Walt Disney: Ruler of the Magic Kingdom

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RICHARD SCHICKELHe created Mickey Mouse and produced the first full-length animated movie. He invented the theme park and originated the modern multimedia corporation. For better or worse, his innovations have shaped our world and the way we experience it. But the most significant thing Walt Disney made was a good name for himself.It was, of course, long ago converted into a brand name, constantly fussed over, ferociously defended, first by Disney, latterly by his corporate heirs and assigns. Serving as a beacon for parents seeking clean, decent entertainment for their children, the Disney logo--a stylized version of the founder's signature--more generally promises us that anything appearing beneath it will not veer too far from the safe, sound and above all cheerful American mainstream, which it defines as much as serves.That logo also now identifies an institution whose $22 billion in annual sales make it the world's largest media company. It purveys many products that would have been unimaginable to its founder, a few of which (the odd TV show, the occasional R movie) might even have been anathemas to him. Not that one sees him pondering long over such trifles, as his company fulfills the great commercial destiny this complex and darkly driven man always dreamed for it.The notion of Walt Disney as a less than cheerful soul will ring disturbingly in the minds of older Americans taught by years of relentless publicity to think of Disney as a quiet, pleasant man you might not look twice at on the street, to quote an old corporate promotional piece--a man whose modest mission was simply to bring happiness to the millions. Going along with the gag, he implied that the task was easy for him because he always whistled while he worked: I don't have depressed moods. I'm happy, just very, very happy.Sure. You bet. It sounded plausible, for if anyone seemed entitled to late-in-life contentment it was Walt Disney. Did not his success validate the most basic of American dreams? Had he not built the better mouse and had the world not beaten a path to his door, just as that cherished myth promised? Did he not deploy his fame and fortune in exemplary fashion, playing the kindly, story-spinning, magicmaking uncle to the world? No entrepreneurial triumph of its day has ever been less resented or feared by the public. Henry Ford should have been so lucky. Bill Gates should get so lucky.The truth about Disney, who was described by an observant writer as a tall, somber man who appeared to be under the lash of some private demon, is slightly less benign and a lot more interesting. Uncle Walt actually didn't have an avuncular bone in his body. Though he could manage a sort of gruff amiability with strangers, his was, in fact, a withdrawn, suspicious and, above all, controlling nature. And with good--or anyway explicable--reason.PAGE 1  |    |  
 
For he was born to a poverty even more dire emotionally than it was economically. His father Elias was one of those feckless figures who wandered the heartland at the turn of the century seeking success in many occupations but always finding sour failure. He spared his children affection, but never the rod. They all fled him at the earliest possible moment.Before leaving home at 16 to join the Red Cross Ambulance Corps during World War I, Walt, the youngest son, had discovered he could escape dad's--and life's--meanness in art classes. In the service he kept drawing, and when he was mustered out, he set up shop as a commercial artist in Kansas City, Mo. There he discovered animation, a new field, wide open to an ambitious young man determined to escape his father's sorry fate.Animation was as well a form that placed a premium on technical problem solving, which was absorbing but not emotionally demanding. Best of all, an animated cartoon constituted a little world all its own--something that, unlike life, a man could utterly control. If he didn't like an actor, he could just tear him up, an envious Alfred Hitchcock would later remark.Reduced to living in his studio and eating cold beans out of a can, Disney endured the hard times any worthwhile success story demands. It was not until he moved to Los Angeles and partnered with his shrewd and kindly older brother Roy, who took care of business for him, that he began to prosper modestly. Even so, his first commercially viable creation, Oswald the Rabbit, was stolen from him. That, naturally, reinforced his impulse to control. It also opened the way for the mouse that soared. Cocky, and in his earliest incarnations sometimes cruelly mischievous but always an inventive problem solver, Mickey would become a symbol of the unconquerably chipper American spirit in the depths of the Depression.Mickey owed a lot of his initial success, however, to Disney's technological acuity. For Disney was the first to add a music and effects track to a cartoon, and that, coupled with anarchically inventive animation, wowed audiences, especially in the early days of sound, when live-action films were hobbled to immobile microphones.Artistically, the 1930s were Disney's best years. He embraced Technicolor as readily as he had sound, and, though he was a poor animator, he proved to be a first-class gag man and story editor, a sometimes collegial, sometimes bullying, but always hands-on boss, driving his growing team of youthfully enthusiastic artists to ever greater sophistication of technique and expression. When Disney risked everything on his first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it turned out to be no risk at all, so breathlessly was his work embraced. Even the intellectual and artistic communities saw in it a kind of populist authenticity--naive and sentimental, courageous and life affirming.But they misread Disney. In his dark and brilliant Pinocchio and the hugely ambitious Fantasia, he would stretch technique to the limits. But the latter film, rich as it was in unforgettable animation, is also full of banalities. It exposed the fact that, as film historian David Thomson says, his prettiness had no core or heart.  |  2  |  
 
