Image - Part One “The Image”
By David Johnson
Snow White is in many ways Walt Disney’s most remarkable film. Not only was it the world’s first feature-length animated cartoon, it laid the groundwork for the future Disney empire and its success is woven inextricably into the fabric of Disney’s own personality and achievement. But what was Walt Disney really like and what is his true place in Twentieth Century America? As this century draws to a close, here is a fresh look at Disney, both the man and the image.
The fantasies of life are worth the trip backward - Once a lifetime is not enough to learn the secret of magic egret. And long, lost dreams - the carved and colored horses of childhood carousel may never tell.
Walt Disney never stopped riding the carousel horses. But unlike so many other gifted individuals, his horses were always above any of the self destructive phantoms whose final plunge took their riders down with them. This is what made him truly lucky - not fame or fortune, or even doing what he did. Rather being blessed with a kind of mentality not given to introspection or loneliness and thus, of all the notables of our time, one of the least miserable. What more could one want? Judging from his achievements, plenty, which his restless mind never ceased to be occupied with, even as he lay dying. An enduring enigma, he above all seems to personify the childlike perception that Wordsworth describes in his poem My heart leaps up when I behold/a rainbow in the sky. Yet in reality he was clearly the epitome of the power implied in that poem's climactic paradox: the Child is the father of the man.
Although Disney had enjoyed the adulation of critics and intellectuals during the 1930s and '40s, by the time of his death this former golden icon had turned to bronze. Even his greatest accomplishments were viewed at a distance with a kind of fond nostalgia by adults who increasingly found themselves above such juvenilia. That the vast majority of the audience that initially greeted Snow White (and indeed all the Disney classic cartoons of the period) were also adults apparently never occurred to them. Soon the insidious term "children's movie" became common parlance for these masterpieces and with it a similar misunderstanding and general diminution to the prestige of their creator. It is true that the ever-growing banality of Disney's later work and the "cuteness" with which it became associated did not add lustre to an image at one time known largely for its boldness and originality. But once the old magic began to fade, with increasing momentum it seemed to all but vanish, something from which not even the brilliance of a Mary Poppins nor the remarkable vision of an EPCOT could rescue.
There have been several attempts to explain the Disney phenomenon and the man himself. None have been very convincing and few provide a key in getting at the man inside the legend. There were those who by the mid '60s presumed to understand Disney and his "message" but whose ambivalent and often condescending praise belied they didn't really care much for either. Oddly enough it was not his very real vices which seem to set them off: that Disney was a chain smoker all his life; used four-letter words and had a decided fondness for ribald humor; was responsible, if only indirectly, for the frightening and tragic downfall of some of his men whose fate he might have prevented; that at certain periods in his life he drank to excess - all conveniently overlooked in the "official" accounts. It is rather because of Disney's ever-looming presence over the cultural history of 20th Century America that he becomes target to strange and misguided assaults from those who apparently want or expect more from him. They are decidedly uncomfortable with what they perceive as a vulture, hovering over the landscape, looking for anything to devour.
The same might be said for the current Disney management and their policy of arrant saturation. Disneyana seems to be omnipresent and nothing from the past is not carefully reconsidered as a source of future profits. Fortunately their success only underlines how great an extent the Disney classics are still marketable. For in spite of the ever-present promotions, it would be a mistake to assume that the durability of the Disney product owes itself more to any advertising gimmicks than to its intrinsic timelessness. Such staying power speaks volumes.
Very few films, much less cartoons, generate the freshness Snow White still manages with ease, whose universal language, even at sixty-plus years of age, speaks with undiminished clarity. This first feature cartoon is still in many ways Disney's greatest tour de force. With it Disney finally unlocked the heretofore hidden potential of a medium whose capability he knew existed for some time. More importantly, his future empire would be built upon its success - a success engineered with a labor force of 750 dedicated men and women, whose own personal efforts at bringing to life Disney's dreams are incalculable. That such a satisfying composite as Snow White was the result of so much input is all the more a tribute to the guiding genius not far behind every sketch pad and drawing board. For with all its diversity, Snow White and the basic qualities it embodies can all be narrowed down to one person.
