Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Myth Making with Walt and Abe

Last night, I was catching up on my DVR, when I watched the Colbert Report that aired last week, featuring Henry Louis Gates, the author of a new book on Abraham Lincoln. Something that he was discussing struck me as very interesting, and extremely relevant to our struggle on this site.

Gates discussed the fact that Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday. His funeral service was held the next day, on Saturday, and then on Easter Sunday, pastors and priests all around the nation were comparing him to Christ. The point that Gates was making was that Lincoln was only a man, but there is something in the American spirit that encourages myth making, and turning figures into heroes.

Stick with me here. Lincoln was absolutely a commendable figure and a great president. He held the country together through the Civil War, freed the slaves, and accomplished a great deal in his time. But, if you read through his letters and papers, as Gates did, you see that he did not believe that blacks should have the right to vote, own property or many other basic human rights. So Lincoln was not perfect, although he was great.

It seems as though a similar thing has taken place with Walt Disney. If you read Disney centered web sites or fan writings, you would get a clear picture of who they think Walt is and what he would want. According to these fans, Walt Disney always went for quality over money, he was an artist first and a businessman second, and he despised sequels, preferring to break new ground. Is all of this true? No.

We’ve already seen in his early career, how Walt changed the artistic content of his films to meet the demands of Margaret Winkler, his distributor for the Alice Comedies. A stark example of Walt’s balancing act with money and quality was the opening of Disneyland. It always amazes me that people go to Disneyland to support their theories about Walt’s preference for quality over money. I mean, when that park opened, the Tomorrowland section was not complete, and there were only a few attractions throughout the park that operated.

In fact, Disneyland as opened was something that most Disney fans today would deride as a half day park, like Animal Kingdom. It consisted of the Fantasyland rides, the mule and stage coach rides in Frontierland, Autopia, the Mark Twain and Golden Horseshoe, and the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland. There were other things, but not the lush, vibrant landscape we see today.

Make no mistake, Walt was a dreamer who wanted the best for his park and his films. But he was not afraid to cut costs if needed. That doesn’t make him any less great to my mind. Think of what he did during World War II, when he was able to continue making films, learn more about his craft, and emerge from the war as a live action and animation producer of the highest order.

As we move through Walt’s history on this blog, we’ll talk more about these contradictions between Uncle Walt that we all saw on television, and the real life Walt that his family and friends knew. Both were wonderful, but one was a real man, and the other was a character on television. Reconciling the two is part of what I’m interested in doing with this project.


  1. I would agree with you to an extent. But if you read more into Disney's life you see more and more the antipathy and sometimes downright antagonism between Walt and and his brother Roy; Walt being the visionary artist and Roy being the businessman who had to try to find ways to finance his visions. Time and time again Walt would be on Roy's bad side complaining that he didn't have the vision to see what he thought could happen. And Roy would be on Walt's complaining that they just didn't have the money to do things that he wanted to do. The Disney Company, far from being the financial powerhouse that it is now spend most of it's first 30 years teetering on the brink of bankruptcy; most of it's early films were failures on their first release and didn't start making money until they were re-released.

    Walt may have been willing to compromise some of his artistic goals to financial reality, but in the long run it was only as a last resort. I suspect that Disneyland would have been pushed back a year or more to get things finished had Walt not already contracted with ABC television to televise the opening day ceremonies.

  2. No doubt that much of the tension in the Walt/Roy relationship was the art vs. money struggle. But it seems as though both men had a little of the other in them.

    Think about Walt and the concessions he would make to get things done, like the ABC contract you referenced. If all he cared about was quality, he would never have agreed to specific dates, etc. But to get the money, he had to.

    But Roy allowed Walt to take huge gambles that no company today would take, and he did it over and over again. Fantasia and Disneyland are the two biggest examples, but there are more.

    I think my problem is that it's an oversimplification to just say that Walt only chose quality, and to hold him up as the patron saint of virtue, as some are doing today. It's much more interesting to me to see where he really stood, warts and all, because it reveals much more about the man himself.

  3. But that rather makes my own point; it was only the economic pressures that forced Walt to make the quality concessions that he did. It was always a thorn in his side that he had to make those concessions to get a project on the screen and that he didn't have the resources to make it better. He may have made the concessions; but it wasn't something that it was in his nature to do.

    I will agree that Walt was no saint, though. Reading some of the more recent Disney biographies brings that out. It used to be that mose bios of Disney were either black or white; they either made him out to be a saint ot the biggest bastard in Hollywood. I just finished Gabler's bio and it gives a fairly good overview of all the shades of gray in his way of doing things. I haven't hit Barrier's book yet (at the moment I'm a little "Disney-ed out" and besides, both Tim Dorsey and Christopher Moore have new books out) but I suspect that it will be the most balanced of the lot.

  4. I guess we are saying the same thing from different angles. My point is that you can't just say that Walt always pushed quality over the concerns of the dollar. He was a businessman, and made concessions to put a product into the marketplace.

    Dick Nunis told the story at NFFC about how he wanted to widen the streets in Adventureland, but Walt would not do it because even though it was better for the guests, there was no way to get that money back in revenue. But Walt was happy that Nunis was looking out for the guest.

    I think we're in agreement that Walt was a complex guy, not the myth that many Disneyana fans seem to make him out to be today. I have not gotten to Barrier's books or the others you mentioned, but I did read Gabler, and did not care for it. I thought it was too much of Gabler trying to impose his own theory onto Walt, versus looking at all elements and making a conclusion.


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