A Few Things I Noticed about American Experience: Walt Disney
by Todd James Pierce
Having just watched the first episode of the PBS American Experience on Walt Disney, I strongly agree with Disney animator Floyd Norman: “I’d like to think that this American Experience documentary would be like an icebreaker to having more people say let’s get to know this man better.”
I had high hopes for the PBS film—a film that would’ve allowed Walt to stand alongside other American greats given the rare American Experience two-part treatment. Among them, JFK and John Adams. Maybe my expectations were unrealistically high. But even with the expanded four-hour format, the film still is unable to effectively capture the life of Walt, the life of the studio, and the development of American animation, though sections of the film are lovely.
By far the strongest section in Part 1 is that devoted to Snow White. In those 25 minutes, the PBS film confines itself to a single narrative arc: the artists’ quest to create feature-length animation that will appeal primarily to pathos, not comedy. This section does a fine job, with the time it has, on identifying the financial, technical and artistic hurtles the studio must overcome to create the film. There are many reasons why this section works so much better than other portions of the film—in large part, this section is voiced with animators and other artists who either worked on Snow White or later worked for Disney. This section is interested in the techniques and technology of animation. This sequence is also able to arrange itself around a sustained conflict—the struggle to make the film. But this also, oddly, defines what is missing from the PBS effort: the Snow White section is mostly about the studio as an entity of artists, not primarily about Walt. The PBS film, when it has the opportunity, is able to effectively invest itself in artistic or social conflict, but it’s not nearly as effective at defining Walt as a person. Or to put this another way, the film does a strong job of laying down a visual chronology of Walt’s life—I loved the new footage and photos (particularly those of the studio Penthouse club)—but it has trouble assembling these moments into a unified biography that deeply reveals Walt as a person.
Another problem, in my opinion, is one of subject expertise. As the film was being developed, the filmmakers enthusiastically announced that it would be produced without interference from either the Walt Disney Company or the Walt Disney Family Foundation. In one promotional clip, executive producer Mark Samels explained that the Walt Disney Company “wouldn’t see anything until it aired on PBS.” I understand why the filmmakers wanted independence, especially as the Walt Disney Company is a highly brand conscious entity. As best I understand the production, the bulk of the filmmakers spent about two years on the project—not nearly long enough for the producers and writers to develop deep expertise. In giving themselves this independence, the filmmakers then also created a new set of problems: the film, without reliance on the Disney Company or Foundation, doesn’t always know where to look for expert guidance to create depth and narrative direction.
Aside from the Snow White set piece, my favorite sections were those in which artists with personal experience at the studio relate their memories and impressions—such as Rolly Crump, Bob Givens, Ruthie Thompson, and Don Lusk. The PBS film, clearly, wants to individuate its presentation from Disney behind-the-scenes films by creating its own interviews. But in doing so, the producers also excluded archival video interviews with central Disney artists (Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, etc.) that would’ve added depth and gravitas to the project.
As I watched the film tonight, I took notes on a laptop, notes that I’ve loosely arranged by topic below. Overall the film does a good job of creating a visual timeline of the studio—especially with the production of Snow White—though it also struggles to define interesting connections between events and to fully expose the humanity of Walt. These, then, are my overall impressions of the American Experience on Disney, Part 1:
- OPENING SEQUENCE
One of the most troubling sections for me occurred in the film’s opening sequence. The PBS documentary frames Walt as a figure that has been misunderstood by history—or at least has suffered a presentation in which the elements of his personality have been incorrectly emphasized by history. The tremendous achievements of Disney are flagged in the opening sequence, but the center-point narration presents Walt as distant, troubled, driven by a manic desire for success. In fact the film opens with an image of Walt as a person his artist feared, even if that fear was presented with the tonalities of comedy: “Man is in the forest.”
The film approaches Walt in such a way as to suggest that his good-natured presentation was a disingenuous social construction—or as Gabler claims, Walt was “in many ways a very dark soul.” Richard Schickel’s follow up comment—that Walt, “as driven a man as I’ve ever met” simply wanted to “make a name for himself—suggested that Walt had blind ambition that was more focused on ego than on art or entertainment.
Over years, I’ve interviewed dozens and dozens of individuals who knew Walt, and this presentation of Walt doesn’t strike me as historically balanced. And perhaps this is the tricky part: it’s not that any one of these personality elements were untrue; rather with the documentary placing these at the start of the film, it is suggesting that these are the focal points of Walt’s personality, those elements that most vividly defined both his social presence and his interior life.
It’s hard to know how to read this miscalculation of emphases: did the producers emphasize these elements because they were overwhelmed by the complexities of Walt’s life, with only two years to research and produce the film? (Very possible.) Or did the producers fix on these impressions because they would sensationalize Walt’s life? (Also a possibility, especially when considered in conjunction with later sequences.)
Almost from the start, the documentary has trouble defining its canvas. At times, the film presents the history of the Disney Studio as it relates to the development of animation—though the film often lacks industry depth to understand how Disney participated, interacted, changed and reacted to American animation in general. At times, the film seeks primarily to explore Walt as an individual, yet it has difficulty presenting a cohesive narrative of Walt’s inner life and ambitions—so much so that the film constantly reaches for easy answers to explain Walt’s drive, by presenting himself as a reactionary man who wanted to distance himself from both the personality and judgment of his father.
- THE EXPERTS
For me, Neal Gabler, both complex and troubling at times, is one of the most sophisticated experts in the film. He’s strong on details and specifics. He also has interesting theories as to how to read Walt, even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions: for example, he has a strong Freudian read on Walt in which his adult personality is primarily shaped by negative early experiences with his father. But I was surprised by the way Gabler presented an extremely generous exploration of Roy’s motivation to develop a movie studio with his brother: “Roy, as much as he was a naysayer, loved the enthusiasm of Walt…he got joy from participating in the kind of wild schemes of his brother…Roy got release, and Walt got protection.”
