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Walt Disney
 

 

The first multimedia empire was built on animation. Its happy toons masked the founder's darker soul
By RICHARD SCHICKEL for Time Magazine
 


He 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.

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."

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.
 


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Walt Disney has become a 20th century icon of Americana. Like many mythic American figures, he had a humble beginning, an ambitious entrepreneurial spirit, and a passion for modern technology. Born in Chicago, he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute at age 14. Toward the end of World War I, when he was 16, Disney volunteered to drive ambulances in France. Upon his return home, he worked for a commercial art studio in Kansas City; there he teamed up with artist Ub Iwerks, who would become his lifelong business partner. Together, they moved to the Kansas City Film Ad Company to make animated commercials; this spawned their first brief business venture, Laugh-O-Grams, which sold satirical cartoons to a local theater. The success of these cartoons inspired Disney to create his own animation studio, where he independently produced such shorts as Puss in Boots (1922) and The Musicians of Bremen (1923). As the cartoons cost more to make than they earned, this first studio was not financially successful. In 1923, Disney (who, legend has it, had only 40 dollars to his name), his brother Roy, and Iwerks, went to Hollywood to begin producing the Alice in Cartoonland series of shorts that combined animation with live-action.

In 1927, Disney and Iwerks created their first popular character, Oswald Rabbit. Unfortunately, a bitter dispute with the cartoon's distributor resulted in Disney losing the rights to Oswald. The distributor also hired away most of Disney's staff and produced more Oswald cartoons without him. Disney's next character was the beloved Mickey Mouse, whom he starred in two silent shorts, Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho. For his third Mickey cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), Disney used sound. The success of Willie led Disney to create the "Silly Symphony" series, in which the characters' antics were synchronized to prerecorded music. As most animators did it the other way around, this was an innovation. The best known of this series was The Three Little Pigs (1933), which contained the hit song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf." During the 1930s, many of Disney's other beloved characters began to appear, including Minnie Mouse, Pluto (originally called Dippy Dawg), Goofy, and Donald Duck. And as they developed, so did his use of technology. Disney began using two-strip color in 1931; by the mid-'30s, he was using three-strip Technicolor, and he had exclusive use of the process for three years. At his growing studio -- which employed hundreds of people and included its own art school -- the revolutionary multiplane camera was developed, which allowed for more fluid, realistic animated movements with greater perspective and depth.

In 1934, Disney began working on his first feature-length animated film, a project he'd been dreaming of for years. No one in the industry supported his idea, believing that such extended exposure to animation would give the audience headaches. But Disney, driven to experiment further with his newfound technology, was not dissuaded; in 1937, he released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a film that went on to gross nearly eight million dollars in its first release. Soon, other such features followed. Audiences liked them for many reasons: the animation was spectacular, the tunes were hummable, and the stories -- ultra-sanitized versions of the originals -- were reassuringly upbeat during the troubled war years. The one exception was Disney's technical masterpiece, Fantasia (1940). Though it didn't initially do well, subsequent, more sophisticated audiences have come love it. During World War II, the Disney studios also churned out propaganda films for the government; the best-known was the documentary Victory Through Air Power (1943).

At one point during the early '40s, it looked as if all of Disney's dreams would disintegrate when most of his staff resigned over his authoritarianism and insistence upon absolute artistic control. Still, Disney continued turning out shorts and features, some of them, such as Song of the South (1946), combining live-action with animation. Beginning in the 1950s, Disney made live-action adaptations of classics and pseudo-documentaries, which, like his fictional features, presented a sanitized, anthropomorphic version of nature. Wanting complete control over his empire, he formed Buena Vista Distribution Company for his films. And, in 1954, he launched his long-running television anthology, Disneyland (later dubbed Walt Disney Presents), which was broadcast in various incarnations for 30 years and consisted of animated shorts, live-action serials, and movies. In 1955, he opened Disneyland, his 160-acre fantasy theme park in Anaheim, CA, which eventually spawned the massive Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, a Disneyland in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Euro Disney in France.

During his heyday, Disney was awarded 29 Oscars for his films, and, by the 1960s, he had become the king of American entertainment. But many felt the quality of his work was in decline; the animation was not as rich, and he did not produce as many shorts. His live-action films, with a few notable exceptions -- such as Mary Poppins (1965) -- were also becoming routine, and had a hastily made feel to them. Still, he remained a beloved figure. So when he died of acute circulatory collapse following the removal of a lung tumor on December 15, 1966, the world paused to mourn his passing. His legacy lives on in a whole new generation of Disney animated features, including The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).
 


