Disney furled; 'No praise unspoken'
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 1 September 2015)

Snow White, having munched on the wicked queen's poisoned apple, falls into a coma. She appears to be dead, and her friends, the dwarfs mourn her. As they line up beside her body, huge tears tumble down the faces of Sneezy, Grumpy and the rest. They don't yet know she can be awakened by a prince's kiss.

That clip from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the high point of a four-hour documentary, "Walt Disney," to appear this month on the PBS network's flagship series, American Experience. Those who consider Walt Disney (1901-1966) a major artist and a giant in cultural history won't be disappointed by this lengthy film. Sarah Colt, producer-director and Mark Zwonitzer, the writer, fall happily into hyperbole, leaving no praise unspoken.

Several experts on Disney's life appear through the four hours. The most talkative is Neal Gabler, who in 2006 wrote an adoring 851-page biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Gabler is overimpressed by everything that happened in Disney's life - the hardship he faced in childhood, the depression he endured when early projects failed, the wise choices he made, the brilliance of the way he turned failure into success, the eventual size of his worldwide audience.

Snow White, produced in 1937, was a leap into the dark for Disney. After years making brief cartoons, he risked a reputation built on Mickey Mouse by making the firstever full-length animated movie. No one knew whether the world would accept it. His staff members were dubious. The Bank of America, his financial backer, was worried. Even Disney's loyal wife Lillian thought the whole thing was ill-advised.

Gabler's book says that when Disney was working day and night on Snow White, Lillian offered a dissenting view. "I can't stand the sight of dwarfs," she said. "I predict nobody'll ever pay a dime to see a dwarf picture." Those words aren't mentioned in the PBS show, for good reason.

American Experience has become a kind of a ceremonial occasion, a time for tributes and little else. It's somewhere between a funeral and a Nobel Prize citation. The Hollywood première of Snow White turned out to be the first largescale Disney success. When the dwarfs cried, the audience cried. Wonder of wonders, someone reported that Clark Gable and Carol Lombard both shed tears. The grosses broke records. On PBS, Ron Suskind, a journalist, calls Snow White "art" because Disney moved the audiences to tears. It might be more accurate to say he manipulated them. Even Richard Schickel shows up to pay grudging tribute.

In 1968, in his book, The Disney Version, he depicted Disney as "a kind of rallying point for the sub-literates of our society."

As capitalism, Schickel decided, Disney's life achievement was a work of genius. "As culture, it is mostly a horror." But on PBS Schickel turns into a Disney admirer.

The documentary praises Disney's qualities as a storyteller. Certainly he ingeniously used new film techniques as they appeared. But for content he depended on the books of a dozen writers, from the Brothers Grimm (Snow White) to Carlo Collodi (Pinocchio), from P.L. Travers (Mary Poppins) to Joel Chandler Harris (Song of the South).

In dealing with Disney the man, the documentary says he was unhappy in youth, yearned to be "a somebody," and imposed himself on the audience through hard work and clever strategy. There was one period in childhood he enjoyed, the four years his family spent in Marceline, Mo. For the rest of his life he tried to recreate the spirit of that bucolic little place where an eight-year-old could run free, waving happily as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway rumbled through town. In middle age he became obsessed with having his own model railroad and spent a fortune creating it. When he designed Disneyland, its main street looked like the one in Marceline.

The comments PBS provides on Disney's work and life are mostly from biographers, journalists and a few animators. He had no friends, we are told, so no one described as a friend takes part. Family connections are represented by a son-in-law's brief remarks. Apparently he was an ungenerous boss, reluctant to praise his staffers but willing to punish them with his anger for second-rate performances.

Disney insisted that all his employees call him Walt but that didn't keep him from imposing a class system. No one was allowed to forget that high-class workers received many perks (such as the use of the company gym) while the peasants at the bottom (mostly women) were expected to be happy with nothing but meagre salaries.

In 1941 Disney was enraged when his 1,200 employees joined a union and half the animators went out on strike. Art Babbitt, a senior animator, invented Goofy and designed the Wicked Queen in Snow White, but that didn't save him from being fired for union organizing. Disney was a dogged grudge-holder. He called the union members Communists, and repeated that charge right up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, becoming briefly a part of senator Joseph McCarthy's crusade. In 1946 he stumbled badly by adapting Joel Chandler Harris's stories about life on a Georgia plantation in the Reconstruction era. The film, Song of the South, ingeniously combined animation with live action but got everything else wrong. At its centre, Uncle Remus, a stereotyped former slave, tells stories of animals, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear, to children. Blindly confident, Disney opened the film in Atlanta. Critics considered Uncle Remus offensive and Disney's version of Reconstruction both dumb and condescending. Disney claimed Communists were behind that fuss too, but the film never recovered.

PBS follows the story to Disneyland and Disney World. Like everything else Disney produced, these amusement parks are judged quite wonderful.

PBS will air its Walt Disney series on Sept. 14-15, from 9-11 p.m.

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