Walter Elias Disney, without doubt, is the prime element both in Snow White's making and its continued permanence. "A complex and interesting man," as one long-time confidant described him, "totally unspoiled by his fame - on certain levels he was almost a hick and on others ultra sophisticated." This dichotomy has remained unknown for the most part outside the small circle of intimates who only rarely observed any penetrating comments from Walt, save relating to his work. One such rare comment, however, spoken to the same above-mentioned individual, should instantly dispel any lingering doubts about his obviously keen intelligence. Describing his artistic philosophy, Walt once related his belief that the origin of creativity and effort was discontent. This remarkable statement, something the more erudite Max Fleischer, another successful cartoon producer, would never have said or even thought about, goes far in revealing a side of Disney not generally known or acknowledged. It is indeed strange that no satisfactory biography has yet been written that accurately explores the many and often contradictory aspects of this unique individual and the synthesis of this work. He has been so vastly underestimated that his true stature as one of the giants of the 20th century is for many an absurd notion. For this there are reasons.
In the first place, his position in history is hard to categorize. His fame rests as a producer of cartoons but his true achievement is far more subtle and pervasive. A comparison might be made with Rubens, whose studio was the envy of 17th century Europe. Rubens was, of course, a great painter and Walt made no pretensions of being a great cartoonist. But there are many similarities. Both headed a vast workshop producing art through a production-line approach that also included training and apprenticeship. Both were great innovators, if not revolutionaries (Walt, remember, brought out the first successfully synchronized sound cartoon as well as the first three-strip Technicolor film ever) and for both the existing boundary between "student" and "master" is on many works often blurred and difficult to define. In Walt's case, since he didn't draw anything, one might assume such a division is clear and uncomplicated. It is not.
While he clearly needed and used their talent, Walt made his men, not the other way around. He guided and inspired them to infuse their drawings with life. He labored with them in fashioning a distinct personality for each newly-created character. This applied not only to looks or speech but for every movement, down to the last flick of a finger. Of course, many of his men had their own spark of genius, which Walt recognized and appreciated. Among them were young Freddie Moore, a "kind of genius with a pencil," as veteran animator Ward Kimball once related; Vladimir (Bill) Tytla, whom many consider the greatest animator of all time - he would later draw Chernobog, the Devil in Fantasia's "Bald Mountain" sequence, giving animation an awesome power unknown before or since; Will Jackson, the self-effacing director (the first after Walt stopped actual direction in the late '20s) who invented the method of using the metronome to solve synchronization problems in the earliest sound cartoons, still in use today. But Walt, carefully and knowingly, integrated every one and their ability into a composite of his own creation, a process which, in the early days, at least, and especially on Snow White, involved him with every last detail.
Another difficulty in defining Walt and his achievement is the many misconceptions that exist: that his cartoons are for children, that he couldn't draw (probably a reaction to the equally erroneous assumption prevalent during the early years of his fame that he drew everything in his films), that his success was really the contribution of those around him, that his brother Roy (who handled the finances) was the real basis behind the Disney empire. Except for the latter, which is partly true, none are supported by the facts.
Disney Cartoons were never intended solely (or even mainly) for children. In fact, an adult was far more likely to see one (or any cartoon, for that matter) than any child as the average movie-goer's age during this period was well over twenty (contrast that with today’s audience of a an average age of thirteen!). And it must be remembered that a Disney cartoon quickly became the preferred filler at the movie houses of the day and any notion that such a product was geared to a pre-pubescent mind is simply false. However Disney's later output might be considered "children's fare," those of the Golden Age (roughly 1929-42) in no way deserve this appellation and their continued perception as such is long overdue for a change.
As for drawing ability, Walt had considerable, if not major, talent - certainly enough if he had chosen to develop it. But his ambitions were ahead of any such natural skills and protracted art studies were something he had not the time nor patience to pursue. Besides, his ego no doubt demanded greater control (than mere drawing) of a product that gained infinitely more from his intuitive and creative abilities as a leader. And regarding his supposedly small role in his own success (with its very real dependency upon others), the facts show that in spite of major defections, the studio continued to flourish. The men who defected did not.
