Douglas Brode overturns the idea of Disney as a middlebrow filmmaker by detailing how Disney movies played a key role in transforming children of the Eisenhower era into the radical youth of the Age of Aquarius.
With his thumbprint on the most ubiquitous films of childhood, Walt Disney is widely considered to be the most conventional of all major American moviemakers. The adjective "Disneyfied" has become shorthand for a creative work that has abandoned any controversial or substantial content to find commercial success.
But does Disney deserve that reputation? Douglas Brode overturns the idea of Disney as a middlebrow filmmaker by detailing how Disney movies played a key role in transforming children of the Eisenhower era into the radical youth of the Age of Aquarius. Using close readings of Disney projects, Brode shows that Disney's films were frequently ahead of their time thematically. Long before the cultural tumult of the sixties, Disney films preached pacifism, introduced a generation to the notion of feminism, offered the screen's first drug-trip imagery, encouraged young people to become runaways, insisted on the need for integration, advanced the notion of a sexual revolution, created the concept of multiculturalism, called for a return to nature, nourished the cult of the righteous outlaw, justified violent radicalism in defense of individual rights, argued in favor of communal living, and encouraged antiauthoritarian attitudes. Brode argues that Disney, more than any other influence in popular culture, should be considered the primary creator of the sixties counterculture—a reality that couldn't be further from his "conventional" reputation.
Outstanding Academic TitlesChoice Magazine
- Introduction. Disney's Version/Disney's Vision: The World According to Walt
- 1. Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll: Disney and the Youth Culture
- 2. Little Boxes Made of Ticky-Tacky: Disney and the Culture of Conformity
- 3. The Man Who Says "No": Disney and the Rebel Hero
- 4. Toward a New Politics: Disney and the Sixties Sensibility
- 5. My Sweet Lord: Romanticism and Religion in Disney
- 6. Gotta Get Back to the Garden: Disney and the Environmental Movement
- 7. "Hell, No! We Won't Go!": Disney and the Radicalization of Youth
- 8. Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow: Disney and the Denial of Death
- Conclusion. Popular Entertainment and Personal Art: Why Should We Take Disney Seriously?
Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.
—Schiller, Piccolomni, 111.4
Thank you for individual perception.
—Mort Sahl, 1968
Woodstock; Summer 1969. What follows is a modern urban legend that, if only apocryphal, remains true in spirit. One longhair, passing a toke to a companion, studiously observes the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll around him. Smiling wryly, he sarcastically comments: "Can you believe these kids were raised on Disney films?" His friend, while attempting to inhale, chokes on his own laughter.
End of story; beginning of book....
My purpose with From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture is to remove any trace of humor from that statement. The argument here is that Disney was anything but what he is generally considered by most fans and foes alike: the most conventional of all major American moviemakers. This position will be advanced through three strategies, presented simultaneously: a close textual analysis of individual films, a concurrent relating of the movies to one another as an oeuvre that expresses the singular imagination of an auteur, and a sociopolitical analysis of Walt's work within its historical context. Disney was not, I hope to prove by book's end, a person who, had he lived to see Woodstock (Walt died in 1966), would have been horrified at what occurred. More likely, if the movies express the man as I believe they do, he would have been thrilled.
My aim is to show that Disney's output—as experienced at the movies, on television, and in person at theme parks—played a major role in transforming mid-1950s white-bread toddlers into the rebellious teenage youth of the late sixties. No one, of course, can achieve such a lofty task alone; countless other artists, as well as people from other walks of life, played their roles in the metamorphosis of our world from Eisenhower-era mendacity to post-Woodstock iconoclasm. Still, no other single figure of the past century has had such a wide, deep, and pervasive influence on the public imagination as Walt Disney. He did, after all, reach us first (and, therefore, foremost), at that very point in our youthful development when either an individual or a generation is most receptive (and vulnerable) to such forces and ideas. The title of this tome, if admittedly exaggerated, holds true. More than any other influence in American popular discourse, Disney ought to be considered the primary creator of the counterculture, which the public imagination views as embracing values the antithesis of those that the body of his work supposedly communicated to children.
Even daring to suggest such a reversal of long-held opinion is risky, some might say foolhardy. The term "Disneyfication" long ago entered into our idiomatic American English as a stigma. Whenever anything is said to have been Disneyized or Disneyfied, a harsh criticism is implied. Substance in the source has been eliminated, the original's impact diluted. This renders the work's materials more easily accessible to modern mainstream families while removing all the dark edges and thematic depth, or so goes the claim. Disney's films, according to such assumptions, are awash in the worst sort of sentimentality. As a result, they prove garishly appealing to the lowest common denominator of audience intelligence. Also, it is presupposed that the films contain and convey a set of values that is, politically speaking, simplistically rightist—moderately conservative to those who barely tolerate Disney, cryptofascist for others who perceive his work as insidious, even dangerous.
This notion has been accepted for so long, particularly among academics and intellectuals, that it no longer is considered a subjective opinion but has taken on the weight of irrefutable fact. The point is, none of this has any basis in the work itself. The demeaning reputation of Disney as superficial—compounded by the commercial success of his work more than thirty-five years after the man's passing, which in some corners only adds to the reprehensibility of his image—fails to hold up under close scrutiny of his output. That no one has seriously challenged that perception of Disney merely attests that such a negative assessment is considered not a perception but reality.