Gabler’s strong suit is this: he looks for ways to develop theories of motivation that unify an individual sense of interiority with action. With this, his approach to a biographic understanding of a historical figure (i.e. Walt) is more sophisticated than most all of the experts in the film. With Gabler, my disagreements are about interpretation. That’s almost always an interesting road to pursue.
I will also offer this: the most insightful line that Gabler offered about Walt concerned Marceline: it’s wasn’t living in Marceline that created Walt’s mid-American sensibilities, rather it was “the losing of Marceline,” a personal Eden from which he was required to leave.
In my opinion, Steven Watts, as a cultural historian, does the best job of consistently understanding interiority as it relates to Walt. Watts seems to understand the complexities of Walt, particularly as they relate to running an animation studio.
Though she’s only given a few sentences here and there, Sarah Nilsen does a good job of contextualizing how the animation industry developed in the 1910s and 1920s. Oddly the producers don’t seem to recognize that this interchange—between Walt and the industry—could have been a much stronger (and more complex) narrative anchor in the film, if only it were given space to develop.
Tom Sito and Don Hahn, an animator and a producer, do an excellent job of explaining the technology and techniques of animation as they evolve in the twentieth century. Their segments both radiate a respect for the medium and a deep interest in its history—which were qualities not always shared by other experts in the PBS film.
Carmenita Higginbotham seems to be striving for something important to say, yet doesn’t have a firm grasp of animation history. When she discusses Walt wanting to “break into” this “big industry,” she appears not to understand that, in the 1920s, all animation studios were nothing more than a dozen or so individuals crammed into a couple rooms. Like others in the film, she often describes surface details in Disney projects without offering sufficient insight into their production: “Fantasia is wildly ambitious. You can feel it in every scene.” When she does move to interpret, she over-reaches, particularly in her commentary on Walt receiving a special Oscar for Snow White: “He got sort of the honorable mention [Oscar] which is crap. He doesn’t want that”—which is a sentiment I can’t tie to Walt or anyone who personally knew him.
Ron Suskind is not a subject expert in the history of animation or the life of Walt Disney. As best I understand, his main connection to Disney is through a book he wrote documenting his autistic son’s affinity with Disney films. Yet Suskind occupies a considerable amount of time in this documentary. Suskind appears extremely personable—I suspect I’d like him—yet the film needs stronger experts to explore the history of Walt as a person and the development of the animation industry. This is the fault of the producers, not necessarily Suskind.
In the strangest Suskind clip he acts out an imaginary comic exchange in which Walt Disney literally talks to the character of Mickey Mouse in his office. In the longest, Suskind explains the personality of Mickey Mouse: “Mickey is a little bit in your face. Mickey is like, Hey, I’m smart. I can do anything. I get into trouble. But I get out of it. I’m sort of rebellious. You know, I live by my own rules… Rebelling and making it work—that’s Mickey.” First off, aside from a few early cartoons, I’d say that Mickey is primarily a social conformist: he wants to get along and to be liked. He’s the opposite of the rebel. But more importantly, wouldn’t pretty much 99.9% of the PBS audience know the basic personality of Mickey Mouse without the film having to define it? Whereas Gabler seeks to interpret events with richness, Suskind mostly explains the surface of film projects in ways that offer language but not illumination.
Michael Barrier’s voice when it finally appears in the film (at about the 45 minute mark) is succinct, thoughtful and direct. In short it is the voice of an expert, someone who deeply understands both Walt Disney and the development of the animation industry. It’s generally what the film is missing, an anchor intellectual, counter to Gabler, to deepen the narrative and give the project a fuller sense of guidance. I understand that Barrier was somewhat under the weather the day the PBS team taped his segment. But even with this, I can’t imagine why Barrier occupies so little of the film and Ron Suskind occupies so much.
- THE STRIKE
Though by the time I viewed this section I understood that the four-hour approach would only allow for overview presentations of important events, I felt that the strike narration oddly sided with the strikers and didn’t fully present Walt’s perspective—even though the film was, in large part, a biopic of Walt. In this, I recognize that strikers had legitimate concerns, particularly in regards to pay and screen credit. But in a documentary about Walt, Walt’s own perspective was minimized in this section. The film failed to include Walt’s efforts to create contracts with the Canadian government to produce war-related films as a means of keeping his artists employed, nor did the film seem to understand that Walt’s trip to South America was the extension of a deal that he had developed for nine-month with the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, a deal that would also bring financial guarantees and likely some profits into the studio. Likewise the film didn’t explore how the strikers, specifically, sought to limit revenue into the studio (by disrupting print production at Technicolor) at a time when Disney was nearly bankrupt because the war had closed European markets. All of these things would be essential to understand the strike from Walt’s perspective, but oddly were left out of the film. That is, the film misses the complexities of the moment, particularly as Walt would’ve experienced them.
Maybe the lesson here is this: the topic of Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Studio is too large for a unified, narrative film. Maybe the topic can only be approached with depth through individual subtopics: a film on the strike, a film on the South American trips, a film on the making of Snow White. But to loop back to the place where this review began—I think animator Floyd Norman has it right: this film is an opportunity to bring Walt and the experience of early animators back into the cultural conversation, a chance to discuss how American media today is related to early industry pioneers, particularly a man who transformed the techniques and business of animation.
[This PBS film was originally televised on two consecutive nights: the review of the film’s second part can be found here.]
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