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Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century

Author(s): Steven Watts


Source: The Journal of American History, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Jun., 1995), pp. 84-110
Published by: Organization of American Historians
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WaltDisney:Artand Politics
in the AmericanCentury

StevenWatts

WaltDisney hasbeen,arguably, themostinfluentialAmerican ofthetwentieth cen-


in
tury.Beginning thelate 1920s, his immense and multifaceted entertainment
enterprise-short cartoons, feature-lengthanimations, live-action films,comic
booksandrecords, nature documentaries,televisionshows, colossalthemeparks -
inundated theUnitedStates,muchof theWestern world,and beyond.At the
founder'sdeathin 1966,Disneycreations andDisneyconsumer merchandise had
floodedmuchoftheglobe.FromChileto China,tensofmillions ofpeoplewho
had neverheardofFranklin D. RooseveltorWilliamFaulkner or MartinLuther
King,Jr.,couldidentify Mickey MouseorDonaldDuckinaninstant. Andoverthis
empire
leisure presided theavuncular gentleman withthewarmchuckle, thesmall
mustache, andthe large imagination.
Yetcoming toterms withDisney isnoeasymatter. Threebarrierstomaking sense
ofthismassive presence inmodern American culture loomparticularly large.First,
Disney'senormous popularity has contributed to hisdismissal in critical
circles.
Commercial success, manystudents ofAmerican culturehaveassumed, standsin
proportion
inverse tocultural Second,a swiftly
significance. moving floodofDisney
productionshasengulfed attempts TheoutputoftheDisneyStudiohas
atanalysis.
beensoextensive, insomany venues,oversomany decadesthatitresistsinterpretive
Third,
synthesis. violently reactions
contrasting to the Disneylegacy have polarized
opinionintheacademy andoutsideit.Disneydisciples venerateSaintWaltas the
purveyorofinnocent imagination anduplifting fantasy;Disneydenouncers bitterly
decryHuckster Waltas a cynical manipulatorofcultural andcommercial formulas.
Suchstrifehascreated an emotional andideological minefield forthosewhowish
toapproach Disneyseeking neitherrevelationnor but
damnation, understanding.
Overtheyears severalscholarshaveattempted syntheticoverviews ofDisneyand
hisculturalrole.In 1942theHarvard University arthistorianRobert D. Feildmade

StevenWattsis a professorof historyat the Universityof Missouri,Columbia. He is the authorof The Magic
Kingdom:WaltDisneyandModernAmericanCulture,forthcoming fromBasicBooks,on whichthepresentarticle
draws.
I wouldliketo thankthefollowing peoplefortheirgenerosity in offering
comments on thisessay:JeanAgnew,
Ken Cmiel,RobertCollins,NoraleeFrankel, JacksonLears,GeorgeLipsitz,LaryMay,Dave Roediger, JoanShelley
Rubin,JonSperber,CeceliaTichi,RobertWestbrook, and Eli Zaretsky.
Myappreciation alsogoesto David Thelen,
SusanArmeny, and Patrick
Ettinger fortheirskillfuleditorialworkon thisessay,and to David R. Smith,Robert
Tieman,BeckyKlein,and ColletteEspinoat theWaltDisneyArchives in Burbank,California,fortheirgracious
and helpfulresponsesto myendlessrequestsforresearchmaterial.

84 The Journalof AmericanHistory June 1995

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ArtandPolitics
WaltDisney's 85