The myth (for this is the best word to describe such an ingrained false vision) of Disney as provider of pro-Establishment entertainment is remarkably widespread. When reviewers in the popular press noted any anti-Establishment values in a film, they felt a need to reconcile this supposedly "unique" movie with longstanding misconceptions. Such confusion can be detected in the opening sentence of Bosley Crowther's positive critique of Moon Pilot (1962): "Of all people, Mr. Disney is making good-natured fun of the high-minded scientific project of firing a man around the moon" (emphasis added). Time, also in a laudatory piece, revealed its critic's prejudice:
Sacred cows, if skillfully milked, produce tons of fun; but Hollywood usually avoids them because they often kick back. The more reason to be pleasantly surprised that Walt Disney, not particularly known for sociopolitical daring, should have herded three of these pampered critters—the FBI, the Air Force, and the astronaut-program—into the same plot. (emphasis added)
Disney's films actually contain more "sociopolitical daring" than those of any other commercial filmmaker from Hollywood's golden era. This element proves so consistent—from the earliest cartoon experiments to the most elaborate live-action projects—that no one who observes them closely (and without invisible blinders) can, like Time's reviewer, claim to be "surprised" to find such stuff in any film. For it is there—should we finally choose to see it—in every film. This holds true not only for the animated classics—lauded for their technical proficiency even by those who don't approve of Disney—but for the live-action programmers, too.
An exemplary case in point: the all-but-forgotten 1959 film Third Man on the Mountain, based on James Ramsey Ullman's novel Banner in the Sky. Like most of Walt's work, this film fuses aspects of Disney's own life with a characteristic synergy. Disney's then-recent vacation in Switzerland inspired him to do a film about the area, which in turn led to the creation of a Matterhorn ride at Disneyland park. The focal character, Rudi Matt (James MacArthur), is a young man who vows to climb the awe-inspiring Citadel; his father died trying years earlier. Rudi's well-intentioned mother forbids him to make an attempt, fearing she may lose him, too. But backed by a notably independent young woman (Janet Munro), whom he loves, Rudi sets out anyway. Mentored by an experienced climber, Captain Winter (Michael Rennie), Rudi learns that the key to successful mountain climbing is putting one's own personal glory aside for the greater good of a team. By blind luck or a true miracle, Rudi finds a fabled passageway that allows him to reach the top before his competitors. In this place, Rudi rediscovers a radical inner innocence. For the first time since childhood, he perceives a spiritual beauty in nature that does not exist in civilization. When another climber is accidentally hurt, the youth allows Winter to reach the peak first, while Rudi saves the unconscious man's life.
At first glance, Third Man on the Mountain seems an anomaly. Disney never again expressed interest in mountain climbing. This was not for him a recurring interest, as, say, the bullfight is in the work of writer-director Budd Boetticher (The Bullfighter and the Lady, 1952; The Magnificent Matador, 1956; Arruza, 1972). Subject matter, however, is merely one (and not necessarily the most effective) means of determining a filmmaker's personal concerns. In many respects, modern film criticism was born when Robin Wood discerned recurring themes and a consistent style in the films of Howard Hawks, who dabbled in every possible genre and historical period. Yet even in a movie as crassly and unapologetically commercial as Rio Bravo (1959), in which rock 'n' roller Rick Nelson was allowed to be-bop in a frontier setting, "every character, every situation, every sequence expresses [Hawks] as surely as every detail in an Antonioni film expresses Antonioni." An art film like L'Avventura (1960) conveys the strong and unique personality of its maker no less yet no more than a rowdy western, as each key element that appears onscreen in the latter "emanate[s] from Hawks's personality which pervades the whole" film. This personality carries over from one work to the next, in Hawks's films to El Dorado (1966) and in Antonioni's to La Notte (1961).
The discovery of a continuing, consistent vision in such varied genres (as opposed to, say, the westerns of John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock's suspense thrillers, which seem more likely to form an organic whole) has much to do with the subsequent deification of Hawks as a legendary producer-director among auteur critics. Likewise, Third Man shares much with other, seemingly unrelated Disney films—from nature documentaries to Donald Duck shorts. The hero is a rebellious teenager who will not follow parental orders, eventually proving himself right rather than merely arrogant. He is an orphan, haunted by a death in the past. He lives on the edge of an abyss—in this case, literally! His mother remains the most significant force in his life, though Rudi ultimately must leave her company and become romantically involved with his chosen mate. He comes to understand that the natural world is more pure than the social realm. Yet he learns that when dealing with society, community loyalty is far more valuable than rugged individualism. Rudi's initial hubris gives way to humility as he realizes that self-interest is the lowest form of human motivation, whereas achieving success in one's own mind, and on one's own terms, is truly important. Finally, Rudi redeems himself while discovering a basic set of truths that prove essential to every Disney hero, from the cartoon creation Bambi to the fanciful Merlin Jones, an obvious precursor to today's much-loved Harry Potter.
As to attacks by the religious right on contemporary author J. K. Rowling's literature for children, such complaints are effectively summed up by a letter to the editor appearing in a typical Middle American daily newspaper: "Should I let my child read about Harry's seemingly justified lying, breaking rules and disobeying authority figures (which, I might add, he actually gets rewarded for)?" The outraged citizen's argument implies that, once upon a time, a storyteller did exist who could be trusted to lead children in the "right" direction. That, of course, was Walt Disney. But Harry physically resembles (and unconsciously may have been derived from) Merlin Jones, a live-action Disney hero. And Harry's situations—effectively summarized by the letter—are in line with all Disney protagonists', ranging from Davy Crockett to Pollyanna. The fact-based male adult and the fictional little girl lie, break rules, and disobey authority figures. Ultimately, they are rewarded for doing precisely that, within a dramatic or comedic context that clearly approves of such actions.
Vividly contained within a pleasant, if in truth forgettable, film like Third Man on the Mountain is a paradigm for personal behavior. This (to borrow from Noel Coward) design for living proves to be essentially moral in its implications, though just as clearly avoids being simplistically moralistic—that is, actualizing in its narrative the current code of a status quo. Rudi rebels against elders who are supposed to know best. As it turns out, here, as in the entire Disney canon, youth often does know best; the child, as the Romantic poet Wordsworth put it in 1804, serves as father of the man, not the other way around, as Classicists before and since insist. In all art of the latter persuasion, "the matter is given to [an artist] by his age."8 Conversely, the Romantic reacts against the social conventions of his time, as do his heroic protagonists within any one story.
