Take his films, for instance. A lot of them can be named off the top of the head by anyone in the street. There's Fantasia, Dumbo, Aladdin etc. These seem to be the films that stick in the memory. So what else did he do? Is that all he made? Was there nothing else? What if I told you Disney once made a short animated cartoon with the help of a Pulitzer Prize winning author? Does that sound too good to be true? Didn't everybody look down on Uncle Walt back in the day? Well, just don't tell Sinclair Lewis that, he seemed perfectly happy to lend his services as part of 1947's anthology film Fun and Fancy Free. That's just one possible example out of many others. The truth is that popularity of the moment seems to determine just how Disney and his film's are viewed from one year to the next. This can be a saving grace in that the old filmmaker still has a solid life in the public memory. At the same time, the trouble with memory is how selective it can be. The net result is that only the best parts are preserved, while a lot of other material is deemed subpar. A lot of Walt's live-action efforts fall into this category.
It's true that Mary Poppins is still the one live-action film everyone remembers (now with a bit of recent infamy attached to it). After that, the closest picture anyone can recall in this same category is the studio's biggest mistake, Song of the South. If you put those two together, I almost have to wonder if they don't form an ironic commentary on the nature of the public's awareness of Disney's efforts in the non-animated medium. It wouldn't surprise me to hear future historians making the mistaken claim that because South is such an atrocity, Disney decided never to make another live-action flick ever again until the release of Poppins. The sad truth is I don't think such an outcome is far-fetched in a time where cultural literacy and historical memory are on the decline. I think it can become an even greater mistake if everyone just let's this sort of thing go on.
For these and other reasons, I've thought it might help to take a trip down a forgotten avenue of memory lane. It turns out ol' Uncle Walt had more than a few trick us his sleeve, ones that didn't have to rely on the Ink and Pain department. These are the films that have been left in history's dustbin. Here you can also find authors who used to be big, like Robert Louis Stevenson, along with voices that have been unjustly neglected, like Johann David Weiss or Mary Mapes Dodge. It's also a place where you could meet up with historical figures that used to be national phenomenons, and nowadays have more of a local fame, such as Davey Crockett. The perfect entry point to explore this terrain is provided by John G. West's study, Walt Disney and Live-Action: The Disney Studios Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s.
It has to be admitted from the start. This is not a perfect book. For every point in its favor there is always the potential for a minus to come along and cancel it out. The major weaknesses of the book can be boiled down to two points. The first is that sometimes West confuses his own viewpoint with that of Disney himself. The second is a major revolves around a simple question of scarcity of sources.
The first problem is also the major flaw of the book. The biggest criticism is that sometimes the author makes it necessary for the reader to try and separate Disney the man from the figure in West's mind. This is a task that the reader shouldn't have to perform. It is hard to tell just what an ideal setup would have been for a book like this. Still, I can't shake the impression that West is sometimes guilty of pasting his own viewpoints into spots where they don't belong. The Disney of West's imagination sometimes comes of off as a reactionary hermit intent on burying his head in the sand as the world goes by. It's hard to tell if it ever occurred to West that he's painting the very same portrait of his subject that has been used by his detractors as an excuse for not taking his work seriously. Perhaps the writer thought such considerations were secondary to whatever points he felt he needed to make. If there's any truth to that surmise, West would have done well to take a step back to get a more nuanced perspective.
Sometimes West can at least make some interesting observations, such as the following: "Disney viewed the enlarged scale of the modern world with apprehension. In his view men could not live as human beings when they were dwarfed by skyscrapers, oppressed by faceless bureaucracies, and herded into mass developments where they lived like strangers. Hence his perpetual return to small towns, individual families, and lone entrepreneurs. He purposely sketched the world on a smaller, more comprehensible scale in order to offer an alternative to the modern urban nightmare (86)".
