When I was a little girl I was Mickey Mouse crazy. I have this one photo of me as a little girl, sat on the hood of someone’s car, dressed head to toe in Mickey Mouse. I remember watching Disney movies that aired on broadcast television when I was growing up. One of my all-time favorite movies is Mary Poppins. I always loved Disney and remember our first trip to Walt Disney World in 1986 fondly.
I suppose with a love of the thing comes a love – or perhaps respect for the creator of said thing. In my case, this would naturally be in the person of Walt Disney himself. The mastermind behind the movies, the television programming, the empire. How could a man who had created so many iconic animated movies, so many feel good live action films, such a beautiful amusement park, be anything but great himself? I remember the story of how Walt didn’t want the actress Annette Funicello to wear a bikini which would reveal her navel in the Beach Blanket movies she made, because that was too revealing and she still had an image to protect. She was one of the original Mickey Mouse Club members and still starred in Disney films, so there was a wholesome image she projected that Walt Disney didn’t want tarnished. How could a man like that be anything but a genius?
Genius he might well have been, pushing the limits of what existed in animation at the time, but he was not a man that I could see myself respecting were he alive today. I found a documentary about his life on YouTube and discovered that the man behind the genius wasn’t a very pleasant man. He was a perfectionist. Well, one might expect that in an artist, because we all want things ‘just so’. He was stubborn. Something that both skyrocketed him to fame, in the appearance of Snow White, but also brought him crashing down, when he refused to listen to something that couldn’t reasonably be done, when Disneyland was being built or that there wasn’t enough money to do what he wanted. He was also stubborn in refusing to see the reality of the working conditions he’d fostered among the animators and other artists on staff. Everyone was pigeonholed into doing one specific task and if someone at the top of the food chain helped someone below, that someone at the top found is perks taken away. He refused to allow his animators to join a union to negotiate better pay for all involved in putting together an animated movie. He even went so far as to call those who instigated a strike Communists and was part of the McCarthy Era crackdown on suspected Commies in Hollywood. He pushed people to their limits – working 16 hour days – just to complete Disneyland in the time he’d promised, despite the time frame being unrealistic. Though I’ve never seen the movie, I am familiar with at least one of the songs made famous from Song of the South. Prior to the film being made, Walt apparently met with representatives from the ACLU, which might seem like a good indication that he planned to be sensitive to the subject matter he planned to convey in the story, but in the end he did what he wanted and produced a rather racially charged film. He was equally insensitive to Native Americans. Their portrayal at Disneyland something of a mockery.
I was also very disheartened to learn of Walt’s bullying tactics in bringing my beloved Mary Poppins to the big screen when I saw the film Finding Mr Banks. As a writer myself, I would never want to be bullied by anyone into bringing a story I’d written to the big screen. The movie will always be my favorite and have a special place in my heart, but the way it got there was completely wrong.
Walt was a man who loved attention. Loved being at the center of everything. According to the documentary, he had a difficult relationship with his father and therefore a difficult childhood. Some might argue that his love for attention stems from that. He received in adulthood that which was missing from his childhood. That may be true and I don’t begrudge his enjoyment of being the center of attention. What I have a problem with is all the rest of the stuff. Most notably his treatment of those who worked for him and his participation in blackballing as Communists people in Hollywood who disagreed with him. He once took out an ad in the Variety newspaper to communicate with those who were on strike because he had no other way to communicate with them. All he had to do was get out of his car outside the studio and talk rather than driving through the crowd each morning as though nothing were wrong.
Though I don’t approve of his racism toward black Americans and Native Americans, we’re still struggling with the former at least all these years later.