In this sense—and this sense alone—Disney does qualify as a reactionary. That is, after all, true of all Romantic artists, since they employ cautionary fables to argue against previously unassailed convictions, thereby blazing new trails of thought with hopes of opening the eyes of those around them. There can be no rebel without an existing order to rebel against. In this tradition, a phrase once employed by Tennyson to describe Victor Hugo fits Disney nicely: "a weird Titan." Titanic, surely, in terms of influence, and far more weird than the general notion of Disney as a genial if lightweight entertainer.
Disney's meanings and messages are deeply embedded in the films' iconography. This language without words is the essence of all cinematic form, in this case revealing an entirely other Disney than the commonly agreed-upon one. When all prejudice is removed from our vision, Disney movies clearly tell us that youth, not age, knows best and moreover is right in refusing to follow the dictates of those who are supposedly wiser simply because they happen to be older. Still, truly wise adults do exist and should be given full attention; children and adolescents can learn much from such mentors. The greatest problem with being young is the difficulty of discerning whom we ought to listen to and when we should reject the "knowledge" of an older generation.
All of which connects Walt to the Woodstock generation that came of age watching his films. In 1968, a striking number of young people rejected President Lyndon Johnson (owing to his continuation of the Vietnam War), while embracing peace candidate Senator Eugene J. McCarthy. The so-called "flower children" intuitively grasped the distinction between an adult who had lost an ability to connect with youth's unique needs and another who maintained what Wordsworth long ago termed the "primal sympathy"—a youthful spirit that does not necessarily diminish with age. Even Bob Dylan, leading troubadour to the Woodstock generation, agreed in song that the trick is not (as some radical youths of the sixties insisted) to mistrust anyone over the age of thirty, rather to remain "forever young."
Once the youth movement has been mentioned, a key question must be: where did hippies get such ideas? Who inspired them to carefully pick and choose between adults in power? Who, among adults, first told them it was "okay" to rebel, even if only (as Abbie Hoffman famously put it) for the hell of it? A countercultural zeitgeist that flourished, brightly if briefly, during one of the nation's most troubled yet remarkable eras had been implicit in Disney's work since the inception of his company more than forty years earlier. Yet the Disney vision (or a general conception—more correctly, misconception—of it) remains, in the minds of followers and detractors, one that instructs children to behave, to conform, to "be good" in the most conventional sense of that admonition. As a close analysis of any one film reveals—Third Man on the Mountain serving as a random if serviceable example—precisely the opposite is true. Disney films taught us to question all authority and, when (if) finding it invalid, to strike out against those who would repress youthful freedoms, even if this necessitated employing violence as a last resort.
There will, of course, be those who beg the question, "Yes, but: do you really believe that's what Disney intended?" The best possible response is to cite W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Monroe C. Beardsley, who in 1946 coined the term "intentional fallacy." Their theory argues that "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success" of art and/or entertainment. Instead, we ought to scrutinize the piece itself, then determine what, through the discovery of "internal evidence," this particular objet d'art "says" to us. Such an approach derives from a critical movement, flourishing during the twentieth century's first half, known as New Criticism, with I. A. Richards one of the chief founders. Arguing that we must search for the "what" and the "how" if we are to grasp a work's "full meaning," Richards shifted the act of interpretation away from the artist's intent—supposed, stated, or assumed—to the work itself, regarding the text as a self-contained entity that speaks for the artist without any need for surrounding statements.
This concept was transferred from literature to film by Richard Schickel. In an introduction to a collection of essays by Parker Tyler—one of the first major film critics to question the issue of "intent," concentrating instead on issues raised by the work—Schickel insisted:
What it comes [down] to, in essence, is this: There is the conscious movie: the one the people who created it thought they were making . . . then there is the unconscious movie: the one neither makers nor viewers are consciously aware of, a movie that exposes the attitudes, neuroses, desires shared by both parties.
More recently still, Dr. Lester D. Friedman put it this way:
We must recognize that all works of art blend conscious and unconscious ideas and feelings. Once a work is completed, its creator becomes a commentator on it; his version of what his creation means is no more accurate or right than any other critic's interpretation. A creative artist, therefore, can tell us only what he intended the work to be, not what it is. We need not feel constrained by the boundaries of his limited understanding [of his own creation]. (emphasis added)
The only nonissue when considering the "unconscious movie" (my own approach) is the artist's intention. Yet statements made by Disney over the years will be included, in hopes of convincing the reader that even on what I consider the at-best-dubious level of intent, Disney's vision is notably different from the long-held notion of it.
Another line of attack that must be faced will duly note that Disney did not actually "make" the films. A quick check of any one picture's opening credits reveals that he didn't write, direct, animate, or even produce the vast majority of movies bearing his name. Disney himself was fascinated with this, often relating a favorite story:
I was stunned one day when a little boy asked, "Do you draw Mickey Mouse?" I had to admit I did not.... "Then you think up all the jokes and ideas?" "No," I said, "I don't do that." Finally, he looked at me and said, "Mr. Disney, just what do you do?"
Ultimately, Disney's only answer was that "sometimes I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the studio to another, and gather pollen and sort of stimulate everybody."
Far from suggesting that this disqualifies Disney as the primary artist in what is essentially a collaborative medium, his "signing" of each work ("Walt Disney Presents . . .") establishes the auteurist nature of his process. The more perceptive journalists of the 1930s and 1940s described him as "Leonardo da Disney"15 and "a twentieth-century Michelangelo,"16 while "his bustling studio was compared to that of Rembrandt."17 It matters little that during the Renaissance every major artist was augmented by a coterie of apprentices, many of whom dabbed color onto canvases and cathedral walls. Such a then-accepted means of producing work hardly dims the truth: Da Vinci and Buonarrotti were the geniuses behind everything recalled today by their names. This holds true for Leonardo da Disney, the twentieth century's Michelangelo.
