Brian Sibley has been reading the two recently published biographies of Walt Disney.
Two biographies of Walt Disney? Published in the same week? What can be so fascinating about the man? Well, to begin with, he is the greatest dream-merchant of this, or any, age: the creator of a pantheon of cartoon gods and goddesses – Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and the Gang, Snow White, Dumbo and Mary Poppins – and the designer of that Garden of Earthly Delights, Disneyland.
More than that, Disney exemplified the great American Dream: the farm-boy who set off for the Big City, in search of fame and fortune, with just $40 in his pocket, a head full of ambitions and a heart full of hopes. In Hollywood, that Mecca of self-made men, he found success and, with it, wealth and power; he became the most celebrated movie-mogul in Tinsel Town. It was a rags-to-riches, Cinderella story that made Walt Disney – as the cliché has it – a legend in his own lifetime.
Like all living legends, Disney found disciples and detractors, became the focus for mindless adulation and excessive condemnation. Even in death, the legend lived on – in his films and in his vision of a Utopian society called EPCOT; the universal Uncle of mankind became the Twentieth Century’s Once and Future King… Small wonder the biographers should have found his story irresistible.
On the face of it, Leonard Mosley (author of The Real Walt Disney) and Richard Schickel (whose book, The Disney Version, has just been republished) have much in common. Both men are experienced journalists who have written about movies and movie-makers, and both are well practised in the ruthless art of iconoclasm. And yet, their books about Walt Disney could scarcely be more different: Mosley’s is a scrappy, error-ridden work of gossipmongery, while Schickel’s is an exceptionally well-written, thought-provoking critique.
It is curious to recall, on re-reading Schickel’s book almost twenty years after its first publication in 1968, just what a stir The Disney Version caused when it appeared, two years after Disney’s death. The studio, perhaps respecting the fact that Disney had not taken to Schickel and his attempts to probe beneath the public persona, gave the author little or no co-operation and declined permission for the inclusion of Disney copyright illustrations.
Then, when the book was published, it was violently denounced by the devoted admirers of Uncle Walt. Leonard Maltin (who later wrote The Disney Films), called it ‘a cruel book’ and Mr Schickel ‘a cunning writer’; while Al Kilgore – in a review entitled ‘The Disney Assault’ – wrote:
‘Assumption, innuendo, distortion and half-facts are blended together to become the purest example of McCarthyism since the late senator’s demise.’ Film Fan Monthly spoke for many with a cover-design showing Mickey Mouse impaled to a copy of The Disney Version with a stake through the heart.
‘I suppose,’ Schickel writes in his new introduction, ‘I should not have been surprised by all this, but I was, and rereading my work now, I am, if anything, more astonished than ever by the controversy it caused. It seems to me, in retrospect, well within the realms of fair comment on the life and work of a public man whose creations demonstrably had an influence, for both good and ill, on several generations of the world’s citizens.’
Well, two decades have now passed and it is rather easier to gain a perspective on Schickel’s biography; easier to see that, in writing his Disney disquisition, he not only provided some remarkable insights into Disney’s work and postured some compelling arguments, he showed a quite extraordinary maturity in being one of the first writers to question the legends and attempt to penetrate the myths surrounding a man who was currently undergoing the process of deification.
True, there was – and still is – a harshness about Schickel’s approach, as well as an unwillingness to recognise the studio’s contribution to the art of cinema – a failing which Schickel himself admits. ‘There was,’ he now writes, ‘an elegance to its classical manner that I did not fully appreciate when I wrote in the late sixties. I also think, looking back, that I was too much taken by various literary condemnations of Disney’s work in this field, insufficiently appreciative of its purely cinematic merits.’
For this new edition, Schickel has added a sixty-two page epilogue, ‘Disney without Walt’, that takes the story of the Disney Company from Disney’s death to the bloody cut-and-thrust of its recent internal power-struggles: events which, as Schickel remarks, show the Disney empire requiring ‘a revival of the Young Walt’s spirit, which obsessively, if not always joyfully, embraced risk and experiment and damn (well, darn) the cost.’
It is a pity that, given the opportunity, Schickel didn’t correct some of the niggling errors in his book, but even they fade into relative insignificance when compared with the legion of mistakes perpetrated by Leonard Mosley in The Real Walt Disney.
A quick glance at the inventory of Mosley biographies – including Lindbergh, Hirohito, Heile Selassie, Goering and, most recently, Zanuck -might lead one to suppose that he has, by now, acquired a certain mastery of the techniques of biographical research. On the evidence of his latest book, however, he would seem to be careless and slapdash, more concerned with sensationalism than factual and historical accuracy.
There are wrong names and film titles (viz. ‘Wally Reitherman’, Three Little Fishes and ‘Wars and Beyond’), as well as a plethora of unchecked facts: Donald Duck, apparently, was a rather unsuccessful character until Clarence Nash was employed as his voice (in fact, Nash quacked for Donald from his first appearance); the music used in The Skeleton Dance was ‘Dans Macabre’ (it was Grieg’s ‘March of the Dwarfs’); Pinto Colvig, we are told, provided the baritone voice which gave Pluto’s screen personality ‘that extra dimension’ (as it happens, Pluto only ever spoke two words – ‘Kiss me!’ – in The Moose Hunt (1931), and never spoke again); the cartoon ‘Peter and the Wolf’ was added to Fantasia (it wasn’t); Brian Keith starred in Pollyanna (he didn’t); ink and paint girls copy the animators’ drawings ‘onto the actual celluloid of the film’ (they don’t); an attractive young woman called ‘Manan Couger’ once fell in love with Disney but was frustrated by his inability to return her affection (which is not at all surprising when you know that Marion Couger was, in fact, a man); and so on ad infinitum.
Mosley also succeeds in mangling the only joke in the book, during his account of the early partnership between Disney and Ub Iwerks. The company they founded was called ‘Iwerks-Disney’ – a rare instance of Disney giving someone else top-billing that was necessitated by the fact that Walt thought ‘Disney-Iwerks’ sounded like a firm of opticians. According to Mosley, however, the company name was changed to ‘Iwerks & Disney’ because ‘Iwerks-Disney’ looked like a dentist’s sign.
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