This passage is interesting for what it says about the perceptions people have of Walt as man, or as some form of icon, or maybe even idol. I suppose it can be argued that Disney was and is different things to different people. If that's case, then the question is how do you separate the facts from the fancies about his life and thought? That's a bit too large a task for a blog like this. However, I can make a few notes that seem more or less relevant to such a discussion.
In the first place, from all I've been able to see or read, Disney was a multi-faceted individual. I think West is correct to note that he carried a value about at least the idea or idyll of the American small town. At the same time, West could be accused of an over-emphasis that downplays or ignores Walt's fascination with what the future might hold. Tommorowland, and a lot of the concepts behind it are all subjects that get a short shrift in West's book. Indeed, it's hard to recall or find any positive mention of this side of Walt's imagination anywhere in the text. While it may be natural for each fan to have his own particular area of interest when it comes to the Mouse Empire, it's a mistake to believe that any one area is all that there is to the picture.
In this regard, the future of scientific progress, and the genre of Science Fiction in particular seems to have held an interesting sort of attraction for Disney. In fact you could almost make the case that there are moments when Walt almost began to edge into viewpoints similar to those of Gene Roddenberry. I think it's a mistake to label him as a forgotten Great Bird, or anything like that. It's merely enough to note that the similarities are there, all while acknowledging that Roddenberry managed to go further than Disney ever could. Part of the reason is because because of a basic level of reserve in Walt's nature. He was one of those guys who could show a genuine fascination in futuristic technology, and then draw back and cast a critical eye over it's prospects and potential. This seems to be a trait he shared with another giant of the Sci-Fi field, Ray Bradbury. That in itself is a subject worth further study all on it's own.
I think the truth is that Disney recognized the place for some form of speculation about the nature of the future. It's just that there was always an ambivalence that came with the package. He acknowledged the future while exercising the same commonsense caution that pretty much everyone does. Walt seems to have applied this healthy ambivalence to a lot of what he did and thought about. This extends as much to the small-town past of his youth (another trait he shares with Bradbury), as well as to future progress. In this regard, Disney comes off as perhaps more balanced, rather than as some form of reactionary.
Another sticking point for West is Disney's relation to his own country. I think it's correct to say that Walt was definitely pro-American. I've seen nothing, however, that would lead me to think he was simple enough to believe that the whole world was America, or that the same type of rules applied everywhere. Nor do I think West is correct in labeling Disney a right-winger. He seems to have had too much of an independent streak for anything like that.
I'd argue that it's possible to take in a greater scope of life though even then, what you end up with, more often than not, is some kind of general outlook on the order of things. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. It's just that Disney always seemed to be working with a much broader canvas than West is able to give him credit for. This is a shame, because a more expansive approach to Disney's material could have been the one thing to act as a challenge to critics like Richard Schickel. It almost seems to be the ironic case that half of West's problem is that he is willing to argue on the naysayers' terms. This might seem like fair play to the author, however it means using the tools and methods of your opponent as arguing points. If the critic wants to stick to that method of approach, he is more than welcome. He's also stuck with the same narrow premises that got Walt pigeon-holed in the first place. This limits the conversation because no room is allowed for an alternative take. This can sometimes prove an ironic setup to a joke at the author's expense.
A perfect example is when West sums up the lesson Mrs. Banks has learned at the end of Mary Poppins: "She too has realized that her children are more important than her career. This household will no longer require a full-time nanny; the parents have finally grown-up (93)". Less than a chapter or two later, he gives the following summary of an element in an episode of one of Disney's TV series, and the punchline walks right by him and he doesn't even notice: "The enterprising Miss Adeline Jones becomes the city's first female reporter and sets up an undercover sting operation to get at confidence men who swindle widows out of their savings (157)". Perhaps it should be noted here that this episode is set in the latter half of the 1800s, in a frontier town, during a time when the West was still being tamed. Someone also might have mentioned that the author appears to overlook a scene in Mary Poppins where Bert and his friends, a group of working-class men, all take a moment to voice their support for Mrs. Banks's cause. If I recall further, she then goes on to get into the fun of the whole proceedings, at least enough to take Lewis Carroll's advice and "join the dance".
