Walt Disney was born December 5, 1901 and died December 15, 1966. In honor of his indisputable legacy, we’re republishing Jim Hoberman’s intriguing tell-all about the animation-industry pioneer, originally featured in the April, 1979 issue of High Times.
“I don’t like depressing pictures. I don’t like pestholes. I don’t like pictures that are dirty. I don’t ever go out and pay money for studies in abnormality: I don’t have depressed moods and I don’t want to have any, I’m happy, just very, very happy.”
“I’ll let down my trousers and shit stories on them, stories…”
— Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable
One of the things about life that used to bug Walt Disney was death. He hated the idea of it. “Dad never goes to a funeral if he can help it,” daughter Diane once revealed. “If he has to go to one, it plunges him into a reverie which lasts for hours after he’s home.” Obviously Walt was figuring something out. “I don’t want a funeral. I want people to remember me alive,” he’d say. Accordingly, when Disney died in December 1966 his funeral service wasn’t announced until after it was over. No details, including disposition of the body, were ever released. All that the Los Angeles Times was able to discover was that the “secret rites” had been conducted at Forest Lawn Cemetery—a theme park with a “Mausoleum of Freedom” for dead soldiers and a “Babyland” for stillborn infants.
It’s not nice to kill off Santa Claus, so most cynics figured that the decision to downplay Disney’s funeral was simply good business. Romantics believed that Disney, with a late interest in cryogenics, had had himself frozen like a TV dinner to sleep on a cushion of liquid nitrogen until some Prince Charming appeared with a cure for the big C. Meanwhile Disney’s corporate heirs continued to act as though their master were still alive. By reverently and continually quoting his missives—always in the present-tense “Walt says…”—they fed the rumors that Disney had left them with a 20-year master plan in the form of filmed (why not holographed?) messages, a new one screened at each yearly board meeting.
Walt Disney never learned to draw Donald Duck or Pluto, or to duplicate the famous signature that emblazoned every one of his products, but his insight into the American collective unconscious was nothing short of mystical. It was Walt who spotted little Annette Funicello dancing in the Burbank Starlight Bowl and knew she’d be the sex star of “The Mickey Mouse Club”; it was Walt who coined the phrase “zip a dee doo dah,” which, once set to music, would win an Oscar for Song of the South (1946). Disney had the system beat: He copped an Emmy by televising an hour-long promo for an upcoming theatrical release; he maintained a separate firm that licensed the use of his name back to Walt Disney Productions. In the end, the culture machine that Walt built and left behind was so perfect that, like his android Abraham Lincoln, it could walk and talk without the benefit of a brain.
When cornered, Disney spokespersons will admit that today it is only “the merchandizing and publicity” that keep the original Disney characters alive. But they argue that “there is no corporation in the world that wouldn’t love to be associated with our family appeal,’’ and it’s true. Doubtless, Richard Nixon was hoping that a little Disneydust would rub off on him—and not be mistaken for dandruff—when he launched “Operation Candor” in the fall of 1973 by declaring, “I am not a crook” at a Disney World press conference. During the Vietnam War, the Laotian general Vang Pao used to parade with his troops while dressed in the Zorro suit presented to him on a trip to the Magic Kingdom.
In Chile, the Disney mythos became an emblem of the country’s native fascism. While the CIA organized, funded and armed opposition to the Allende government, Donald Duck used his comic strip to exhort his fellow funny animals to overthrow the revolutionaries and “restore the king,” and a March 1975 article in the New York Times, titled “How Life Survives in a Chilean Slum,” reported that “after the coup the president of the neighborhood council ripped down the socialist calendars and slogans that hung on the walls of his two-room wooden shack. In their place he put up some posters of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.”
Pushing everything from birth control in Costa Rica to chewing gum in Czechoslovakia, Disney’s characters are clearly the closest thing that the United States has to an official culture. Indeed, the man who succeeded in grafting a pair of mouse ears on the globe can justifiably be called the greatest artist that America has ever produced. At least since J. Hector St. John de Crévecoeur.
