the peerless walt disney -- 10/25/19

Today's selection -- from The Amusement Park by Stephen M. Silverman. The peerless Walt Disney:

"An old wives' tale used to make the rounds at Disney Studios, that, late one night, Roy Disney, the older brother and business partner of Walt Disney, was walking around the lot and ended up in the animation department. Peering over the shoulder of an artist at work, Roy interrupted by offering a suggestion on how his sketch might
be improved.

"Looking up at this stranger, the artist asked, 'And who do you think you are? God?'

"'Not at all,' replied Roy. 'I'm God's brother.'

"Apocryphal or not, the anecdote expresses a certain perpetual reverence applied to Walt Disney, the twentieth-century cultural icon who gave the world Mickey Mouse and the various worlds, lands, and resorts that bear his trademarked name more than half a century after his death. Like them or not -- and there are critics -- they represent the diamond standard of theme parks.

"Besides a peerless creativity and persistence, Diz, as his childhood friends in his native Midwest called him -- first in his birthplace of Chicago, then, after age five, in the friendly town of Marceline, Missouri -- was a rakishly handsome young man who maintained an eternal boyishness his entire life (1901-1966). 'He is a simple person in the sense that everything about him harmonizes with everything else; his work reflects the way he lives, and vice versa' wrote the critic Gilbert Seldes in a New Yorker profile, when Walt was thirty and Mickey was two.

"He was also, as he proved time and again, a hardheaded personality entirely immune to naysayers, and that included bankers, and even his levelheaded brother. ...

"Disney's childhood was one of economic hardship, with the documentary suggesting that the emotionally detached father at the core of Mary Poppins could have been based on Walt's own father, Elias (1859-1941), described by biographer Neal Gabler, in his 2006 Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination, as dour, pathologically parsimonious, and wrathful. Such negativity, said Gabler, caused his artistically inclined youngest son -- Walt was one of five children, four boys and a girl; Ruth, the sister, was the baby -- to grow into 'the antithesis of Elias Disney, almost as if he had willed himself to be so as a form of rebellion.'

The Disney family poses for a portrait in 1915, probably seated inside their Bellefontaine home in Kansas City. From left to right in back row: Herbert, Louise, Elias, and Flora Disney. Walt and Ruth are seated in front row.

"Flora Disney (1868-1938), Elias's wife and the children's mother, horrifically succumbed to a carbon monoxide leak in the California house that Walt and Roy built for their parents with the financial windfall from 1937's Snow White. She seems to represent the steady parade of dead or, at least, absentee, maternal figures that haunt the Disney animated classics -- Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Cinderellalla, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Jungle Book, and even Lady, the cocker spaniel, comes to be ignored by her human parents in Lady and the Tramp -- but the argument is difficult to sustain. (As is, to get the topic off the table, the fatuous notion that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen at the time of his death.) Snow White's release preceded Flora's passing, just as Pinocchio and Bambi were already in production at the time of the tragedy. The other stories were based on sources that already had removed the mothers from the action, although there is a possible case to be made for the examination of why Walt chose those tales in the first place.

"In his choices as an employer, the picture is far less ambiguous. Disney might have been generous when it came to his boys' club of high-ranking company executives, who were granted exclusive access to the studio's penthouse steam room and gym, but the women who toiled endless hours as animation colorists were not only deprived of comfortable working surroundings but a living wage.

"When, in the spring of 1941, his labor pool expressed dissatisfaction, Disney, who was drawing an annual salary of better than $100,000 (nearly $2 million today), sum­moned an assembly on the studio lot and berated them all. 'If you're not progressing as you should,' he scolded, 'instead of grumbling and growling, do something about it.'

"They did; they went on strike, and when Walt took a swing at senior animator Art Babbitt, already fired for having joined the union, Roy suggested Walt remove himself to South America for a ten-week 'vacation.'

"The dust settled in the fall of 1941. Roy ended the walkout by agreeing to the workers' terms.

"During this same period, Elias Disney died in California.

"Walt remained in South America and missed his father's funeral. Distrustful of the studio environment he had created, Disney returned to work in Burbank but began compiling a private dossier on those who had been 'unfriendly' toward him.

"'If you crossed him,' a veteran Disney animator said about his onetime employer, 'he was a mean S.O.B.'"



Stephen M. Silverman


The Amusement Park


Black Dog & Leventhal


Copyright 2019 by Stephen M. Silverman


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