Finally, some devotees may argue that according to the definition of an auteur by François Truffaut, the film's director deserves to be identified as primary artist.18 Whether one holds to the politiques des auteurs or rejects such an approach in favor of semiotics, structuralism, feminism, deconstruction, or any of the other schools that have slipped in or out of fashion since the auteurist heyday of the 1960s, the fact remains that the director-as-superstar notion was never intended as a hard and fast rule. Andrew Sarris, most conspicuous of all American auteur critics, insisted, after stating that the director will in most cases be the primary artist, "Not all directors are auteurs. . . . Nor are all auteurs necessarily directors." Producer David Selznick, not George Cukor or Victor Fleming, is the auteur of Gone with the Wind (1939); The Longest Day (1962) conveys the vision of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, not the coterie of directors credited with working on the project. Likewise, overseer Disney's imprint is visible on all his studio's work, not that of any individual writer, director, or producer.
Still, the question arises, owing to the myth of Disney as a craftsman who supplies us with divertissements, so much style without substance: Why should we take Disney seriously? Such an issue was first raised in 1965 by Wood in the preface to his influential book, Hitchcock's Films. The volume, via an unrelenting application of the principles of authorship in motion pictures, literally changed the shape and direction of film criticism in America. Hitchcock, like Disney, had never been taken seriously because his films were so entertaining. Such puritanism in popular criticism was based on the erroneous belief that anything that provides fun cannot also be art and, conversely, anything that bores us must be art. Yet those message movies that win acclaim (and Oscars—Hitchcock was never blessed with the Best Director statuette) in any one era often are swiftly forgotten by the public. Hitchcock's movies, dismissed as perfectly crafted entertainments, remain vivid in our memory, collective and individual. His thrillers proved popular, in those days before home videocassette and now DVD, whenever they were revived in theaters or later on television.
The argument that commercial movies in general were worthy of being considered a viable art form as well as mass entertainment was in itself relatively new when Wood first proposed that we ought to take Hitchcock seriously. His approach had earlier been suggested (in 1954) by Robert Warshow, who suggested:
The movies—and American movies in particular—stand at the center of that unresolved problem of "popular culture" which has come to be a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism, intruding itself on all our efforts to understand the special qualities of our culture and to define our own relation to it.
A decade after Warshow's pioneering of this subject, the barriers between "high" and "popular" culture would entirely break down. Movies, including seemingly light Hollywood entertainments, finally were taken seriously. Such thinking superseded even Warshow, who never dared go quite that far:
There is great need, I think, for a criticism of "popular culture" which can acknowledge its pervasive and disturbing power without ceasing to be aware of the superior claims of the higher arts.
Such a pulled-punch approach, however radical in 1954, seemed naïve a decade later. The diverse arts of Italian opera, Shakespearean drama, and American jazz—considered among the higher forms when Warshow wrote—had in their own eras been treated as vulgar entertainments for lowbrow audiences. The only true difference between a "high" and a "popular" art form exists in perception; i.e., whether that form has or has not yet achieved legitimacy in society's eyes at the time when one happens to receive it. Warshow did, however, wisely note that
such a criticism finds its best opportunity in the movies, which are the most highly developed and most engrossing of the popular arts, and which seem to have an almost unlimited power to absorb and transform the discordant elements of our fragmented culture.
Without ever employing the term, Warshow hinted that the motion picture might at last provide what Richard Wagner hoped to create through his own medium of choice, opera: Gesamtkunstwerk, a total union of all preexisting arts. This would be the ultimate and ideal art form, while serving as an apotheosis of art itself. It can be argued that Wagner's dream came into being with the invention of film, which—as Hans Richter noted—is an original art form, however potent its relationships to drama and the novel, music and the dance.
Understandably, one Harvard art historian came to the conclusion in 1939 that if film most perfectly serves this function, then Walt Disney was the single filmmaker whose work most fully achieves such an ambition. This writer insisted it was time to admit that we should cease to believe in the illusion that "music, painting, sculpture, and architecture . . . alone are art"; the cinema, particularly Disney animation, could fuse these, allowing for a "timeless, spatially unlimited realm" of creativity. His conclusion: The films of Walt Disney comprised "the most potent form of artistic expression ever devised." Fantasia, of course, was Disney's most striking experiment in trying to live up to that claim. Its initial abject failure—critical and commercial—caused him to constrain such aesthetic adventuring so his studio might financially survive.
Though the following films had less lofty ambitions, each did address ongoing issues through a technical approach perfectly suited to what was being said. Content and form existed in an organic relationship, necessary in any medium for the transformation of craftsmanship into true style, an achievement that qualifies a work as art rather than mere commercial artifact. Wood had argued that Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963) singly and together offered Hitchcock's dark and "profound" commentary on contemporary life. The same can be said of Snow White (1936), Cinderella (1949), and Sleeping Beauty (1959).
That all-important notion of "high seriousness"—first advanced by Aristotle—can be applied in our time to the cinema. Or, at least, to those unique films that, on close examination, were fashioned not primarily as an escape from reality (though movies by Hitch and Disney may seem at first glance to be precisely this) but rather as a means of approaching and understanding it. "Homer's criticism of life has [high seriousness], Dante's has it, Shakespeare's has it," Matthew Arnold argued. Believe it or not, Wood dared inform us in 1965, so does Hitchcock's. Likewise, Disney's.