For a man as intense as Disney in his desire to control his environment,” critic Richard Schickel once observed, “animation was the perfect medium psychologically.” The quintessential Disney shot occurs at the end of Song of the South as photographic reality melts into an idealized cartoon-land. Yet, there was a brief time in Disney’s career when he used the cartoon not to supplant reality but to unmask it. In the first few heady days of Mickey Mouse (when Disney and his alter ego were still skinny sharp-faced, somewhat sadistic fellows) the ex-farm-boy cartoonist gave vent to his suspicion that the world was nothing but one huge and bloody barnyard, full of dirt, violence and exploitation. In Plane Crazy (1928) Mickey powered his jerry-built airship with a rubber band made out of a dachshund. In Steamboat Willie (1928) the mouse turned a bunch of pigs, goats and cows into musical instruments. Anticipating the Disney “True-Life Ad ventures” of the 1950s, Mickey banged, twisted and tweaked their bodies to produce a rendition of “Turkey in the Straw.” But soon, Walt repressed such monsters from his/Mickey’s id. Enormous success made the team dully respectable. Around the time that Walt took up polo, the nouveau bourgeois Mickey became the first mouse in the history of the universe to own a pet dog.
Although Disney’s temper tantrums might be likened to those of Donald Duck, his later cartoons were only intermittently autobiographical. He satirized his love of animals by appearing in caricature as the matador in Ferdinand the Bull (1938) and probably identified with the heroine of Cinderella (1950), who spent her days sewing little caps for birds and pants for mice. In 1953 he made the coyly confessional Ben and Me, which attributed Benjamin Franklin’s success to the friendship of another clever mouse. Disney’s erotic kinks and miscellaneous obsessions can be found sprinkled throughout his work, but only once did he give full rein to the darkest drives of his complex personality.
In Pinocchio (1940), the masterpiece whose theme song “When You Wish upon a Star” would become the national anthem of Disneyland, Walt brooded over the nature of his art. Was he a kindly Geppetto, maker of toy marionettes? Or a greedy Stromboli, exploiting his puppets on the stage? The glamorous Blue Fairy who animated Pinocchio with the gift of life? Or the cruel proprietor of Pleasure Island, the amusement park where little boys are transformed into braying donkeys? Perhaps he was Pinocchio himself—a wooden antihero who disappoints his ‘‘father,” suffers all manner of abuse and humiliation, and must finally journey into the belly of a whale to win his Papa’s approval and join the human race.
Such might have been the stuff of Disney’s childhood fantasies. His father, Elias Disney, was a hard man, as free with his whippings as he was tight with his money. When grown-up Walt became rich he bought himself all the toys and candy he felt denied as a child—scouring the world for doll furniture, constructing an elaborate electric train set around his house, installing a giant soda fountain in his living room. Young Disney lived on a farm, but when he was nine Elias bought a paper route in Kansas City. For the next six years dutiful Walt got up each morning at three-thirty, delivering his father’s papers for no more pay than bed and board. The rest of his life Disney suffered from a recurring nightmare that he had missed a customer along the route. His daughter recounted that “he wakes up sweating and thinking, ‘I’ll have to hurry and get back and leave a paper before Dad finds out that I didn’t.’’’
Disney had good reason to hate his parents (with whom he had little to do once he became successful) and his childhood as well. His almost petulant insistence that his films and amusement parks were intended for adults at least as much as for children supports the hunch once voiced by the littlest mousketeer, Karen Pendleton, that Uncle Walt really “didn’t like kids very much.’’ Kenneth Anger, the author of Hollywood Babylon, maintains that Disney, who had once been an inveterate practical joker, used to “open a small, rounded door in the wall—a fairytale door that creaked—and take his guests down a winding staircase into a dungeon filled with racks and Iron Maidens scaled to the size of a five year old. ‘Now this is how I really feel about the little bastards.’ he’d say, and puff on his cigar.”
One of Walt’s major improvements on nature would be to eliminate the biological link between parent and child. Thus, Pinocchio has no mother. Snow White and Cinderella are the victims of evil stepparents, Bambi’s momma gets killed and Dumbo is forcibly separated from his mother. “I believe that every conception is immaculate,” he told a staff member, and he opened Dumbo (1941) with a squadron of storks flying over Florida to “deliver” the babies of expectant circus animals. In the Disney comic books of the 1950s, families like the Ducks of Duckburg were linked in a curious uncle-to-nephew or (less frequently, as Duckburg and environs were primarily male) aunt-to-niece formation. One suspects that Disney did not consider the absence of genital sexuality to be any great loss. With the warmth of a computer print-out he once explained his motivation for marriage: “I realized that I’d need a new roommate, so I proposed to Lilly.” Late in his life he was quoted as saying, “Girls bored me—they still do,” and “I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I ever met.”
