Monday, June 13, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“WALT DISNEY – HOLLYWOOD’S DARK PRINCE” by Marc Eliot (first published 1993)
As I have said before on this blog, I believe there are times when hatchet jobs are absolutely necessary. By “hatchet jobs” I mean biographies which deliberately concentrate on the negative side of somebody, and do their best to destroy that person’s reputation. For me, Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry (published in 1955) is the gold standard of the hatchet job. Until Aldington wrote it, nearly all books about T.E. Lawrence had been sanitised and airbrushed, presenting Lawrence as the perfect warrior and ignoring the small scale of his exploits, their very limited effect on the progress of the First World War in the Middle East, Lawrence’s decidedly odd sexual proclivities (I do not mean his homosexuality – I mean his taste for flagellation) and the fact that he largely manufactured his legend in his own not-entirely-truthful works.
So in this instance a hatchet job was, at the time, a necessary and robust corrective.
But, seen in the context of later and better biographies of Lawrence, the limits of Aldington’s work are also evident. For having lined Lawrence up in his sights, Aldington proceeded to deny the man any good points, and put the most negative possible construction on even the most innocent things. And, of course, there were some factual errors (as there are in any biography I have ever read), upon which Aldington’s critics readily pounced. This is the trouble with hatchet jobs. They are always in danger of overstating their case and toppling into unwarranted vituperation.
For a really crass example of this, see War of theWindsors, which, as I noted in my post, has the worthy cause of exposing the flaws of the British royal family, but ends up as a series of tabloid “scandals” and innuendo. Just dirt without substance.
Of course a good hatchet job on Walt Disney would still be an excellent thing. The Disney Corporation has done great cultural harm by spearheading the move to extend copyright cover from 50 years after a creator’s death to 75 years and further, to protect their rights to cartoon characters whose creators are long dead. This is in the interests of a corporation, not in the interests of any legitimate heirs to the creators of the cartoons, all of whom have already reaped great financial rewards. There is also the fact that the Disney Corporation routinely sponsors very sanitised depictions of old Walt. One of the most recent was the 2013 film Saving Mr Banks – a very entertaining film, by the way – in which Disney (played by Tom Hanks) was depicted as a wise and compassionate fellow helping Pamela Travers (played by Emma Thompson), the creator of Mary Poppins, to come to terms with her past and see the error of her ways in objecting to his film version of her story. At least where the depiction of Disney was concerned, this was pure hagiography.
So bring on the hatchet jobs on Disney, because the sponsored hagiographies too often have their way.
Which brings me to Marc Eliot’s Walt Disney – Hollywood’s Dark Prince.
When it was first published in 1993, it caused predictable outrage from Disney’s family. Some admirers of Disney’s work and achievements have also subsequently condemned the book. The case has become muddied since the book was published, too, because since then fundamentalist churches have condemned some of the Disney Corporation’s more recent output, so even people who might see the error of some of Walt Disney’s ways don’t now want to say so, lest they be bracketed with people who claim to see insidious sexual messages in The Little Mermaid or The Lion King. (Given that Walt Disney died in 1966, what the company with his name has been doing for the last fifty years is, of course, none of his responsibility.)
Let’s consider the book itself, without donning such retrospective glasses.
Walt Disney – Hollywood’s Dark Prince is not entirely a hatchet job. Eliot admires much of the work of the Disney studio (only some of which was Disney’s own work) and gives due praise to Walt Disney’s innovative cartoons in the 1930s and the big gambles he took in producing very expensive feature-length cartoons in the late 1930s and 1940s. Eliot is very good and detailed on the technical aspects of producing animated cartoons. Eliot also corrects punctiliously some urban legends about Disney, such as the one which claimed that his corpse was cryogenically frozen with a view to later being revived, should science develop the ability to do such things. In fact, as Eliot notes, Disney was cremated within a week of his death.
Nevertheless, Eliot scores some palpable hits against the man. Yes, Disney, as the only Gentile controlling a studio in Hollywood, really was mildly anti-Semitic and made casual racial slurs in his conversation, although he got on well with Sam Goldwyn and was in 1955 made “Man of the Year” by the esteemed Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith. He was not an anti-Semitic extremist in the same league as Henry Ford. Despite the image of the clean-living fellow that he liked to project, Disney was also a heavy drinker, even if he hated being photographed with a glass in his hand.