Artistically he strove for realism; intellectually, for a bland celebration of tradition. There had been an Edenic moment in his childhood when the Disneys settled on a farm outside little Marceline, Mo., and he used his work to celebrate the uncomplicated sweetness of the small-town life and values he had only briefly tasted.His insistence on the upbeat also possibly served as an anodyne for the bitterness he felt when an ugly 1941 labor dispute ended his dream of managing his studio on a communitarian basis with himself as its benign patriarch. Commercially, this worked out beautifully for him. Most people prefer their entertainments to embrace the comfortably cute rather than the disturbingly acute--especially when they're bringing the kids. Movie critics started ignoring him, and social critics began hectoring him, because his work ground off the rough, emotionally instructive edges of the folk- and fairy-tale tradition on which it largely drew, robbing it of the pulse of life under the skin of events, as one critic put it.Disney didn't give a mouse's tail about all that. As far as he was concerned, the whole vexing issue of content was solved, and though he enjoyed being a hero to the culturally conservative, he was free to focus on what had always mattered most to him, which was not old pieties but new technologies. Predictably, he became the first Hollywood mogul to embrace television. The show with him as host for over a decade became not just a profit center for his company but also a promotional engine for all its works. These included chuckleheaded live-action comedies, nature documentaries that relentlessly anthropomorphized their subjects, and, of course, Disneyland, which attracted his compulsive attention in the '50s and '60s.Disneyland was another bet-the-farm risk, and Disney threw himself obsessively into the park's design, which anticipated many of the best features of modern urban planning, and into the imagineering by which the simulacrums of exotic, even dangerous creatures, places, fantasies could be unthreateningly reproduced.These attractions were better than any movie in his eyes--three dimensional and without narrative problems. They were, indeed, better than life, for they offered false but momentarily thrilling experiences in a sterile, totally controlled environment from which dirt, rudeness, mischance (and anything approaching authentic emotion) had been totally eliminated. All his other enterprises had to be delivered into the possibly uncomprehending world. When Disneyland opened in 1955, that changed: he now had his own small world, which people had to experience on his terms.Before he was felled by cancer at 65, it is possible to imagine that he was happy. He had at last devised a machine with which he could endlessly tinker. The little boy, envious of the placid small-town life from which he was shut out, had become mayor--no, absolute dictator--of a land where he could impose his ideals on everyone. The restless, hungry young entrepreneur had achieved undreamed-of wealth, power and honor. Asked late in life what he was proudest of, he did not mention smiling children or the promulgation of family values. The whole damn thing, he snapped, the fact that I was able to build an organization and hold it. These were not the sentiments of anyone's uncle--except perhaps Scrooge McDuck. And their consequences--many of them unintended and often enough unexplored--persist, subtly but surely affecting the ways we all live, think and dream.Richard Schickel, a TIME film critic, wrote The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney.  |    |  3