Wednesday, September 16, 2015

American Experience: Walt Disney (WGBH/PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the first part of the much-ballyhooed American Experience documentary on Walt Disney (the distinction between American Experience and American Masters seems maddeningly arbitrary — why does Walt Disney count as an “experience” but not a “master”?), whose makers, Sarah Colt (producer, director and co-writer) and Tom Jennings, managed to get access to the Disney vaults and use their archives without having to pledge to produce a whiter-than-white hagiography. An early line in the narration, delivered by Oliver Platt (one of those even, relatively unmodulated performers PBS prefers in their voiceovers — I’ve joked that if you audition for National Public Radio and show any hint of inflection in your voice, you don’t get the job), argued that Disney was essentially an American Rorschach, a figure that you either admire or detest depending on your overall attitudes to culture (and, at least after Disney emerged as one of Hollywood’s most open and ferocious Right-wingers after World War II, your politics as well), though ironically the Los Angeles Times ran an article on Disney to promote the show last Sunday and noted that a third group of Americans, mostly younger ones, don’t realize Walt Disney was a person at all: like the Warner Brothers, they’ve known “Disney” merely as a brand name and don’t realize that it was founded by an actual human being (several human beings, in fact; the film gives due importance to the role of Walt’s brother Roy, who was to him what Harry Warner was to his brother Jack and Jack Cohn was to his brother Harry at Columbia: the guy who tried to figure out how to pay the bills and cover the costs of his more creative brother’s artistic and marketplace ambitions; as well as Ub Iwerks, the pioneering cartoonist who was instrumental in creating the early Disney cartoons) of that name.

This first episode leaves out some of the most interesting part of the story, including the career trajectory of Iwerks (he got lured away by Pat Powers, distributor of Disney’s earliest sound cartoons, to start his own studio with a character called Flip the Frog; when Iwerks’ company went under in 1933 he returned reluctantly to the Disney fold but was almost literally kept hidden from everyone else even though his inventions, notably the multiplane animation camera that allowed animators to do tracking shots and other effects that had previously only been available to live-action filmmakers and gave an almost tactile feeling of depth to the images, were key to Disney’s later successes) and some of the bizarre details of his relationship with Bank of America founder A. P. Giannini, whom Disney was hoping would finance the massive cost overruns on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Richard Schickel, author of the mid-1970’s “black” biography The Disney Version (and who’s interviewed on this show, with a considerably mellower attitude towards Disney than he had when he wrote the book 40 years ago), told a story about Giannini demanding to see what Disney had finished of Snow White before he decided whether or not to give Disney any more money. Disney, who hated showing unfinished work to anyone outside the studio, sat through the screening and practically freaked out as Giannini watched the movie (or what there was of it) and kept an impassive “poker face” throughout the screening. Finally, after it was over, Giannini turned to Disney and said, “Goodbye. That thing is going to make a hatful of money” — and Disney realized he would get his loan. One odd thing about the show is it presents Disney’s wish to make his studio as self-contained as possible and his vision of his employees as a giant extended family, as if it were unique; actually it hearkened back to the “company towns” of the late 19th century (including George Pullman’s factory — Pullman’s paternalistic attitude towards his employees and his shabby treatment of them in terms of the actual money he paid them anticipated Disney, and so did the long and brutal strikes both men dealt with as a result) and has been reproduced in Berry Gordy’s Motown complex in the 1960’s and more recently in the elaborate “campuses” Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs built to congregate their employees and at the same time limit their ability to have a life outside the work. 