Taken together, each incident paints Disney as an artist who does have a concern with themes of family life. The trick is that he always seems aware of fine shades and subtle nuances. Maybe it would have helped West's case if he'd kept these subtleties in mind. A wiser choice might have been to start from the ground up, with entirely different artistic premises from that of his critical opponents. This would have acted as a challenge to the naysayers without having to rely on any of their own talking points. The simple and primary truth should be one that expands the imaginative horizons, not constricting it with arbitrary standards of what is deemed "proper taste".
Beyond that, the other major flaw is the scarcity of any big or relevant information that would further a greater understanding of the behind the scenes history of how Disney made his live action films. The sad fact of the matter is that this remains one of the most understudied aspects as Disney's work as an artist. There are obvious reasons for why this particular slice of life has been overlooked for so long. When you've got a film like Snow White or Pinocchio that's able to take up all the spotlight, the natural enough result is that anything else is going to appear less important. The problem is if the critics aren't careful, such a stance can be used as an excuse for critical laziness. It is possible to reach a point where one can make the false claim that we've heard all there is worth knowing about Disney's creations, and still get away with it. This is a less than honest stance from which to view the artist and his art, and it needs a bit of an expansion.
The trouble is I'm not altogether sure that West's approach does it full justice. It's true he has conducted interviews with a lot of the collaborators who worked with Disney as he made his live-action efforts (the Sherman Brothers being the most prominent). However the author devotes 326 pages to what I can't help regarding as something that needed to be the length of either a coffee-table text, or at least one of encyclopedia length in order to do the subject full justice.
In addition, this does leave open the question of how much material West left out from those he interviewed. I'm not talking about any kind of scandalous details. I mean how many lengths of hours of historical testimony to a time now lost forever has still not seen the light of day, where both fans and scholars can put it all to good use, lest history carries it under the rug, where no one will think to look for a long time? The worst part is that as each year goes by, a lot of the craftsmen, directors, set-designers, and actors who worked on these films are being shuffled out the door. To my knowledge, only Catherine Beaumont, the Shermens, Dick Van Dyck and Hayley Mills are the few still left with the necessary info on those times. The longer no one thinks to ask them about their memories of these events, the more of a gap in our critical knowledge of all these films; works that whole teams used to put their lives into. It is concerns like this that make West's book something of a frustrating read. However, that's not to say the reader will come away from the book empty handed.
One of the pluses of West's book is that he has found a way to take his information and compress it into a format that makes it all easy to read and understand. He does this by trying to tackle the material in terms of subject matter, and by limiting the information about each individual film to neat little subsections where they are discussed as part of what amounts to both a review as well as a few snippets of behind-the-scenes history. The strength of West's strategy is apparent in the way he is able to use this info to both help set the scene, and use it to tell a story. A good example is given when it comes time for West to look at part of the backstory behind Saving Mr. Banks:
"I didn't have to think her up," Pamela Travers once said of her inimitable creation Mary Poppins. "She just brushed past me and said, 'You take it down.'
"Travers published her first collection of stories about Poppins in 1934, and a magical nanny soon captured the hearts and imaginations of children around the world. It was because of one of these many young admirers, in fact, that Travers' character ended up on the silver screen in the way she did.
"The name of the young admirer in question was Diane, and she lived in southern California with her parents during the 1940s. One day her father found the book of Poppins stories she had been reading and decided to read it for himself.
"His name was Walt Disney, and he understood the screen potential of the stories at once. Years of delicate negotiations with Pamela Travers followed. The initial contact took place in 1944 in New York, where Travers had fled with her son during the German air war against Britain. Disney's brother Roy visited Travers and tried unsuccessfully to purchase the film rights to the stories. In the early 1950s, Walt himself met Travers while in England during production of his live-action films there. But Travers remained cagey. It wasn't until 1960 that she granted Disney the approval to begin developing the Poppins stories for the screen (188)".
