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Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century
by Steven Watts
Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century
The Journal of American History
Updated: February 8th, 2013
Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century
Walt Disney has been, arguably, the most influential American of the twentieth cen- tury. Beginning in the late 1920s, his immense and multifaceted entertainment enterprise-short cartoons, feature-length animations, live-action films, comic books and records, nature documentaries, television shows, colossal theme parks inundated the United States, much of the Western world, and beyond. At the founder's death in 1966, Disney creations and Disney consumer merchandise had flooded much of the globe. From Chile to China, tens of millions of people who had never heard of Franklin D. Roosevelt or William Faulkner or Martin Luther King, Jr., could identify Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck in an instant. And over this leisure empire presided the avuncular gentleman with the warm chuckle, the small mustache, and the large imagination.
Yet coming to terms with Disney is no easy matter. Three barriers to making sense of this massive presence in modern American culture loom particularly large. First, Disney's enormous popularity has contributed to his dismissal in critical circles. Commercial success, many students of American culture have assumed, stands in inverse proportion to cultural significance. Second, a swiftly moving flood of Disney productions has engulfed attempts at analysis. The output of the Disney Studio has been so extensive, in so many venues, over so many decades that it resists interpretive synthesis. Third, violently contrasting reactions to the Disney legacy have polarized opinion in the academy and outside it. Disney disciples venerate Saint Walt as the purveyor of innocent imagination and uplifting fantasy; Disney denouncers bitterly decry Huckster Walt as a cynical manipulator of cultural and commercial formulas. Such strife has created an emotional and ideological minefield for those who wish to approach Disney seeking neither revelation nor damnation, but understanding.
Over the years several scholars have attempted synthetic overviews of Disney and his cultural role. In 1942 the Harvard University art historian Robert D. Feild made
Steven Watts is a professor of history at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He is the author of The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney andModern American Culture, forthcoming from Basic Books, on which the present article draws.
I would like to thank the following people for their generosity in offering comments on this essay: Jean Agnew, Ken Cmiel, Robert Collins. Noralee Frankel, Jackson Lears, George Lipsitz, Lary May, Dave Roediger, Joan Shelley Rubin, Jon Sperber, Cecelia Tichi, Robert Westbrook, and Eli Zaretsky. My appreciation also goes to David Thelen, Susan Armeny, and Patrick Ettinger for their skillful editorial work on this essay, and to David R. Smith, Robert Tieman, Becky Klein, and Collette Espino at the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank, California, for their gracious and helpful responses to my endless requests for research material.
The Journal of American History June 1995
Walt Disney's Art and Politics
the initial attempt in The Art of Walt Disney, a book that praised the filmmaker's work as "perhaps the most potent form of artistic expression ever devised." About twenty-five years later, the distinguished film critic Richard Schickel came in with a less flattering verdict. His book, The Disney Version, presented Disney's produc- tions as reflecting the worst impulses of mass culture, and he scathingly denounced them, as well as their popular audience, as "vulgar. . . . tasteless. . . . crassly com- mercial, sickeningly sentimental, crudely comic." Several recent collective assess- ments look at their subject through the lens of high-tech cultural theory. Disney Dircozlrse, a 1994 collection of essays by scholars from the humanities, offers mostly disapproving analyses of the "Magic Kingdom" and its imperialist global impact, conservative corporate politics, and efforts to control the reception of its products. "The World according to Disney," a special 1993 issue of the Sozlth Atlantic Quar- terly, contains postmodern commentaries, by scholars from cultural studies, that condemn the influence of the Disney empire?
Such interpretations, however, leave considerable room for thinking historically about Disney and his influence on American culture. Two cultural trends in modern American life -modernism and populism -suggest useful ways of making sense of the artistic and political impulses in Disney's work. Disney's aesthetic endeavors during the 1930s and the subtle political patina that he then applied to his work engaged populist and modernist trends that had surfaced during the Great Depres- sion. These categories open windows on Disney, providing critical ventilation and light and suggesting fresh ways of thinking about this most familiar of modern Americans and his cultural significance. Looking at Disney in the context of Thomas Hart Benton and Huey Long, Aaron Copland and Will Rogers, New Deal public art and fireside chats, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and Hollywood, trade union organization and surrealism, the red menace and the American nuclear family forces us to reconsider him as a historical actor.2
The Sentimental Modernist
It is hard to remember that Walt Disney was once taken quite seriously as an artist. Throughout the 1930s, while millions of consumers cheered his films, he also earned widespread praise in intellectual circles for his innovative animated fantasies. A dar-
Robert D. Feild, The Art of Walt Disney (New York, 1942), j3-57; Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, andcommerce of Walt Disney (New York, 1968), 361; Eric Smoodin, ed., Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom (New York, 1994); and the special issue "The World according to Disney," ed. Susan Willis, South Atlantic Quarterly, 92 (Winter 1993). For the basic, detailed, nuts-and-bolts biography, see Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original(New York, 1976). For a reasonably complete listing of the enormous literature, see Kathy Merlock Jackson, Walt Disney: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, 1993).
This essay offers preliminary conclusions drawn from my manuscript in progress: The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and Modern American Culture (New York, Basic Books, forthcoming). My approach to Disney has been influenced particularly by the growing analyses of many cultural activities-amusement parks, book clubs, adver- tising, fairs, cheap literature, night clubs, movies, popular music-that have made it necessary to take popular culture seriously and the proliferating study of post-Victorian consumer culture with its values of material consump- tion, an expansive leisure ethic, and a personal creed of self-fulfillment. Warren Susman served as the intellectual godfather for these new approaches with his pioneering essays, many of them collected in Warren Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1984).
The Journal of American History June 1995
A youthful Walt Disney at work on Mickey Mouse, the animated character who provided his breakthrough success in 1928. O The Walt Disney Company.
ling of the critics for Silly Symphonies such as Three Little Pigs, Mickey Mouse shorts such as The Band Concert, and feature-length animations such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, he elicited acclaim from writers of nearly every stripe. David Low, for example, described Disney in the 1942 New Repzlblic as the most significant figure in graphic art since Leonardo da Vinci and trumpeted his arrival "at the foothills of the New Art of the Future." By the late 1940s, however, critical misgivings had begun to mount. A growing perception of Disney's pan- dering to popular tastes led to a new portrait: the innovative artist who squandered his talent to become a hack. Barbara Deming, for example, contended in the 1945 Partisan Review that the filmmaker had become an expert in "artlessness," creating works that were "monstrous. . . . a nightmare of these times." Manny Farber, writing a year later, was nastier. Disney's films, he argued, had degenerated into "lollypop art," a "bon-bon mode [that] will satisfy the people who do printing on wedding cakes, those who invented Mother's Day, the people who write their names with a flurry and end them with flounces and curlicues."3
3 Three Little Pigs,dir. Bert Gillett (Walt Disney Productions, 1933); The BandConcert, dir. Wilfred Jackson
Walt Disney's Art and Politics
Disney, an enormously gifted entertainer in search of laughs, innovation, and sales, had stumbled into the arena of modernist art and became an experimenter with its forms and techniques. His true aesthetic heart, however, continued to beat to an internal rhythm of nineteenth-century sentimental realism. His Victorian sen- sibility grappled with the attraction to an audacious modernism, but neither im- pulse completely triumphed. This internal conflict produced a hybrid "sentimental modernist" who helped mediate a key cultural transition in twentieth-century Ameri~a.~
In the United States, modernism emerged in direct opposition to the principles and sensibility of nineteenth-century Victorianism. Adherents of modernism- including photographer Alfred Stieglitz, painter Alfred H. Maurer, poet Ezra Pound, writer Gertrude Stein, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, philosopher William James, and composer Charles Ives- challenged an older, hierarchical bourgeois cul- ture by undermining several of its key bulwarks: a moral creed based on repression and rationality, a system of intellectual inquiry based on "formalism," a "genteel tradition" of narrative realism in the arts and letters. More positively, modernism sought to recombine the elements of human experience strictly separated by Victorianism-human and animal, civilized and savage, reason and emotion, in- tellect and instinct, conscious and unconscious-in order to reconstruct the totality of human nature. By smashing through a brittle surface of rationality and genteel beauty, its enthusiasts hoped to recover a fluidity of perception, a turbulent subjec- tivity, and a long-repressed vitality that lay in instinctual motivation. Modernism also endorsed wide-ranging aesthetic experimentation in the hope of capturing an elusive "simultaneity of experience" that seemed to characterize modern life. No longer satisfied that literary realism, visual perspective, and the chromatic musical scale could represent the complexities and confusions of an advanced industrial world, modernist artists embraced stream-of-consciousness narrative, abstract paint- ing, and atonal music. Adopting aesthetic as well as moral relativism, they borrowed from non-Western "primitive" cultures, adapted technological artifacts and indus- trial motifs around them, dipped into European and American folk culture, or tried to disman-tle barriers between "high and "low" culture, all in the interests of revitalizing artistic expression with the fluidity, variety, and dynamism they saw at the core of modern human experience. Thus, as Daniel Joseph Singal has suggested, modernism might be viewed most clearly as a wholistic "culture. . . . [that seeks] to know 'reality' in all its depth and complexity, no matter how incomplete and paradoxical that knowledge might be, and no matter how painful." Everywhere modernism subverted Victorian hierarchies -challenging the ascendancy of reason
(Walt Disney Productions, 1935); Snow White andthe Seven Dwarfs, dir. David Hand (Walt Disney Productions,
1937); Pinocchio, dirs. Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske (Walt Disney Productions, 1939). David Low,
"Leonardo da Disney," New Republic, Jan. 5, 1942, pp. 16-18; Barbara Deming, "The Artlessness of Walt Disney,"
Partisan Review, 12 (Spring 1945). 227; Manny Farber, "Make Mine Muzak." New Republic, May 27, 1946, p. 769.