he makers of this film chose the 1941 animators’ strike against Disney as the breaking point of their two-part movie, though the change in Disney’s fortunes and his management style can be attributed to other things, including World War II (ironically, the start of the war in 1939 plunged the Disney studio into financial crisis because it cost him the European market, while the U.S.’s entry into the war bailed Disney out because the U.S. government hired his studio to make animated training films for servicemembers — even though the government’s bureaucrats also gave Disney unwelcome advice on how to make the movies and took their own sweet time about paying him, thereby reinforcing Disney’s skepticism about government in general and helping push him from a relatively apolitical stance in the 1930’s to a hard-Right attitude for the rest of his life), the box-office failure of Fantasia (the filmmakers seem to accept Schickel’s view in The Disney Version that Disney thought of what Leopold Stokowski and Deems Taylor were offering him as “culture” and, when the film flopped, rejected it and became actively anti‑intellectual in his later years) and the cost overruns that led Roy Disney to insist that the company start selling stock to the public — their initial public offering (IPO) in 1940 generated $4 million and the Disneys, rather than taking a big cut for themselves the way most entrepreneurs do today after their IPO, plowed it right back into the company — though as part of the deal Walt Disney had to sign a contract paying him $2,000 a week to make sure he would remain with the company (and Roy got one for $1,000), and the staff members got resentful that Disney was making 100 times more than the average pay of his workers. (Today CEO pay has swollen to such ridiculous extremes I couldn’t help but joke, “Only 100 times as much?”) One of the animators recalled an incident in which he helped some colleagues with the lower-level “in-betweener” and ink-and-paint jobs (master animators made the key drawings for a sequence, in-betweeners made the drawings that would appear in between and ink-and-paint people, usually women, colored and inked in the original drawings on animation cels), and when Disney found out he stripped the poor guy’s office of its drawers, its recliner chair and all the amenities, leaving him just a hard chair and a table — the bare minimum he needed to do his work. (He wouldn’t have been so surprised if he’d known how completely Disney had “un-personned” Ub Iwerks earlier as a punishment for his disloyalty in the early 1930’s.) One point showing Iwerks’ importance in creating the early Disney style, as well as the conventions of animation, impressed Charles when he noted that Mickey Mouse looked an awful lot like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the previous character Disney and Iwerks had created and whose distributor, Charles Mintz, had done him out of the rights — and I reminded Charles that Flip the Frog, some of whose cartoons have turned up on, followed the same basic design pattern despite the radical differences in appearance between real-life rabbits, mice and frogs.

Whatever can be said against Disney, one thing in his favor is the sheer graphic beauty of the films he created — and with access to the vaults the filmmakers here were able to show clips from Disney’s 1930’s and early 1940’s films in luminous color that did full justice to their extraordinary loveliness purely as art, whatever you think of the Disney style and the sentimental meatgrinder through which he ran story after story. I mentioned having read Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio as a boy (like The Wizard of Oz, I read Pinocchio before I actually saw the film), and the two are actually relatively close except for one major plot point: in the book Pinocchio angrily squashes the cricket in chapter four, while in the movie he has a name (Jiminy Cricket) and appears throughout the film as Pinocchio’s conscience. (Incidentally Jiminy Cricket also provided a big comeback for Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, who voiced him and did the eloquent singing on the film’s theme song, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”) At the same time the film also noted the thinly veiled contempt with which Hollywood viewed cartoons and the people who created them when it pointed out that instead of giving Snow White a Best Picture nomination, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ignored it in regular competition and instead gave Disney a special award — a full-sized one for himself and seven miniature ones in honor of the dwarfs. The clip of the ceremony shows Disney accepting this award from Shirley Temple and him struggling to keep his cool while inwardly seething inside. The contempt for animation as an art form comes through in the original publicity book for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, which promised exhibitors a movie as spectacular as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but with the advantage that it contained live actors — though given what they went through trying to get the effects right, it’s likely Mervyn LeRoy, Arthur Freed and Victor Fleming sometimes envied their colleagues at Disney who could simply draw what they wanted to happen and make it come to life! — 9/15/15