As I've stated before, it is possible to complain that there's a lot more to tell in situations like this. While it remains a shame that West opted not to stretch his book as far as it could go, what he does give us works for the kind of text he is making. It's concise, to the point, and it manages to tell a story in just a few short paragraphs. It's a pleasant surprise that West doesn't let the brevity interfere with the need to give the reader a sense of both the time and place in which these films were made. He is deftly able to evoke the kind of American landscape Disney worked in as he went about completing his films. In this sense, West has given readers a neat set of short stories about one of the most influential of entertainers. While the subject does deserve the scope of a novel, it's still a testament to West's professionalism that he is able to make these short vignettes work.
Perhaps the best part of the book is the light it shed's on Disney's working methods. Walt's approach to the matieral was always the same and never seems to have varied. The testimony of the Sherman Brothers provide a decent sample of this:
"There was no storyline to the book," remembered Robert, "just a bunch of individual stories. But there were seven really good chapters that were quite visual and colorful, and they had good stuff in them. So these seven chapters got us excited. We knew that if we could take those seven chapters and weave them into a story we would have something good". Almost from the start, the brothers recognized that the focal point of the story should be the father and how he was so consumed with his work that he didn't have time to be a parent. Turning his heart back toward the family would be Mary Poppins' paramount task - the story's core (189)".
The key point to note about this whole interview is that the filmmakers always thought the story was the most important aspect of their work. This came as a genuine surprise when I first started reading the book, yet it was very welcome all the same. It's a point that gets hammered home time and again by a lot of the collaborators that West interviews. This is an unorthodox approach compared to how most films in Hollywood are made. The reason these guys were able to approach their work in such a novel way was because their employer made them at least try and think different. Walt was always concerned whether the narrative itself was just right. "The most significant difference between the Disney studio and the rest of Hollywood...was the production process by which the films were produced. At the core of that process was a heavy emphasis on story. A.J. Carothers expressed how Walt felt about story:
"If you didn't have a story to tell, then you didn't have a picture. You could get the snappiest director in the world, with all kinds of wonderful gimmickry and special effects...but if you didn't have a story that touched people, then you didn't have anything.
"Disney's preoccupations with story made script preparation the most important part of the production process. "His whole method of preparing a script was different than anything I was used to," commented Robert Stevenson. Disney "worked much more thoroughly and much more creatively on the script than any other producer I've worked for.
"Unlike many Hollywood producers, Walt would never send a live-action film or television show into production without first having the script in shooting condition. That was one of the reasons Disney efforts had some measure of quality consistency over the years (7)". This working method could also help explain the curious laid-back aesthetic on even the most epic of productions, such as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. In a film like that, or the Davey Crockett series, what comes through is a sense of what can best be described as "professional at-ease". Everyone is doing their best in trying to hit their mark, however you get the sense that because everybody has had enough time to study their lines and character arcs, everyone has accommodated themselves to the script, and hence, to the story. This makes everything come off with a relaxing, leisurely sense of pacing and timing that helps put the audience at a similar ease as the narrative unfolds.
However, it must be emphasized that none of this would have mattered, not even with actors like Julie Andrews, James Mason, or Kirk Douglas, if Disney hadn't seen to it that there was a story for everyone to react and latch on to. It seems to have been the studio maxim that it never mattered how well-trained the actor was, without a good script, it was almost like they weren't even there. Therefore, the story had to be the boss, and take precedent over everything else. For Walt, "Scripts were everything, and they were fine-tuned before the first scenes were ever shot. Major script revisions after a picture had gone before the cameras were unusual.