4 Years ago, in an unpublished paper, Warren Susman pointed in the direction of my argument with his descrip-
tion of Walt Disney as an "ambivalent modernist." See Robert Westbrook, "Abundant Cultural History: The Legacy
of Warren Susman," Reviews in American Hzstory, 13 (Dec. 1985). 481.
The Journal of American History June 1995
and judgment over impulse, of educated taste over folk and popular preferences, of the adult over the childish, of the conscious over the preconscious mind.5
Much of this seems far removed from popular entertainment and the theaters full of laughing, cheering fans of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. But the culture of modernism, it seems clear in hindsight, created much of the atmosphere en- folding Walt Disney's pioneering work in animation. As a commercial entertainer working at the margins of serious art, he encountered modernism and appropriated elements, eventually emerging as a kind of popular Picasso. With its enthusiasm for folklore, the amorphous, the childlike, and the nonrational, moderism seemed to validate the unsophisticated tastes of this provincial midwesterner. It found many echoes in his films. Modernist impulses flowered everywhere in Disney's world of fantasy as his animation constantly blurred the line between imagination and reality to produce a wondrous universe where animals spoke, plants and trees acted con- sciously, and inanimate objects felt emotion. Such impulses had occasionally sur- faced at the margins of Victorian culture, for example, in children's literature, but the dominant ethos of rationality and repression kept them marginal. Now fluid perception, free-flowing fantasy, and a yen for simultaneous experience moved to center stage. Moreover, a preoccupation with the dream state in Disney's early films revealed a fusion of intellect and emotion, superego and id as warm fairy tales often encapsulated dark, nightmarish visions. And throughout his movies, a consistent blending of high and low cultural forms produced a vibrant artistic whole. This en- gagement with modernism unfolded haltingly and was never articulated, but it be- came an important part of the Disney appeal.
Some of Disney's early efforts illustrated the influence of artistic modernism. Many Mickey Mouse cartoons, for instance, appeared as fantastic romps through an imaginative playland. In Steamboat Wiiiie (1928), the first cartoon talkie, Mickey performs a concert by "playing" tunes on various animals: he squeezes a duck's neck to get percussive effects, pulls the tails of suckling pigs for a variety of squeaks, and plays the xylophone on a cow's teeth. Michey? Garden (1935) features hallucinatory events prompted by the inhalation of a spray for garden pests. After shrinking to bug size, Mickey and his dog Pluto careen through a jungle of giant garden plants as they are pursued by insects and worms bent on revenge. Disney also loved to trans- gress traditional cultural boundaries by mocking high-culture pretensions with in-
For a glimpse of the varying critical responses modernism has inspired, see Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, eds., Modernism, 1890-1930 (New York, 1976); Robert Kiely, ed., Modernism Reconsidered (Cambridge, Mass., 1983); Bruce Robbins, "Modernism in History, Modernism in Power." ibid, 229-45; Irving Howe, ed., The Idea of the Modern in Literature andthe Arts (New York, 1967); David Hollinger, In the American Prov- ince: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Baltimore, 1985). 74-91; and Frederic Jameson, "Reflec- tions in Conclusion," in Ernst Bloch et al., Aesthetics andpolitics, trans. Ronald Taylor (London, 1977). This rough synthesis relies upon several scholarly works, including the introduction to a special journal issue on American mod- ernism, Daniel Joseph Singal, "Towards a Definition of American Modernism," American Quarterly, 39 (Spring 1987). 7-26; Morton White, Social Thought in America: The Revolt against Formalism (1949; New York, 1976); Cecelia Tichi, Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill, 1987); Marshall Berman, "Why Modernism Still Matters," Tzkkun, 4 (Jan.-Feb. 1989). 11-14, 81-86; and David Harvey, The Condi- tion of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford, Eng., 1990), 10-38.
Walt Disney's Art and Politics 89
spired slapstick humor. Mickey's Amateurs (1937), for instance, solemnly introduces a warped concert venue where singer Clara Cluck and pianist Clarabell Cow perform a painfully funny opera recital composed of shrieking animal noises. Symphony Hour (1942) follows a similar path. Goofy, Mickey's inept sidekick, accidentally drops orchestra instruments down an elevator shaft, and they are partially crushed. When the classical musicians try to play the damaged instruments, a torrent of com- ical sounds pours forth that turns the performance into a farce. The crowd, of course, loves the show and showers the stage with flowers.6
The full emotional spectrum of Disney's modernist vision-from warm fantasies to terrifying dangers- appeared in two contrasting short films from the early 1930s. Flowers and Trees (1932), the first of Disney's Silly Symphonies in color, told the story of two young trees who fall in love. Aided by their forest friends, the wild birds, they overcome adversity to marry, with a glowworm for a wedding ring and a celebrating audience of wild flowers. The Mad Doctor (1933), in contrast, emerged from the nether regions of dream life to form one of Disney's most frightening ani- mations. In this dark story, Pluto is kidnapped and hauled off to a castle where a crazy physician and vivisectionist will use his body parts for macabre medical experi- ments. When Mickey follows to the rescue, he is chased by skeletons and ghosts be- fore being captured and strapped to a cart. He is about to be horribly cut up by a power saw descending from the ceiling when he awakens; it has been a nightmare. These two films seem to embody the post-Freudian view of the mind-libidinous instincts and superego restraints existing side by side in a precarious balance -as it had seeped into popular culture. Similar modernist visions multiplied in the spec- tacular animated features that began to pour forth from the Walt Disney Studio by the late 1930s: Snow White's horrifying escape through the woods, where every tree or animal seems to be a monster, ~inocchio's motif of misbehaving boys sprouting ears and tails as they turn into donkeys, Dumbo's spectacularly surrealist "pink elephant" hallucination that follows the baby elephant's accidental imbibing of some fermented water.'
Critics responded to such efforts with a rapturous chorus of affirmation. Numerous reviews and essays from the 1930s and early 1940s termed Disney an ar- tistic genuis and a modernist pioneer. The noted film writer Gilbert Seldes, for in- stance, became a great admirer, arguing that the filmmaker created "masterpieces" that pivoted on the fascination that comes from "seeing the impossible happen." Peyton Boswell, editor of Art Digest, wrote that the animator had created a won- derful "new art form" that brought "abstract art" to life. Emily Genauer, art critic
Steamboat WiLlze, dir. Walt Disney (Walt Disney Productions, 1928); Mickey? Garden, dir. Wilfred Jackson (Walt Disney Productions, 1935); Mickey ? Amateurs, dirs. Pinto Colvig, Walt Pfieffer, and Ed Penner (Walt Disney Productions, 1937); Symphony Hour, dir. Riley Thornson (Walt Disney Productions, 1942).
7 FlowersandTrees, dir. Bert Gillett (Walt Disney Productions, 1932); The MadDoctol; dir. David Hand (Walt Disney Productions, 1933); Dumbo, dir. Ben Sharpsteen (Walt Disney Productions, 1941). For descriptions of many of these films, see Christopher Finch, The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom (New York. 1975); and Leonard Maltin, The Di~ney Fihs (New York, 1984).
The Journal of American History June 1995
for the New York Woordd Telegram, provided a particularly sharp characterization of the Hollywood cartoonist as brilliant modern artist. "We have no need to talk again of the substance of abstract art," she wrote.
Along comes Disney with his visual accompaniment to the Bach Toccata and Fugue- the first number in Fantasia- and it's all miraculously clear. . . . One or two of [the animated segments] recall Kandinsky especially. There were several closely related to the surrealist Miro. And the opening night audience-many of whom, doubtless, raise up their hands in horror at abstract paintings-loved it.8
Sergei Eisenstein provided a more extensive and illuminating evaluation of Disney's modernist aesthetics. Writing in the early 1940s, after a visit to the Holly- wood filmmaking community, he breathlessly declared that Disney's work offered "the greatest contribution of the American people to art." This praise flowed from a keen perception of the cartoonist's relationship to modernist culture. The key to Disney's artistic power, the Russian filmmaker believed, lay in an almost "fright- ening" capacity for boring into secret recesses of the human psyche and uncovering its most basic urges. Eisenstein explained Disney's appeal to the latent primitivism in modern consciousness.
