A Few Things I Noticed about American Experience: Walt Disney – Part Two
by Todd James Pierce
Like many of you, I’ve just finished watching the second half of American Experience: Walt Disney. [My review of the first part can be found here.] Having now seen both halves, I’m guessing that the PBS team probably struggled until the last moments of production with how to present Walt. Over the summer (in the two months leading to the film’s premiere) PBS posted many Interview clips from the production. The Interview clips initially appeared to be (or at least to be like) finished sections of the film, complete with an integrated soundtrack, even sound effects in places. Many of these Interview clips weren’t included in the finished film in any way, such as Ron Suskind’s plot summary of Dumbo and Carmenita Higginbotham’s discussion of Snow White. But the most interesting exclusion or alternate edit concerns the (highly problematic) Susan Douglas diatribe about Walt’s desire to inculcate racist ideals and whitewash American history through the use of themed space at Disneyland.
On the day that PBS posted that promotional clip (entitled: “Interview: Walt Disney’s America”) the Disney suburbs of the Internet exploded with protest, particularly at Douglas’s pejorative description of Walt’s “very white view of the world.” That “Interview,” in addition to being pointedly offensive, presented some deep misunderstandings about Disney studio projects in the late 1950s. [You can see the original clip and read my commentary here.]
In the finished film, the near two-minute diatribe is largely reduced to a few sentences. In its original Interview presentation, the Douglas commentary was laid over Disneyland footage. Much of the Disneyland footage is located elsewhere in the finished film, and the Douglas commentary (drastically shortened) is placed over images of suburban white characters in mid-century Disney comedies, thereby changing its meaning. The focus of the comments, through editing, have also changed: from a charge that Disney inculcated racist values through themed entertainment to one suggesting that Disney films weren’t interested in exploring contemporary military and political conflicts—a vastly different point than the originally-posted Interview cut. The phrase “very white view” appears nowhere in the finished film.
I point this out largely because it suggests that the filmmakers were wrestling with how to present the story of Walt Disney right until the end of production—even how to arrange and prioritize the film’s thematic and promotional materials. I think there are two possibilities here: the “Interviews” were overages that couldn’t be used in their entirety in the finished film due to time constraints or the “Interviews” represented some alternate (probably early) version of a film sequence re-purposed as a promotional clip. Regardless, the message difference between the recently released “Interview” and the finished film may help explain why the PBS film never quite arrives at a unified vision of Walt. The filmmakers appear to be struggling with this at a very late stage in production—either with how to arrange their promotional materials (through the “Interviews”) or how to integrate these materials into the film itself.
Again, I think there are some lovely sequences in Part Two, even if the overall film isn’t perfect. The life of Walt Disney and the development of the studio is probably more than any four-hour (or six- or even eight-hour) film can adequately explore. The problem, here, is likely one of ambition.
Like last night, I’ve arranged my thoughts into a list. The list is not exhaustive. For example, the PBS film needs better information and a fuller presentation of why Disney moved its TV offerings from ABC to NBC, but I’ve not included it on the list. I’ve simply tried to include those elements I feel most important.
(1) WHAT WORKED
- DISCUSSION OF THE BIG FIVE
One of the strongest sections in Part Two is the visual exploration of the Big Five, in which Tom Sito, Don Hahn, and Neal Gabler discuss the early, often conflicting styles of Disney features. In my opinion, this should’ve been a narrative line woven through the entire film—a discussion of how the art of animation evolved over Walt’s life (influenced by high culture, studio finances, house styles of Fleischer, Warner and UPA, and so forth.). It works so well here. The on-screen experts are discussing topics for which they have a strong depth of knowledge.
- THE DEVELOPMENT AND CONSTRUCTION OF DISNEYLAND
Though the narrative is highly condensed and simplified, this is the other standout section in Part Two. Largely it works because the PBS film allows early WED designers and managers (Bob Gurr, Alice Davis, Marty Sklar, and Rolly Crump) to narrate their own stories. It also works because—after stumbling to define cultural movements as they relate to Walt’s ambitions—the film nails it here (increased leisure time, disposable income, along with a Boomer generation’s growing fascination with Hollywood entertainment). Carmenita Higginbotham, an art historian whom I felt largely stumbled in Part One, comes through with a strong cultural read on the park, including that of the Native American presence in Frontierland.