Last night KPBS showed the second half of the American Experience program about Walt Disney — just why Disney got to be an American Experience instead of an American Master is a mystery to me — prefaced with a show from a series called In Their Own Words about Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. In Their Own Words promises more than it delivers — it promises a show about a famous person literally told in his or her own words (besides Henson, so far they’ve done Queen Elizabeth II and Muhammad Ali), but all the “own words” are titles literally flashed across the screen, abstracted from interviews the subjects gave over the years, and otherwise the show is a pretty conventional biography series, strongly reminiscent of the Arts & Entertainment Biography series of yesteryear (and the half-hour biography series David Wolper did in the 1960’s well before that!), but the coincidence of showing a program about Jim Henson right before the second half of the big four-hour documentary about Walt Disney may have been intentional to draw a parallel between Disney and Henson as child-men who drew upon their own fantasies and their own small-town boyhoods (Disney’s in Missouri, Henson’s in Mississippi) to create entertainments that would appeal to both children and adults — though Henson was hardly the businessman Disney was (and he didn’t have a brother to run the business end of the company the way Disney did — Henson had lost his older brother Paul to an accident while Paul was serving in the U.S. military in Florida) and he eventually ended up selling his company to Disney, which since Walt’s death has acted like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up virtually every major creator of fantasy entertainment, from Henson’s company to George Lucas’s enterprise (most importantly including the Star Wars characters) and Marvel Comics. As for part two of the Walt Disney film, it was something of a comedown from part one — inevitably, as the quality of Disney’s movies (especially the animated features that were its trademark) declined and Disney lost interest in filmmaking generally to pursue his vision of … whatever. In a TV documentary — even a four-hour one — it was obviously impossible for the filmmakers (the auteur of the Disney documentary was Sarah Colt, who produced, directed and co-wrote it, so the “take” on the Disney story it presents can be assumed to be hers) to cover the entire Disney oeuvre. It doesn’t mention that Walt Disney’s 1941 trip to South America wasn’t just a vacation to get himself of the cross-hairs of the conflict between him and the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild (headed by Herbert Sorrell, whom Disney denounced both then and six years later as a “friendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a Communist — and as many union activists and just plain liberals in Hollywood (and elsewhere) were falsely accused of Communism during the so-called McCarthy era (a misnomer because the inquisitorial spirit of the age began well before Joe McCarthy himself emerged from back-bench obscurity in the U.S. Senate to become the public face of the “anti-Communist” crusade), what I’ve read about Sorrell suggests that he, like John Howard Lawson and Sidney Buchman, was the real Red deal.

The trip was a working vacation arranged by Nelson Rockefeller, a major shareholder in RKO, the major studio that was Walt Disney’s distributor from the mid-1930’s until 1952, when Disney formed his own distribution company, Buena Vista, and at last became head of a fully integrated movie studio instead of just an independent producer releasing through another company. Rockefeller wanted RKO’s major filmmakers, Disney and Orson Welles, to make movies in South America that would help promote the Good Neighbor Policy and keep Latin American countries from either going fascist themselves or selling raw materials to the Axis powers, and though all Rockefeller got out of Welles was a mess of footage of Brazilian fishermen and carnivalitos for a stillborn project called It’s All True, Disney came up with Saludos Amigos and followed it up in 1945 with The Three Caballeros. The documentary doesn’t mention the films Disney made after the so-called “Big Five” fully animated features (Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi and Dumbo) in the 1940’s, which were comparatively uninteresting and showed the banality typical of the Disney style at its worst, but also contained some genuinely creative moments (notably the fireworks sequence at the end of The Three Caballeros and the number with Benny Goodman’s quartet performing “After You’ve Gone” in Make Mine Music, which if Disney had been interested in doing it could have become the basis for a jazz version of Fantasia). Instead it chronicles Disney’s growing disinterest in filmmaking per se and his letting the studio run largely without him, not only in the live-action movies he started making in Great Britain in 1950 (Sarah Colt doesn’t mention that the genesis of these films was the so-called “frozen funds” policy invented by the Nazis and copied by the British and other European governments after World War II, in which foreign companies were prohibited from taking money out of the country; the idea was to get them to invest in the countries where they had made the money in the first place and create products they could then export and make their money back) but even in Cinderella, the 1950 production that was Disney’s return to fully animated features based on fairy tales and which was a blockbuster hit on its initial release, but which Disney took very little active role in and, according to Colt, was all too aware of the corners that had been cut and the short-cuts that had been taken that kept it from being the masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been.

