50 years ago in U.S. Catholic: The controversial kingdom of Walt Disney

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Article Art and Architecture Culture

By John E. Fitzgerald

This article appeared in the August 1964 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 30, No. 4, pages 13-18).

From ‘Fantasia’ to Disneyland, Walt Disney has kept himself busy entertaining a good part of the world. But how good an artist is he? Mr. Fitzgerald sums up the achievements of the man behind a vast entertainment business.

Once upon a time there lived a man with a mustache. Like the Biblical King David and the Seraphic St. Francis, he sang the glories of the fields, the hills, the desert, the air, and of their creatures. Like Thornton Wilder’s matchmaking Dolly, he considered the purpose of money, “It’s like fertilizer... it makes things grow.”

Recently this mustachioed man sat back in his chair, thinking.

“Why,” he was asked, “at a time when the film industry is perhaps at its lowest ebb, has your company brought in its highest profits ever?”

His brown eyes twinkled in their pouches as he smiled modestly, “We just happen to make the right pictures, I guess.”

But things do not “just happen” to graying, pompadoured, Chicago-born, Missouri-raised, ex-cartoonist Walter Elias Disney, now 62. They’re planned on and worked on.

Asked further what elements—other than luck—have brought about the financial success of his films—only a part of his vast kingdom of finance and fantasy, the dapper man in the impeccably-tailored clothes (soft blues and grays) explained two things:

“We don’t make films for children… we make them for all the family.

“We don’t make ‘adult’ films, ‘sex’ films, or ‘sick’ films. Others do. But we feel there are lots of different kinds of love; and all of them can have tremendous appeal. Some people don’t think that way—even some of my own people around here pressure me—I guess it’s just the way they’re made up. They’re like the guy in the joke—everything reminds me of sex.”

But it is no joke that Walt Disney’s name reminds everyone of success. Known worldwide by his films and many other projects, the self-made producer of 550 films and over 600 television shows has become one of the most successful—and controversial—figures in today’s wide world of entertainment.

While his name and works are a magnet to audiences from Burbank (the location of his studio) to Boston and Bangkok, he has been highly criticized about his artistic abilities and his impact on American life. What some call cheer, others call corn; and if his name is a trade-mark of quality to some, it is a target for others.

His financial success stands unchallenged. Last year the 41-year-old kingdom, started by Walt and his brother on a borrowed $500, brought in a $6,574,321 profit on a gross income of $81,922,127.

The parent company, Walt Disney Productions, produces motion pictures for theatrical and television distribution, conducts ancillary activities, and operates Disneyland Park. The distribution, selling, and syndication of films (35mm. theatrical film, 16mm. rental films, Mickey Mouse Club TV shows), of records and albums is handled by Buena Vista Distribution, Co., Inc. There is also Buena Vista International, Inc., to supervise foreign distribution of Disney products. In addition, there are affiliations both with ASCAP (Walt Disney Music Co.) and BMI (Wonderland Music Co.) in music publishing. There is also Celebrities, Inc., concerned with swimming, bowling, dining, and other entertainment facilities (Disney owns Denver’s giant Celebrity Sports Center).

For the New York World’s Fair WED Enterprises, Inc. (offices in Glendale, California) have applied their “imagineering” talents in preparing exhibits for Ford Motors, Pepsi-Cola (and UNICEF), the General Electric, and the State of Illinois. The latter exhibit features Disney’s most celebrated “audioanimatronic” robot—a life-sized, piston-driven, electronic-tape controlled, gesturing and speaking (with recorded voice of actor Royal Dano) figure of Lincoln which has been in the planning stages for four years and has cost already over $250,000. In addition to these activities Disney also makes business and educational films and TV commercials.

Yet in the kingdom’s royal treasury, Walt’s self-effacing brother Roy (71) is chancellor of the exchequer. As one employee summed it up: “Walt’s the creative genius, but Roy’s the financial genius.” While Walt is neither ignorant of figures nor the impractical dreamer some would picture him, Roy’s skilled handling of details, cutting of costs, and concern with company matters have created a climate of freedom for Walt’s imagination to work. Although one of its seven directors, Walt (as all employees call him) holds no executive post of his own company.

Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, tells of the time when an 11-year-old boy cornered Walt and asked him if he drew all those pictures himself. When Disney, a frank and casual man, said, “No,” the boy said, “But you do the first ones, don’t you?”

Disney, who hasn’t drawn since 1928, answered that at one time he drew them all, then he drew the first ones, but today, and for some time, he had drawn none of them.

The persistent youth then asked, “But you think up all the ideas, don’t you?”

Walt again said no—“I have men who work on the ideas and I work with them. Then we all team up to make things come out right.”

With a look approximating disgust, the boy asked, “What do you do Mr. Disney?”

As Diane relates it, her father paused and said, “That is a good question.”

In order to get a balanced view of Disney, his work, and his impact, just where do you start? What are the borders of the controversial kingdom of Walt Disney?

Perhaps it might be easier to try to imagine a world without Walt Disney. Such a world would certainly lack much laughter and fun. It would lack many things.

It would lack Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, Snow White and the Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell (à la Disney), Dumbo, The Three Little Pigs, and others such as the non-cartoon characters of Zorro and Davy Crockett (originally a 1954 three-part TV series, it started a powerful and profitable fad).

It would lack live-action films such as Treasure Island, The Shaggy Dog (using Mickey Mouse Club graduates), The Parent Trap, Pollyanna (which introduced Hayley Mills to American audiences), The Absent-Minded Professor and other historical, hysterical, and geographical motion pictures.

It would lack the People and Places series as well as the True Life Adventure Nature Dramas of beavers and birds and bears and other elements of nature. And the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences would have four Oscars left over through the years from this series alone.

There would be no Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (NBC-TV) or Mickey Mouse Club television shows.

And, finally, there would be no Disneyland.

In fact, perhaps the clearest view of the kingdom can be seen from the amusement park (the amusement park) which, in a way, might be considered the kingdom’s capital.

While all Gaul was divided into three parts, all Disneyland is divided into five. These, as any child old enough to chant the Mickey Mouse Club song could tell you, are Adventureland, with its lush African and Asian waterways; Fantasyland, with its moat and storybook castle; Frontierland with the forts and wildernesses conquered in yesterday’s West; Tomorrowland with the frontiers to be conquered in tomorrow’s space age; and Main Street, a scaled down, gingerbread-architectured replica of a small town at the turn of the century.

Visitors can go around the park by 1890-style excursion trains, over it by monorail and skyway cable cars, or even under parts of it by submarine. Water lovers can travel its waterways by canoe (Indian), keelboat (Mike Fink’s), raft (Huck Finn’s to Tom Sawyer’s Island), steamboat (The Mark Twain), sailing ship (The Columbia, a replica of the first U.S. ship to sail around the world, 1790), Dutch canal boats, jungle boats or self-driven motorboats.

Landlubbers can travel the Autorama freeway, ride the Casey Jr. circus train, the Western Mine Train (through the seven-acre “wildlife preserve,” Nature’s Wonderland) or travel via pack mules. In addition to the horse-drawn streetcar and fringed-top surreys, fire engines, horseless carriage and 1904 double-decked omnibus, there’s a Matterhorn bobsled ride, Flying Saucers, and a 72-horse carrousel among other things.

Located in Anaheim, 27 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, what was formerly a 160-acre orange and walnut grove has bloomed into one of America’s top tourist attractions—over 40 million visitors since its opening eight years ago. Its original investment of $17 million in fertilizer has also bloomed into an investment worth $42,500,000 on land Disney had to go into debt to buy. The park’s payroll of 1,500 full-time employees (a dozen applicants for each job) expands with summer’s heat to almost 4,000. On certain summer evenings Dixieland at Disneyland fills the air with music from leading bands while the sky is filled with nightly fireworks. Date Nights, Grad nights, and special parties bring thousands of students to dance and enjoy what Premier Nikita Khrushchev couldn’t.