He creates somewhere in the realm of the very purest and most primal depths. There, where we all are children of nature. He creates on the conceptual level of man not yet shackled by logic, reason, or experience. . . . For through his whole system of devices, themes, and subjects, Disney constantly gives us prescriptions for folkloric, mythological, prelogical thought- but always rejecting, pushing aside logic. . . . [Olrdinary lifeless objects, plants, beasts, all are animated and hu- manized.
In other words, wrote Eisenstein, Disney's art captured "the structure of primitive thought" and thus, in the best tradition of modernism, reestablished contact with the repressed "lower" elements in the human psyche.9
In many ways, such highfalutin aesthetic achievement was quite incidental. Having but little education and training in art, Disney largely followed his instincts in marshaling pictorial images, humor, comedy, and music to create mass entertain- ment. Moreover, by the mid-1930s he had begun to seek greater and greater realism in his studio's animations. Increasingly, the object of Disney's aesthetic quest was a sunny, naturalistic style with roots in the Victorian nineteenth century. Northrop Frye has described this aesthetic tradition rather unkindly as "stupid realism": "a kind of sentimental idealism, an attempt to present a conventionally attractive or impressive appearance as an actual or attainable reality." Here was a "realistic" depic-
Gilbert Seldes, "Disney and Others," New Republic, June 8, 1932, pp. 101-2; Gilbert Seldes, "No Art, Mr. Disney?,"Esquire, 8 (Sept. 1937). 91, 171-72; Peyton Boswell, "The Wonder of Fantasia," Art Digest, Dec. 1, 1940,
p. 3; and Emily Genauer, "Walt Disney's Music Pictures Range from Beautiful to Banal," New York WorldTelegram,
Nov. 16, 1940, clipping, Public~ty Scrapbook F2 (Walt Disney Archives, Burbank, Calif.). 9 Jay Leyda, ed., Eisenstein on Disney, trans. Alan Upchurch (Calcutta, 1986). 1-3, 23, 42-43, 54-56.
Walt Disney's Art and Politics
tion of people, objects, and scenes where dark or messy dimensions of reality had been wiped away.1°
The push for such naturalism in the studio's animation increased with the mid- 1930s move from cartoon shorts to animated features. It germinated in the evening art classes for the animators -taught originally by Don Graham of the Chouinard Art Institute, they were held at the old Hyperion Studio sound stage-before receiving a tremendous technological boost. The multiplane camera, the brainchild of the studio engineers, created the illusion of depth through a ten-foot-high mech- anism where a succession of painted cels were stacked one on top of the other with a camera mounted at the top. The camera then made consecutive shots through rearranged cels. These images, when strung together in the film, suggested three- dimensionality. First used in the Silly Symphony film The Old Mill (1937), it ' was used extensively in the studio's first feature-length pictures, Snow White and Pinocchio. The culmination of this drive for ever greater realism came in the preparations for Bambi (1942), when Walt brought in live deer for his artists to study and demanded an exact, animated replication of their natural movements. As Ken An- derson, one of Disney's associates, later recalled, "Walt was always impatient with the restrictions of a cartoon. He strived for more and more realism, more naturalism in the features.""
This aesthetic ferment in the 1930s produced the mature Disney style of anima- tion. Other cartoonists from the 1920s- namely, Otto Mesmer with his character Felix the Cat and Max Fleischer with his experimental Out of the Inkwell series-had preceded the transplanted midwesterner in developing a fantastic modernist style that often veered into a dark realm of surrealistic imagery. Disney's unique con- tribution was to appropriate this aesthetic paradigm, meld it with a sentimental realism drawn from traditions of nineteenth-century illustration, and thus make it more palatable and popular. He began to develop his distinctive "personality" ani- mation, which encouraged more naturalistic depictions while endeavoring, in his own words, "to create the feeling that these little characters are live, individual personalities-not just animated drawings." Disney thus sought to temper the fan- tastic, jarring images of artistic modernism with nostalgic, anthropomorphic, and "cute" images rooted in the aesthetics of an earlier era. The result was a hybrid aes- thetic of "sentimental modernism."l2
lo Northrop Frye, The American Century (Toronto, 1967), 26.
l1 David R. Smith, "New Dimensions: Beginnings of the Disney Multiplane Camera," in The Art ofthe Ani- matedlmage: An Anthology, ed., Charles Solomon (Los Angeles, 1987). 37-49; The OldMill, dir. Wilfred Jackson (Walt Disney Productions, 1937); Bambi, dir. David Hand (Walt Disney Productions, 1942); Ken Anderson inter- view by Steve Hulett, May 4, 1978, transcript, p. 1 (Disney Archives). On Disney's drive for realism, see Schickel, Dzsney Version, 193-95.
l2 On Otto Mesmer and Max Fleischer, see Leonard Maltin, OfMice and Magzc: A History of American Ani- mated Cartoons (New York, 1987). 22-25, 84-105; and Russell Merritt and J. B. Kaufman, Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Fzlms ofwa'ait Dirney (Rome, 1992), 34. On "personality" animation, see Walt Disney to Knowles Blair, May 13, 1937, Walt Disney Historic Correspondence file (Disney Archives); Ollie Johnston interview by Christopher Finch and Linda Rosencrantz, June 2, 1972, transcript, p. 10, ibid; Milt Kahl ~nterview by Richard Hubler, Feb. 27, 1968, transcript, p. 15, %bid;Wilfred Jackson interview by Hulett, July 25, 1978, transcript, pp. 3-4, zbid
The Journal of American History June 1995
Music Land (1935), for example, appeared in the heart of Disney's most produc- tive and creative period for short cartoons. One of the famous SiUy Symphonzes, this eight-minute piece told a story set in the "Land of Symphony" and the "Land of Jazz," two antagonistic kingdoms separated by the "Sea of Discord." The princess from the former realm fell in love with the prince from the latter, and when he secretly visited her, the young man was captured and imprisoned inside a giant metronome. Consequently, war broke out, and in the midst of battle the two lovers escaped and fled in a small boat. When their peril became evident, a cease-fire was called, and harmonious relations were established for a happy ending.
On the one hand, this clever, fast-paced, pun-filled tale skipped down a moder- nist path. With great wit, it satirized the tension between popular and classical music, and in the medley of intertwined symphonic and jazz styles that closed the film, it suggested a fusion of high and low cultural forms. The cartoon unfolded fantastic modernist images: architecture composed of giant organ pipes and welded brass instruments, characters who appeared as musical instruments, a language con- sisting only of reedy, brassy, or stringed voices. Even the climactic war scene consisted of mock-heroic barrages of jazz riffs hurled from one island and blasts of the "1812 Overture" from the other. On the other hand, Music Land clearly relied upon nostalgic cultural elements. It offered a sentimental love story based on that of Romeo and Juliet. It presented a conventional happy ending that featured the mar- riage of the prince and princess, the joining of the "King of Jazz" and the "Queen of Symphony," and the construction of a "Bridge of Harmony" between their islands. The drawing presented rather conventional realistic and anthropomorphic depic- tions wherein saxophones and violins were molded and shaped into human form?3
Fantasza (1940), perhaps Disney's most self-consciously artistic project, offered a lengthier, fuller version of this aesthetic agenda. It walked an aesthetic tightwire be- tween modernism and sentimental realism. The film's modernist features became obvious in the film's opening, where Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor inspired a series of near-pure abstractions. Splashes of color and swirling, melting forms predominated with only the barest hints of such identifiable objects as violin bows, all of which aimed to represent musical forms. The bold beginning was followed by a parade of delightful, occasionally bizarre modernist images: the charm of the dancing mushrooms in the "Nutcracker Suite," the dark magic of the relentless marching brooms with their pails of water in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice," the hilarity of the dainty hippo ballerinas in the "Dance of the Hours." All the modernist elements were there- the abstractions, the mingling of unlikely images from high and low culture, the contact between intellect and emotion, the juxtapo- sition of high seriousness and humorous satire.
But Fantasia counterpointed this dominant aesthetic melody with flourishes of sentiment and naturalism. Cropping up periodically, they challenged and, by con- trast, highlighted the modernist agenda of the film. The "Rite of Spring" section,
Muric Land, dir. Wilfred Jackson (Walt Disney Productions, 1935)
Walt Disney's Art and Politics 93
for instance, illustrated Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky's famous piece with a fanciful yet strikingly realistic re-creation of the volcanoes, dinosaurs, earthquakes, and bio- logical traumata accompanying the earth's early evolution. In the "Nutcracker Suite," segments showing "dewdrop fairies," "frost fairies," "milkweed ballerinas," and "dancing flowers" transformed nature into an idealized wonderland of sen- timental beauty. To accompany Ludwig von Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Disney's animators attempted a realistic depiction of mythological themes. The frolicking of flying horses, centaurs, unicorns, and fauns set the stage for visualiza- tions of Bacchus, Vulcan, Iris, and Zeus. The Elysian Fields, towered over by Mount Olympus, provided the physical setting for this segment, and the mountain ap- peared on screen with a Breughel-like realism.