As for his brother Roy, he did, in fact give Walt considerable breathing space to handle purely artistic and technical matters. And it is true that Disney merchandising, begun in the early '30s, brought in by mid-decade more income than the films themselves (allowing for the expansion a tremendous gamble like Snow White required) and that Roy became the guardian of all negotiations. Perhaps someone outside the family would not have been so motivated to generate sufficient funds to give the dreams of a visionary like Walt concrete form. Yet it seems likely that without Roy, Walt would have found someone else. It is clear from the evidence that Walt and Mohammed had much in common.
Physically, he was about 5'9" tall, with dark brown hair and eyes and a slight build that moved with remarkable grace, considering how poorly he routinely was at sports. In manner he could be direct or friendly but he never lost the unspoiled and unsophisticated charm that served him well on most occasions. A prodigious memory was a further asset he put to good use and often came back to haunt anyone foolish enough to forget it. He seems to have been fascinated by everything and once asked a young Elly Horvath, a former medical student (who gave up a dancing career in Hungary to follow her artist-husband to Hollywood), "How does an aspirin work?" But his lack of even a high school diploma could leave him open and vulnerable, especially to someone like Art Babbitt (one of his legendary animators), who once said: "He had the innate bad taste of the American public," a quite ungenerous remark about someone who, after all, had provided Babbitt his finest moments.
The truth is simpler: the Disney product in its heyday was merely better than anyone else's. So much better, in fact, that the word art is entirely appropriate, Disney himself being one of the greatest folk-artists of all time. That he rarely referred to his films as art and was probably the last person to appreciate such a judgment (he would never refer to himself as an artist) is no doubt an underlying factor behind the charm and unpretentious nature of even his most ambitious projects. Disney never strived for artistry in any self-conscious sense and indeed, it is doubtful whether such sophistication was within his grasp, certainly not intellectually. Yet again we are faced with the Disney enigma. Fantasia is sophisticated art by any standard, the "Nutcracker Suite" segment alone as breathtaking as any painting by Cezanne or Matisse. But Fantasia in its day failed at the box office and was thorn in the flesh of Walt's side till his dying days. He would never attempt such daring originality again. That it was beyond his own appreciation is a mistake to even consider. He loved and believed in Fantasia (at least during its making) and its disastrous reception hurt his pride and self confidence (not to mention his pocket book) far more than exemplifying anything too "high brow," which he felt it was not.
Fantasia, of course, is the most blatant exception to Disney's usual track record at hitting precisely the bull's eye of public taste. This normally unerring sense was indeed a remarkable gift and, along with his drive to enhance his products with at least moments of real beauty, surely helped to pave his way to the top of his profession in a relatively short time. Yet this success was preceded by a period of slow and rather undistinguished growth. Walt's early beginnings were far from remarkable and no one could have guessed, looking at his first Alice efforts, that here was the genesis of the greatest cartoons ever to be created.
He was, in fact, rather behind the times, considering the surprising refinement of so many other cartoons from that period (early-mid '20s). Hence, this late starter, who had hardly anything special to offer, could scarcely be considered being in the right place at the right time, another worn-out argument for his subsequent triumph. It is certainly true that the Great Depression would be to his advantage, placing at his disposal talent that otherwise might have gone elsewhere. Yet Walt's blooming studio during a period when so many other enterprises were foundering seems to indicate other causes, which made time and place, for the most part, largely irrelevant.
What was relevant were the latest technological advances that Walt put to use almost immediately. To be precise, it was his awareness of the potential such innovations offered that provided the impetus for his startling climb to pre-eminence. That, along with his almost total lack of fear in going forward with the greatest of enthusiasm whatever he believed in. Take sound, for instance.
