Part Two . . .
On Walt's growing "sophistication" and detachment from the public as he got older:
On Disney's total control of his company:
Walt’s early films throughout the 30s were simplicity and directness and honest emotion. (They were) absolutely central to those films. One problem was that Walt, as he lived in Los Angeles for 40 years, he wasn’t a little country boy any more. He wasn’t a farm boy. The problem is if you begin with that kind of openness and directness, there is a risk entailed in that. You have to be willing to expose yourself in a way that a lot of artists do not. That becomes more difficult as you grow older, as you live in an environment that is much more sophisticated then, say, Marceline or Kansas City was in the teens or early 20s. Walt, by the early 1960s, had travelled far more than most Americans. He might go to Europe for months at a time.
He had moved in exalted circles. (Actor) Richard Todd talked about this when I interviewed him a few years ago. At that time, Richard Todd was very much involved with some of the upper reaches of English society and Walt and Richard Todd were friends. Richard Todd gave him entrťe—it seems kind of funny that someone had to give Walt Disney entrťe to anything—but that was true back in the 50’s. Richard Todd, without being critical, said Walt was something of a social climber. He enjoyed meeting all these fancy people. He had become, in the early 60s, a man who was much richer than the ordinary American, much better traveled, much more sophisticated. He moved with his friends, the people he knew, the people he saw regularly. His correspondence certainly reveals this. He was just very much at ease and at a (high) level. President Eisenhower was one of his buddies in the later years. They saw each other in Palm Springs and they exchanged letters. They were on very friendly terms.
When you have that kind of life, when you've risen to that kind of level, you are a sophisticated, very well traveled, very wealthy man. If your stock in trade as an artist is sentiment, then you have a little bit of a problem because your connection with those people and with those emotions necessarily has been attenuated. You see this all the time with people who are in the media or movies or television. They become separated from their roots unavoidably and despite their best efforts.
The people who interviewed (Walt) in the early 60’s were taken aback by the kind of man they found him to be. He was not this rural innocent. I think he still wanted to be at some level, but he was a man who had become a much more different kind of man with a very large company at his disposal. (He had the) opportunity to do things with that company and at Disneyland, in particular, that were simply beyond the imaginations of ordinary Americans.
On Walt's prickly relationship with his employees and the strike of 1941:
He could not surrender control in a way that would let other people pick up the slack that his involvement in so many other activities had created. And that’s a great pity, but again, it’s a characteristic of the entrepreneurial personality. The hardest thing (entrepreneurs) ever have to do, as their companies grow, is find some way to share control, to surrender absolute control of their operation.
Walt was extraordinary as the company became so much bigger, he still was in charge of it, in active control of it to a much greater extent than I think most entrepreneurs in that situation could’ve been. The price he paid for that was the quality of a lot of things that came out under his name. The movies, in particular, suffered. The people making them would fall back on what was safe and obvious because they were not going to get into trouble for doing that.
On Walt's "softer side":
I went through all of what’s called the interoffice correspondence, starting back in the early '30s, and every once in a while you’d find the evidence of exactly that. There were some surprising cases like Pinto Colvig (the voice of Goofy), for example. He was essentially fired, I guess in '38, because Walt had gotten sick of him from what he saw as a lack of commitment to the work and a whining attitude. There was a guy named Chester Cobb, who quit around 1939 or '40. He wrote a letter to Walt being very critical of the work that was being done. Walt wrote a very bristling letter (in return).
He expected loyalty and commitment and it could be hard. There were people who wanted to give him that commitment but who essentially wanted to stake out reservoirs of their own personalities, of their own interests. So you had, particularly around the time of the strike when this was most acute, when you had situations like Art Babbitt’s (who was among the strike leaders). To me it’s revealing that, going back to NLRB documents and Babbitt’s correspondence with (animation historian) Robert Field, you can sense the feeling of betrayal on both sides. Walt certainly felt betrayed by people who weren’t willing to simply bow their heads and do what he wanted, but other people felt betrayed too because they saw in what he was doing a betrayal of the great ambitions that they all had for the animation medium.
I think the reason (the strike) could have been prevented is that the Disney studio was a unique organization because it was dominated by people who really cared about their work. I think, not just at a professional level, but as artists. I think the esprit de corps at Disney was probably greater than certainly any other cartoon studio. I focus on the strike in the very first chapter of the book, the introductory chapter. This, I think, is a critical moment and I quote (assistant animator) George Goepper (about) a memorandum that he sent to Walt, suggesting that Walt needed to come to his people and say, “We’re in a jam. We need help. And here’s the problem.”
Instead of essentially condemning his people for mistakes he had made, (Disney) should have come to them and said, “You know, we’re in a jam and I want to pull together. We have to figure out some way to ride this out. It’s going to mean some people are going to lose their jobs, which I hate, but we have to do it, and if we work together, we can survive this and eventually get back to doing what we all want to do.”
