Walt Disney, American Experience

The Complex Man Behind “Uncle Walt”

The rise (and rise) of Walt Disney, from starving artist to visionary filmmaker to union-busting studio boss to family-entertainment tycoon.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opened nationwide in January 1938. Pinocchio and Fantasia followed in 1940, Dumbo in 1941, and Bambi in the war-shadowed summer of 1942. Seventy-five years on, it remains an astonishing performance: five animated feature films in five years, all of them different, all of them classics. Had Walt Disney’s career ended there, he would still — on the strength of those five features and the eight-minute adventures of Mickey, Donald and Goofy — be a Hollywood legend.

Disney, however, was only beginning. As head of Walt Disney Studios, he oversaw production of a nine more animated features — including the near-classics Cinderella (1950), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) — dozens of live-action features, and scores of comic shorts featuring an ever-expanding cast of animated characters. He supplied training and propaganda shorts to the government during World War II, and turned the studio into a major producer of documentary and educational films in the two decades afterward.

He unveiled Disneyland (the weekly television series) and Disneyland (the California theme park) — twinned projects, conceived and developed together — in 1954 and 1955, completing his transition from Hollywood mogul to entertainment-industry tycoon. The television series brought Disney, who served as onscreen host, into America’s homes. He was a natural on camera: A genial figure who introduced each week’s offerings — made-for-television productions, features and shorts from the studio’s vault, and behind-the-scenes promotional documentaries — like a favorite uncle dispensing presents after a trip abroad.

Disney thus became the public face of the brand he had built: a purveyor of unthreatening family entertainment that embraced tradition, endorsed middle-class values, and exuded optimism. The rising social and cultural tumult of the ’60s soon made such fare seem increasingly out-of-step with the times — The Absent Minded Professor, first in a string of college-based Disney comedies, appeared only a year before the Port Huron Statement, but that did not diminish its popularity. The Wonderful World of Disney (as it was eventually retitled) remained a Sunday-night fixture in countless American homes well into the ’70s. Disney himself was hard at work on his next great project — a vast complex in central Florida, centered on a utopian “city of the future” called EPCOT — when he died, aged 65, in December 1966.

Even before his death, Disney was a complex, contradictory, polarizing figure. Genial “Uncle Walt” was also a fierce opponent of labor unions, a strident anti-Communist who named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, and a showman who (despite his genuine commitment to cross-cultural understanding) remained oddly tone-deaf to racial and ethnic stereotypes. Critics deride his work as shallow, simplistic, and cloying; defenders praise its technical ingenuity, cross-generational appeal, and gentle optimism. Indeed, Disney has, not surprisingly, proven an irresistible subject for both writers and filmmakers in the half-century since his death.

The PBS documentary Walt Disney (2015), aired as part of the long-running history documentary series The American Experience, thus follows in the footsteps of books like Stephen Watts’ The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (1997) and Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (2006), as well as documentaries like Frank and Ollie (1995) and Walt and El Grupo (2008).

Walt Disney, despite its expansive four-hour running time, tells a narrowly bounded story. There’s little about Disney’s Midwestern childhood and youth, and even less about him as a husband, father, and grandfather. His older brother (and behind-the-scenes partner) Roy, whose business acumen was essential to the success of Walt Disney Studios, barely registers in the narrative. Members of Disney’s staff — writer-directors Winston Hibler and Ward Kimball, voice artists Clarence Nash (Donald Duck) and Pinto Colvig (Goofy), and the core animation team known (jokingly, at first) as the Nine Old Men — fade into the woodwork. The world beyond the borders of greater Los Angeles is acknowledged in a series of brief, perfunctory references to historical events too big (or too central) to ignore entirely. Walt Disney is about Walt Disney, the person, to the exclusion of virtually everything and everyone else.

Walt Disney’s life is of course, inextricably intertwined with the things he created, and Walt Disney gives due attention to the films, the television program, and the theme park. Producer-director Sarah Colt is primarily interested, however, in the work as a reflection of the man, and focuses on minor events that provide a window into Disney’s inner world at the expense of major ones that do not.

