The Disney Version
If one thing is more amazing than the warm, wonderful, heart-stopping motion pictures of Walt Disney, it is the man who made them.
What kind of man is this who has won the Medal of Freedom—highest civilian award in the United States—29 motion picture Academy Awards; four TV Emmys; scores of citations from many nations; and some 700 other awards. Who has been decorated by the French Legion of Honor and again by the Art Workers Guild of London; has received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale and the University of Southern California; wears Mexico’s Order of the Aztec Eagle; and counts his citations from patriotic, educational and professional societies and international film festivals by the hundreds?
On the surface, believe it or not, Walt Disney is a very simple man—a quiet, pleasant man that you might not look twice at on the street. But a man—in the deepest sense of the term—with a mission.
The mission is to bring happiness to millions. It first became evident in the twenties, when this lean son of the Mid-West came unheralded to Hollywood [and] began to animate his dreams . . .
—Promotion piece for The Wonderful World of Walt Disney, 1966
THERE WERE CERTAIN words—“warm,” “wonderful,” “amazing,” “dream,” “magical”—that attached themselves to Walt Disney’s name like parasites in the later years of his life. They are all
debased words, words that have lost most of their critical usefulness and, indeed, the power to evoke any emotional response beyond a faint queasiness. They are hucksters’ words. This book is an attempt to penetrate somewhat beyond language of this order and beyond the unthinking but all too common attitudes it represents. The attempt here is at what might be called analytic biography. The hope is to create a balanced perspective on the man, his works and the society that created him and that he, in his turn and in his special way, both reflected and influenced.
There are problems in any attempt to analyze the creators and the creations of popular culture. The most serious of these is in trying to choose which of the ill-shaped and slippery tools of understanding one wishes to apply to the task. Popular culture is an impure thing: it is commerce, it is sociology, it is sometimes art. But if the would-be analyst delves too deeply into the commercial realm, his work ends up reading like the report of a Wall Street research firm. If he indulges too heavily in the sociological mode, he finds a heavy and dubious mass of statistics and/or generalities weighing down his work. If he attempts to use the traditional language and style of literary criticism, he finds himself trying to apply fundamentally inapplicable standards to his subject, and the discussion soon degenerates into the easy moralism and the still more convenient subjectivism with which the literary community customarily discusses the art of the masses.
In the case of Walt Disney all these problems are magnified. And there are others, peculiar to his case, that further complicate matters. The most important of these is that the Disney organization has always had a very ambivalent attitude toward journalism. Though it encouraged millions of words of the stuff, it actively discouraged serious objective investigation of the man and his works. Rarely has so much been written about a public figure; rarely has so little of it been trustworthy. Therefore the sources for this book are almost all somewhat suspect, for the corporate drive has always been toward the preservation of an easily assimilated image, and for the most part, popular
journalism has responded to this drive with a limp passivity that is astonishing even to one who is experienced in its ways. The magazines and newspapers, with a few honorable exceptions (see the Bibliographical Note), have preferred to go along with the view of Disney as an avuncular Horatio Alger figure, an ordinary man, perhaps even Everyman, whose career was a living demonstration that the American Dream sometimes works out in a reality stranger than fiction.
It was an attractively reassuring line to take. It made everyone—readers, writers, editors—sleep just a little more soundly to know that Walt was not only on the job but was handling it just the way they would have if they had been in his shoes. Indeed, the reportage implicitly encouraged the notion that they might well have been in his shoes if they had just had a few breaks. He seemed such an ordinary guy—well-meaning, sentimental, a lover of the cute and familiar. No intellectual, perhaps, but no con man, either. And there was just enough truth in the legend that formed over the years to make it seem very persuasive. All you had to do with it, whenever you rewrote it again, was leave out a few questions—and a few answers—about the assumptions, visions and values of the American middle class, which he both represented and served.