theinitialattemptin TheArtof WaltDisney,a bookthatpraisedthefilmmaker's


workas "perhapsthemostpotentformof artistic expressioneverdevised."About
twenty-five filmcriticRichardSchickelcame in with
yearslater,the distinguished
a lessflattering
verdict.His book,TheDisneyVersion, presentedDisney'sproduc-
theworstimpulsesofmassculture,and he scathingly
tionsas reflecting denounced
them, as well as theirpopular audience, as "vulgar.... tasteless.... crasslycom-
mercial,sickeningly sentimental, crudelycomic."Severalrecentcollectiveassess-
mentslook at theirsubjectthroughthe lensof high-tech culturaltheory.Disney
Discourse,a 1994collectionofessaysbyscholars fromthehumanities, offersmostly
disapproving analyses of the its
"MagicKingdom"and imperialist global impact,
conservative corporate to controlthereceptionofitsproducts.
politics,and efforts
"The Worldaccordingto Disney,"a special1993issueoftheSouthAtlanticQuar-
terly,containspostmoderncommentaries, byscholarsfromculturalstudies,that
condemn the influenceof the Disneyempire.'
Suchinterpretations, however, roomforthinking
leaveconsiderable historically
aboutDisneyand hisinfluence on Americanculture.Twoculturaltrendsin modern
Americanlife- modernism and populism- suggestusefulwaysofmakingsenseof
the artisticand politicalimpulsesin Disney'swork.Disney'saestheticendeavors
duringthe 1930sand the subtlepoliticalpatinathathe thenappliedto his work
engagedpopulistand modernist trendsthathad surfacedduringtheGreatDepres-
sion.Thesecategories open windowson Disney,providingcriticalventilation and
lightand suggesting freshwaysof thinkingabout thismostfamiliarof modern
Americans andhisculturalsignificance. LookingatDisneyin thecontext ofThomas
HartBentonand HueyLong,AaronCopland and Will Rogers,New Deal public
artand fireside chats,theHouse Committee on Un-American (HUAC) and
Activities
Hollywood,tradeunion organizationand surrealism, the red menace and the
Americannuclearfamilyforcesus to reconsider actor.2
him as a historical

The Sentimental
Modernist

It is hardto remember thatWaltDisneywasoncetakenquiteseriously as an artist.


Throughout the1930s,whilemillionsofconsumers he alsoearned
cheeredhisfilms,
widespread praisein intellectual
circlesforhisinnovative A dar-
animatedfantasies.
1 RobertD. Feild, The Artof WaltDisney(New York,1942), 53-57; RichardSchickel, The Disney Version:
TheLife,Times,Art,and Commerceof WaltDisney(New York,1968),361;EricSmoodin,ed., DisneyDiscourse:
ProducingtheMagicKingdom(NewYork,1994);and thespecialissue"TheWorldaccording to Disney,"ed. Susan
Willis,SouthAtlanticQuarterly, 92 (Winter1993). Forthe basic,detailed,nuts-and-bolts biography, see Bob
Thomas,WaltDisney:An AmericanOriginal(NewYork,1976).Fora reasonably completelistingoftheenormous
see KathyMerlockJackson,WaltDisney:A Bio-Bibliography
literature, (Westport,1993).
2 Thisessayoffers preliminary drawnfrommymanuscript
conclusions in progress:TheMagicKingdom:WIalt
Disneyand ModernAmericanCulture(New York,BasicBooks,forthcoming). Myapproachto Disneyhas been
influenced particularlybythegrowinganalysesofmanyculturalactivities -amusement parks,bookclubs,adver-
nightclubs,movies,popularmusic-that havemade it necessary
tising,fairs,cheap literature, to takepopular
cultureseriouslyand theproliferating consumer
studyofpost-Victorian culturewithitsvaluesofmaterialconsump-
tion,an expansive WarrenSusmanservedas theintellectual
leisureethic,and a personalcreedofself-fulfillment.
godfather forthesenewapproacheswithhispioneering essays,manyofthemcollectedinWarrenSusman,Culture
as History:The Transformation ofAmericanSocietyin the Twentieth Century(New York,1984).

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86 TheJournalof AmericanHistory June 1995

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A %ourhifi AWIalt Disneyckat 'work who providedhis
on MickeyMIouSe, the animatedcharacter
breakthrou~gh
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DisneY ComnPany.