"This process not only helped to turn out good films, it made good financial sense, keeping production schedules on times and costs from ballooning...This special concern for scripts led Disney to rely on his writers in a way practically unheard of in the film industry. A.J. Carothers commented that while he was working at Disney, he was "spoiled without knowing it. Because that was my first motion picture experience, I didn't know how writers were treated - for they weren't treated that way at Disney (ibid)".
It seems like the greatest strength of West's book is that he was able to pinpoint what made Disney unique as an artist among the crowded playing field of Golden and Silver age Hollywood. While it's perhaps a mistake to say that Walt is the only film producer or maker to think this way, the critical record does show that his appreciation for narrative impact has somehow managed to remain the least discussed aspect of his artistic techniques. For the most part, the first thing people think about when the name Disney gets mentioned is the art of animation, and very little else. To be fair, there is a reason for critics and audiences to focus on this aspect of the man's career. Walt made his claim to fame rest on the debut of Mickey Mouse's first sound cartoon, and then later with the premier of Snow White.
They say first introductions are everything. They determine how a person is perceived for the rest of their life. If that's the case, then it's no wonder that Walt's achievements in motion, line, and color hold the field of critical attention. It also doesn't change the fact that critics and audiences are letting their attention be diverted from the one element that holds all the images together. If Disney was as focused on the importance of the narratives of his films as West says, that just serves to put his notorious sense of perfectionism into better perspective. It also highlights some of the facts that scholars seem almost willing to overlook when it comes to the man's films. Everyone knows the animated features. How many, do you suppose, are aware of the live-action efforts?
There is a great deal more that has to be said about Disney's live-action efforts. West offers, at best, a handy introduction to the subject. While the lack of greater depth of insight and contextual, as well as thematic information is regrettable, the book is still the best place to start out from, whether you're a fan of Walt's, or just one of the curious. It should go without saying that Disney's non-animated efforts are a subject that has yet to be given all the study it deserves. This is a mistake inasmuch as it leaves us with an incomplete view of the man and his legacy. If there is any bright spot to this critical gap in Disney' scholarship, it's that there are still a lot of fans out there who can create a sort of testimony as to the merits of each film on an individual basis.
I have seen just a handful of Disney's film based efforts as of this writing, though I aim to view more. What I've seen was enough to leave me impressed and curious to see how far Walt was capable of reaching certain heights that are almost neglected today. The side of Disney's shown in these films is a surprise for the level of depth on display. At times, it is possible to argue that the best of these films can seem like they were made by somebody else. Perhaps there is at least a grain of truth in that statement.
There are very few of us who did not grow up on Disney. For a lot of 80s kids, our first introduction came from leftover VHS copies of Pinocchio, Peter Pan, or maybe you caught some of his short cartoons or snippets of Snow White on the old Disney Channel. The man we met in back of those flicks is the one we are most familiar with. He was all about wishing for dreams to come true. The gentleman behind films like Treasure Island or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is sort of an interesting character. He's not one to deny others their dreams, yet he does show a sophisticated type of caution when approaching the matter. I guess a better way of putting it would be that this other Disney basically says to us: wish away...as long as you are either willing to be careful what you wish for, or else face the price for having your wish come true.
You can say that there is a relation between these two sides to Disney's art. Both aspects are playing the same song, it's just that sometimes one or the other will play it in a more subtle note. It's whenever that happens that things get interesting. Sometimes a man will come after a pre-teen boy wielding a knife with just one purpose in mind. Other times the Kraken will awake and cause havoc in the depths of the ocean underworld. If we must think of this display as evidence of Walt having polar opposite sides to his artistic temperament, then it has to be maintained that these sides are not in opposition, but are rather neat complements and bookends to one another. Indeed, they are perfect mirror images, contrasts of yin, yang, night, and day. Even in the lighter fair that everyone prefers to remember, that subtle, darker note can sound. And I don't mind being in the minority that thinks Disney was often at his best when he found those more tenebrous keys to play as part of his symphonies.