The concluding section of Fantasia particularly highlighted Disney's sentimental modernism. Combining two drastically different pieces of music -Modest Petrovich Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Franz Schubert's Ave Maria -the seg- ment dramatized the cosmic battle between good and evil. It also inadvertently dramatized the tension within Disney's aesthetics. The piece begins with Cher- nobog, the black god of evil and death, as he magically appears out of the mountain and gathers witches, demons, and vampires in a furious dance before flinging them into a fiery pit. This powerful, otherworldly modernist vision then gives way to an almost cloying, fake-medieval realism. With the dawning light of morning and the tolling of church bells, we see through the fog a line of candle-carrying pilgrims advance across a bridge and through a shadowy forest. As they emerge into a bright, beautiful meadow, the film ends to the strains of Ave Maria and the camera moves skyward to focus on the brilliant sun. The aesthetic tension of Disney's sentimental modernism is resolved through an apotheosis?4
A long studio memo of December 23, 1935, gives a rare glimpse of Disney's thoughts on the aesthetic web of modernism, sentimental realism, and fantasy. Written to the art instructor Don Graham, this document explored the aesthetic principles underlying the animator's art. The memo represented the closest thing to a treatise this seat-of-the-pants commercial entertainer ever produced. It demon- strated Disney's lust for popularity and commitment to quality, but it betrayed even more clearly his hybrid aesthetic impulses and his awareness of the possibilities of moving wide audiences by a modernist-influenced appeal to the unconscious and the nonrationalJ5
Neither abstraction nor realism provided the goal for animation, Disney insisted, but a combination of the two. The device of "caricature" provided the key:
The first duty of the cartoon is not to picture or duplicate real action or things as they actually happen, but to give a caricature of life and action, to picture on
14 Fantasia, dirs. Samuel Armstrong et al. (Walt Disney Productions, 1940). For insight on the making of this film, see John Culhane, Walt Disney? Fantasia (New York, 1983). On the tension between "stupid realism" and "magic realism" in early-rwentieth-century advertising, see Jackson Lears, "Uneasy Courtship: Modern Art and Modern Advertising," American Quarterly, 39 (Spring 1987). 135-36.
15 Walt Disney to Don Graham, memo, Dec. 23, 1935 (Disney Archives).
The Journal of American History June 1995
The figures in this model sheet for Fantasia (1940) reflect the dark, even menacing, side to
Walt Disney's sentimental modernism. O The Walt Disney Company.
the screen things that have run through the imagination of the audience, to bring to life dream fantasies and imaginative fancies that we all have thought of during our lives. . . .
The point must be made clear to the men that our study of the actual is not so that we may be able to accomplish the actual, but so that we may have a basis upon which to go into the fantastic, the unreal, the imaginative-and yet to let it have a foundation of fact, in order that it may more richly possess sincerity and contact with the public. . . . I definitely feel that we cannot do the fantastic things based on the real unless we first know the real.
Caricature, Disney argued, promoted a "subconscious association" within the au- dience as it invoked situations they had "felt, or seen, or dreamt." It involved the audience in perceiving the several layers of motivation that might lie behind move- ment: "the personality, the attitude of the character," "reaction to stimuli that are telegraphed to the mind by the nerves," or simply "instincts." Caricature, for Disney, also unlocked an audience's instinctive, preconscious grasp of music. People's "primitive" attraction to melody and time reflected "the various rhythms that enter
Walt Disney's Art and Politics
their lives every day- how rhythmical the body really is- how well balanced the body really is."16
Critics discerned the outline of Disney's hybrid modernist aesthetic -the use of realism to make fantasy persuasive-and, through fantasy, the appeal to the au- dience's nonrational and preconscious mental life. When they wrote of tricks, spells, potions, illusions, and enchantments, their very language evoked the nonrational realms accessible through drugs or magic. The Art Digest praised Pinocchio for its blend of "essentially abstract sequences" with passages of "solid realism," noting that with Disney "'abstracts' definitely function -they have something significant to do and they do it." At the other end of the critical spectrum, a review of Snow White in the popular magazine Family Circle asserted happily that "Mr. Disney has tricked us -has cast a spell over us -to such an extent that we cannot tell the real from the unreal." Westbrook Pegler, an influential New York newspaper critic, argued that Disney could "drug you with a potion which prepares the spirit to accept the love- liest illusions as reality." Otis Ferguson, writing in the New Republic, perceived that "Disney's fantasy . . . starts from a firm base in the realism of the everyday," which works to "steady the fantastic" as his creation unfolds. Gilbert Seldes marveled that once the "Disney universe" established itself in "a reasonable way, the mind of the spectator is so enchanted that the artist can go to the wildest extremes of fantasy." Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge, a movie reviewer for the Birmingham News-Age Herald, put the matter with succinct insight. Disney's artistic appeal to popular audiences, he asserted, flowed from an ability to create characters that were "real and yet unreal." Not so naturalistic as to be merely "an imitation of photography," not so unrealistic that "the fairy tale would have broken altogether with folklore traditions," the filmmaker's work negotiated between these impulses. "By a successful compromise between realism and abstraction," Baldridge concluded, "Walt Disney can give us much that the motion picture screen [heretofore] has failed to provide."l7
In the post-World War I1 years, Disney's interest in animation waned as he in- creasingly turned his attention to live-action movies, nature documentaries, televi- sion, and the planning of his innovative amusement park. The studio's animated films continued to appear, mostly under the management of Disney's unofficial "Nine Old Men," a board of senior artists. This work continued the tradition of "sen- timental modernism" that defined the Disney style. Feature films such as Lady and the Tramp (195 5) and One Hundredand One Dalmatians (1961) blended modernist fantasy with sentimental domestic tales where animals transparently stood in for humans. Other movies such as Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) used familiar fairy tales to blend sentimental love stories with fantastic imagery as they
'7 "Pinocchio," Art Digest, Feb. 15, 1940, p. 13; "Starring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Family Circle, Feb. 2, 1938, clipping, Publicity Scrapbook S26 (Disney Archives); Westbrook Pegler, "Fair Enough," Knoxvifle News-Sentinel, Jan. 15, 1938, clipping, Publicity Scrapbook S25, ibia!; Otis Ferguson, "Walt Disney's Grimm Reality," New Republic, Jan. 26, 1938, pp. 339-40; Gilbert Seldes, The Movies Come from America (New York, 1937), 46-47; Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Birmingham [Alabama] News-Age Heraid, Feb. 13, 1938, clipping, Publicity Scrapbook S26 (Disney Archives).
The Journal of American History June 1995
trod in the well-worn paths of comforting Disney entertainment. An occasional ex- perimental project appeared, such as Toot, Whistle, Plank, and Boom (1953), an animated short that surveyed the history of musical instruments using the flat, sty- lized lines of "limited animation," or the ingenious Noah's Ark (1959), which used a "stop motion" technique to manipulate stick figures and common objects. But as the Disney Studio increasingly focused its energies elsewhere, that old war-horse, the animation section, becamse something of a relic?s
The Sentimental Populist
Walt Disney never cared much for politics. Once, when asked if he was interested in holding political office, he dismissed the idea with a shrug of the shoulders, saying, "I would just be mad all the time." Nonetheless, a strong, if unack- nowledged, political sensibility pervaded his work and provided another key to its popularity. Like his art, it developed somewhat haphazardly from the 1930s to the 1960s and tended to look simultaneously forward and backward for inspiration.
In Disney's later years, when a political turn did emerge, his opposition to labor organizing and support for anticommunism in Hollywood seemed to crystallize a visceral conservatism that moved him into the camp of such politicians as Barry Goldwater. As a result, Disney has been portrayed as a reactionary. Corroborating stories abound: a sour Walt showing up at the White House to accept an award from Lyndon B. Johnson while wearing a Republican campaign button under his lapel, his large monetary contributions to right-wing California candidates including Ronald Reagan and George Murphy, his friendly testimony before the House Com- mittee on Un-American Activities in 1947, rumors about private outbursts against African Americans, Jews, and political leftistsJ9
This portrayal offers glimpses of truth. Disney was a conservative Republican by the 195Os, but this fact hides more than it reveals. The real core of his politics lay in a "sentimental populism." He carried into adulthood an ideology-like his aes- thetics, it was instinctive and emotional rather than systematic and articulate -that glorified ordinary Americans, blended democratic sympathies and cultural conser- vatism, and flowered from roots in his rural, midwestern background. This "politics of nostalgia" assumed an egalitarian cast in the 1930s before shifting into an increas- ingly defensive, suspicious mode by the late 1940s and thereafter. This larger frame- work of political assumptions remained in place throughout Disney's life and helped
Lady andthe Tramp, dirs. Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi, and Wilfred Jackson (Walt Disney Productions, 1955); One Hundred and One Dalmatians, dirs. Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton Luske, and Clyde Geronimi (Walt Disney Productions, 1961); Cinderella, dirs. Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, and Clyde Geronimi (Walt Disney Productions, 1950); Sleeping Beauty, dir. Clyde Geronimi (Walt Disney Productions, 1959); Toot, Whistle, Plunk, andBoom, dirs. Charles Nichols and Ward Kimball (Walt Disney Productions, 1953); Noah's Ark, dir. Bill
Justice (Walt Disney Productions, 1959).