Ihig of the criticsforSillySvmzphoniesstsuchas ThreeLittlePi' s, Micey Mouse shorts


such as Th/)eBand' C-oncelrt,and feature-lengthanimationssuch as SnoweW~hite and
th~eSeven Dwar/,_v and Pinocchio, hieelicited acclaim fromwritersof nearlyevery
stripe.David Low, forexample, described Disney,in the 1942 New Republic as the
mossignf f n igrei gahi( art since Leonardo da Vinci and trumpetedhis
arrival"at the foothillsof the New,Art of the Future."By the late 1940s, however,
criticalmisgivingshad begun to mount. A growingperception of Disney's pan-
dering to popular tastesled to a new portrait:the innovativeartistwho squandered
his talent to become a hack. Barbara Deming, forexample, contended in the 1945
ParliyanReview that the filmmakerhad become an expertin "artlessness,"creating
works that were "monstrous . . . a nightmare of these times." Manny Farber,
writingay r tewas nsirDseysfl ,he argued, had degenerated into
"lollvpop a
art,"1 "bon-bon mode [that] will satisfythe people who do printingon
wedding cakes, those who invented Mother's Day, the people who writetheirnames
witha Rurryand end themwithflouncesand curliCUes."3

1'
, ts'
el ::c ' P.'g,Ic dir. Bert (Gi11ett(A"4It Dis'eyv Prod9u ions 1;; IkteBand Concert, dir. WilfredJackson

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ArtandPolitics
WaltDisney's 87

Disney,an enormously giftedentertainer in searchof laughs,innovation, and


sales,had stumbledintothe arenaofmodernist artand becamean experimenter
withitsformsand techniques.His trueaestheticheart,however, continuedto beat
toan internal rhythm ofnineteenth-century sentimentalrealism.His Victorian sen-
sibilitygrappledwiththe attraction to an audaciousmodernism, but neitherim-
pulsecompletely triumphed. Thisinternalconflict produceda hybrid"sentimental
modernist"who helped mediate a keyculturaltransition in twentieth-century
America.4
In theUnitedStates,modernism emergedin directoppositionto theprinciples
and sensibility of nineteenth-century Victorianism. Adherentsof modernism-
includingphotographer AlfredStieglitz,painterAlfredH. Maurer,poet Ezra
Pound,writerGertrudeStein,architect FrankLloydWright,philosopher William
James,and composerCharlesIves- challengedan older,hierarchical bourgeoiscul-
turebyundermining severalofitskeybulwarks: a moralcreedbasedon repression
and rationality,a systemof intellectualinquirybased on "formalism," a "genteel
tradition"of narrative realismin the artsand letters.Morepositively, modernism
soughtto recombinethe elementsof human experiencestrictly separatedby
Victorianism-human and animal,civilizedand savage,reasonand emotion,in-
tellectand instinct,consciousand unconscious -in orderto reconstruct thetotality
ofhumannature.Bysmashingthrougha brittlesurfaceofrationality and genteel
beauty,itsenthusiasts hopedto recover a fluidityofperception, a turbulent subjec-
tivity,and a long-repressed thatlay in instinctual
vitality motivation. Modernism
also endorsedwide-ranging aestheticexperimentation in thehope ofcapturing an
elusive"simultaneity of experience"thatseemedto characterize modernlife.No
longersatisfiedthatliterary realism,visualperspective, and thechromatic musical
scale could represent the complexities and confusionsof an advancedindustrial
world,modernist artists embracedstream-of-consciousness narrative, abstract paint-
ing,and atonalmusic.Adoptingaesthetic as wellas moralrelativism, theyborrowed
fromnon-Western "primitive" cultures,adaptedtechnological artifactsand indus-
trialmotifs aroundthem,dippedintoEuropeanand Americanfolkculture, ortried
to dismantlebarriersbetween"high"and "low" culture, all in the interests of
revitalizing expression
artistic withthefluidity, and dynamism
variety, theysaw at
thecoreofmodernhumanexperience. Thus,as DanielJosephSingalhassuggested,
modernismmight be viewed most clearlyas a wholistic"culture.... [that seeks]
no matterhow incompleteand
to know'reality'in all its depthand complexity,
paradoxicalthatknowledgemightbe, and no matterhow painful."Everywhere
modernism subverted Victorianhierarchies-challenging ofreason
theascendancy

(WaltDisneyProductions, 1935);Snow Whiteand theSevenDwarfs,dir.David Hand (WaltDisneyProductions,


1937); Pinocchio,dirs. Ben Sharpsteenand HamiltonLuske (Walt Disney Productions,1939). David Low,
"Leonardoda Disney," ofWaltDisney,"
NewRepublic,Jan.5, 1942,pp. 16-18;BarbaraDeming,"The Artlessness
PartisanReview,12(Spring1945),227; MannyFarber,"MakeMineMuzak,"NewRepublic,May27, 1946,p. 769.
4Years ago,in an unpublished ofmyargument
paper,WarrenSusmanpointedin thedirection withhisdescrip-
tionofWaltDisneyas an "ambivalent See RobertWestbrook,
modernist." The Legacy
"AbundantCulturalHistory:
of WarrenSusman,"Reviewsin AmericanHistory,13 (Dec. 1985),481.

