Thursday, January 9, 2014

Becoming Uncle Walt



I remember when I was a little boy, I was looking for a stamp to put on a letter I had written to my grandmother, and broke this block of Walt Disney stamps in my mother's collection to put one on the envelope.  My mother was very upset, but held her composure, giving me a lesson on the value of stamps and in particular blocks and sheets, and after that I never broke a block or stamps again.  Many years later, I found a block of Disney stamps to give back to my mother.

It must be upsetting to go through the trouble of making an honest tribute about an excellent artist, only to have the short pieces related to Disney excised and made front page news.  Meryl Streep was heaping praise on Emma Thompson and her portrayal of P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, but you wouldn't know it to hear all the news the next day, as Meryl took time to dis dear old Walt in the process.


Walt's life has been carefully guarded, and one of the rare films to portray him keeps close to the Disney image, with studio stalwart Tom Hanks playing Uncle Walt. Funny enough, the new film is ratied PG-13 because Disney is glimpsed putting out a cigarette.  Apparently, Disney was a chain smoker, and a cigarette often rested between his fingers, like it did my mother's, but the studio demanded no lit cigarettes in the film.  This was the one reference to his notorious habit.

It's Travers who comes across as the irascible cuss, which apparently she was, determined not to have Disney turn her Mary Poppins into a cartoon image.  This makes for a charming movie, but as Streep noted in her tribute to Thompson, it must have killed Walt Disney to meet a woman who wouldn't stand down to him.  Apparently, he considered women little more than copy artists in his studio, saving all the creative work for smart young men.

According to Neal Gabler, Disney drew his last cartoon in 1931, and became dependent on an "empire of smart artists and functionaries."  While Gabler downplays Disney's anti-Semitism, he presents him as a tyrant in the studio and a union buster, not ashamed of turning union troublemakers over to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Not exactly Mr. Nice Guy.

But, Disney is recognized for having created one of the most successful brand names in history.  His personal life has been largely glossed over like the theme parks that draw millions of tourists per year.  It was also convenient for the Disney family to maintain the good Disney image in their battles with Michael Eisner over control of the vast entertainment network that had grown up in their father's name.  Eisner was clearly the bad guy, while Walt was unquestionably the good guy.

Streep quoted Ezra Pound (also a notorious anti-Semite) who said he had never meant anyone who was worth a damn who wasn't irascible.  Artists have long been excused of their petty biases, conceits and bigotry as long as it doesn't affect anyone too deeply.  It seems Disney's bigotry and misogyny have been hidden so well as not to harm too many persons along the way, except for the few he turned over to HUAC.

One can see a meticulous book coming out of this recent controversy, like the one Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin wrote on Oppenheimer, as none have been written Disney yet.  He may not have invented the A-bomb, but Disney made a huge impact on American society.   Gabler's book apparently comes the closest in this regard, packed with 166 pages of footnotes, but he dwells largely on film production details.


Disney Studios today are a far cry from that back in Walt's time, when he struggled to make his first full length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  I'm sure the Brothers Grimm would have quarreled with Walt if they had been alive to negotiate film rights, like P.L. Travers was.  But, Disney was aiming at a decidedly different youth market than were the Grimm Bros. in their fairy tale, and his bet paid off huge dividends.

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