions. Other kids carried back glowing reports of trips to Disneyland, Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center (then only recently opened) but our family was never able to afford such outings. To this day, I have never been. Such lack of access has always served to make me, if anything, a more avid devotee. I did however get to see Disney On Ice at our local Civic Center when I was about six years old, a big event for me.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I got to screen the classic Disney films on home video and began to fill in the gaps. When I was at NYU, I managed to take a Cinema Studies Course on Disney, taught by the great John Canemaker — easily my favorite course at NYU; it made a huge impact on me. I wrote a paper in defense of kitsch, my touchstone being the 1948 Disney animated film based on Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”. The populism of Disney’s art, and his connection to the folkish, are endlessly fascinating to me. And there was much excitement in the class at the time about news of the upcoming “Disney revival,” about which Canemaker dished much behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt which he was privy to. This was just prior to the release of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992), and we also were excited to hear tidbits about Fantasia 2000, which was still a decade in the future. It was also in Canemaker’s class that I learned that the cartoonist and illustrator Harrison Cady, who was my great-grandfather’s first cousin, was an influence on Disney. Cady had been a source of pride and inspiration to me throughout my childhood, another link.
Disney himself was also (like most of yer white bread American WASPs) a distant relation of mine, through early colonial ancestors. (Forgive me for inserting myself so much into this narrative, but that is after all my entire purpose in blogging at all — to talk about connections).
While Disney loved to express himself through mythology, he was also genuinely plugged into the culture of Americana. He’d partially grown up on Missouri farms, as we’ve said, though part of his youth was also spent in cities like Kansas City and Chicago. All that celebration of small town America and its iconography, Main Street USA, and Mississippi river boats and steam locomotives and the frontier, owe their existence to his origins in that region.
[FULL STOP: I know already there are readers who are going “Racist! Anti-Semite!” Diving deep into that subject is beyond the scope of this post, and it’s one I’ll probably do sometime, but not today. In the meantime, I want you to ask yourself one question: “What SPECIFICALLY gave you the idea he was either of those things.? What was the SPECIFIC source?” If you want to cite Song of the South (1946), and certain other cartoons — fine, and granted. I will never condone racist imagery in specific works of art. Like many famous people in American history, Disney’s legacy is complicated. But the truth is that Disney was about on par with everyone else in his industry when it comes to race. Because of Uncle Remus, much like Al Jolson, Disney’s become a lightning rod on the topic merely by being more famous than every other white entertainer, rather than being more racist than every other white entertainer. I just saw an item in the Daily Mail: “Shock! Mickey Mouse was based on Blackface Minstrels!” Ya know what? In the early 20th century EVERYTHING was based on blackface minstrels! If you want to scrub THAT influence, you’ll be wiping out most mainstream 20th century entertainment. But go ahead, purge away! I say, put disclaimers on this stuff, label it, as I invariably do on this site, but the idea of burying it is Orwellian. My own cursory research has revealed nothing but rumors and jokes based on rumors about what Disney ACTUALLY felt. He hired his first African American animator Floyd Norman, in 1956. And as for anti-Semitism, what I know is that Disney made the most famous anti-NAZI comedies of his era, in particular the 1942 short Der Fuhrer’s Face. Disney was emphatically anti-Union, you can absolutely make THAT charge, but if you want to equate “labor agitation” with Jews, I think YOU’RE the anti-Semite. At all events, this is a digression for another day. I insert it here to explain why this post exists at all. If some sort of EVIDENCE of his personal racism or ant-Semitism comes to my attention, that will change things. So far, I’ve seen none.]
At any rate, as a kid Disney copied illustrations by guys like the aforementioned Cady out of newspapers and magazines, drew for his school paper, and took classes. Around 1920, he hooked up with Ub Iwerks, and they began working together as independent animation entrepreneurs, initially based in Kansas City. In 1923 he moved to Hollywood and formed what was to become the Walt Disney Company with his brother Roy. Alice’s Wonderland was their first effort, followed by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927. Then in 1928, the gambit that put him on the map: the debut of Mickey Mouse.
I use the word gambit advisedly. Disney was one of those guys who was a major risk-taker. At several key stages of his career he bet the entire farm (and sometimes someone else’s farm) on his ideas. he pretty much never stopped doing this, right up until the end of his life, and it almost always paid off. Interestingly, the financial reward never seems to have been his principal motivation (although he certainly must have sold it that way to investors and bankers). It was primarily about realizing a vision, normally one that would require some technical innovations in order to come true. In the case of the first Mickey Mouse short “Steamboat Willie” the innovation was sound. It was TIME for sound, and movies were just beginning to become talkies at that stage. But animation hadn’t yet gone there. Disney took it there, and audiences delighted in it. And how perfect that it was set on a steam boat!