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88 TheJournal
ofAmerican
History June1995

and judgmentoverimpulse,of educatedtasteoverfolkand popularpreferences,


of the adult overthe childish,of the consciousoverthe preconscious mind.5
Muchof thisseemsfarremovedfrompopularentertainment and the theaters
fulloflaughing,cheeringfansofMickeyMouseand Donald Duck. But theculture
of modernism, it seemsclearin hindsight, createdmuchof the atmosphereen-
foldingWaltDisney'spioneeringworkin animation.As a commercial entertainer
working at themarginsofseriousart,he encountered modernism and appropriated
elements,eventually emergingas a kindof popularPicasso.With its enthusiasm
forfolklore,theamorphous, thechildlike,and thenonrational,moderismseemed
tovalidatetheunsophisticated tastesofthisprovincial
midwesterner.It foundmany
echoesin his films.Modernistimpulsesflowered everywherein Disney'sworldof
fantasyas hisanimationconstantly blurredthelinebetweenimagination and reality
to producea wondrousuniversewhereanimalsspoke,plantsand treesactedcon-
sciously,and inanimateobjectsfeltemotion.Such impulseshad occasionally sur-
facedat themarginsofVictorianculture,forexample,in children's literature,but
the dominantethosof rationality and repressionkeptthemmarginal.Now fluid
perception, free-flowing and a yenforsimultaneous
fantasy, experience movedto
centerstage.Moreover, a preoccupation withthedreamstatein Disney'searlyfilms
revealeda fusionofintellectand emotion,superegoand id as warmfairy talesoften
encapsulateddark,nightmarish visions.And throughout his movies,a consistent
blendingofhighand lowculturalformsproduceda vibrantartistic whole.Thisen-
gagement withmodernism unfoldedhaltingly and wasneverarticulated, butit be-
came an important partof the Disneyappeal.
Some of Disney'searlyefforts the influenceof artisticmodernism.
illustrated
ManyMickeyMousecartoons, forinstance,appearedas fantastic
rompsthroughan
imaginative playland.In SteamboatWillie(1928), thefirst cartoontalkie,Mickey
performs a concertby"playing"tuneson variousanimals:he squeezesa duck'sneck
to getpercussiveeffects,pullsthetailsofsucklingpigsfora varietyofsqueaks,and
playsthexylophone on a cow'steeth.Mickey'sGarden(1935)features hallucinatory
eventspromptedbythe inhalationof a sprayforgardenpests.Aftershrinking to
bug size,Mickeyand hisdog Plutocareenthrougha jungleofgiantgardenplants
as theyarepursuedbyinsectsandwormsbenton revenge. Disneyalsolovedtotrans-
gresstraditionalculturalboundariesbymockinghigh-culture pretensions within-

5 Fora glimpseof the varyingcriticalresponsesmodernism has inspired,see MalcolmBradburyand James


McFarlane,eds., Modernism,1890-1930(New York,1976); RobertKiely,ed., ModernismReconsidered (Cam-
bridge,Mass.,1983); BruceRobbins,"Modernism in History,Modernism in Power,"ibid., 229-45; IrvingHowe,
ed., TheIdea oftheModernin Literature andthe Arts(New York,1967);David Hollinger, In theAmericanProv-
ince:Studiesin theHistoryand Historiography ofIdeas (Baltimore,1985),74-91; and Frederic Jameson,"Reflec-
tionsin Conclusion,"in ErnstBlochet al.,Aestheticsand Politics,trans.RonaldTaylor(London,1977).Thisrough
synthesisreliesuponseveralscholarly
works, includingtheintroduction toa specialjournalissueon American mod-
ernism,DanielJosephSingal,"Towardsa Definitionof AmericanModernism," AmericanQuarterly, 39 (Spring
1987),7-26; MortonWhite,Social Thoughtin America:TheRevoltagainstFormalism (1949; New York,1976);
CeceliaTichi,Shifting Gears:Technology, Culturein Modernist
Literature, America(Chapel Hill, 1987);Marshall
Berman,"WhyModernism StillMatters,"Tikkun,4 (Jan.-Feb.1989),11-14,81-86;and David Harvey, TheCondi-
tionofPostmodernity: An Enquiryintothe Originsof CulturalChange(Oxford,Eng., 1990), 10-38.

