Walt Disney (1901–1966)

For more than 40 years, Walt Disney was the most discussed, lionized, and disparaged entrepreneurial entertainer in the United States, if not the world. In the 1920s and 1930s, he and his studio pioneered sound cartoons, color animation, full-length animated features, technology that gave them depth, and three-dimensional verisimilitude. In the next decade, he pioneered live-action nature studies. During the 1950s, Disney excelled at using television for product tieins, created the nation’s first TV-fueled fads, and used “animatronic” robots to bring historic leaders “alive.” From the mid-1950s until his death a decade later, he both planned and opened the first theme parks combining fantasy and education in an enfolding environment. He and the images he engineered were largely celebrated, but Disney did have his critics. The “Big Bad Wolf” in The Three Little Pigs carried anti-Semitic stereotypes; he showed glaring racial insensitivity in Dumbo and Song of the South. Feminists examined films like Cinderella for sexism. Classical music purists sniffed at Fantasia, while naturalists labeled Disney portrayal of animals as “grotesque.” And both Disneyland and Disneyworld-EPCOT were either lauded as “clean and separate spaces” or deplored as ecological assaults providing toothless thrills amid faux-architecture. Only Mickey Mouse forever escaped unscathed by some group.

Disney usually dismissed such criticism, as did his mass audience. “I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with ‘expressing’ myself with obscure creative impressions,” he said. “We are not trying to entertain the critics. I’ll take my chances with the public” (“Walt Disney Quotes”). As Steven Watts notes, he “instinctively reached for the totems and aspirations at the core of the American way of life” and used them to reflect their as well as his own cultural milieu.

For someone who worked nostalgically to glorify as well as represent small-town United States, Walt Disney spent only four brief but formative years there. Born in Chicago on December 5, 1901, his father Elias and mother Flora Call moved back and forth to Kansas City except for 1906–1909, when they lived on a farm in Marceline, Missouri. Walt was the youngest of four brothers: Herbert (1888), Raymond (1890), and Roy (1893) who would become his partner and business manager. They had a younger sister Ruth, born in 1903. All four sons would sooner or later leave home in protest against their dour, puritanical, and censorious father, though Walt remained until after graduating from McKinley High School in Chicago in 1917 and serving as an ambulance driver in France during World War I. In 1919, he left for Kansas City where he founded Laugh-O-Grams with Ub Iwerks, which soon failed. With only $20 in his pocket, he moved to Hollywood in 1923, where he produced his first Alice series and his first modest success in “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.” In 1925, he married one of his assistants, Lillian Bounds; they would have two daughters, Diane Marie born in 1933, and Sharon Mae, adopted in 1936. Operating on a shoestring and in chronic debt due to production costs, Disney could not prevent Charles Mintz and Universal Studios from taking Oswald, and many of his animators, from him, or his first agent, Pat Powers, from victimizing him. For many years thereafter, even at the height of his creative successes and recognition, Disney’s perfectionism and cost overruns would leave him, hat in hand, looking for bank loans and shopping around for studios (Columbia, United Artists, RKO) willing to gamble on future profits. Someone usually came to his rescue, but not until the 1950s could he and Roy raise sufficient funds through merchandising for Walt to think about realizing his greatest dreams, and he privately never shelved his resentments about perceived shabby treatment by employees, unions, the government, or other industry leaders.

Creator of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney achieved preeminence in movies and television and revolutionized the leisure industry with his theme park, Disneyland, which opened in 1955.

Creator of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney achieved preeminence in movies and television and revolutionized the leisure industry with his theme park, Disneyland, which opened in 1955. (Library of Congress)

Disney maintained a life-long affection, even identification, with Mickey Mouse as his alter ego. Walt thought of him while on a train ride. He and Ub Iwerks designed the mouse, and after vetoing “Mortimer,” Lillian named him. His personality, initially a composite of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Charlie Chaplin, was irreverent and rambunctious, ideally suited to the Jazz Age; only gradually would it become softer, blander, leaving the original barnyard ensemble for the suburbs, yielding to Donald Duck as his raucous foil. But Mickey quickly became and remains an international icon: during the 1930s, King George V demanded Mouse cartoons and Emperor Hirohito wore a Mouse watch. Journalists, social theorists, and even scientists have offered differing explanations of the enduring phenomenon, from the adjustments in Mickey’s personality over the years to “reassuring visual iconography,” to his projection of Disney himself as an avuncular moralizer. Another possibility was the simplicity of the Mouse: “a few well-proportioned circles, a pair of buttoned shorts, and an unmistakable charisma,” as Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy commented in The Hand Behind the Mouse. Until his voice deepened and his smoker’s cough became uncontrollable, Disney was Mickey’s voice. He once confessed, “I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known” (“Walt Disney Quotes”).

Between Steamboat Willie (1928), the Silly Symphonies (1929–1933), and the full-length features beginning with Snow White (1934–1937) and culminating with Pinocchio and Dumbo (1940–1941), “more was written on Disney animation than at any time thereafter for nearly forty years,” according to author Norman Klein. This was due as much to studio production values as to the stories themselves: the multi-plane camera, penetrating the layers of cells, literally changed the way cartoons looked, as psychological evocations through color selection affect the way they felt. Both orchestration and attention to character replaced slapstick and throwaway gags. Above all, Disney as master storyteller acted out the films for his staff, even the full-length features, voicing all the characters, inspiring enthusiasm or enforcing productivity, and at times micromanaging the creative process until his smoker’s cough prevented unannounced inspections of their work.