More seriously, Disney’s views were very right-wing (his defenders claim he was merely a political naïf) and therefore extremely anti-union. Disney did deals with gangster muscle (like the mobster Willie Bioff) to break up strikes in his studio, especially one which took place early in 1941, before the USA was involved directly in the world war. To the strikers’ outrage, the strike took place at the same time as the release of the Disney feature The Reluctant Dragon, which had live-action sequences depicting cheerful employees of the Disney studio as “one big happy family”. This was the standard propaganda image of the studio that Disney wished to sell to the world.
Marc Eliot claims that Disney was a long-term informant for the FBI and instrumental in bringing the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) to Hollywood in the McCarthy years. He says Disney therefore helped J. Edgar Hoover finger people as actual or potential Communists and helped Roy Brewer operate the blacklist, which kept such fingered people out of work. Eliot is able to produce transcripts of Disney denouncing some of his former employees as Communists, although critics have said that Eliot exaggerates Disney’s involvement in this grubby business.
On the personal level, Eliot shows that Disney was often mean-minded towards some of his creative partners and denied them public acknowledgement and screen credit. Obviously all the comic books that bore his name were drawn by other people. But it was Disney’s early partner, the oddly-named Ub Iwerks, who was especially ill-treated. Iwerks did as much to create the character of Mickey Mouse (Disney’s first really profitable venture) as Disney did. Mickey Mouse came about by modifying the features of an earlier cartoon character, Oswald the Rabbit, over which Disney and Iwerks had lost copyright control. Interestingly, Eliot also shows in detail how the character of Mickey Mouse and other early Disney cartoon characters (before the more berserk Donald Duck was invented) were based on the benign side of Charlie Chaplin, especially as seen in Chaplin’s The Kid, which Disney loved and viewed frequently.
After all, even if Iwerks did part acrimoniously from Disney, and did spend five years trying unsuccessfully to develop his own company, he was welcomed back to the Disney studios and worked there for 30 years as head of the technical division, perfecting multi-plane animation. This isn’t exactly an indictable case of victimisation.
And now my criticisms begin to mount up.
Like so many other hatchet jobs, this one begins to put negative constructions on many innocent things. Eliot’s long suggestive passages about Disney’s supposed impotence and sexual inadequacy seem to be based on unreliably sourced gossip. The side issue on whether Disney was illegitimate and of Spanish descent is pure fantasy. Most offputting for one who believes that creative people should be judged by what they create, Eliot would deny Disney much of the credit for his film successes, but the record (which Eliot himself produces) shows how much Disney was intimately involved with the films his studio produced. Eliot delights in telling us of one cartoon which Disney took out of his technicians’ hands and directed himself, The Golden Touch. Apparently it was a rather preachy version of the King Midas story and it was such a flop that Disney withdrew it permanently from circulation. Again, this failure doesn’t seem to be something on which you can base a condemnation of the man’s whole career.
Worst is Eliot’s attempt to give Freudian interpretations to the classic Disney cartoons and cartoon features, as if their traditional plots were revelatory of Disney’s autobiography and his strained relationship with his harsh, disciplinarian father. Eliot writes such things as:
“Disney’s insistence upon creating perfect worlds in his films for children reflected nothing so much as what [some named people] suspected was his own nightmarish childhood. While his filmed fairy tales may have appeared at first glance to be light and dreamlike, upon closer examination they seemed more nightmares of deconstructed reality in a league with the era’s leading neo-Freudian Modernists.” (Chapter 10)
At which point I can only say “What complete tosh.”
I am sure that many of the negative things Eliot says about Disney are perfectly true. They will come as a surprise only to naïve people who imagine that a studio producing films for children must be run by someone with child-like innocence. Disney was obviously a hard bastard at times, right-wing, certainly anti-union and concerned primarily with making a profit. But in all this, how can one say he was any different from all the other studio bosses of Hollywood’s golden age?
Compare him with the likes of Louis B.Mayer or Harry Cohn, and singling him out as Tinsel Town’s “dark prince” seems quite unwarranted.