I think this again is the entrepreneurial nature of his personality. I think it was very hard for him to do that. Entrepreneurs think their companies are extensions of themselves as much as their arms and legs and they expect their employees to simply fulfill the function within that structure. And the idea that their employees are in some sense their collaborators and that they are as dependent on their employees as their employees are dependent on them--Walt could acknowledge this in abstract fashion, but emotionally I don’t think he ever quite believed it. He was as dependent on his animators and other creative people as they were on him. And I think there was a greater willingness on his employees’ parts to acknowledge their dependence on Walt than there was on his part to acknowledge his dependence on them.
There may have been some kind of strike under any circumstances. It’s impossible to say. But I think the bitterness and the lasting ill effects of the strike would’ve been much less if Walt had been willng to admit to himself that this was a time when he had to have the help of his employees. Simply being the benevolant godfather of the studio was not going to be enough in these circumstances.
On Walt's presence and corporate symbolism forty years after his death:
He was a very emotional man. He broke into tears in public on more than one occasion when this whole (strike) business came up. And I think if somehow his emotion had been channeled into a speech to his employees . . . that let them know that he cared about them--if he had been able to say, “I need your help,” in effect, I think the difference could’ve been tremendous because a lot of the people there really cared about him. And others would’ve cared about him if he had not become so remote, if he’d been willing to open himself to them and be as open and vulnerable as he was to people who worked with him earlier in the 30s.
I remember the first time I ever met Wilfred Jackson, we were just talking very calmly about what it was like to work for Walt Disney, and he started to cry. It’s just amazing. He was so moved. And it’s hard to imagine caring about a boss that way, but he did.
Walt Disney was (also) a deeply serious man. He wasn’t being difficult or unpleasant simply to lord it over somebody else, to make a claim to them that he was the boss and they were subordinate to him. What was always most important, I think, was the work, what they were doing, the films. It was not a matter of saying, “I’m kicking you around to make sure you know who’s the boss.” It’s, “I’m kicking you around because I really care about what we’re doing and I want these films to be as good as possible . . . I’m going to be in there working to do better and, by God, you better be working to do better too.”
Michael Barrier will be in Southern California next weekend to speak during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA, April 28-29. He'll be part of the panel Biography: Icons on the Page on the 28th. Also participating will be fellow Disney biographer Neal Gabler, a speaker for Biography: 20th Century Lives later that day. Free tickets are available while supplies last. Visit www.latimes.com/extras/festivalofbooks for more information.
There are a lot of companies that have their founders names still, that tip their hat to the founders. I think about Ford Motor Company—it’s Henry Ford’s name on it after all these years. But I think Disney is unique in the presence of the founder in the imagination of people who work there, not just his name and his picture. I saw Meet the Robinsons (recently). I was struck by the fact that they now have the Steamboat Willie logo at the start of the film, 80 years after it was made, and they have this quote from Walt at the very end, identifying him with the main character in the film. I don’t know of anything that compares to that. I wonder often about how healthy that is. It sometimes seems to me there’s a subtle undercurrent of negative thinking about Walt. Sometimes it must seem a little oppressive to have to always be thinking about Walt and trying to measure up to what he did. It’s still very much the Walt Disney Company much moreso than something like the Ford Motor Company is.
I think there’s a diminishing awareness that Walt was a real person. To some extent that’s to the advantage of the Walt Disney Company and to some extent a disadvantage, I suppose. I think what’s really desireable now is finding some way to detach Walt—and this may happen naturally in the next 20 years or so. I think ultimately what will permit us to make a more intelligent assessment of Walt and his standing as an artist and an entrepreneur will be a certain separation between him and the company that may come about inevitably over time--as the things that Walt himself produced eventually slide out from under the company’s control and become more readily usable and available to other artists.
There’s going to be the Family Museum in San Francisco, but I don’t expect much out of that. I certainly look forward to visiting it, but I can’t imagine it’s going to be revelatory in terms of what we know about Walt or what we think about his work. I think ultimately what will permit us to have a better perspective of Walt and his achievements will be when there’s an independent sort of Disney Library or Disney Archive where scholars can do the sort of research that has simply not been possible. I can’t say how or when. It may be sometime later in this century. Then we’ll not just have different perspectives on Walt by different scholars, but we’ll have better informed, more carefully analyzed perspectives on Walt. And I think then, maybe, we’ll have a better sense of what was really most enduring about his work and most important about his work. I think the films of the 30s are endlessly fascinating. Watching them in chronological order, it's just amazing to see how intensively Disney developed all these techniques and observations of human behavior that finally flowered in the early features.
I won’t be around to see it, but I would be very surprised if later in this century he’s not regarded as one of the handful of truly great film artists, and Disney films are not studied as carefully as other great films or great works of literature or works of art. I think they hold up to that kind of scrutiny very well. I think because Disney is still so closely tied to the company, it makes it harder to look at what Walt himself did—who he was and what he did—and really evaluate his achievements without reference to what’s going on at the Walt Disney Company.