It is often stated, erroneously, that Walt's first-released Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), was the first sound cartoon. Actually it was the Viennese-born Max Fleischer, one of Walt's successful New York competitors and an inventor himself, who had done a handful of sound cartoons in 1924-25 with the help of Lee De Forest, one of the great, if controversial, pioneers of radio. But these mostly-musical sing-a-longs were not a success and quickly forgotten. With The Jazz Singer of 1927, however, the novelty of sound cascaded on a wave of enthusiasm that quickly brought all prior luke-warm reception to the boiling point. Yet only retrospect can Walt's decision to "wire for sound" the following year be seen as another example of his shrewd appraisal of the demands of the general public. In fact, such a move proves beyond a doubt just how far he was willing to go in his uncompromising belief of doing something right or not at all.
This can be fully appreciated when one realizes that two recently-completed (and silent) "Mickeys" were already "in the can" when Walt ordered an entirely different cartoon be made specifically for sound to better exploit this brand-new sensation. This was an insane risk to even contemplate, let alone insist on, since not only Mickey unknown and untried, sound itself was still viewed as a passing fad by most in the industry. Even Max Fleischer was silent on the topic. In addition, the Disney brothers were without a distributor at this time, having covered their entire costs from their own pockets, without as much as a penny guaranteed in return. Luckily for them, frugality in personal life-style was now about to pay off.
(Walt, it should also be noted, was one of the first producers who had the foresight to realize the advantages sound-on-film [used by Fox in their Movietone News shorts] had over sound-on-records [Warner Bros.' choice and then the preferred method] - not necessarily for the right reasons, however. Though synchronization could be difficult if the record was off by only one grove, what distressed Walt even more was the idea that a breakable record - usually 16" acetate discs - had to be shipped around the country with each can of film, doubling the chances of losing something en route. Walt was always practical. Needless to say, sound-on-film - originally patented in 1912 by the Englishman Eugene Lauste - soon became the standard practice still in use today. In addition, regarding sound and its equivocal reception by industry heads, even the great Irving Thalberg, head of production at M-G-M, viewed it as a short-lived intrusion on the poetic sensibilities of the silents. Consequently, M-G-M was late getting into the sound revolution, not producing their first talkie until 1929.)
But sound was not the only thing Disney had up his sleeve when a delighted audience saw Mickey Mouse for the first time. Very soon, something else would emerge from those now audible black and white images flashed on the screen: warmth and emotion. With these ingredients, as well as the fabled artistic and technical advances, Walt Disney as we know him laid his foundation. While other studios continued to rely on sight gags for their audience reaction, Walt began to explore the possibilities and the unique responses sound could provide.
There had been claim that Disney inadvertently brought about the demise of the short comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd by sanitizing the "sexual references of the great routines" (Richard Schikel) to confirm with the Hayes Office production codes (originally introduced in 1923 but only enforced a decade later). This not only is inaccurate but highly implausible for only a moment's reflection is needed to realize that the most salient reason for the change in tastes away from such antics was the advent of sound, not censorship. In fact the earliest Disney sound cartoons did had precisely the references - sexual, mildly sadistic, or otherwise - that is claimed Disney, by his apparent "natural cleanliness of outlook," helped to clean up!
Cartoon animation, with few notable exceptions (like Winsor McCay's great Sinking of the Lusitana of 1918) had been based on the slapstick routines of the silent films. Now, as chaos prevailed over a new invention few knew what to do with, Walt calmly parted the waters and proceeded to reveal something the new talkies would have to re-learn years later: that a sound track could provide background for the more subtle emotions and dramatic situations not just with spoken words but with an underlying musical score as well.
But what is most curious about the above accusation is not its underestimating sound's considerable aftermath: rather its leaving a very real link to the silent comedies (and perhaps Walt's source of greatest indebtedness) unmentioned: Charlie Chaplin and his unique combination of comedy and pathos. For it is precisely this mixture of absurdity with just the right amount of unexpected and genuinely-felt heartbreak that hurled the Disney shorts not only into a class by themselves but also into the hearts of millions throughout the world, now experiencing the greatest economic disaster within memory.
This article is Copyrighted © 2000 by David Johnson, and have beed printed here for the first time in Animation Artist Magazine with Johnson’s permission. David Johnson is a regular columnist for Animation Artist Magazine, and we thank him for his insight and willingness to contribute his knowledge and talent to the animation world.