Disney himself supplied the voice of Mickey Mouse for almost 20 years. The character was really his alter ego. There’s a folksy, “aw, shucks” quality that I associate very much with Jimmy Stewart. The other aspect of Disney’s art (both as an animation auteur and a voice-over artist) that almost always gets overlooked, is that he is FUNNY. He was genuinely, really and truly a funny guy. He had grown up going to vaudeville theatres and silent films, and was a bit of a frustrated performer. He was a little awkward and shy in front of the camera, but behind it, and behind the mic, he could be silly and hilarious. I think this gets swallowed up by his later reputation as a maker of clean family entertainment, and a sentimentalist, but especially in his early work of the ’30s and ’40s, he and his team could make you bust a gut. One forgets that if one hasn’t watched the old movies in a while. We associate Warner Brothers with being the gold standard in classic animation comedy. But Chuck Jones (for example) was a fan of Disney’s. The early movies are both funny and original, and as often as not, Warner Bros. animators, and people at other studios were emulating Disney. For example, Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” were launched in 1929. Do the series titles of “Looney Tunes” or “Merry Melodies” (launched by Warner Bros. in 1931) sound anything like “Silly Symphonies”? It’s a good thing they turned out so well, else we’d remember them primarily as rip-offs!
At any rate, as is well known Mickey Mouse became an international craze, an idiom, a toy, and the mascot of a multi-million dollar company. Other characters followed, the most enduring of which proved to be Minnie Mouse (1928), Pluto (1930), Goofy (1932), and Donald Duck (1934). And Disney kept pushing the envelope. His Oscar winning 1932 short Flowers and Trees used 3 strip Technicolor. His most enduring short The Three Little Pigs (1933) also won an Oscar, as did The Old Mill (1937) for its introduction of a multiplane camera technique that simulated three dimensions.
Then he bet the farm again on the first animated color feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), followed by the classic Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). Each of these warrants its own post some day, I think!
The World War Two era (and labor problems around the same time) hit Disney and the studio hard, interrupting many grand, ambitious plans. A good part of his studio output was given over to propaganda and goodwill projects during the early-mid ’40s. Apart from Song of the South, plans for features were put on hold during this period in favor of compilations of shorts, some of which were geared toward the war effort, especially the first two, Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), which like Orson Welles’ aborted It’s all True Project were designed to foster better relations with Latin America (to prevent the Nazis from gaining a foothold there). Subsequent films during the period included Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), many of which contain individual shorts that are classics by themselves.
The 1950s saw a second period of classic features: Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). (I would include 1955’s Lady and the Tramp with the frankly more mediocre animated films that were to follow in the 1960s and ’70s.)
At the same time, Disney branched out into the production of live action features. Treasure Island (1950), his first, proved to be a classic. Not all of them were. Other major live-action productions from the Walt years included 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1953), Old Yeller (1957), Johnny Tremain (1959), The Shaggy Dog (1959), Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), Kidnapped (1960) etc etc etc,
It was during this decade that Disney’s diversification truly exploded. He launched his weekly television show in 1954; the daily Mickey Mouse Club show was launched the following year. Disney was now in the living rooms of America every week or every day. The kids who weren’t wearing Mickey Mouse club hats were probably wearing Davy Crocket coonskin caps.
As if this weren’t enough, he went into the amusement park business at the very same time. NOW. What I don’t hear talked about enough in relation to the Disney theme parks is what came before. Disney was indeed a visionary, but he hardly the first to break ground in this particular field. He wasn’t even the first animator/movie mogul to do. William Selig, who’d made the first screen versions of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books had done it four decades before. And film pioneer David Horsley built a theme park around Bostock’s animals, whose previous home had been at Dreamland in Coney Island. And anyone who is interested in the history of Coney Island in the glory days of the early 20th century knows that it was a veritable fantasia, certainly one to rival what Disney later accomplished. Interestingly, though, the east coast seems to have played very little role in Disney’s life. Did he study Coney? Know about it at all? Chicago certainly had its own theme parks, and the legendary 1893 World’s Fair that had taken place ethere had itself spawned Coney Island in many ways. It was before Walt’s time, but its legacy lingered. At any rate, in 1955 he opened Disneyland, a new chapter in Disney’s history. Ironically, that park was a major contributing factor to the demise of Coney Island’s amusement district, as was the 1964 World’s Fair that Disney and his people helped organize. It’s like a child eating his parents!
Disney’s last big hurrah during his lifetime was to be the multi-Oscar winning 1964 musical Mary Poppins. Still on the drawing board were Walt Disney World, which opened in 1971, and EPCOT Center, which opened in 1982. A sure sign of the brilliance of his touch, both as a visionary and businessman, is illustrated by how the company stagnated for a time after his death (especially the feature films, which dipped in quality severely during the ’70s and most of the ’80s) before roaring back under new leadership in subsequent decades. Walt Disney was a peculiar American type, the child-like, un-intellectual genius, a category that embraces characters as wide ranging as Howard Hughes, Buster Keaton, Quentin Tarrantino and Elon Musk, a guy who led from the gut and the heart and the mechanical side of his brain. The corporation he gave birth to and nurtured has grown into something of a monster, perhaps. But that’s a topic for another day. Disney the man died in 1966. He was a creature, for good or for ill, of a very different America.