If "the greatness of the great poets" truly does reside in "the power of their criticism of life," then there is no greater cinema poet than Disney. His contribution is all the more meaningful for being purposefully concealed under an easily accessible surface, as were Shakespeare's plays in their time. Also, Disney's works—and here they are unlike Shakespeare's—are experienced while, as A. A. Milne would put it, we are very young. Reinterpreting the concept of a "criticism of life" specifically for children, Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, wrote:
Just because his life is often bewildering to him, the child needs even more to be given the chance to understand himself in this complex world with which he must learn to cope. To be able to do so, the child must be helped to make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of his feelings. He needs ideas on how to bring his inner house into order . . . [and] a moral education which subtly, and by implication only, conveys to him the advantages of moral behavior, not through abstract ethical concepts but through [cautionary fables] which seem tangibly right and therefore meaningful to him.
Bettelheim, though, dismisses Disney, subscribing to the aforementioned notion that his films merely water down dearly beloved fairy tales that would have been better left alone. I find this a notable limitation, all the more annoying in a book so rich with perceptions as to how the supposedly simple folk and fairy tales of our youth prove more complex than most adult-oriented narratives.
Gilbert Seldes, in 1956, noted that, despite Walt's then-expanding reputation as purveyor of pleasantries, there existed "a streak of cruelty in Disney," which rendered Disney's work all the more valuable by connecting him to "Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen." Like Disney, these writers displayed just such a darker element, and this is at the heart of our fascination with their work today. Seldes proposed that the key difference between Disney and his competitors in the early cartoon business is less evidenced by the obvious superiority of Disney's technique than "a moral difference, composed of two attitudes: a mischievous impertinence toward the public and a loving kindness toward his own creations." Precisely for this reason, Disney films fulfill Bettelheim's insistence on a literature (in Walt's case, celluloid literature) for children that champions one's growth as an individual entity over conformity to the crowd and its current code. Still, here we encounter the full complexity of the Disney vision. For the individual's responsibility to the social order cannot ever be overlooked, any more than in Greek tragedy. What must be achieved is a difficult, delicate, but necessary balance between the two.
Again, to return to Third Man on the Mountain: The film's star, James MacArthur, had only a year earlier appeared in The Young Stranger, one of the many teen-oriented films turned out in the wake of Rebel without a Cause (1955). MacArthur was among those surly adolescents then attempting to fill James Dean's empty throne following the star's untimely death. Though The Young Stranger may be forgotten today, Disney could hardly have been unaware of MacArthur's status then as rebel-prince apparent. Yet there is a key difference between Young Stranger and Third Man. In the former, MacArthur's character learns the necessity of giving up his argumentative ways; in the latter, experience teaches him that they must never be surrendered. Disney's moral fable—unlike the supposedly riskier film—champions rather than criticizes the rebelliousness of youth.
This is as true of Disney entertainment today as in the past. Attacks on Michael Eisner's regime by the religious right stem from their false assumption that Walt Disney was both conventional and conservative. "Disney [under Eisner] is not Mom and Dad's Disney," Richard Land (president, Southern Baptist Convention) complained in 1997, while organizing a boycott of Disney films, videos, theme parks, and stores, and ABC-TV (currently owned by Disney). "They're not Mr. Disney's Disney anymore. They have moved over to the other side of the spectrum." This, in reaction to the overt sexiness of the title character in The Little Mermaid (1989) and a salute to Native American religion (interpreted as "Christian-bashing" by Land) in Pocahontas (1995).
Yet even a casual viewing of the original Disney films reveals precisely the same thing. The lovingly presented sexiness of pagan females in "Pastoral Symphony"/Fantasia (1940) and the positive depiction of Indian spirituality in Westward Ho the Wagons (1958) represented, in Walt's time, precisely what Eisner and the modern Disney company offer. In fact, then, today's Disney is indeed Walt's Disney. When Land complains that today's "Disney [company] does not want to have positive portrayals of orthodox Christians," he reveals a lack of familiarity with the earlier work to which he compares current Disney films. There could be no more scathing satire of conventional Christianity than what we encounter in Pollyanna (1960). And it was hardly accidental that there's no church in Walt's Main Street, USA at his theme parks. By all accounts, he believed in God but fervently avoided any one religion's narrow approach, as he did the habit of churchgoing.
The notion of New Age films that are "about the Earth," in Eisner's words, did not exist in the popular imagination, or commercial filmmaking, until Disney initiated his True-Life Adventures series. In terms of the generation that emerged from the Woodstock revolution with new values and an environmental orientation, he was us; we are him. Disney's films proceed, to borrow from T. S. Eliot, from "a definite ethical and theological standpoint." An aura of religiosity in Disney's films—the aforementioned "miracle" in Third Man, similar occurrences in myriad other movies—has been the source of ridicule by many intellectuals. Yet no less lofty a figure than Eliot wrote of "a special religious awareness" that "we expect of the major poet," claiming: "What I want is a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian." Disney realized, for the modern mass audience, Eliot's dream. Though the films project all that is best in Judeo-Christian thinking, they do so while avoiding all parochialism, particularly any notion that one sect has the monopoly on morality.
There was a time when Disney's films were hailed by the critical establishment. Early on, his work, most notably the experimental Silly Symphonies, was praised, even revered. Walt himself was ordained as a great innovator by opinion makers in influential art circles. But nothing lasts forever. No sooner did Disney attempt to wow that elite constituency with Fantasia than they turned on him, complaining that all he had managed to offer was a bastardization of the bipolar aural and visual art forms. Adding insult to injury, the public found this film too highbrow for its tastes. As Disney retreated into safer projects, including further fairy-tale films, public response returned but critical respect did not. The academic elite that had built up Walt's reputation now decided the time had come to diminish such lofty status. This syndrome is hardly new; as literary critic Albert Gerard long ago noted in his assessment applicable to any major figure,
first, the phase of uncritical enthusiasm that accompanies the discovery of a new author . . . [then] the phase of uncritical depreciation that such enthusiasms necessarily provoke . . . only when the second depreciatory phase has run its course [can] a judicial summary [finally] prepare the way for the agreed verdict of history.