'9 For the first treatment of Disney's political conservatism, see Schickel, Disney Version, 157-58. Two somewhat sensational recent popular biographies portray Disney as a bitter political reactionary. See Leonard Mosley, Di~neyi World A Biography (New York, 1985); and Marc Eliot, Walt Disney: Hollywoodi Dark Prince: A Biography (New York, 1993).
Walt Disney's Art and Politics
shape his enterprise from the era of the Great Depression through the Cold War, but outside pressures and internal shifts of emphasis changed its orientation. Disney's populist sensibility remained strong, but it followed no straight path as it evolved during his career.20
The form of the populist persuasion for which the filmmaker became a spokes- man can be traced to ideological influences persisting from nineteenth-century America-the Populist revolt in the late 1800s with its rural opposition to urban industrial society and the "money power," the Protestant work ethic, and the heri- tage of eighteenth-century "republicanism" with its ideology of civic obligation. This petty bourgeois creed, suspicious of the machinery of modern finance and its cash matrix, demanded a moral valuation of labor through "producerism" and in- sisted that property ownership and personal independence provided the key to citizenship. According to Richard Hofstadter's elegant description, this persistent impulse in American political culture attempted
to hold on to some of the values of agrarian life, to save personal entrepreneurship and individual opportunity and the character type they engendered, and to main- tain a homogenous Yankee civilization. . . . [Populism promoted] the ideal of a life lived close to nature and the soil, the esteem for the primary contacts of country and village life, the cherished image of the independent and self-reliant man, even the desire (for all the snobberies and hatreds it inspired) to maintain an ethnically more homogenous nation.21
Evoking an image of the vigorous, virtuous common man, Disney's 1930s films presented scenarios where the dogged persistence of Mickey Mouse and the libidi- nous outbursts of Donald Duck reaffirmed the ordinary citizen's capacity to survive and conquer all adversity. In part, the theme was an ideological response to the Great Depression- broadly populist, more implicitly cultural than overtly political, and more visceral than doctrinaire. It defended the dignity of the common man and elevated the wisdom of the folk when both were suffering massive assault and trauma.
Disney did not stand alone in such a cultural politics. Similar sentiments sprouted everywhere, as "petty-bourgeois populism," to use Christopher Lasch's phrase, enjoyed a widespread resurgence in the 1930s. It appeared in the village sen- timentality of popular illustrator Norman Rockwell and the democratic optimism of folk singer Woody Guthrie. It surfaced in politician Huey Long's "every man a king" rhetoric and in composer Aaron Copland's music, such as Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring, and Rodeo. It influenced the criticism of Van Wyck Brooks, a refugee from the radical Young America cohort whose Makers and
20 Schickel, Disney Version, 157.
21 Richard Hofstadter, The Age ofReform: From Bryan to ED.R. (New York, 1959), 11-12. For some of the leading interpretations of Populism, see zbid; Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (New York, 1976); and C. Vann Woodward, The Burden ofsouthern History (New York, 1969), 104-20. On the historiography of Populism, see James Turner, "Understanding the Populists," JournalofAmerican History, 67 (Sept. 1980), 354-73. On recent political misappropriations of Populism, see Sean Wilentz, "Pox Populi," Nezu Republic, Aug. 9, 1993, pp. 29-35.
98 The Journal of American History June 1995
Finders series, which began to appear in 1936, exalted the democratic tradition of American letters. It flowered in the neorealism of such regionalist painters as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Steuart Curry, whose canvases depicted the workaday heroism of rural midwesterners. It influenced Archibald MacLeish's calls for poetry in the mold of "public speech" and Lewis Mumford's agenda for rein- tegrating industrial technology with the "culture of the folk." As Lasch has pointed out, this revitalization of American popular tradition took place under the left-wing auspices of the Popular Front. Overall, as Warren Susman has argued convincingly, the neopopulist upsurge of the 1930s helped shape the major ideological trend of the period: "a growing self-consciousness of an American Way," a "fascination with the folk and its culture, past and present," a "collective identification with all of America and its people." Depression-era populism was at once egalitarian and nostalgic, democratic and defensive.22
JUS; such a political sensibility permeated Disney's early cartoon shorts. Mickey Mouse, for instance, became something of a populist hero as he faced ritual humilia- tion in story after story but always persisted to emerge triumphant. In Moving Day (1936), for instance, Mickey and the gang are six months behind in the rent when the brutish sheriff, Pete, appears to evict them and sell their possessions. But a gas leak blows the house into rubble around the sheriff's ears as the gleeful renters es- cape with their belongings. Another variation on the enduring underdog theme ap- peared in The Worm Turns (1937), where Mickey the chemist concocts a courage- building potion that turns hierarchy upside down. A fly who swallows the liquid beats up a spider who is trying to eat him; a fortified mouse clobbers a cat who has a similar goal; the cat terrorizes Pluto when the dog tries to chase him. In Donald Duck, Disney presented a more boisterous, abrasive character who had no qualms about asserting his capabilities and defending his place in society. In Mickey's Amateurs (1937), for example, Donald gives an inspirational recitation of his favorite poem. When he is hooted offstage by the audience for forgetting his lines, he flies into a rage, rushes back with a machine gun, and fires a few rounds into the crowd while squawking "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" at the top of his lungs. Even the artier Silly Symphonies-The Tortoise andthe Hare (1935) and The Ugly Duckling (1931) are examples- often featured underdogs whose persistence and moral courage led them to triumph. In all of these films, Disney seized upon the depression-era discourse of the common man's resilience and translated it into an idiom of fantasy and humor.23
imagery appeared with particular force in two enor- mously popular films from the 1930s. Three Little Pigs (1933), the most acclaimed
Susman, Culture as History, 150-210; Christopher Lasch, "Foreword," in Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York, 1973), vii-xxiv; Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, andthe Great Depresszon (New York, 1982); Erika Lee Doss, "The Art of Cultural Politics: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism," in Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age ofcold Wat; ed. Lary May (Chicago, 1989). 195-213.
23 Mouing Day, dir. Ben Sharpsteen (Walt Disney Productions, 1936); The Worm Turns, dir. Ben Sharpsteen (Walt Disney Productions, 1937); The Tortoise andthe Hare, dir. Wilfred Jackson (Walt Disney Productions, 1935); The Ugly Duckling, dir. Wilfred Jackson (Walt Disney Productions, 1931).
Walt Disney's Art and Politics 99
of all the Silly Symphony short films, rejuvenated audiences throughout the country. Its highly symbolic tune, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?," proclaimed hope in the face of overwhelming adversity, while its moral tale promised safety and prosperity for common people who practiced hardworking diligence. The sober, in- dustrious little pig saved his backsliding brother pigs by returning them to producerism and prudential habits. In 1937, Snow White made national celebrities of the seven dwarfs, miners who bent to their task singing "Heigh Ho, It's Off to Work We Go." It subtly celebrated the virtue, independence, and dignity of (liter- ally) "the little guy" who, despite character flaws and a rough-and-tumble life, works hard, maintains an upright character, and pulls through the worst travails offered by nature or the social order. Aristocracy takes a beating throughout. The Wicked Queen destroys herself, and the protagonist, a princess, gains viewer sympathy by her position as a servant girl and her no-nonsense habits of hard work.
Disney's personal film statement from the period, a little-known Silly Symphony short entitled The Golden Touch (1935), elaborated this populist urge. Apparently miffed by whispers that he was merely a manager while others were doing the crea- tive work, he sequestered the studio's two top animators, Fred Moore and Norm Fer- guson, and personally produced a film without the usual collective story confer- ences. The result was unsuccessful- the cartoon bombed with audiences- but its story resonated politically as Walt admitted an attempt to "put some social meaning" into the film. Drawing upon the tale of King Midas, Disney's film focused on a fat, bald old monarch for whom women and wine meant nothing in compar- ison with "Gold, gold, gold, I worship it, I love it." When an elf grants him "the golden touch," he is overjoyed, then horrified as everything he touches turns into the valuable metal. Growing steadily more hysterical, he tearfully offers all of his earthly possessions for some food: "My kingdom for a hamburger!" When his wish is granted, everything he owns- his treasure, the royal castle, even his clothes- vanishes as a hamburger on a plate appears in front of him. Clad only in his under- wear, he chomps down and happily informs the audience that this delightful prize came complete "with onions!" This film suggested that happiness could be found in neither money nor elevated social status, but only in the modest "hamburger" pleasures of ordinary people. Like Snow White, The Golden Touch focused on the kingly class, but the story read the same: hierarchy was humiliated, and elites gained true nobility in proportion to their humble acceptance of the common man's values.24
Disney's background influenced the cultural politics of his early films. Born in Chicago, he spent his formative boyhood years on a farm near the small town of Marceline, Missouri, and carried golden memories of rural village life into adult- hood. His wife once observed to an interviewer, "there was something about the farm that was very important to him. He worked hard [there] but he enjoyed the work. He liked the animals and he liked being close to the soil." His father's