Disney’s personal supervision of his shorter and longer features would become a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the tremendously high costs of production necessitated his constant financial surveillance and supervision of low-paid employees. His insistence on taking sole credit for the shorter features or the Mouse and Duck strips and comic books kept his name and product recognition before the public. Many years passed before the artists who created Donald, Goofy, or Pluto were acknowledged. He finally relented to allowing production credits on his feature films, and artists like Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson, who drew the Duck and Mouse strips, were anonymous but autonomous—Disney was indifferent to comics and newspaper graphics. When Disney was at the peak of his persuasive powers, the studio “operated like a cult, with a messianic figure inspiring a group of devoted acolytes,” Neil Gabler wrote. On the other hand, many employees chafed under his increasingly obsessive or oppressive treatment: until unionization after a traumatic 1941 strike, he paid lower than industry-wide wages, awarded praise sparingly but browbeat staff unsparingly, and was fond of practical jokes. The strike left him vindictive and prone to vitriolic outbursts and ill-informed Red-baiting, capped by his 1947 testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And, while the studio would continue to make animation features of distinction and earn money for the corporation, increasingly he directed his aspirations elsewhere.

Before then, despite grousing about high costs and limited government subventions, (Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo were losing money), Disney contributed an immense variety of under-recognized production for the World War II effort. Already working for the Canadian National Board in 1941 making instructional and propaganda shorts, he was approached by Nelson Rockefeller, then co-ordinator of Inter-American Affairs, to help fight the spread of Axis influence in the Western Hemisphere. Disney did propaganda cartoons, and as well pastiche musicals like Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros, which also helped open new markets for Disney products and merchandise. For the armed forces, the studio produced instructional films and more than 1,100 insignia. Disney helped promote bond purchases and tax revenues through three Duck classics: The New Spirit (1942), The New Spirit of ’43 (1943), and the hilarious Donald Duck in Nutzi Land (1943), built around the razzing song “Der Fuehrer’s Face.”

Seal Island (1948) introduced Walt’s new project, live-action features, which quickly expanded two years later to a version of Treasure Island; a number of other movie treatments of historical fiction would follow. But most rewarding in a number of ways was his enthusiastic entry into television in 1954 through Disneyland, a weekly prime-time anthology of cartoons, educational features, and advance publicity for the theme park. In 1961, the show would be broadcast in color, now titled The Wonderful World of Disney. In 1955, “The Mickey Mouse Club” debuted. The club gave him an opportunity to appeal to a new generation by using talented young entertainers (all wearing his Mouse’s ears), to recycle older short cartoons, to project a new avuncular image, and to link up to another Disney phenomenon, “Davy Crockett.” Convincing veteran actor Fess Parker to don a coonskin cap produced TV episodes, a theme song (and parodies), and a merchandising bonanza.

Disneyland opened the same year as the Mouse Club. Determined to build the amusement complex but initially unable to get financing, he borrowed against his life insurance and sold his second house. When both he and Roy characteristically fell short of the $17 million they needed, ABC-TV offered a $6 million loan in exchange for part ownership and the rights to program the Mouse Club. Disney bought 160 acres in Anaheim, and the park opened on July 17, 1955. Adding to its publicity as a novel attraction was an international incident in 1959, when government officials refused Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev permission to visit the park, citing security problems. By 1964, Disneyland was generating more revenue than the Disney films.

Both Disneyland and Disneyworld represented the culmination of Walt’s desire to manage entire environments, not just a film studio, by designing microcosms recapitulating his idealized social values and sharing them with the public as clean, orderly, escapes from reality, which either evoked an imagined past or appealed to an optimistic future (he had already predicted “Man in Space” in a 1959 film). Critics scoffed at their overly safe attractions, compulsively sanitary environments, and the scale-model “Main Street” of Midwestern folklore. Disney maintained a hidden apartment along “Main Street” so that he could both watch over the proceedings and live out his nostalgic myths. European social critics deplored their hyperrealism, “fantastic representations of life and... values obtained by violence and exploitation,” according to one critic, Jason Sperb. But other critics applauded their “immediate harmonious aura” and “natural feel for fantasizing reality, eye appealing décor, landscaping, and horticulture, all meticulously maintained,” as Wiley Lee Umphlett commented. Appreciative families swelled attendance figures.

Disneyland’s success led Walt to his final ambitious dream, buying more than 27,000 acres in Florida for an entertainment-EPCOT research complex, persuading the state legislature to give Disney Corporation the authority of a separate county (except for police power). To his typical obsessive thoroughness was added a race against time; Disney was suffering from lung cancer. Long before EPCOT’s 1971 opening, he would die in Burbank, California, on December 15, 1966. To this day, rumors persist that he was cryogenically frozen.

One of Disney’s pithiest comments was “We allow no geniuses around our Studio” (“Walt Disney Quotes”). It is unclear whether he meant this to be a warning against prima donnas who might dispute his final authority or as a public pose of personal modesty. But he was a genius in a number of ways. He harnessed the opposite sides of his nature creatively: innovation and traditionalism, anti-intellectual populism and educational uplift, idealist perfectionism and opportunism, lowest common denominator entertainment with aesthetic sensitivity, inspirational leadership and bullying, wariness and naïveté. Never complacent about his achievements, he told his staff: “How very fortunate we are as artists to have a medium whose potential limits are still far off in the future, a medium of entertainment where, theoretically at least, the only limit is the imagination of the artists,” according to Umphlett. He embraced the spirit of his time through the “childlike quality of his imagination,” as Richard Schickel said, and it is testimony to that childlike imagination that Mickey, Walt’s alter ego, is still a ubiquitous icon. Recently “Funky Winkerbean” newspaper cartoonist Tom Batiuk showed a pizzeria customer deep in thought. Asked what preoccupied him, he responded, “I was wondering what people sounded like before Mickey Mouse was created” (August 15, 2010).

—Kalman Goldstein


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