Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Walt Disney and the American Dream

On a December day in 1966 I heard that Walt Disney had died. I thought it was the end of an era, that the Disney entertainment empire would probably fall apart after Walt’s death. It seemed to me that the person of Walt Disney and his company were the same thing.

It’s true that Disney did have the final say-so over the products released under his name. He was very hands-on that way. But despite losing Walt the Disney organization has survived and flourished and now it is much, much bigger than I think even Walt himself envisioned.

To consider the worth of the company bearing his name it’s easy to forget that it all had to start somewhere. Disney was once a poor cartoonist trying to start a company and sell his animated cartoons. Even when things got rock bottom he never gave up on his dream.

Disney was very down-and-out at one point in the early 1920s during his time in Kansas City trying to make his Laff-O-gram Films company a success. You’d think any other person would give up, then go out and get a job in a warehouse or the Post Office. Not Disney. He kept trying and trying and working harder and harder until he made his dream a reality.

The book, Walt Before Mickey, by Timothy S. Susanin, published by University Press of Mississippi in 2011, tells several stories of Walt’s poverty, including one anecdote that shows how bad it got:
       “As the end of 1922 loomed, Laugh-O-gram Films was . . . ‘down to its last penny . . .’ [But then] Walt was asked to make a live-action educational film. Dr. Thomas B. McCrum, forty-six, a dentist . . . asked Walt to produce a film that Dr. McCrum could use to educate children about dental care. Dr. McCrum offered to pay $500 for the film, but Walt’s dire financial straits prevented Walt from agreeing to meet with Dr. McCrum:
       “One night the doctor called [Walt] to say, ‘I’ve got the money. Come over and we’ll set the deal. ‘I can’t,’ Walt told him. ‘Why not?’ the doctor asked. ‘I haven’t got any shoes,’ [Walt] said. ‘They were falling apart. I left them at the shoemaker’s shop downstairs and he won’t let me have them until I dig up a dollar and a half.’ ‘I’ll be right over,’ Dr. McCrum said. He paid the shoemaker, took [Walt] back to his office, and together they worked out an agreement to make the film he had in mind.”
When Walt relocated (with shoes) to Hollywood he began to slowly build his new studio. Even if he couldn’t see exactly what a world renowned success he would become, I think he looked at everything he did as a step in the right direction. His employees, even when things were at their worst, described him as optimistic about the future.

Walt’s earliest employees included some of the real legends of the animation industry: Hugh Harman (and for a time, Hugh’s older brother Fred (Red Ryder) Harman), Rudy Ising, Ub Iwerks, and even Friz Freleng.

Disney did have a problem with keeping employees, who often moved on to better offers or just to get away with Walt. From descriptions of Walt’s single-minded vision and drive I believe he may have had a narcissistic personality disorder. Not disabling, but enough that he saw himself as the center of a self-contained universe. After having several arguments with Disney, Friz Freleng quit. Freleng had called in sick one day, but actually went to the movies. Disney saw him on top of a double-decker bus that Disney was driving behind. The next day Freleng’s desk was cleared out, another argument ensued, and Friz was out.

Freleng had said of his relationship with Walt, “Walt and I had personalities that clashed.” As a result, “I just couldn’t take him anymore . . .” Friz felt that, “Walt was just a hard person to work for. I think a lot of people have said the same thing, you had to please Walt, you couldn’t please yourself.”

From an historical point of view Freleng is vindicated in quitting because he went on to such fame as an animation director at Warner Bros.

From the book:
       “When he was eighty-four, Freleng gave an interview to the Kansas City Star in which he appeared to be at peace with his rocky relationship with Walt, saying, ‘Walt was a genius, and a genius does what he wants. He doesn’t do what you want.’”
Even Walt’s brother, Roy, whom he had joined in California, took the brunt of Walt’s ego. Walt had originally named the studio “Disney Brothers,” but one day declared to Roy that he thought it would be better just to have one name, so he re-named the studio after himself. Roy went along with it, although he was surprised at the demotion in status.

Since Walt’s death most of the people who helped build the Disney brand have received their recognition. Walt Before Mickey has certainly identified most, if not all, of the major players in Disney’s early career, especially with the amount of minutiae the author has presented. Much research has gone into Disney’s career. It appears that no surviving receipt or newspaper notice has been missed in the scholar’s zeal to document everything that concerned Disney and his companies, leading up to the major breakthrough that came about with the creation of Mickey Mouse.

Another excellent book on Walt’s early career is Walt in Wonderland (Johns-Hopkins University Press, 2000), about Disney’s silent films.

At some point, despite the characters the Disney studios had created and marketed successfully, the most interesting character to come along was Disney himself. In the mid-fifties after opening his Disneyland theme park and his Disneyland television program, Disney became the spokesperson for the studio.  He came out and did a bit of dialogue before each program, and created the role of the friendly “Uncle Walt” to his young audience. We all bought it. I thought for sure I could write Walt a personal note and he’d come to my home to speak to my scout troop! Luckily my mother didn’t let me send it, telling me, “Mister Disney is a very busy man, with a lot of important things to do.” I was a bit crushed, but that was the friendly image he projected. “Uncle Walt” was a CEO of a major company, with all of those attendant duties. Later in life I understood how Walt Disney created a company, memorable cartoon characters — and later live action, like Davy Crockett —  while creating himself for the Baby Boomer generation. By his clever use of television to cater to the largest group of youngsters to come along in the history of the United States, he had virtually ensured himself of immortality for that generation. The proof of that is in the Disney name, still known and revered around the world.


A day after posting the above I found this on my Peanuts page-a-day calendar. I believe I can tie it in to what I just said about Disney being his own greatest creation.

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