Here amid the rides, displays, concessions and exhibits you can see the kingdom in action through Disney’s “total merchandising concept.” You can see the boys and girls registering as members of the Mickey Mouse Club at its headquarters (formerly the Babes in Toyland main set); the girls’ Mousketeer hats have a pink sponge rubber bow between the big black ears. Perhaps the first read of Disneyland and Disney’s characters through one of Disney’s magazines, licensed out and distributed in 15 languages to 50 countries (50 million circulation). Or through Disney’s many books: cut-out, comic, coloring, and story books in hard and soft covers (2,500 titles). Or read the comic strips by Disney’s staff distributed through King Features syndicate to some 100 newspapers, one script-story of which (in addition to Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, etc.) reaches readers some four months before Disney’s latest film reaches the readers’ local theater.

Even if you couldn’t read, you’d recognize the Disney characters connected with dolls, sweatshirts, toys, wristwatches, and other souvenirs. There are merchandising tie-ins with some 100 manufacturers (usual deal: five percent of wholesale price with a $5,000 minimum guarantee) in over 56 categories from underwear to shoe polish. The World’s Fair exhibits will come home to roost in the park.

There are also scattered reminders of past film successes in the exhibits and rides—a stimulant to youngsters who will want to see the film for the first time (and to adults who will want to see it again) on its planned rerelease (every seven years). There are sets of old films on display such as those of Captain Nemo’s submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Disney’s television show (seven years in black-and-white on ABC, now in its fourth year in color on NBC) has not only helped sell color TV sets for his sponsor (RCA Victor) and color film for his alternate sponsor (Kodak) but has been an effective instrument to reach America’s 50 million television homes with previews of Disney films and promotion of Disney products.

Yet while everything is geared to sell and re-sell, and each element promotes the other, the product produced is usually top-level. The TV show which promoted 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was not merely an hour-long “plug” for the film, but won an Academy Emmy as the best TV documentary of the year. Disney plans ahead, and spends wisely, yet does not hesitate to spend great sums until everything is perfect; he knows each investment is planned for long-run returns.

“Yes,” he says with a grin, “I guess we’re like the packing house. What is it those people said about pigs? We use everything but the squeal.”

Who is this canny and creative man who sold his first drawing at the age of seven—a Missouri doctor’s horse; price 25 cents—and is now as busy as ever?

Walt has a sister and three brothers: Ruth, Roy, Ray and Herb (deceased). His father was an Irish-Canadian contractor, Elias Disney. His mother, Flora Call Disney, was of German-American descent. Walt always worked to help out, as paper boy, news butcher on a railroad (railroading has always been one of his interests) and in other fields. Shortly after his first (and last) year of high school at McKinley High in Chicago, rejected because of age by Army, Navy, and Canadian enlistment officers, he joined the American Red Cross and drove an ambulance overseas. During the First World War his personally decorated, cartoon-covered ambulance was a familiar sight; during the Second World War his staff’s designs and insignia for hundreds of fighting crafts and units also became familiar sights in all theaters of operation.

A happy grandfather (three boys and three girls by daughter Diane—“Sharon isn’t into production yet”) he lives with wife Lillian, a former Disney artist, in Los Angeles’ Holmby Hills area, or at their home in Palm Springs. While he lives well, his tastes are simple in food and causal in dress. He drives his own Thunderbird to work daily and often reads and edits scripts or watches films in the evenings at home. “I don’t do too much of that now,” he says, “I try not to deal with problems at night. I want to get my sleep. Anyhow, many of the problems disappear by morning anyway.”

His very openness (and great tendency to be preoccupied with his current projects) have caused many writers to attempt to make great psychological complexities from his simplicity. Recently he was accused of using the new and sophisticated character of Dr. Ludwig von Drake as his alter ego, just as years ago he was accused of doing the same with Mickey Mouse. To this charge he says, “No, he’s not, but Ludwig can say things for us that the others couldn’t say.”

Confronted by various and conflicting character analyses of himself he merely chuckles, “Hell, I’m still trying to find out myself.”