Disney's own "phase of uncritical depreciation" was apotheosized in a 1969 volume, The Disney Version. Richard Schickel's approach was jubilantly hailed at the time of release for courage and honesty in daring to attack an unofficial national institution. Schickel's thesis can be summed up by a single statement: "Disney's machine was designed to shatter the two most valuable things about childhood—its secrets and its silences—thus forcing everyone to share the same formative daydreams."
That line of attack could also be directed against Carl Jung's theory of the collective unconscious, specifically the sharing of a common myth pool. By implication, Schickel rejects the possibility of an element within the human psyche that, despite each person's unique personality, is composed of universal holdovers from our shared primordial past. That is, certain "archetypes"—key race memories—common to all human beings. In stories ranging from folk legends, originating in an oral tradition, to the loftiest forms of theater as devised by Sophocles at the height of the Greek Classical Age, such cautionary fables—when experienced in any form, including the contemporary popular cinema—allow for our ritual reconnecting with a half-forgotten human history. Coming in contact with such stories stirs something terrible, troublesome, yet true in a sense of primary knowledge, allowing essential myths to rise once again to the surface of our consciousness.
This constitutes literature, as Kenneth Burke put it, as "equipment for living." In all such stories, the leading character is, in Joseph Campbell's words, one more variation on the hero with a thousand faces. A contemporary author's job, then, is to create a new variation on some ancient archetype, the individual talent expressing itself while partaking of the abiding myth. Sir Thomas Malory (Morte d'Arthur), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Idylls of the King), T. S. White (The Sword and the Stone), John Boorman (Excalibur), and Disney himself (with his own quirky version of White's book) all achieved this in their own eras by approaching the ancient Arthurian legend. The late Campbell firmly believed that George Lucas had achieved precisely this with his Star Wars trilogy of the late 1970s and early 1980s, explaining why those myth-influenced movies touched something deep in audiences beyond the more limited possibilities of generic science fiction such as Star Trek.
In this light, compare the above plot summary of Third Man with Jung's notion of the recurring male initiation-myth:
The hero leaves home and is subjected to a number of tests and trials, culminating in the "supreme ordeal" . . . [his] triumph is rewarded with the "treasure hard to attain" [and] a beautiful princess as a bride.
Rudi faces the "supreme ordeal"—conquering the Citadel—for the purpose of, like Perseus of Greece or England's Arthur, fulfilling his tragic father's unrealized dream. Rudi "must overcome the mother complex"; in so doing, "he 'dies' as his mother's son and is 'reborn' as a man," amounting to "a second parturition from the mother, a final severing of the psychic umbilical cord," which "involves the hero being swallowed into [the mother's] belly." This ritual is replayed when Rudi enters that horrifying yet mesmerizing "secret passage" he discovers by a "miracle," returning to the womb so that he can afterward finally escape it forever, in so doing making the necessary journey from boy to man.
Third Man appealed, of course, mostly to adolescents. Disney earlier accomplished much the same thing for younger viewers. Walt's Pinocchio, like Collodi's, is swallowed by Monstro and literally finds himself in the belly of the beast. Stepping away from one's experience with such a story—sung and spoken by Homer more than three thousand years ago, viewed in some clammy matinee moviehouse during the 1950s, experienced in a state-of-the-art home theater in the early years of a new millennium—renders the viewer at least vaguely aware of his own ongoing relationship with something eternal. By presenting such an archetype in entertaining terms, the myth—revitalized for a modern audience—provides an education as to how one ought to best proceed on one's life journey. Jung saw this—literature's essential relationship to life itself—as the essence of any single myth's importance:
So it is in actuality: To embark on the adventure of life, a boy has to free himself of his bonds to home, parents . . . and win a place for himself in the world.
Significantly, though, Disney updates one element of the myth. And here he reveals the degree to which man has evolved, as a species, since our race first distinguished itself by forming crude definitions-in-drama of its place in the universe. Rudi couples with his princess-bride, Disney wholeheartedly subscribing to the mating principle inherent in myth. Yet Rudi does not win "the treasure hard to attain"—the prize of being first to scale the Citadel—though he clearly could. More than a decade ahead of its time, this film displays a post-Woodstock notion of the enlightened, sensitive male—concerned with issues other than his own identity and self-image as conqueror.
A harsh critic of self-interest, Disney subverts the notion of victory, in the eyes of the world and at any cost. In its place, we discover the more modern concept of winning on one's own terms. This is an idea that would prove essential to post-Woodstock cinematic hero-fables, Sylvester Stallone's screenplay for Rocky (1976) being a case in point. This is a concept developed by Disney as early as 1949. In So Dear to My Heart, Jeremiah's little black lamb does not win the grand prize at the country fair, as Danny did (a most unlikely occurrence) in the Sterling North novel on which the film is loosely based. In Disney, the child viewer encounters a far more complex design for living in which characters must square their inner ideals with the harsh actualities of the world around them.
Be that as it may, in 1969, the New Yorker's revered film reviewer, Pauline Kael, proclaimed that Schickel did a marvelous job of telling "the story of how Disney built an empire on corrupt popular art" (emphasis added). No one thought to question how a popular art that fulfilled all the worthy functions of old, eternal myths—while simultaneously employing them to introduce a new, progressive approach to life—could possibly be considered "corrupt." In time, thankfully, the appraisals and reappraisals did not end there. "Note," Gerard long ago insisted about major artists,
that the third and final phase is not reached by a compromise that splits the difference between too much enthusiasm and too much contempt. Its distinguishing character is rather the newness of its approach, a degree of reinterpretation that amounts to a difference of critical kind.