24 The Golden Touch, dir. Walt Disney (Walt Dimey Productions, 1935); "Mouse and Man," Time, Dec. 27, 1937, p. 21.
100 The Journal of American History June 1995
politics- Elias Disney had been an unabashed socialist -also exerted an influence. Walt grew up making sketches, in his words, of "the big, fat capitalist . . . with his foot on the neck of the laboring man," an image inspired by the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. Many years later Disney spoke of his "dad's socialistic ideas," recalling that Elias was "a great friend of the working man. . . .He was very much for 'em. I grew up believing a lot of that." Thus the cartoonist carried with him into his adult career much of the baggage of midwestern political radicalism.25
A lifelong dislike for bankers, for example, may have stemmed from this influence. Ben Sharpsteen, one of Disney's senior studio executives and a friend for several decades, noted that while his boss realized bankers made motion pictures possible, he "never had any reverence for them." Disney liked to play the nalve "boy from the country" when financiers put pressure on him. He would inquire if the studio was paying its interest; when assured that it was, he would ask innocently if that wasn't how banks stayed in business. In 1928, Disney had his first contact with New York business culture when he was trying to work out a distribution deal for his new sound cartoons. A long series of letters home revealed his profound dis- taste. Struggling to negotiate a contract, he assured his brother Roy that "none of our profits [are] going to some leech sitting at a big mahogany desk telling us what to do." A short time later, Walt denounced the whole finance "game" as "the damn- dest mixed-up affair I have ever heard of" and offered a blunt evaluation of businessmen: "They are all a bunch of schemers and just full of tricks that would fool a greenhorn. . . . [I feel] like a sheep amongst a pack of wolves."26
A populist sensibility permeated much of Disney's personal life. Throughout the 1930s, for example, he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in later decades he cul- tivated a self-consciously folksy image among the Hollywood elite, appearing at par- ties in his home dressed in denim overalls and plaid flannel shirts. In the words of animator and close friend Ward Kimball, "he took a delight in letting them know that he was a common man." This famous producer also habitually praised manual craftsmanship-"he was really quite humble about it," one of his cartoonists recalled-and often told associates of his enormous respect for the studio carpenters and cabinetmakers. Disney's public pronouncements consistently polished this populist image. As early as 1930 he promoted Mickey Mouse as a heroic "little fellow" who, like all such types, aroused sympathy because everyone picked on him. "So when he finally triumphs over the bigger characters," he concluded, "the public rejoices with" him. Three Little Pigs appealed to average Americans suffering under the depression, Disney asserted a few years later, because of its simple moral: "wisdom and courage is enough to defeat big, bad wolves of every description, and send them slinking away." At every opportunity, the studio chief reaffirmed his alle-
Lillian Disney interview by Bob Thomas, April 19, 1973, transcript, p. 1 (Disney Archives); Walt Disney inter- view by Pete Martin and Diane Disney Miller, 1956 (reel 11, pp. 9-10; reel 12, pp. 26, 28), ibid Walt Disney's massive interview with Martin and Miller was recorded on twelve reel-to-reel tapes, and the transcript of it is indexed at the Disney Archives according to reel number and page number.
26 Ben Sharpsteen interview by Hubler, Oct. 29, 1968, transcript, p. 14, ibid.;Walt Disney to Roy Disney, Sept. 25, 1928, ibid; Walt Disney to Lillian Disney, Oct. 20, 1928, ibid
Walt Disney's Art and Politics
Three Little Pigs (1933), Walt Disney's depression-era hit film, made celebrities of its
porcine protagonists, who demonstrated that through hard work, prudential
habits, and solidarity, people could triumph against adversity.
O The Walt Dirney Company.
giance to an ethic of producerism. "I'm not interested in money, except for what I can do with it to advance my work," he told an interviewer in late 1933. "Work is the real adventure in life. Money is merely a means to make more work possible."27
Perhaps the clearest public expression of Disney's populist persuasion came on March 1, 1942. Speaking by radio hookup to the audience at intermission during a performance at the New York Metropolitan Opera- having a cartoonist lecture to highbrow devotees of the opera suggested a modernist mix of artistic styles and levels-he addressed the topic "Our American Culture." After a self-deprecating disclaimer that "Dopey is as well qualified as I am to discuss culture in America," he plunged ahead. The very word "culture," Disney began, had an "un-American" connotation about it that seemed "snobbish and affected. As if it thought it was better than the next fellow." This attitude could lead to a kind of tyranny, where self-appointed guardians of tradition erected and patrolled "a fence around
21 Walt Disney interview, reel 12, pp. 28-29, ibia!;Ward Kimball interview by Hubler, June 4, 1968, transcript, pp. 47-48, ibia!; Ollie Johnston interview by Thomas, May 17, 1973, transcript, p. 2, ibid; Shelly Ford, "He Wanted a Little Fellow:' Hollywood Quarterly (June 1930), clipping. Publicity Scrapbook MI, ibia!;Walt Disney, "Three Little Pigs," Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 10. 1934, p. 6; Walt Disney quoted in Alice T. Tildesley, 'A Silly Symphony Becomes America's Slogan." Lincoln StarJournal, Dec. 24, 1933, clipping, Publicity Scrapbook M1 (Disney Archives).
102 The Journal of American History June 1995
painting or art or music or literature." For Disney, such elitism was intolerable be- cause culture belonged "equally to all of us." In America, he insisted, easy access to cultural materials existed for "rich and poor alike in great abundance" through radio and the movies, magazines and newspapers, symphonies and ballets, poetry and painting, writing and illustration.
For Disney, the real tradition of American culture rested on a central idea: "faith in the discrimination of the average person." He preached reliance on the judgment of the common citizen and the need to protect choice.
As I see it, a person's culture represents his appraisal of the things that make up life. And a fellow becomes cultured, I believe, by selecting that which is fine and beautiful in life and throwing aside that which is mediocre or phony. Sort of a series of free, very personal choices, you might say. If this is true, then I think it follows that "freedom" is the most precious word to culture. Freedom to believe what you choose-and [to] read, think, say, and be what you choose. In America, we are guaranteed those freedoms. It is the constitutional privilege of every American to become cultured or to just grow up like Donald Duck. I believe that this spiritual and intellectual freedom which we Americans enjoy is our greatest cultural blessing. Therefore, it seems to me that the first duty of culture is to defend freedom and resist all tyranny. . . . I thank God and America for the right to live and raise my family under the flag of tolerance, democracy, and freedom.
"Our American Culture" summarized the optimism, inclusiveness, and egalitarian instincts of Disney's depression-era populism.28
Many politically sensitive critics grasped Disney's populist appeal. Some focused on the recurring underdog theme, paying homage to several of his animated characters. "Mickey, kin to little David, always wins against every Goliath," summa- rized one essayist. "Donald Duck, the choleric knight, fights courageously against a malevolent world, and the 'Three Little Pigs' eventually put to flight the big bad tvolf." Another critic praised Disney as a political antidote to the "dictators and tyrants" of the age by virtue of his driving principle: "The persecutors of the small are routed by the small." A host of writers and reviewers directly connected this cel- luloid populism to the Great Depression. Three Little Pigs attracted special atten- tion because, in the words of a typical commentary, it attacked social gloom by in- stilling "the philosophy that if we have done the very best we possibly could under the circumstances which were bad at best, we need have no health-destroying fear of the big bad wolf." Some saw Disney as an ally of Roosevelt and his New Deal. His films symbolized "this new American NRA spirit in some way- the American power to defy disaster, to laugh and sing in the face of danger and trouble." As a columnist for the Des Moines Reghter wrote in 1938, "it is about time that we real- ized that Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse, is one of the great political forces of our time~."~9
Walt Disney. "Our American Culture," radio speech transcript, March 1. 1942 (Disney Archives).
