The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life
University of Missouri Press, First Paperback Printing, 2001 Click to Buy this Book!
In the Introduction of this 526-page biography of Walter Elias Disney (1904–1966), Steven Watts, Chairman of the History Department at the University of Missouri-Columbia, describes some of the challenges involved in the immense undertaking of this project: the sheer scope of Walt Disney’s lifework, an achievement that always depended upon the work of other artists; the extreme divergence of Disney’s admirers and denouncers (“I don’t know anything about art.”); and his powerful and continuing influence on the American popular culture, for the average American, he knew instinctively, wanted entertainment, not high-class art. The book is organized into broad strokes of Four Parts consisting of 22 Chapters, although within this outer structure the author manages to handle the complexities of the development of his themes by sacrificing harmonious adherence to chronology. As the book moves along, a large number of repetitions of earlier material become apparent, especially in Chapter Nine, “The Fantasy Factory.” It is as though the author has chosen to disregard the content of his previous chapters in favor of a quest for new insight by way of serious second consideration. Lengthy subsections within many chapters are consistent in devotion to the biographies of those personally close to Walt Disney, and to the contributions of such great Disney Studio artists as Vladimir “Bill” Tytla, but these subsections would have been better placed within the correct chronological flow. For example, not until near the end of the book, beyond Disneyland, beyond the 1964 World’s Fair, and even beyond EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), does Watts manage to fit in a very important biography, that of Walt’s brother, Roy Oliver, in Chapter 22, taking the reader all the way back to the time of Roy’s birth in 1893.
The book is heavy and overly complex because the author is in essence searching for answers, and is without the secure foundation of deeper understanding from the beginning.
The last paragraph of Chapter 21, which the reader may review by way of briefly postponing another go-round on Watts’s dizzying Disney carousel, is actually one of the most astonishing in the entire book: “The Florida Project [EPCOT] promised to weave together the many threads of the great Disney expansion of the 1960s. On a scope unimaginable even a few years before, it promised to transcend entertainment by entering directly into the social and political realm. Disney’s magic kingdom, it seemed, was about to become a concrete reality as well as a state of mind.” But the great innovator, the Good King of the Magic Kingdom who was absolutely determined to change the woeful circumstances of the Common Folk on Planet Earth, was struck down unexpectedly and quickly and died of lung cancer in 1966.
Author Steven Watts does not really succeed in opening any doors to significant hidden darkness in the personality of Disney, although not for lack of trying, but the avuncular Disney — by Jiminy Cricket! – had only various ambiguous grey areas; he was very much a man of his times. He was happily and faithfully married but once, to Lillian Disney, “who was never cowed by her husband’s volatile moods and iron will.” “Confirmed homebodies, Walt and Lillian occasionally got together with a small circle of friends … while avoiding the nightclubs-and-parties scene.” He smoked, but never around children, drank moderately, and was photographed once at a racetrack with his good friend Charlie Chaplin. Business-wise he did become something of a corporate tyrant in the late 1930s, probably due to enormous responsibilities and financial pressures, but he saw the light after a devastating 1941 strike led by some of his best animators, including, sadly, Bill Tytla. These events were followed by drastic changes at the Burbank Studio wrought by the years of World War II.
