Books About The Mickey Mouse Club
|The Disney Version
The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney
by Richard Schickel
Elephant Paperbacks, Chicago 1997 (3rd Ed, orig pub 1968)
384 Pages, Bibliography, Index
Equal parts art criticism and biography, this unauthorized work resulted in film critic Schickel being banned from Disney screening rooms for several years. Though the book doesn't discuss the Mickey Mouse Club, it does give glimpses into Walt Disney's background, the events that molded his personality and business ethics, and the culture of the Disney Studio in Burbank. It is more sympathetic and appreciative of Disney's life and work than is generally credited, but it does deflate his artistic reputation, both on paper and on film.
The basic facts of Walter Elias Disney's life were never in doubt; from his late teens on he led a public life, and there are no mysterious gaps in the record. Though several other biographies would be written in later decades, including An American Original (1976), Hollywood's Dark Prince (1993), and Triumph of American Imagination (2006), they would deviate only in the details and interpretation.
Schickel is most severe in his book with the notion of Walt Disney as artistic genius. He points out that Walt's talent lay in having a vision of what he wanted, and in getting others to make that vision come real.
"Of all the things I've done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them at a certain goal." --- Walt Disney, 1954
This is the success of a manager or entrepreneur, not the individual creative expression of an artist. Schickel emphasizes that as Walt Disney increasingly forced his animators to focus on realism, the resulting work had a diminishing impact on the artistic and intellectual community of the thirties that had once thought to embrace Disney as their own.
Schickel is dismissive about the work most people would consider Disney's masterpiece, Fantasia (1940), and about the shabby treatment of Igor Stravinsky by Walt Disney. Disney told Stravinsky that the studio would pay him $5000 for the use of his Rite of Spring music for the film, and if he didn't agree, they would use it anyway, since the copyright from Imperial Russia wasn't legally binding. Schickel is more approving of Disney's final film success (during his lifetime) of Mary Poppins (1964), and expresses surprised admiration that the studio famous for safe, riskless movies, could still take such a chance.
The studio strike of 1941, precipitated by Walt Disney's firing of Art Babbit for union organizing, was the crisis that plunged Disney into a creative and personal depression that would last until the early fifties. Art Babbit was a highly paid animator who sympathized with the overworked and underpaid assistant animators and in-betweeners. (It was Babbit who devised the Chinese mushroom dance in Fantasia.) He was eventually reinstated by the National Labor Relations Board, which also forced the studio to capitulate to the strikers. Walt had his revenge, though, creating a studio culture that thrived on secrecy and personal loyalty to the Disney family, even though it eschewed sycophants and yes-men.
"No matter how self-serving a great man's speech or a great corporation's press release, one can usually find at least the shadow of the man or the institution behind the words. That was generally not the case with Disney. No studio put out more words of public relations copy, yet none was less informative than this highly secretive organization. Indeed, the function of all those words went beyond that of a smoke screen--- the usual desideratum for PR--- and became a full-scale diversionary action. The words were designed to portray the organization as an open, happy, sunny institution, presided over first by a bashful boy artist, then (as he aged) an avuncular genius of the masses. Neither image could have been further from the truth about this complex man or his remarkable corporation."
Walt's ultimate vision, the amusement park that bears his name, is judged by Schickel to be a commercial and design success, but an artistic failure. It contains individual triumphs of the artisans, craftsmen, and imagineers who built it, but the overall artistic result is blandness, a safe cocoon for Walt Disney, in which nothing that might provoke serious emotion is allowed to intrude. This too, according to the author, is the lasting impression of Disney's films, from the mid-forties to long after his death. They are largely joyless and sexless, without real tragedy or pathos; they are made more for people remembering their childhood than for children themselves.