Walt Disney: Myth And Reality

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Not long before he died, Walt Disney was asked to name the most rewarding experience of his life. The response was blunt and brief: “The whole damn thing. The fact that I was able to build an organization and hold it.” His words may seem surprising. To the public at large he was an avuncular Horatio Alger character, a spinner of sweet tales for children, a man whose taste and morality comfortably reflected those of the middle-class American majority. This image was carefully nurtured by a corps of press agents and sycophants as competent and energetic as any in Hollywood—men as skillful in turning aside questions and questioners that might damage that image as they were in propagating it. In fact, however, Walt Disney was a grouchy, inarticulate, withdrawn man. Intellectually and emotionally he remained a child, but he was anything but childlike when it came to managing and directing the only thing he greatly cared about—his business or, to use the phrase favored by his publicity department, his “magic kingdom.”

Poorly educated, the product of a childhood no objective observer could possibly describe as happy, bankrupt in his early twenties, he was a driven and a driving man, determined to “make it” in a way more honored in the folklore of our capitalistic system than in its practice. If he had had his way, for example, Disney would have financed the growth of his enterprises solely out of profits; he would never have had anything to do with outsiders like banks or stockholders, whom he tolerated with ill-disguised distrust. Everything that came out of his workshops was stamped with his name and, indeed, with his taste and personality, a practice which eventually drove most of his genuinely talented elves from his employ.

This egocentricity caused many problems. A man less insistent on maintaining absolute personal control of every aspect of his enterprise might have built faster and have made fewer difficulties for himself. But he could not have built better. And here the career of Disney and his studio following the birth of the mouse is significant. Adored by both intellectuals and children, winner of awards and fame for his creator, Mickey was a problem child. After a delightfully bratty beginning he matured into a terrible square, simply incapable of the kind of irreverent comic turns that a great comedian must master. Disney felt, as he said, “locked in” by the mouse. From 1929 through 1937 he plowed all his profits and energy into unlocking innovations—more viable comic characters like Pluto and Donald Duck, the Silly Symphony series, and, most important of all, the attempt to create a feature-length cartoon, which culminated in Snow White .

Another man might have rested and consolidated his gains after the success of that film. Disney instead pressed forward and had three full-length features on the drawing boards of his expensive new studio when a strike— which he handled with inept repressiveness—and the beginning of World War II—which cut off his vital foreign markets—nearly cost him everything he had gained. Government contracts, mostly for training films, kept the studio running, but it took a decade for him to find a way out of his difficulties. In that time the intellectuals who had lavished praise and attention on him, as they previously had on Charlie Chaplin, deserted Disney. Fantasia , a rube’s idea of what thinking men ought to like, left them cool, and such wartime propaganda outbursts as Saludos Amigos , not to mention Disney’s labor record, sealed their alienation. Hurt, and hunkered down against the financial storm, Disney ended aesthetic experiment. The style and technique of his animated films remained forever fixed at the 1940 level, and Warner Brothers (with Bugs Bunny and company) soon surpassed him in humor and characterization, as United Productions of America (with Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing) later surpassed him in style.

From 1950 on, however, Disney did not seem to care. He found there was infinitely more money to be made with his nature documentaries, which were well received, and his live-action adventures and situation comedies, most of which were beneath critical comment but which were extraordinarily profitable. His fearlessness about new technologies led him to try television when the rest of the movie industry was hoping that if they ignored it, it would go away. He used television as an enormously effective loss leader to promote his films and, shortly, his longheld dream—Disneyland.

As with all of his experiments, the Disneyland scheme produced more doubters than believers; as always, Disney bulled the project through. As a result of its success he passed, in the fifties, from being a marginal operator to being a mogul on the grand scale, presiding over an entertainment empire operating in every medium of communication known to man. Diversification gave Disney a stability unknown to firms working exclusively in movies and it led to potentially enormous profits in other real estate- cum -recreation ventures like the projected Disneyworld in Florida and the Mineral King ski resort in California. Volume of business soared in this period, as did Disney’s personal worth.

In the early fifties he had had to borrow on a modest life insurance policy to finance planning for Disneyland; at about that time, he claimed to have only about a thousand dollars in the bank. When he died, his estate was worth twenty million dollars and also contained deferred payment and royalty arrangements of inestimable value. His wealth had at last caught up with his fame, yet he continued to live with ostentatious modesty. To associates he grew less approachable and more enigmatic than ever, though he continued to exercise personal control over the smallest details of the operation.

He remained suspicious of outsiders, strangely small-minded on questions of aesthetics and narrow-minded on morals, and deeply wedded to the propagation of the happy myth of small-town, turn-of-the-century virtue. At once the greatest entrepreneur of innovation the entertainment business had ever seen and a man nostalgic for a lost, perhaps never-existent past, he withdrew into the “magic kingdom” of his own creation where he could rule absolutely. His real nature remained a well-kept secret, and the public were as content with the folksy persona that Disney and his press agents gave them as they were with the studio’s products. Indeed, now that he is gone they seem to miss the myth rather badly. The biggest problem facing the committee of more conventional, less colorful businessmen who have succeeded Disney is to destroy the cult of personality which, until a year and a half ago, most of them had worked so assiduously to build. If they succeed, the beautiful money machine which Disney labored so hard to build, and which reached perfection only recently, should continue to function without friction. It will be interesting to see how much it needed its founder’s guiding hand and what capacity he built into it for self-perpetuation.

—R.S.