Without Rymer and his now forgotten attacks on Shakespeare's plays (notably, Othello), it's unlikely that Coleridge and Samuel Johnson could ever have reacted to such patently absurd viciousness by offering "a completely new and hitherto unsuspected way of looking at Shakespeare."
As to Disney, a revision has at last begun. In 1997, film historian Steven Watts attempted to free himself of the critical baggage attached to Disney and the concurrent negative reputation. In The Magic Kingdom: Disney and the American Way of Life, he described his excitement at seeing Disney's films as a child in the 1950s. Tellingly, though, he guiltily adds:
Even much later, when cultural revolution had inspired in me a bushy beard, shoulderlength hair, threadbare clothes, radical political sloganeering, and rock-and-roll musicianship, a trip to Disney World produced a state of fascination bordering on euphoria.
Surely, Watts was not the only hippie to question why, despite his newly acquired post-Woodstock consciousness, he could not set the joys of Disney entertainment aside. Purportedly, such stuff represented the opposite of, even a force antagonistic to, all he now believed in and embraced. The prejudicial view—the widely accepted but incorrect myth of Disney as the enemy of all populist-libertarian thinking—exerted such a huge influence that the scribe felt uncomfortable with his own honest emotional reactions. Individual perception conflicted with common knowledge; the perceived culture clash left Watts confused.
He, and others like him—essentially an entire generation—need not have silently suffered, for the conflict existed only in false common knowledge. "The ordinary filmgoer," cinema historian Peter Noble has commented, "has his whole outlook formulated by the film; politically, socially, [and] intellectually he forms his opinions unconsciously"52 through experiences—the most important of them in childhood—with popular entertainment. "We saw ourselves in terms of the movies," one American woman who came of age in the 1950s admitted to a sociologist decades later.53
Most of what people saw then was indeed conventional, even reactionary. This included films that drew in the youth audience by promising to glorify rebellion. Almost always, such works discouraged rebellious activity in the final reel, from Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1954) through James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955) to Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957). The abiding irony is that Disney movies—the only films attacked for being too traditional—offered us alternative possibilities not in the end rejected by the hero. The screen's first confrontation between a youthful 1960s rebel and an admonishing conservative adult takes place in Pollyanna (1960). The Disney film predated, predicted, and, more significant still, defended (if within the safe context of its turn-of-the-century setting) a coming rebellion in which youth stands up to the adult world. At the conclusion, youth is not admonished for doing so. Such a youthful rebelliousness is symbolized by long hair, though this would not become a widespread reality until the Beatles made their first appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in March 1964.
In the film, elderly Mr. Pendergast (Adolphe Menjou) comments on the long, straggly locks on Jimmy Bean (Kevin Corcoran):
PENDERGAST: Your hair's too long! Why don't you get it cut?
JIMMY BEAN: 'Cause I like it long!
"Commercial culture," Erica Doss noted, "is perceived as an opiate of illusory satisfactions, an ideological tool that, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and more recent Frankfurt School descendants argue, distracts, pacifies, and controls the masses."54 More often than not, this is the case. To every rule, though, there are always exceptions. While appearing to be the safest (even most antiseptic) examples of popular culture, Disney entertainments serve the function of angering and liberating those masses. When studied individually and then as an oeuvre, his movies offered a homogenized society the big bad wolf of an iconoclastic ideology. Disney films challenged the impressionable audience's acceptance of the status quo, puckishly doing so in the sheep's clothing of soothingly conventional family films.
With this in mind, the realization that radical auteur Jean Luc Godard's stated intention, "to make 'experimental' films in the guise of entertainment," is identical with that of Disney (never overtly stated by Walt, of course, yet potent in the work) should seem a little less shocking. This had been the impetus for making Fantasia, even as a quarter century later it would be for Alphaville (1965).
There have always been rare voices, crying out in the critical wilderness, hoping to fight the great lie. Judith Crist complained about Disney's "undeserved reputation for gooery among diabetics, dieters and other thinking members of the adult community" (emphasis added). Even Disney's most fervent fans have, on occasion, furthered the false myth by casually relying on popular prejudices. Writing with great enthusiasm about Perri (1957), Leonard Maltin unaccountably concluded that the film about a pair of squirrels contains "the inevitable happy ending." This is not precisely true; Perri's ending isn't happy, in any simplistic sense, nor is there anything inevitable about such a conclusion in Disney films. Properly understood, no Disney film features a happy ending. Snow White does ride away with her prince, but our final image is of the dwarfs, smiling through their tears. Though they are delighted at her good fortune, they'll never see their beloved ward again. Steven Spielberg—our current incarnation of Disney—refers to such an approach (evident in his own Disney-like E.T., 1982) as "an up-cry."
Properly understood, Disney endings are bittersweet. At the conclusion of Old Yeller (1957), teenager Travis Coates (Tommy Kirk) must shoot his beloved dog after Yeller contracts rabies. Then he spots Yeller's pup. Travis smiles through his tears, knowing he will love this dog as much as (if differently from) Old Yeller. Life goes on; the cycle continues. If the Disney vision is based on any one key principle, it's that there are no endings in life—happy or otherwise. Only new beginnings—the promise of a positive outcome following difficult, even heartbreaking, experience. Receiving this information in the form of engaging drama leads the viewer, as it did the creator, to a firm belief in guarded optimism.