29 See Richard L. Plant, "Of Disney:' Decision, 2 (July 1941), 84; Edward G. Smith, "St. Francis of the Silver Screen," Progress Today (Jan.-March 1935). 43-44; Spa Engro to editor, Dayton News. Oct. 22. 1933. Publicity Scrapbook M8 (Disney Archives); "Who's Afraid?," Warren Times-Mirrol; Oct. 11, 1933, clippings, ibid.; Jay
Walt Disney's Art and Politics
The World War I1 era, however, inaugurated a sustained crisis that severely tested Disney's sentimental populism and ultimateiy twisted it hard in a new direction. The problems of this period highlighted the latent nayvet6 and paternalism in the filmmaker's politics and created a devil's brew of resentment. Most of Disney's polit- ical crisis stemmed from personal experiences that torpedoed his populist optimism. A bitter labor strike at the Disney Studio in 1941-literally a case of suspended animation-provided the first and most disillusioning encounter. The studio had paid most of its employees good wages throughout the depression-the top ani- mators were practically movie stars- but complaints had begun to well up from the ranks. Miserly wages for low-level "inkers" and "in-betweeners," looming layoffs be- cause of markets depressed by the European war, resentment of the reportedly enormous revenues generated by Snow White, and Walt's paternalistic disdain for organized labor created tension. Events escalated. When many employees first agi- tated for a labor organization, Disney countered by trying to form a company union. When they instead adopted an American Federation of Labor union, he avoided serious negotiation and refused to meet their demands. Many employees finally went on strike in July 1941, but the studio head tried to break it and angrily denounced the participants. After one of his contract offers was rejected by the strikers, for instance, Disney took out a full-page ad in Variety that said: "I am posi- tively convinced that Communistic agitation, leadership, and activities have brought about this strike." As a highly publicized picket line nearly closed the studio gates for some two months, an embarassed and angry Disney unburdened himself in a private letter. The strike leader, he insisted, was "a tool of the Communist group"; the strikers were "malcontents, the unsatisfactory ones who knew that their days were numbered." For the embittered studio chief, the strike signaled that American traditions of participatory government had given way to pressure-group agitation. "To me, the real fight for Democracy is right here at home," he wrote. "Guts and not guns will win it." Disney proved so intransigent that federal labor mediators were able to settle the strike only when he left town on a goodwill tour of South America sponsored by the State Department.30
Disney's political disillusionment deepened with his experience during World War 11. On the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Army com- mandeered the Disney Studio as a supply base -apparently it was the only Holly- wood studio so treated-and turned his sound stage into a repair shop. The army moved out after a seven-month stay. Disney joined the war effort by producing numerous training films such as Aircraft Carrier Landing Signah and propaganda cartoons such as The New Spirit, which featured Donald Duck urging citizens to pay their taxes. Overall, however, Disney found the wartime experience, particularly his encounters with the government, extremely frustrating. The studio was never
Franklin, "Hope for the World in Snow White," Des Moines Register, Feb. 22, 1938, clipping, Publicity Scrapbook S26, ibid 3O Advertisement, "To My Employees on Strike:' Variety, July 2, 1941, 1941 Studio Strike Folder (Disney Ar- chives); Walt Disney to Westbrook Pegler, Aug. 11, 1941, Walt Disney Historic Correspondence file, ibid
104 The Journal of American History June 1995
paid for several productions, and Walt had a dispute with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., when the latter disapproved of Donald Duck as the star of the tax-payment film. A tight-lipped Disney informed Morgenthau that "at our studio, this was the equivalent of giving you Clark Gable out of the MGM stable." Such difficulties reinforced Disney's suspicions of big government and its connection to national financial power. When another major problem- the drastic wartime loss of revenue from the destruction of overseas markets-was added to the list, the studio reached a nadir. Debt-ridden, suffering a loss of direction, and politically frustrated, Disney began to adopt what associates would call his "wounded bear" persona.3'
Disney's disarray was reflected in the hodgepodge of creative work that emerged from his studio in the decade after 1941. Films that blended animation and live ac- tion or glued together loosely connected cartoon shorts were the norm for the Disney Studio during that period. These productions included SaLados Amz'gos (1943) and The Three CabalLeros (1944)-this pair resulted from Walt's South American trip during the strike-as well as the musical animations Make Mine Masic (1946),Fan and Fancy Free (1947), and Melody Time (1948). Even more im- portant, the crisis of the 1940s prompted Disney to revamp his earlier populism. Embittered by a growing perception of the overweening bureaucratic power of labor unions and big government, by the end of World War I1 he had mobilized the anti- bureaucratic, anti-intellectual, provincial elements of his populist creed while shoving the egalitarian elements deeper into the ba~k~rounh.32
This hardened political viewpoint came to the surface in Disney's testimony be- fore the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This congressional body had come to Los Angeles in 1947 at the urging of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals- Disney was a founding member along with Sam Wood, Gary Cooper, King Vidor, and Adolphe Menjou, and the group's primary spokesperson was the writer Ayn Rand -to investigate the influence of communism in the entertainment industry. Disney appeared as a friendly witness on the after- noon of October 24.
His testimony proved revealing. Speaking as a producer and studio chief, he as- sured HUAC that although everyone in his organization was now "100 percent Amer- ican," that had not always been the case. The Disney Studio strike of 1941, he an- nounced, had involved "a Communist group trying to take over my artists." The strike had been supported by "Commie front organizations," while "throughout the world all of the Commie groups began smear campaigns against me and my pic-
3' Aircraft CarrierLanding Signals (Walt Disney Productions. 1942); The New Spirit, dirs. Wilfred Jackson and Ben Sharpsteen (Walt Disney Productions, 1942). Richard Shale, DonaldDud Joins Up: The Wah Disney Studio during World War 11 (Ann Arbor, 1982). For Disney's private experiences during the war, see Thomas, American Original, 175-87; and Schickel, Disney Version, 269-76.
32 Saludos Amigos, dirs. Bill Roberts, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson (Walt Disney Produc- tions, 1943); The Three Caballeros, dir. Norm Ferguson (Walt Disney Productions, 1944); Make Mine Music, dirs. Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Bob Cormack, and Josh Meador (Walt Disney Productions, 1946); Fun and Fancy Free, dirs. Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Hamilton Luske, and William Horgan (Walt Disney Produc- tions, 1947); Melody Time, dirs. Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Jack Kinney, and Wilfred Jackson (Walt Disney Productions, 1948).
Walt Disney's Art and Politics 105
tures." Disney then named people involved in the strike whom he believed to be Communists-the animator David Hilberman who, suspiciously, "had no religion" and had studied at the Moscow Art Theater, the labor organizer Herbert Sorrell, and union agents William Pomerance and Maurice Howard. His earnest, folksy commentary culminated in a warning. In Disney's post-depression, revised populist vision, communism had replaced cultural elitism as the deadliest threat to the American folk:
I believe it is an un-American thing. The thing that I resent the most is that they are able to get into these unions, take them over, and represent to the world that a group of people that are in my plant, that I know are good, 100-percent Americans, are trapped by this group, and they are represented to the world as supporting all of those ideologies, and it is not so, and I feel that they really ought to be smoked out and shown up for what they are, so that all of the good, free causes in this country, all the liberalisms that really are American, can go out without the taint of communism. . . . I feel if the thing can be proven un- American that it ought to be outlawed. I think in some way it should be done without interfering with the rights of the people. I think that will be done. I have that faith. Without interfering, I mean, with the good, American rights that we all have now, and want to preserve.33
The old insurgent impulse in Disney's populism continued to surface sporadically in his post-World War I1 films, although in increasingly muted or diffuse form. For example, the Song of the South (1946) has been unable to escape the burden of its embarrassing Uncle Tom racial stereotypes. Yet the picture reveals another, more subtle dimension: its suggestion of a Blacklwhite rural alliance of "outsiders" (Uncle Remus, little Johnny who has been isolated by his separated parents, the poor little white girl Ginny) that is held together by the inspiration of Brer Rabbit, the folk character whose clever maneuvers outwit more powerful antagonists. The Story of Robin Hood (1952) dramatized more overtly the revolt of virtuous rural "bandits" against the capricious economic and legal power of an evil monarch. Twenty Thou- sand Leagues under the Sea (1954) leaped off the screen as a fantastic adventure story, but it also posed the self-reliant individual in opposition to a corrupt, bureau- cratic power structure. Even The Absent-MindedProfessor (1961), a particularly silly film, included a subtle protest against the impersonal modern world, where the av- erage man struggled to break free of financial elites, government bureaucracy, and machine-age anxiety.34
In the post-World War I1 world, Disney's populism was channeled into a full- fledged defense of the 'American Way of Life." This ideological influence pervaded a wave of vaguely historical Disney films. Disney's version of history revived a populist image of the American WASP "folk," surrounded them with a defensive cul-
33 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings Regarding the Communist Infiltration ofthe Motion Picture Industry, 80 Cong., 1 sess., Oct. 20-24, 27-30, 1947, pp. 280-86.
34 Song of the South, dir. Wilfred Jackson (Walt Disney Productions, 1946); The Story of Robin Hood, dir. Ken Annakin (Walt Disney Productions. 1952); Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, dir. Richard Fleischer (Walt Disney Productions, 1954); The Absent Minded Professor, dir. Robert Stevenson (Walt Disney Productions. 1961).