This section of the PBS film also presents Walt (for the first time since perhaps the section on Snow White) in an extended positive light, as a man deeply connected to and excited about the creative process. The section understands Disneyland in important ways (as a living movie in which the audience co-creates the entertainment experience) and even presents some construction footage that was new for me.
(2) WHAT WAS LEFT OUT
- Perhaps this is the largest shortcoming of Part Two: so much of Walt’s life is missing from the PBS film. Among the most important omissions are Walt’s involvement in significant live action features (such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Old Yeller, Pollyanna, and Swiss Family Robinson), early exploration for an east coast Disneyland (starting in 1959), Mineral King (and other proposed ski venues), the 1964-65 World’s Fair and the development of audio-animatronics for Abe Lincoln and Pirates of the Caribbean. Even in those stories included so much is simplified or condensed that important moments in Walt’s life (such as the move to create traditional live action film in England and the invention of the modern nature documentary) are devoid of complexities. In this way the film, then, functions more as biographic summary than insightful exploration. More than anything, this speaks to the grandness of Walt’s life: it needs far more time. But it also (painfully at times) demonstrates the limitations of film. The complexities in Walt’s life seem far better suited for books, with their variable lengths, than the hard-and-fast time-formatting of film and video.
(3) WHAT SHOULD BE CHANGED
- THE STRIKE
The presentation of the strike leaves out too many important details. For example, as described in the PBS film, the strikers sought to damage production at the studio, which included production on Dumbo and Bambi, but the immediate target of the strike (not included in the PBS film) was the release of The Reluctant Dragon. By pressuring sympathetic Technicolor lab workers into ceasing work on all Disney projects, union officials left Disney with only 70 prints of Dragon for the entire summer—leaving an order for an additional 100 prints unfilled. I estimate that the loss of these prints cost the studio roughly one million dollars in revenue, a substantial loss considering the studio was on the verge of bankruptcy.
But regardless, the strike section is framed largely through the experience of those striking. Some of these men and women had legitimate reasons to join a labor action. But to narrate this section almost wholly from a union perspective and not equally from Walt’s perspective is to damage what should’ve been one of the film’s primary goals: to offer an intimate and human view of Walt Disney. The path the film follows here would be similar to a biopic of Bill Clinton that views his life, for significant stretches, primarily through the bias of House Republicans. That is, though the strikers have legitimate concerns, this section of the film devalues Walt’s perspective by removing it almost entirely from the narration. The PBS film even presents Disney’s long-planned trip to South America—which in itself is an attempt to raise capital for the studio—as “skipping town.”
In my opinion an effective biography needs to give adequate voice to the views of the central figure (i.e. Walt) even if it also uses opposing views to create a historical context. Through this section, the film offers historical context (the position of the union) without enough of the perspective and rationale of Walt.
- SONG OF THE SOUTH
Nowhere is the need for additional time more evident than with the section on Song of the South. The film presents Song of the South as Disney’s move away from European stories and into an American tale—which isn’t entirely true. (Dumbo and large sections of Make Mine Music were also set in America.) But the question the PBS film introduces—how did Disney understand issues of race in the mid-1940s during the production of Song of the South—is so important that the question demands more time to adequately explore the details of Walt’s experience. Aside from Disney’s invitation for Walter White, president of the NAACP, to supervise the development of the script (briefly noted in the PBS film), who else did Walt approach? What specific advice did he receive? To whom did Disney assign the script and was the question of race considered in making this assignment? In the mid-1940s, how did film studios (a west coast industry) relate to theater segregation in southern movie houses? What was Walt’s relationship with the film’s African-American star, James Baskett during production and afterward? The question of race that the PBS film broaches is compelling—indeed a question that should be explored—but the film doesn’t offer viewers enough information to navigate the experience to a position of meaning. The end result, I suspect, is not to deepen or challenge a viewer’s opinion about race and Disney in the 1940s but simply to leave a viewer’s preexisting notions about these things intact without any meaningful (perhaps uncomfortable) exploration.