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An American film maker and entrepreneur, Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) created a new kind of popular culture in feature-length animated cartoons and live-action "family" films.

Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, IL, on December 5, 1901, the fourth of five children born to a Canadian farmer and a mother from Ohio. He was raised on a Midwestern farm in Marceline, Missouri, and in Kansas City, where he was able to acquire some rudimentary art instruction from correspondence courses and Saturday museum classes. He would later use many of the animals and characters that he knew from that Missouri farm in his cartoons.

He dropped out of high school at 17 to serve in World War I. After serving briefly overseas as an ambulance driver, Disney returned in 1919 to Kansas City for an apprenticeship as a commercial illustrator and later made primitive animated advertising cartoons. By 1922, he had set up his own shop in association with Ub Iwerks, whose drawing ability and technical inventiveness were prime factors in Disney's eventual success.

Initial failure sent Disney to Hollywood in 1923, where in partnership with his loyal elder brother Roy, he managed to resume cartoon production. His first success came with the creation of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. Steamboat Willie was the first fully synchronized sound cartoon and featured Disney as the voice of a character first called "Mortimer Mouse." Disney's wife, Lillian, suggested that Mickey sounded better and Disney agreed.

Living frugally, he reinvested profits to make better pictures. His insistence on technical perfection and his unsurpassed gifts as story editor quickly pushed his firm ahead. The invention of such cartoon characters as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Minnie, and Goofy combined with the daring and innovative use of music, sound, and folk material (as in The Three Little Pigs) made the Disney shorts of the 1930s a phenomenon of worldwide success. This success led to the establishment of immensely profitable, Disney-controlled sidelines in advertising, publishing, and franchised goods, which helped shape popular taste for nearly 40 years.

Disney rapidly expanded his studio facilities to include a training school where a whole new generation of animators developed and made possible the production of the first feature-length cartoon, Snow White (1937). Other costly animated features followed, including Pinocchio, Bambi, and the celebrated musical experiment Fantasia. With Seal Island (1948), wildlife films became an additional source of income, and in 1950 his use of blocked funds in England to make pictures like Treasure Island led to what became the studio's major product, live-action films, which practically cornered the traditional "family" market. Eventually the Disney formula emphasized slick production techniques. It included, as in his biggest hit, Mary Poppins, occasional animation to project wholesome, exciting stories heavily laced with sentiment and, often, music.

In 1954, Disney successfully invaded television, and by the time of his death, the Disney studio's output amounted to 21 full-length animated films, 493 short subjects, 47 live-action films, seven True-Life Adventure features, 330 hours of Mickey Mouse Club television programs, 78 half-hour Zorro television adventures, and 280 other television shows.

On July 18, 1957, Disney opened Disneyland, a gigantic projection of his personal fantasies in Anaheim, CA, which has proved the most successful amusement park in history with 6.7 million people visiting it by 1966. The idea for the park came to him after taking his children to other amusement parks and watching them have fun on amusement rides. He decided to build a park where the entire family could have fun together. In 1971, Disney World, in Orlando, FL, opened. Since then, Disney theme parks have opened in Tokyo and Paris.

Disney had also dreamed of developing a city of the future, a dream realized in 1982 with the opening of EPCOT, which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. EPCOT, which cost an initial $900 million, was conceived of as a real-life community of the future with the very latest in high technology. The two principle areas of EPCOT are Future World and World Showcase, both of which were designed to appeal to adults rather than children.

In addition to his theme parks, Disney created and endowed a new university, the California Institute of the Arts, known as Cal Arts. He thought of this as the ultimate in education for the arts, where people in many different disciplines could work together, dream and develop, and create the mixture of arts needed for the future. Disney once commented: "It's the principle thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures. If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something."

Disney's parks continue to grow with the creation of the Disney-MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom, and a extensive sports complex in Orlando. The Disney Corporation has also branched out into other types of films with the creation of Touchstone Films, into music with Hollywood Records, and even vacationing with its Disney Cruise Lines. In all, the Disney name now lends itself to a multi-billion dollar enterprise, with multiple undertakings all over the world.

In 1939, Disney received an honorary Academy Award and in 1954 he received four Academy Awards. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Disney with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in the same year Disney was awarded the Freedom Foundation Award.

Happily married for 41 years, this moody, deliberately "ordinary" man was moving ahead with his plans for gigantic new outdoor recreational facilities when he died of circulatory problems on December 15, 1966, at St. Joseph's Hospital in Los Angeles, CA. At the time of his death, his enterprises had garnered him respect, admiration, and a business empire worth over $100 million-a-year, but Disney was still remembered primarily as the man who had created Mickey Mouse over two decades before.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008