The Journal of American History June 1995
Turn-of-the-century Marceline, Missouri. Walt Disney based his memorial to the American way
of life, Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland, in part on his childhood memories of
Marceline. Used by permzision from The Walt Disney Company.
tural embankment, and homogenized the social norms and characteristics of the group within. This cultural structure defended a sentimental view of the family, a traditional gender ideology of separate spheres, and an ethic of rugged individu- alism and productive labor. Such deeply felt films as So Dear to My Heart (1949) and Pollyanna (1960) -among Walt's favorite productions -construct historical archetypes of this idealized world view. Disney told a reporter, "So Dear was espe- cially close to me. Why, that's the life my brother and I grew up with as kids out in Missouri." Director David Swift noted that "Pollyanna was Walt's favorite film. Because it made him cry. I remember I showed him the rough cut of Pollyanna . . . and I was surprised to see him crying right there in the sweatbox." Both films were self-consciously didactic and nostalgic. The former, detailing the adventures of a young boy struggling to get his beloved black sheep to the county fair, evokes virtuous rural life on the Kincaid family homestead in 1903. The film features an array of comforting social figures: a pious, stern, but gentle grandmother, a hard- working and kindly blacksmith uncle, a cranky village storekeeper with a heart of gold. Pollyanna portrays a young orphan who unites a small village community in another turn-of-the-century setting. Faced with a depressing atmosphere of old- fashioned fatalism, Pollyanna injects joy into the town with what she calls "the glad game," her knack for seeing the good things in life. Her influence triumphs as a lonely hypochondriac overcomes her invalidism, an eccentric old hermit becomes
Walt Disney's Art and Politics
Main Street U.S.A., Disneyland. @ The Walt Disney Company.
a congenial member of society, and a fire-and-brimstone preacher transforms him- self into a disciple of Christian charity. In these two films, as in many others, Disney re-created a historical image of the virtuous American folk: hard-laboring people, stable families, community cohesion, a God-fearing culture.35
Many of Disney's postwar movies also legislated a kind of cultural Marshall Plan. They nourished a genial cultural imperialism that magically overran the rest of the globe with the values, expectations, and goods of a prosperous middle-class United States. Davy Crockett: King of the WildFrontier (1955), for instance, cashed in on the success of the television character with a full-scale movie that glorified the wilderness hero as a prototypical nineteenth-century American: Indian fighter, po- litical reformer, and conqueror of the continent whose death at the Alamo placed him at the cutting edge of southwestern expansion. Swiss Family Robinson (1960) offered a variation on this theme. Here a family stranded on a Pacific island demon- strates the superior power of the Protestant ethic and solid kinship. The hard-
3' So Dearto My Heart, dir. Harold Schuster (Walt Disney Productions, 1949); Pollyanna, dir. David Swift (Walt Disney Productions, 1960); Maltin, Dicney Films, 89; Mosley, Disney i World, 260. For other Disney films of the era that promote a sense of cultural homogeneity, see Westward Ho the Wagons!, dir. William Beaudine (Walt Disney Productions, 1956); Johnny Tremain, dir. Robert Stevenson (Walt Disney Productions, 1957); Old Yeller, dir. Robert Stevenson (Walt Disney Productions, 1957); and The Light in the Forest, dir. Herschel Daugherty (Walt Disney Productions, 1958).
108 The Journal of American History June 1995
working parents and their three sons develop ingenious technologies, "civilize" their natural surroundings, enjoy a life of material abundance, and finally conquer marauding Oriental pirates who constitute a thinly disguised "yellow peril."36
Disney's 1950s-style populism eventually escaped its cinematic confines and found a permanent home in Disneyland. Opened in 1955, this remarkable theme park near Los Angeles attracted hordes of eager visitors with a combination of fairy tale images derived from Disney's earlier animated masterpieces and sanitized his- torical images from his live-action films. Some areas of the park-Main Street, U.S.A., Frontierland, Adventureland-presented a vast display of the totems of Americana. From the Jungle Cruise with its playful conquest of the "dark conti- nent" to the steamboat Mark Twain cruising symbolically through the American heartland on its man-made river, from the Enchanted Tiki Room with its har- monious chorus of ethnic stereotypes to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln with its roboticized acclaim for democratic constitutionalism, the park sent forth a barrage of consensual messages. If Disney's postwar movies presented vignettes of the Amer- ican Way of Life, Disneyland erected a monument to it.37
Near the end of his life, Disney dropped anchor at a final ideological port, em- bodying in the Disney World / EPC~project in Florida a kind of technocratic populism. Still enamored of the American folk, he now sought to engineer their contentment through technology and to assure their dominance through expertise. Disney World would stimulate and channel dream life through highly sophisticated rides and management techniques, while the accompanying Experimental Proto- type Community of Tomorrow (EPC~)would demonstrate a nourishing urban envi- ronment programmed by technocratic experts. Through such structures, Disney be- lieved, much of the industrial residue in American life-crime, poverty, alienation, inefficient public services, urban overcrowding, and grime -could be cleansed away. Here Walt's old concern for the common man converged with a long tradition of American technological utopianism earlier articulated by such writers as Edward Bellamy and Lewis Mumford. Uniting social science expertise and populism, social engineering and nostalgia, Disney's final politics of technocratic populism envi- sioned a new "city on a hill" for late twentieth-century America.38
a6 Davy Crockett: King ofthe WildFmntiet; dir. Norman Foster (Walt Disney Productions, 1955); SwissFamily Robinson, dir. Ken Annakin (Walt Disney Productions, 1960). For a scathing indictment of Disney as a cultural imperialist, see Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971; New York, 1991).
For contrary assessments of Disney's theme parks, see Randy Bright, Disneyland Inside Story (New York, 1987); and Mike Wallace, "Mickey Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World," Radical History Review, 32 (March 1985), 32-57. For telling critiques of Disneyland's cultural meanings, see George Lipsitz, "The Making of Disneyland," ,in Fue Stories from the American Past, ed. William Graebner (New York, 1993), 179-96; and Karal Ann Marling, "Disneyland 1955," American Art, 5 (WinterlSpring 1991), 169-207.
as Richard Beard, Walt Disney's EPC~
Center: Creating a Worldof Tomorrow (New York, 1982); Stephen M. Fjellman, Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America (Boulder, 1992).
Walt Disney's Art and Politics
Mediation and Historical Change
As historical chronicler, mass culture magnate, and engineer of enchantment, Disney was a popular mediator of historical change. He labored as a cultural medi- ator at several crucial junctures. A committed producerist, he helped clear the path for advancing consumerism. A firm believer in the self-controlled character ethic, he became an architect of a culture devoted to leisure and self-fufillment. An advo- cate of self-reliance, he helped ease millions of his fellow Americans into an embrace of corporate definitions of selfhood. A fan of naturalistic, sentimental art, he helped shape a popular accommodation with the vitalism of artistic modernism.
Disney was able to do this partly because he enjoyed a special relationship with his vast audience. He styled himself "Mr. Average American." Deeply and genuinely concerned with the values and needs of his popular audience, he reached out to grasp and understand them. He regularly showed works in progress to his assembled studio staff and then distributed questionnaires and suggestion sheets to help guide the process of production. He secretly previewed films at local theaters, sneaking into the balcony with his creative artists to view moviegoers' reactions. Disney made his loyalties clear, insisting throughout his career that if the public "doesn't like what you've done, in nine cases out of ten you've done the wrong thing."39
The enthusiastic embrace of Disney's creations over many decades suggests that he spoke to something common to many Americans. Perhaps it was his work's em- bodiment of both modernist and sentimental tendencies- and its populist subver- sion of hierarchy and celebration of the American folk- that gave it such resonance. Or perhaps it was that Disney's artistic fantasies strove to reunite what modernizing society had separated: innocent childhood and cynical adulthood, dreams and reason, artistic visions and ideological desires, work and play. Ironically, in utilizing the culture industry to send his magical messages, Disney relied on corporate ration- alization while simultaneously moving to undermine its authority.
His works attempted magically to reanimate a modern society grown increasingly "disenchanted," to use Max Weber's word, under the influence of rationalization. Disney's cinematized fantasies, although occasionally nightmarish, sought to keep alive playful, magical, childlike instincts pushed to the margins of a bureaucratic, scientific, industrial society. The young producer had highlighted this impulse and its almost universal appeal as he discussed his films near the beginning of his career:
Everybody in the world was once a child. We grow up. Our personalities change, but in every one of us something remains of our childhood. . . . [This] knows nothing of sophistication and distinction. It's where all of us are simple and naive without prejudice and bias. We're friendly and trusting and it just seems that if your picture hits that spot with one person, it's going to hit that spot in almost
39 For Disney's description of himself as "Mr. Average American," see Ken Anderson interview by Hubler, March 26, 1968, transcript, p. 2 (Disney Archives). For the quotation from Disney, see Frank Daugherty, "Mickey Mouse Comes of Age," Christian Science Monitor; Feb. 2, 1938, p. 9.
110 The Journal of American History June 1995
everybody . . . that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that
maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our picture can help recall.40
Working his mediating magic in the art and politics of a rapidly transforming age, this sentimental modernist and sentimental populist drew upon the past to make the present palatable and the future inviting. In such fashion, Walt Disney became more typically, fantastically American than even he ever knew.
40 H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essaysin Sociology (New York, 1974); Walt Disney interview by Cecil B. DeMille, radio broadcast, Dec. 26, 1938, transcript, pp. 1-2 (Disney Archives).