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WaltDisney's
ArtandPolitics 89

spiredslapstickhumor.Mickey's Amateurs(1937),forinstance, solemnly introduces


a warpedconcert venuewheresingerClaraCluckand pianistClarabellCowperform
a painfullyfunnyoperarecitalcomposedof shrieking animalnoises.Symphony
Hour (1942) followsa similarpath. Goofy,Mickey'sinept sidekick,accidentally
dropsorchestra instruments downan elevatorshaft,and theyarepartially crushed.
Whentheclassicalmusicianstrytoplaythedamagedinstruments, a torrent ofcom-
icalsoundspoursforththatturnstheperformance intoa farce.The crowd,ofcourse,
lovesthe showand showersthe stagewithflowers.6
The fullemotionalspectrum ofDisney'smodernist vision-fromwarmfantasies
to terrifying
dangers- appearedin twocontrasting shortfilmsfromtheearly193Os.
Flowersand Trees(1932), the-first of Disney'sSillySymphonies in color,told the
story oftwoyoungtreeswhofallinlove.Aidedbytheirforest friends, thewildbirds,
theyovercomeadversity to marry,witha glowworm fora weddingringand a
celebratingaudienceofwildflowers. TheMad Doctor(1933),in contrast, emerged
fromthenetherregionsofdreamlifeto formone ofDisney'smostfrightening ani-
mations.In thisdarkstory, Plutois kidnappedand hauled offto a castlewherea
crazyphysician andvivisectionistwillusehisbodypartsformacabremedicalexperi-
ments.WhenMickey followsto therescue,he is chasedbyskeletons and ghostsbe-
forebeingcapturedand strappedto a cart.He is about to be horribly cut up by
a powersawdescending fromtheceilingwhenhe awakens;ithas beena nightmare.
Thesetwofilmsseemto embodythepost-Freudian viewof themind-libidinous
instinctsand superegorestraints existingside byside in a precariousbalance-as
ithad seepedintopopularculture.Similarmodernist visionsmultipliedin thespec-
tacularanimatedfeatures thatbeganto pourforthfromthe WaltDisneyStudio
bythelate 1930s:SnowWhite'shorrifying escapethroughthewoods,whereevery
treeor animal seems to be a monster,Pinocchio'smotifof misbehavingboys
sprouting earsand tailsas theyturnintodonkeys, Dumbo'sspectacularly surrealist
"pinkelephant"hallucination thatfollowsthebabyelephant'saccidentalimbibing
of somefermented water.7
Criticsrespondedto such effortswith a rapturouschorusof affirmation.
Numerousreviews and essaysfromthe 1930sand early1940stermedDisneyan ar-
tisticgenuisand a modernist pioneer.The notedfilmwriter GilbertSeldes,forin-
stance,becamea greatadmirer, arguingthatthefilmmaker created"masterpieces"
thatpivotedon thefascination thatcomesfrom"seeingthe impossiblehappen."
PeytonBoswell,editorofArtDigest,wrotethatthe animatorhad createda won-
derful"newartform"thatbrought"abstract art"to life.EmilyGenauer,artcritic

6 SteamboatWillie,dir.WaltDisney(WaltDisneyProductions, 1928);Mickey'sGarden,dir.WilfredJackson
(WaltDisneyProductions, 1935);Mickey's Amateurs,dirs.PintoColvig,WaltPfieffer,
and Ed Penner(WaltDisney
Productions,1937); Symphony Hour,dir.RileyThomson(WaltDisneyProductions, 1942).
7Flowers and Trees,dir.BertGillett(WaltDisneyProductions,1932);TheMad Doctor,dir.David Hand (Walt
DisneyProductions, 1933);Dumbo,dir.Ben Sharpsteen (WaltDisneyProductions, ofmany
1941).Fordescriptions
ofthesefilms,see ChristopherFinch,TheArtof Wlalt Disney:FromMickeyMouse to theMagicKingdom(New
York,1975); and LeonardMaltin,TheDisneyFilms(New York,1984).