Now, back to the beginning of the book: Although not cited in Watts’s biography, a line of poetry may come to mind while reading it and while pondering sympathetically at some length the mystery of Disney: “The Child is father of the Man.” The title of the poem, by William Wordsworth, is given as either My Heart Leaps Up or The Rainbow:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
The childhood of Walt Disney ended at the age of eight, when he was put to work by his father, Elias Disney. Walt and his older brother, Roy, had to deliver newspapers for Elias’s distributorship business in Kansas City, Missouri. They “rose every morning around three-thirty and picked up the newspapers in bulk around four-thirty. They spent the next several hours folding and delivering them on foot and by hand … Rainstorms in the spring and blizzards in the winter added to the burden, and, of course, the boys attended a full day of school after this work.” Walt endured this bone-wearying schedule for six years. In adult years he had recurring nightmares about failures to deliver some of the newspapers, and how his dad would be waiting to punish him for his laxness. In fact, his father beat him frequently. “Elias’s physical intimidation seems to have left deep scars on his son’s emotional makeup. His ‘violent temper’ eventually led to a liberating confrontation. After accusing Walt of insolence when he was about fourteen, Elias ordered him to the basement for ‘a good whipping.’ As they descended, however, Roy whispered to Walt that he didn’t have to take it anymore. So when Walt saw Elias prepare to strike him, he grabbed the older man’s wrists and refused to let him go. Unable to break his grip, Elias finally started to cry. This was a turning point, and Elias never touched Walt in anger again.” Yet later in life Walt held fond memories of his father and spoke of him with great affection. According to Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, he “loved his dad. He thought he was tough … but he loved that old man.” This statement by Diane Miller points to qualities in Disney’s character that are affirmed by Watts’s lengthy analysis: Walt Disney, through his iron will, had a way of turning a negative experience into a positive one, a failure into success, poverty into wealth, denial into affirmation, darkness into light, sordid reality into lilting fantasy, and evil into good. The boy who delivered newspapers surely studied the cartoons in those newspapers and, with a flair for drawing, together with the hard-knocks education in his father’s Kansas City commercial venture, decided very early in his life to become a cartoonist. He would certainly have had interest in the turn-of-the-century flip books, hand-turned movies and stop-motion animated films.
Not long after the armistice had been signed that ended World War I, Walt, at the age of sixteen, left high school, moved his birthdate back a year and, after his mother forged Elias’s signature on the application, became a driver with the American Ambulance Corps for ten months in Europe and France. During this time he also served at an evacuation hospital in Paris. These experiences certainly exposed him to the realities of war.
Were the Disney productions “art?” In the 1930s, galleries and museums began exhibiting Disney drawings. “Probably the most notorious showing occurred in 1938, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York decided to exhibit a watercolor from Snow White.” “… Humorist H.I. Philips probably garnered the biggest laugh with this bit of doggerel:
Corot’s in a back seat,
Rembrandt’s eyes are wet;
Romney looks astounded —
Disney’s in the ‘Met’!
Figures, landscapes, faces
Consternation share —
Statues reel and totter —
Dopey now is there!”
“Harvard president James Bryant Conan chimed in, characterizing Disney as a magician who has created a modern dwelling for the muses.” The thirties had brought a golden age for the Disney Studio, but in 1940, the New York Herald Tribune critic Dorothy Thompson wrote of the full-length film Fantasia: “I left the theater in a condition bordering on a nervous breakdown. I felt as though I had been subjected to an assault.” Fantasia was, she added, “… a performance of Satanic defilement … a remarkable nightmare … brutal and brutalizing.” Disney seems to have reacted to all the talk about whether his Studio work was art or not (or whether he was an artist or not) with the production of the full-length film Fantasia, in which delightful, childish cartoon characters move and dance in response to serious classical music, music that had been overseen by conductor Leopold Stokowski. Although the film did not make money for the Studio, there can be no doubt that some of its segments approach great art, including the probable scene that nearly made Dorothy Thompson ill, that of Vladimir “Bill” Tytla’s absolutely brilliant creation of the evil character Chernobog, master of a horrible, hellish underworld that spared no details in its graphic, frightening depictions, an underworld matching in hideousness that of Dante’s masterpiece, The Inferno. At the first sign of dawn, Chernobog wraps his large demon wings protectively around him and withdraws, while the sequence that follows, accompanied by the stirring music of Ave Maria, depicts a long line of devotional figures carrying candles and walking across a high, curved bridge under which are three large windows, rounded at the tops, the largest window in the center. They walk through a deep and beautiful forest, and through another curved window, until sunset. This unforgettable sequence, titled “Night on Bald Mountain,” is available online as a YouTube video. Also available as a YouTube video, and also highly recommended for a better understanding of Uncle Walt and the Disney artists, is the brilliant, hilarious Donald Duck 1943 propaganda cartoon titled “Der Fuehrer’s Face.”
Who was/is Walter Elias Disney, after all? Perhaps a part of that prototype, the “Good King in his Magic Kingdom,” who will return someday — from that faraway star — to take up again the important work of the “Experimental Prototype Community.” – Review by Martha Keltz