- HUAC AND THE SHADOW OF COMMUNISM
My understanding of Walt’s engagement with HUAC is similar to the view expressed by Tom Sito in the PBS film. Without doubt, Walt’s participation in HUAC is problematic, but his focus on communism is wholly (or almost wholly) tied to a sense of personal betrayal during the strike and not necessarily to larger ideological or political concerns of the era. The film narrates events as they happened, but for me the concern in this section is one of emphases: the HUAC section gets substantial time and attention (perhaps as it should) but without Walt’s other late-1940s pursuits better represented and intercut into the timeline (Smoke Tree Ranch, home life with his daughters, the early 1948 designs of an amusement park) it presents Walt as a man oddly obsessed with the issue of communism. Simply, he wasn’t.
Perhaps the element most missing from the PBS film is one of narrative focus: the film, though having some strong segments, is never able to present Walt as a fully knowable person. The individual obsessed with “commies,” as played out in the PBS film, is utterly divorced from the enthusiastic creative individual who built Disneyland: the narration and historic footage offer no way to plausibly connect the two. The problem here is that the film doesn’t always have the pulse of the historic Walt, which causes a sense of disjuncture in the finished narrative.
I enjoyed many segments in the film, particularly those on the making of Snow White and the construction of Disneyland. The Disneyland section, with its multi-vocal approach to history, radiated joy and was a pleasure to experience. Somewhat ironically, the film was at its strongest when it focused on studio projects rather than when it explored Walt as a person.
Some of the film’s most troubling moments, in retrospect, now seem like self-inflicted wounds. In my review of the First Part, I discussed how the opening was out-of-step with my understanding of Walt as an individual, particularly with Neal Gabler’s assertion that Walt had a “very dark soul.” A similar note ends the first part: “Disney still had work to do. And woe be to the forces that stood in his path.” But this “dark soul” observation, along with the pugilistic closing statement, never really develop into anything of importance in the film.
Likewise much is made of Walt’s difficult relationship with his father as being a primal force in moving Walt toward reactionary success as an adult. This, too, never really pans out in the film and also seems out-of-sync with historic details. Yet, the film has extremely little to say about the one arena where this observation might’ve held true: with Walt, himself, as a father. Unlike his own father, Elias, Walt was extremely involved in the life of his children, often arranging activities that the three of them (Walt, Diane, Sharon) would do by themselves on weekends.
In ways—despite its many strong stand-alone sections—this film seems to be searching for Walt for much of its presentation. It is looking for motivational drives in familiar places (possible darkness, overriding ego, father issues, and excessive need for control). Conversely the film seems unwilling to entertain more unique elements in Walt’s personality that may have better accounted for his accomplishments, such as a deep (almost religious) longing for the imagined simplicity of the past or a need to create community (first at the studio, later at WED, finally with the unbuilt EPCOT) as a means of keeping the chaos, isolation and egotism of the modern world at bay. One of the reasons that Walt is a compelling historic figure, in my opinion, is not because he embodies typical concerns of mid-Century American moguls—but rather, because his drives are more idiosyncratic than that of other highly successful men of the same era. The mystique of Disney as a person, I’ve always felt, is at least partially one of difference: the idea that in cultures defined by excesses in wealth, image, political and sexual pursuits, other paths still lead forward to meaningful, creative success.
Oddly, it’s only in the film’s final ten minutes, with Walt’s inevitable death and his legacy, that I feel that the production finally grasps the importance of Disney as a creative and cultural force in his own time. He could not be replaced at the studio: that note is repeatedly struck by individuals when they discuss his death. Maybe, through absence, a man like Disney is easier to understand. Regardless I’m glad the film includes this final re-evaluation of Walt, through legacy, as its closing statement, one that finally connects the person to his deep impact on American entertainment and world culture.
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