For example, Walt’s emotional response to the 1941 strike against his studio — a complex mixture of hurt, anger, and incomprehension — receives far more attention, in part 1, than the grievances that led to the strike in the first place. In part 2, Walt’s obsessive postwar interest in large-scale model trains receives more screen time than the studio’s postwar move into documentaries and live-action dramas. World War II, which transformed the studio but not the man, is virtually absent from the film, AWOL in the chronological gap between the two halves.

Viewers who come to the film eager to revisit their favorite Disney feature films, television characters, or theme park rides will, almost certainly be disappointed. The filmmakers resist the urge to name-check their way through Disney’s vast output, and beyond the “big five” animated features of 1937-1942, little of it is mentioned by name. Major Disney enterprises like the “How to” series of Goofy cartoons, the “True-Life Adventures” nature documentaries, and Walt’s other television project, The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1959)

For viewers interested in Disney himself and willing to approach the film on its own, purely biographical terms, however, there’s a wealth of unfamiliar stills, film clips, interviews, and anecdotes. Walt in his army uniform, not yet 18 and not yet sporting his trademark moustache, poses jauntily with an immense, graffiti-covered artillery shell in the aftermath of World War I. Twenty years later, in the aftermath of another war, he banters with a befuddled British reporter on a visit to the United Kingdom, joking about leprechauns and pots of gold being the solution to rising production costs in Hollywood.

A friend of Disney’s recalls his reaction to the just-released To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962: “That was a hell of a picture” … admiration mingled with awareness that audiences would never accept such a film from him. A former Disney employee remembers Walt gesturing at a scale model of EPCOT, pointing out its high-tech infrastructure and futuristic layout, but also noting where he planned to place a park bench where he could sit with his wife, and relax by watching the world go by. A montage of newspaper front pages from around the world gently, poignantly underscores the fact that even in the mid-’60s infancy of McLuhan’s “global village”, Disney was a truly an international celebrity.

These unfamiliar visuals allow the film to capture aspects of Disney’s character and career that elude even the best written biographies. It’s one thing to read about the 1941 animators’ strike against Disney Studios, but quite another to see the picket lines captured on fading color film … and to suddenly realize that cartoonists’ picket signs included wickedly effective caricatures of the Boss.

Footage of opening day at Disneyland, filmed for a 90-minute network television special by dozens of camera crews linked by miles of heavy cables, is a revealing look at live-on-location television in its infancy; filled with excitement but studded with missed cues, awkward camera angles, and technological glitches. Scenes of Disney playing with his own grandchildren in a backyard pool, when juxtaposed with staged publicity footage of him welcoming kids to the studio or the park, reveal a looser, goofier “Grandpa Walt” behind the familiar suit-and-tie-clad “Uncle Walt” persona.

All this is interspersed, in the best PBS style, with talking-head interviews and knitted together by the understated narration of veteran character actor Oliver Platt. The writers, directors, composers, and lead animators who brought Walt’s ideas to life are mostly gone now, and only Disney himself appears in archival interview footage, but employees who worked at Disney Studios late in the Disney era add their perspectives to the film.

Richard Sherman who, with his brother Robert wrote songs for dozens of ’60s Disney films, remembers the news of Walt’s death reaching the studio: a secretary shrieking in disbelief, staff members pouring into the halls to share or confirm the news, and making his way to the office of veteran producer Bill Anderson where he wept with his co-workers over their shared loss. Neal Gabler and Stephen Watts, authors of the two best overviews of Disney’s life and times, are featured prominently, and film historian Sarah Nilsen stands out among a large supporting cast of Disney experts who serve as on-screen commentators

Viewers who have a deep interest in Disney and his work, and shelves of books about both, will still find things in Walt Disney to surprise them. Audiences who know Disney only through his work and his carefully crafted television image will find Walt Disney an eye-opening re-introduction to the man with whom much of the Baby Boom generation spent its childhood Sunday evenings. Both groups (and those in between) will likely enjoy the four leisurely hours they spend in its company.

RATING 7 / 10