The most suggestive sequence in the entire Disney oeuvre occurs in Melody Time (1948) when Slue Foot Sue kisses Pecos Bill and his six-guns spontaneously shoot their load, but Ward Kimball, the animator on that scene, claims that Disney actually missed the innuendo. “You could never tell Walt a dirty joke,” he recalled. Yet, the Disney cosmos was not entirely devoid of eroticism. As Richard Schickel delicately put it: “Disney’s interest in the posterior was a constant in all his films. Rarely were we spared views of sweet little animal backsides twitching provocatively as their owners bent to some task.” The most famous of the many examples of this fetish is found at the climax of the “Pastoral Symphony” in Fantasia (1940)—the sequence of which Disney is supposed to have exclaimed, “Gee! This’ll make Beethoven!”—when two cupids draw a curtain over the mating dance of the centaurs and in doing so bring together their adorable butts to form a single palpitating heart.
Disney’s anal-eroticism carried over into a propensity for bathroom humor. This was usually edited out of his films, but it’s said that at least one squeamish writer quit the studio because flirtatious Walt kept slipping toilet jokes into her scripts. In an early TV special, Walt’s Christmas gift for America turned out to be a cartoon about a little boy who is unable to keep the back flap of his Dr. Dentons snapped and is presented by Santa with a tiny chamber pot. “He could talk about turds for 30 minutes without pausing for breath,” Kimball remembers. “One time Walt was late for a screening. He apologized by saying, ‘I was taking a shit.’ He’d often talk about turds. He’d talk about how big and juicy and light brown turds were when you’re a baby and how as you get older they get blacker and harder, and all that stuff. He’d go on and on and you kind of looked at him and wondered, when is he going to get to the punch line? There wasn’t any.”
Obviously Walt was able to channel some of his fascination with feces into adult concerns. One of his favorite koans was “Dollars are like fertilizer—they make things grow.” He exhibited in abundance the three cardinal traits of obstinacy, parsimony and orderliness by which Dr. Freud defined the anal personality. Perhaps this disposition was fanned by the numerous spankings Disney received at his father’s hands: perhaps it was related to the fact, dutifully recorded by daughter Diane, that grandma Disney used to reward little Walt with candy laxatives. In any case, Disney’s childhood anxiety over controlling his bowels became, in Schickel’s phrase, a “lifelong rage to order, control and keep clean any environment he inhabited… He just couldn’t abide a mess.”
When the Nazi film maker Leni Riefenstahl visited Hollywood in 1938, Disney was the only industry notable who greeted her publicly. Had he been smitten by the vision of totality that she had so adroitly presented in her pseudo-documentary Triumph of the Will (1934)—as controlled an artifice as any of his cartoons? For, although not everyone is as blunt as Kenneth Anger (who told an interviewer that “Walt Disney was the Hitler of children! He killed their imaginations by programming them with his saccharine prefab fantasies!”), it has more than once been observed that the mania for cleanliness, control and order was a trait that Uncle Walt happened to share with the Nazi dictator.
Of course, Disney only indulged in the fantasy of mass murder, and just once at that. Under the pressure of World War II, but acting as a private citizen, he dreamed up Victory Through Air Power (1943), a long-since-suppressed feature-length cartoon that ended with the triumphant obliteration of Tokyo. Apparently the film displayed an alienation worthy of Riefenstahl’s. A contemporary film reviewer cited the absence of “suffering and dying enemy civilians” underneath its animated explosions and called it “a gay dream of holocaust” that reduced war to a “morally simple [matter] of machine-eat-machine.”
But whatever else Walt and Hitler had in common, the Führer (unlike his buddy Benito Mussolini) was not a fan of “Michael Maus.” Evidently no mouse could be clean enough for Hitler. He termed Mickey “the most miserable ideal ever revealed” and unsuccessfully attempted to have it banned from his Reich. Hitler’s failure to get rid of Mickey may explain the megalomaniac undercurrent in Disney’s response to this attack on his alter ego. In a ghost-written magazine article of the mid 1930s he complained that “Mr. A. Hitler, the Nazi old thing, says Mickey’s silly. Imagine that! Well, Mickey is going to save Mr. A. Hitler from drowning one day. Just wait and see if he doesn’t. Then won’t Mr. A. Hitler be ashamed!”