As a result, this book may come as a surprise to some people who turn to the lives of figures like Disney as their children turn to familiar fairy stories, in the expectation of once again seeing things come out all right in the end. I have not for one minute conceived of it as an “exposé”—the word is ludicrous in connection with someone like Disney. But it does attempt to see him coolly and objectively and within the context of our developing society. To this end, it partakes of all the disciplines previously alluded to—economics, sociology, cultural and artistic criticism—and a few others as well—psychology, for example, and history. The author does not claim to be an expert in any of these fields and, indeed, cheerfully admits to coursing through the works of many masters in all of them in search of thoughts and material that would help him come sensibly to grips with Walter E. Disney, his life
and times. Generally, the material gleaned in this manner is set off from the body of the text as epigraphs heading the chapters. The idea is to indicate that all generalizations are tentative and suggestive, not final. Too many people speak with too much whimsical authority about masscult and midcult (to borrow a couple of words from one of the most whimsical of these spokesmen) for me to want to join their numbers. Here, I have wanted mainly to set forth a large body of previously uncollated information within a context that at least implies an attitude that is more critical of both Disney and his audience than was usually taken while he lived. I hope also to indicate by this examination of the life and work of one purveyor of popular culture that the subject has more—and more interesting—dimensions than many of the blithely critical attitudinizers seem to realize. Most important, I have sought—and believe I have found—in the life and work of Walt Disney a microcosm embodying a good deal of the spirit of our times, including a good many things that disquiet me as a citizen of those times and of the future they portend. In this most childlike of our mass communicators I see what is most childish and therefore most dangerous in all of us who were his fellow Americans.
Many times, as I wrote this book, people asked me why I wanted to devote almost two years of my life to the study of a man whom few writers or critics have taken seriously for more than a quarter of a century. The answer, of course, is that I undertook this work precisely because the period of Disney’s greatest economic success, his greatest personal power, coincided with the decline of active interest in him in the intellectual community. As usual, the people who claim to concern themselves the most with popular culture missed the point. When Disney ceased to make any claims as an artist they dropped him, as if only the artist is capable of influencing the shape and direction of our culture. In America, that seems to me a preposterous proposition. Our environment, our sensibilities, the very quality of both our waking and sleeping hours, are all formed largely by people with no more artistic conscience or intelligence than a kumquat. If
the happy few do not study them at least as seriously as they study Andy Warhol, then they will lose their grip on the American reality and, with it, whatever chance they might have of remaking it in a more pleasing style. To me it seems clear that the destruction of our old sense of community, the irrational and unrationalized growth of our “electronic” culture, the familiar modern diseases of fragmentation and alienation, are in large measure the results of the failure of the intellectual community to deal realistically—and on the basis of solid, even practical, knowledge—with the purveyors of popular culture. If, for slightly ridiculous example, some of the easily shocked literary visitors to Disneyland in its early days had really looked at what Mr. Disney was doing there, the work of Marshall McLuhan a decade later would have been infinitely less surprising to them. But enough. The point is made. And I hope to develop it further in the pages that follow.
Though this book has the structure, and the outer appearance, of biography I would be disappointed if readers applied to it the strict, formal standards of that genre. To me, Disney was a type as well as an individual, and part of his fascination for me was that he was a type that I have known and conducted a sort of love-hate relationship with since I was a child—the midwestern go-getter. I believe many of us who were formed by that enigmatic region share certain traits, and it has been particularly interesting to me to find and point out the evidences of those traits in the Disney oeuvre. Some of my speculations on these matters may exceed the customs of the biographical form, as may some of my probes into mass culture. Nevertheless, I have felt compelled to proceed with them, for it is in these matters that the value of the book lies—at least for me. I therefore ask the reader to conceive of this as a volume that may be a little less than purely biographical but one that is also, at times, a little more than a biography—a study of an aspect of American culture, perhaps, or a free-form speculation on some qualities of the American mind at work or, less pretentiously, a book that, for good or ill, insists upon setting its own peculiar boundaries.
One final caveat: this is a study of a public man. Beyond the courtesies described in the Acknowledgments I had no cooperation from either the Disney family or the Disney organization. Therefore, the reader hoping to discover much about Walt Disney’s personal life will be disappointed. In time, there undoubtedly will be an official biography, which will reveal something of his life away from the studio and the limelight. I hope there will be, and I hope the job will be entrusted to someone other than a Hollywood hack—since I firmly believe that people of Disney’s power and achievement (however it is valued) are deserving of at least the same standards of scholarship that are automatically applied to the lives of obscure Civil War generals and minor novelists. Unfortunately, I have had to make do with the public record and with such oral reminiscences as I could gather in a limited time, and these, quite naturally, have tended to concentrate on the public man. They have been enough for my immediate purposes, but not enough, I know, to close the record completely.
New York City
May 28, 1967