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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Walt Disney – The Thought Continues

Back in January, after finishing Sam Gennawey’s book WALT AND THE PROMISE OF Progress City and what I consider some revelatory information, I started a series of essays on my thoughts on Walt Disney.  This is my next submission for that series.

I have discussed before the attempted deification of Walt Disney by some writers and many fans.  While I have not had the opportunity to discuss it directly with Walt’s surviving daughter Diane [Disney Miller], I do know these endeavors to deify her father are of serious concern to her.  It was one of the motivating factors for the establishment of the Walt Disney Family Museum to show Walt more as the man (albeit a very talented and influential man), and less of the myth that surrounds him today.  As example, we all see Walt Disney’s Animated Features as hugely successful, and in most cases, over time they have become so.   But, how many of you know that of Walt’s first five features, only two were financially successful.  Snow White was, of course, a huge success at the box office, and allowed Walt to build the studio that exists to this day in Burbank.  Though primarily due to WWII, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi lost money for Walt’s fledgling studio.  Only Dumbo returned a very modest profit for the studio.  How many know that had the 1950 release of Cinderella was a make or break moment for Walt and the Studio?  A failure there and we may have never known the joy of Disneyland.  To this day, you will find people adamant in their belief that Walt Disney was a god-like individual whose every touch turned to gold.  There have been many other failures or marginal events in Walt’s History where every potential existed for him to go another direction and what we know today would be entirely different, but he persisted.  The company that bears his name today has indeed and continues to profit from Walt’s early endeavors.  But, many refuse to see that in Walt’s day, many of these products were failures or only marginally successful.  Many also profess Walt Disney to be master business administrator.  Few know that the real business genius, who provided Walt with the resources and business leadership to allow the Disney Brothers Studio, and later Walt Disney Productions, was really his brother Roy.  Instead, more than a few people choose to believe and as proselytize Walt Disney as almost god-like in his art and business skills, and with a Midas touch.

It has been my experience that we tend to deify or demonize people or events we don’t understand with mysticism. Interestingly, Walt Disney, while having a huge group of people who just enjoy what he has created, has been both deified and demonized by small fringe group, because they believe, good or bad, that Walt had to have something supernatural or clandestine helping him to achieve thing no normal human would be capable of accomplishing.  The problem is that as these fringe groups (probably more accurately described as fringe individuals) long ago invaded the public perception of Walt Disney, the man, I think somewhat fuel by his initial storytelling medium, fantasy and fairy tales.  I think looking back throughout the history of the human race you can find many examples of fantasy, fairy tales, and mysticism invade and eventually dominating the public views on these many examples.  I have written this before, but I know, personally, the public perception of Walt Disney has been invaded by this tendency toward mysticism;  I can frequently be found in public sporting my WDFM regalia, and it is not uncommon that I am approached by individual with questions about Walt, rarely are they questions not involving the myth or urban legend that surround him.  My goal, and that of many other amateur or professional Walt Disney Historians to whom I’ve spoken, is to dispel these mystical claims and urban legends, with accurate information and details and thoughtful reasonable analysis based on the data.

So now on to Sam Gennawey’s book WALT AND THE PROMISE OF Progress City and what I found to be revelatory.  Sam wrote of a concept in architecture of “a quality without a name.”  You can’t explain it, you just know it’s right when you see it.  Well, I think we can expand the concept of that ‘quality without a name’ well beyond architecture, to life or human existence overall.  Every day, often without even realizing it, we see, hear, or in some way experience that ‘quality without a name’ in so many different aspects of our lives.  We have some experience, and without understanding why, it just feels right.

Without trying to invoke any canonical theories, I think Walt Disney, consciously or instinctively, understood this quality better than many, if not most, people of his era.  He expressed that vision, not only in the projects he chose, but the people he chose to work on those projects, and the final product.  He just knew when his vision was right, and being presented the way he saw it.  I have heard many of the people, who worked with Walt, claim that he would ask them to do things they had never done before.  Not just things within their respective discipline, but things that were complete outside their area of expertise.  I’ve heard a couple of time from Disney Legend X Atencio, a Disney Animator and later WED Imagineer, of Walt tapping him to write the music and lyrics for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.  X has been quoted as saying, “I didn't even know I could write music, but somehow Walt did. He tapped my hidden talents."  Do you think Walt was just guessing, or did he see something no one else saw?  Given all that I have learned, I don’t think Walt was guessing.  Additionally, to the best of what I’ve heard…  Walt never showed any disappointment to those who tried and failed to bring his visions to life, only those who said they couldn’t do it, without at least trying.  And…  He always understood that his visions were limited by available technologies, and always had his people pushing the envelope of what they thought was possible.

Where Walt Disney express the belief that when a movie was finished and in the can, he considered himself done with it and ready to move on to the next project, his theme park ideas were living and breathing… evolving things.  I do wonder if he’d have felt the same way today, as we seen some of the early 90s animated features being released in the 3D format?  I’ve seen a number of movies from other producers re-released in 3D, and I have been generally disappointed.  These many of these movies have had scenes redone, and storylines changed even a little to exploit the advantages of 3D, and throw images at the audience.  Disney has been doing type of 3D for years at the theme parks.  Muppets 3D, Honey I Shrunk the Audience, and Mickey Philharmagic come to mind, with Honey and Philharmagic throwing in a 4th D with scents and water added for interesting effective.  Because of this, and my experience with other 3D movies, many of which I find be produced just for the 3D effective and having weak a story at best.  Even Disney’s A Christmas Carol was a bit of a disappointment because of what I considered to be the use of 3D for 3D alone, adding little if anything to the story.  The only saving grace there was a very good story.  But, as I reported in an early post, I recently had the opportunity to see the re-release of Beauty and the Beast in 3D, and was very pleasantly surprised to find the Walt Disney principle of plussing an attraction was at play.  The 3D effects enhancing the story and not taking it over.  I think I will have to look to watch more of these re-releases.

I have to wonder if Walt Disney wouldn’t have chosen to re-release some of his now classic films, if he could have plussed them with newly available technologies.  Most people, who know Walt’s story, know that he temporarily shelved Mickey’s first cartoon, “Steamboat Willie” while he and his guys figured out how to apply the new sound technology becoming available.  But, many are unaware that “Plane Crazy”, Mickey’s second talkie, was in the can before “Steamboat Willie” as a silent cartoon.  Plane Crazy” had fared poorly in an early test viewing, and failed to pick up a distributor, so Steamboat Willie became the first Mickey cartoon.  Or was it? J  After the success of Steamboat Willie, and following the releases of “The Gallopin’ Gaucho” and “The Barn Dance”, “Plane Crazy” resurfaced as a talkie and Mickey’s fourth appearance.  So, at least in my opinion, I think that Walt would have considered re-releasing his canned features, if he thought he could honestly plus the story and experience.

Since I’m having such a wonderful time focusing more on Walt Disney himself, and I’ve learn so much about Walt during the last year or so, when next we meet, I’m going to be looking at this ‘Quality without a Name’ in Walt’s visions for Disneyland and beyond.

Your comments or questions are always welcome.  If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at

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