However, by the time he made The New Spirit (1942), the first of the government-sponsored propaganda and training films that virtually subsidized the Disney studio during World War II, Walt did decide to let the “Nazi old thing” drown. He demonstrated his distaste by showing the swastika “flushed away in a vortex of dark, swirling water.” The next year saw Education for Death (with Hitler playing Prince Charming to Hermann Goering’s mountainous Sleeping Beauty) and Disney’s greatest piece of agitprop, Donald in Nutzi Land. Also known as Der Führer’s Face, the cartoon won an Oscar, while Spike Jones’s recording of the soundtrack sold a million and a half copies. In a dour comment on the mock flatulence of the song’s chorus. Richard Schickel remarked, “Even in wartime [the Disney studio] found a way to state its belief in the location—the seat as it were—of human emotions.”
What’s particularly interesting about Der Führer’s Face is Disney’s visualization of “Nutzi Land.” Donald’s room is plastered with swastika wallpaper, he sleeps in swastika pajamas between swastika sheets, his alarm clock keeps time with swastika numerals. It’s as though the Disney artists were rehashing the 2,000 Snow White products that helped pull the toy industry through the recession of 1937. Even nature is not immune to the totality of “Nutzi Land.” Outside Donald’s window we see that trees and hedges have been shaped into swastikas. Such an improvement may never have occurred to Hitler, but a decade or so later the bushes of Disneyland would be carefully trimmed to resemble Mickey, Donald and Dumbo.
When Disneyland opened in 1955 it was with one inescapable stipulation. Before being born again within the confines of the Magic Kingdom, each guest had to pass through an idealized version of the Marceline, Missouri Main Street where Walt believed he’d spent his happiest years. “To the people in Marceline. I’m like God.” Disney used to say.
Gustave Flaubert’s crack that “life is so horrible one can only bear it by avoiding it, by living in the world of art” might have served Disney as his lifelong motto. His very first cartoons reversed the formula of the Fleischer Brothers’ popular Out of the Inkwell series. While the latter brought its star, Koko the clown, off the drawing board and into photographic reality. Disney’s Alice in Cartoonland locked a real child into an animated universe. Then Disney himself, in a manner of speaking, became Alice, as the voice and alter ego of the fabulous Mickey Mouse, and the success of this mutant creature—hailed by Sergei Eisenstein as “America’s most original contribution to world culture”—enabled him to dream of someday building Cartoonland in steel and concrete.
In Disneyland, above the firehouse on Main Street where Disney creatures with air-conditioned, encephalitic heads amble among the crowds like the sacred cattle of Calcutta, Walt furnished a little apartment for himself. By night, in his bathrobe, he roamed through “the happiest place on earth” alone. They say that when the Reverend Billy Graham came to bless his fellow wizard’s “fantasy,” Walt exploded, “Fantasy? The Fantasy is out there… outside the gates!” But in Anaheim, “outside” wasn’t far enough away. You could stand in the parking lot and see the fast-food stops and motels encrusted like neon barnacles on the Disney ship of state. When Walt reconstructed his World in Florida he purchased a forty-square-mile tract to more perfectly insulate it.
In Walt Disney World the security guards don’t wear uniforms but “costumes.” Employees aren’t hired, they’re “cast” and programmed with fewer responses than the android birds of the Enchanted Tiki Room. Tie clips, hair ribbons, deodorants and sometimes even names are subject to company approval. All employees are graduates of the University of Walt Disney, where they have studied Walt Disney Traditions One and Two and learned, in the words of one campus directive, “to enjoy thinking our way.” The World, as it’s called, controls its own sewage and utility systems, writes its own building codes, appoints its own judges, maintains its own police force and—so it claims—harbors the planet’s fifth largest fleet of submarines.
Everything—from the udderless robot hippos of the Jungle Cruise, to the people mover in Tomorrowland, to the Muzak rendition of “Someday My Prince Will Come” that wafts through the lobby of the Polynesian Village hotel—is controlled from a subterranean computer center. So too is the “Automatic Monitoring and Control System,” which keeps every inch of the World under constant video surveillance. Tomorrowland (really Today-land) to the contrary, the future, as George Allen used to say, is now. Apologists for the World claim that “with computers and statistics it’s easy to prove what’s art,” that the World has been “designed to satisfy the existing imaginations of tens of millions of men, women and children,” even that one can no longer tell the World from reality! When Walt died he was drawing up plans for a city—cash free, climate controlled, vacuum cleaned—a space-age pyramid of Cheops where 20,000 or so lucky Alices could live inside his Magic Kingdom for the rest of their lives.