The show describes Disney as becoming obsessed with building model trains — ones big enough to carry people even though far smaller than their real-life counterparts (something like the model railroad at the San Diego Zoo) — to the point where in the early 1950’s he seemed more interested in this bizarre hobby than in keeping up with the competition in animated movies (including the United Productions of America studio which set up shop nearby Disney’s plant in Burbank, incorporated a lot of the animators Disney had driven away because of their participation in the strike against him, pioneered the so-called “limited animation” style and took its inspiration from 20th century artists rather than the Old Masters; Disney would refer to the UPA animators as “those Commies down the river”). He even took a railroading trip with animator Ward Kimball, who collected toy trains and also played Dixieland jazz (he and some fellow Disney animators formed a band called the Firehouse Five Plus Two — why not just the Firehouse Seven? — performed in firefighters’ uniforms and ended up, natch, with a regular gig at Disneyland), and when he got back he was obsessed with building his own amusement park. That was an idea no one in his organization — including his brother Roy, who as usual predicted financial disaster — could understand, since the existing amusement parks in the U.S. c. 1950 were descendants of the old traveling carnivals and had the same mix of unpleasant people and “carnie” exploitation. Even Walt’s wife Lillian didn’t understand why he wanted to be in that business — “They’re dirty, unsafe and filled with the sorts of people you wouldn’t want to associate with,” she told him — and Walt had a hard time explaining even to his wife and his brother, much less the people he was asking for money to invest in his project, that his amusement park would be clean, safe and filled with eminently respectable people and attractions. Walt got his seed capital from an unexpected source, the ABC-TV network, who wanted a show from him (and got it only after NBC and CBS both turned him down) and were persuaded into investing in Disneyland in exchange for the show, which relentlessly cross-promoted the theme park and got millions of America interested in going to Disneyland even before it existed as anything more than renderings on Disney’s office walls.

One odd thing was that Sarah Colt’s clips from the Disney TV program showed them in black-and-white, as they originally aired, even though Walt Disney ordered them (especially the Davy Crockett mini-series, which itself became such an enormous hit Disney released two feature films edited from them) shot in color — and there was an argument over that between Walt and Roy Disney that to me sums up their whole relationship. “Why did you waste all that money filming the TV shows in color? TV isn’t in color!” said Roy — and Walt just smiled one of his gnomic smiles and said, “It will be.” It’s not surprising that when Disney moved his show from ABC to NBC precisely because NBC was the first network to go all-color, he even named it Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and opened it with a set of kaleidoscopic images over a theme song which literally sang the praises of color. The show continues with a desultory presentation of the last years of Disney’s life, when Disneyland had become such a cash cow he never again had to ask a bank for money to make a film — he had all the capital he would ever need just from the theme-park revenues — and when decades of chain-smoking finally caught up with him and he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died at the end of 1966. Oddly, Sarah Colt mentions some of the stories in Richard Schickel’s book The Disney Version and even uses him as an on-camera interviewee but doesn’t always tell them correctly or completely — when Disney had his famous exchange with New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther over Crowther’s comment that his movies were “corny,” Disney said, “I like corn” — but Colt doesn’t mention what Disney said about why he liked corn: “Corn is the golden crop.” Nonetheless, American Experience: Walt Disney is a fascinating look at an entrepreneur who lived the American dream, rising from (virtually) nothing to fabulous wealth and success, and who along the way shaped, for better or worse, the fantasy lives of billions of people around the world. — 9/16/15