Was, then, Disney a true and serious (even when working in a comedic vein) artist? He has long been dismissed as something of a lesser order—a superb craftsman working within a commercial concept of film as "product," therefore necessarily lacking the intellectual and/or emotional integrity which defines the essence of true art. But the most heated attacks on Walt's work reveal, on close scrutiny, a naïveté on the part of the mind-set that finds Disney offensive. For example, Crowther of the Times launched an all-out critical assault on the very concept of Disney's True-Life Adventures, beginning with The Living Desert (1953). When Disney created complex montages, augmented by music, transforming raw footage of life in the wilds into wryly humorous entertainment, Crowther huffed: "Mr. Disney and his writers and editors are inclined to do with nature pictures pretty much what they have always done with cartoons." That was precisely the case. Disney is as consistent, vision-wise, in animated movies, nature documentaries, and live-action dramas and comedies as Shakespeare when working in tragedy, history, or comedy.
Such consistency of approach and theme is the very essence of what elevates a mass entertainer into a viable artist. Of course Disney completely transformed the existing material! If he hadn't, he would not qualify as an artist. "In the mind of the poet," Eliot insisted, "experiences are always forming new wholes" (emphasis added). Any creative piece should be viewed as "a virtual reality which we invest with value," according to critic Wendy Steiner; "alert to meaning and to pleasure, we go to art for an enlightened beguilement." Everyone knows that Disney offers beguilement. The purpose of this book is to prove that those works were also enlightened in the fullest and richest sense.
A case was once made for Plato being the first Romantic owing to his idealistic conception of "an ideal world concealed behind the visible, his 'city laid up in heaven,' his daring deduction of all being and knowledge from the idea of the Good" (emphasis added). Similarly, each of Disney's nature films implies an ideal world behind all the harsh realities on view. First Disneyland and then Walt Disney World were attempts to create an earthly city, laid up in a heaven. The opening of the first Disneyland TV show presented an animated vision of the park (then not yet completed) in precisely those visual terms.
Beginning with Snow White, each film proceeds from a worship of Plato's "Good," illustrated in a modern manner. If that sounds a far cry from the half a million longhairs who converged on Max Yasgur's farm near the small town of Bethel, New York, fifty-four miles from the actual place called Woodstock, in August 1969, the difference is largely illusory. Fifteen years after the event, Art Vassmer, co-owner (with his brother Fred) of a small general store, recalled: "We cashed I don't know how many checks, and you know what? Not one of them bounced!" Of course not; the hippies had come to understand, while watching Disney films in their childhood, that you don't do such things. From those films, they grasped the need to respect a continuing notion of the Good while flouting other conventions that had outworn their welcome.
Such a mind-set places Disney firmly in the tradition of such other iconoclastic (and truly American) artists as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Jack Kerouac. They all defy any easy categorizing as liberal or conservative, transcending such labels via a more indigenous identity as homegrown American populists. Novelist Kerouac, as well as political pundit Mort Sahl, folksinger Bob Dylan, actor-director Dennis Hopper, and aforementioned peace candidate Eugene McCarthy—all considered liberals in the sixties—were categorized as conservatives a decade later. This partakes of a long-standing tradition that can be traced back at least as far as John Dos Passos, firebrand author of the socialistically inclined U.S.A. trilogy. That immense volume all but defined radicalism during the Great Depression; Dos Passos proved himself an outspoken campaigner for right-wing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964.
However incongruous all this seems to die-hard liberals and conservatives alike, it remains the essence of American populism. This strain cuts across—indeed, even refuses to acknowledge—old, stifling concepts and constraints of right and left. One of the first Europeans to observe, appreciate, and then defend the emerging American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted with bated breath:
The literature of a democracy will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature. . . . The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, and almost always strong and bold.
There could be no greater defender of such a uniquely American culture than Robert Pattison. In The Triumph of Vulgarity, he describes that element in rock music, convincingly arguing that this contemporary form is our own version of Romantic-era poetry. As to the notion that the original is in any way superior to our version, he scoffs that this
is like complaining that children learn about Snow White from Walt Disney instead of an aged German crone reciting the story from a Jungian store of marchen. The world moves on.
Recently, Harold Bloom has argued that Shakespeare did more than merely create the greatest body of dramatic literature in existence. Beyond that, he presented, in the guise of entertainment, ideas that literally created the modern consciousness, establishing the way we see, think, feel, relate. The thesis of From Walt to Woodstock: During the twentieth century, Disney accomplished much the same thing, liberating us from a restrictive worldview that no longer functioned.
True, the Woodstock dream proved notably short-lived. In essence, it died less than four months later, when a free Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco, ended with the killing of several concertgoers. For all the supposed dislike of "the pigs" by young people, Mick Jagger himself—noting that the Hell's Angels had been employed as a security force—said: "I'd rather have the cops." In so speaking, he (though British) partook of the American iconoclasm described above, which initially appears radical but may later seem to be reactionary. No question, though, that the dream is vulgar, iconoclastic, and populist at heart.
As Pattison wrote in retrospect:
It is interesting that the Woodstock Festival came to put its stamp on the sixties generation. After all, given some of the negative reactions to the sixties, someone could have dubbed the young people of the time the Altamont Generation. That Woodstock was chosen indicates that, for all its drawbacks and its excesses, the sixties generation struck a responsive chord. People who hated the drugs, the free love, the anti-hero worship, and the anti-establishment sass responded in spite of themselves to the love and the flowers, to the earnest talk of peace and the honest "we-ness" instead of "me-ness," and—the anti-materialism of the sixties notwithstanding—to the no bounced checks at Vassmer's General Store.67
All of the above—everything best and worst about what we call the Woodstock generation—was learned from watching Disney films.
And as to the lack of bounced checks at Vassmer's? Had he been around to see that, Uncle Walt would've been real proud!
“Brode’s thesis is both revolutionary and totally without precedent. He steals from no one. Significance? No other moviemaker or mogul—Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Orson Welles, etc.—has had such a deep and lasting impact on American popular culture as has Disney.”
James MacKillop, author of Contemporary Irish Cinema: From The Quiet Man to Dancing at Lughnasa