However, some have claimed that, while an acknowledged success as a businessman, Disney leaves much to be desired when it comes to art. There are claims that he sometimes sugarcoats truth when its bitterness should be left to the taste. Others have written that Disneyland is “vulgar.” Still others, such as Whitney Balliett, writing in The New Yorker, have gone further…

“Walt Disney is the most assiduous anthropomorphist since Beatrix Potter. His cartoon animals bubble with sadism, violence, stupidity, greed and fear, while his nature films—their often marvelous boudoir photography notwithstanding—separate the animal kingdom neatly into showoffs, comedians and villains. In both forms, the immorality easily outweighs the goodness (or sappiness) of the always victorious hero or heroine. Disney’s pictures involving human beings are altogether different. The people in these are divided into good and bad, too, but their characters are so pale and witless that one gets the impression their creator has misspent all his inspiration and emotion on his animals, leaving nothing for his own kind. In short, Disney reverses the usual order of things: his animals are consciously perverse, and his human beings are unconsciously predictable.”

Disney is not happy with such criticisms. He considers critics as “Smart-pants wisecracking guys. They should tell people what’s there for you. The entertainment elements should be spelled out. You can’t satisfy everybody. Why don’t they say, ‘This is great for mass entertainment’? People want to go to laugh—they don’t want problems.”

How does he see his responsibility? “I see it as twofold,” he replies unhesitantly, “First to my employees, and then, secondly, to the public.”

As far as the criticisms of his films frightening children, he explains: “Let me tell you about the time I took my daughter to see Snow White. When the wicked witch came on, she put her hands up to her eyes like this…” Disney illustrates, his hands with fingers apart leaving ample viewing space. “I had my hat on my lap and I put it in front of her to block out the view. ‘No, no, Daddy!’ she said, ‘Now I can’t see!’

“After the film was over, do you know what she said? She said ‘Let’s do it again!’ ”

He sat back. “The kids today are somewhat like that. For instance, I took two of my grandchildren over to the studio one night to see the exhibit we were preparing for Ford’s World’s Fair show. There are big, moving and movable cavemen, dinosaurs, and prehistoric monsters. Well… little Jennifer took one look and ran right to Granddaddy—but little Walter ran right up to one of them and laughed like hell!”

His eyes grew serious, “Scares, yes… but some of the things today are horrific—sick stuff… We don’t go in for that.”

Disney feels that good entertainment can educate indirectly as it pleases audiences, and that dramatic values do not necessarily nullify educational values, and has 29 Oscars, four Emmys, and some 700 other awards from organizations throughout the world to back him up. He is concerned with good entertainment and dislikes theorizing about art; he considers his work as a part of show business.

Lighting a cigarette from his blue pack of Gauloise, the man who has created a folklore explains, “Anything really well done is art… anything that really says something is art. Not art for art’s sake. What finally comes out is what must be judged. And the time element is important, too—if the work lives on.”

Disney knows instinctively that both men and artists are known, like trees, by the fruit they bear, rather than by the rustle of their leaves. The great artists usually created a body of work; and not all their works were great. Their best had a universality that pleased people of varied geographical, social, and economic backgrounds. And, like all the works of Shakespeare and Chaplin, who also became recognized and wealthy within their own lifetimes, they pleased first the “masses” and only later were accepted by the élite.

Disney readily admits that there is a dark side to the coin of the human condition, but sees the cynical and clinical aspects of life as merely a part and not of totality.

While he might simplify it into “giving the audience a few laughs and a few tears,” Disney’s works generally offer an esthetic experience to their audiences rather than a therapeutic one to the artist himself. He takes pleasure in pleasing, and has an instinctive sense of what will and won’t please, as sense cultivated by careful planning of his projects and meticulous attention to detail.

There’s little doubt that the results of his fertile imagination and ability to entertain will, among audiences from six to 60 in all parts of the global kingdom touched by the mustachioed man, live on happily ever after.

Image: Flickr photo cc by Andy Castro

Read more articles from past issues here: From the U.S. Catholic archives