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90 TheJournal
ofAmerican
History June1995

forthe New York World Telegram,provideda particularlysharpcharacterization


of the Hollywoodcartoonistas brilliantmodernartist."We haveno need to talk
againof the substanceof abstractart,"she wrote.
to theBachToccata
AlongcomesDisneywithhisvisualaccompaniment and
numberin Fantasia- and it'sall miraculously
Fugue-the first clear.... One or
twoof[theanimated segments]recallKandinsky Therewereseveral
especially.
closely
related Miro.Andtheopening
tothesurrealist nightaudience-manyof
whom,doubtless,raiseup theirhandsin horrorat abstractpaintings-lovedit.8

SergeiEisensteinprovideda more extensiveand illuminatingevaluationof


Disney'smodernist Writing
aesthetics. in theearly1940s,aftera visitto theHolly-
wood filmmaking community, he breathlessly
declaredthatDisney'sworkoffered
"thegreatestcontributionoftheAmericanpeople to art."Thispraiseflowedfrom
a keenperception ofthecartoonist's
relationshipto modernist culture.The keyto
Disney'sartisticpower,the Russianfilmmaker believed,lay in an almost"fright-
ening"capacityforboringintosecretrecessesofthehumanpsycheand uncovering
itsmostbasicurges.EisensteinexplainedDisney'sappeal to thelatentprimitivism
in modernconsciousness.
He creates
somewhere in therealmoftheverypurestandmostprimaldepths.
ofnature.
There,whereweall arechildren on theconceptual
He creates levelof
man notyetshackledbylogic,reason,or experience.... Forthroughhis whole
ofdevices,
system andsubjects,
themes, givesus prescriptions
Disneyconstantly
forfolkloric, thought-butalwaysrejecting,
prelogical
mythological, pushing
objects,plants,beasts,all areanimatedandhu-
lifeless
asidelogic.... [O]rdinary
manized.
In otherwords,wroteEisenstein, Disney'sartcaptured"thestructureofprimitive
thought"and thus,in thebesttradition ofmodernism, contactwith
reestablished
the repressed"lower"elementsin the humanpsyche.9
In manyways,such highfalutin aestheticachievement was quite incidental.
in
Havingbutlittleeducationand training art,Disneylargely followedhisinstincts
in marshaling pictorialimages,humor,comedy, and musicto createmassentertain-
ment.Moreover, bythemid-1930s he had begunto seekgreaterand greaterrealism
in his studio'sanimations.Increasingly,
the objectof Disney'saestheticquestwas
a sunny, stylewithrootsin theVictoriannineteenth
naturalistic century.Northrop
Fryehas describedthisaesthetictraditionratherunkindlyas "stupidrealism":"a
kindofsentimental idealism,an attemptto presenta conventionallyattractiveor
impressive Herewasa "realistic"
appearanceas an actualorattainablereality." depic-

8Gilbert Seldes,"Disneyand Others," New Republic,June8, 1932,pp. 101-2;GilbertSeldes,"No Art,Mr.


Disney?,"Esquire,8 (Sept. 1937),91, 171-72;PeytonBoswell,"The WonderofFantasia,"
ArtDigest,Dec. 1, 1940,
p. 3; andEmilyGenauer,"WaltDisney'sMusicPictures RangefromBeautifultoBanal,"New YorkWorldTelegram,
Nov. 16, 1940,clipping,PublicityScrapbookF2 (WaltDisneyArchives, Burbank,Calif.).
9JayLeyda,ed., Eisensteinon Disney,trans.Alan Upchurch(Calcutta,1986), 1-3, 23, 42-43, 54-56.

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WaltDisney'sArtand Politics 91

tionofpeople,objects,and sceneswheredarkor messydimensionsof realityhad


been wiped away.10
The pushforsuchnaturalism in thestudio'sanimationincreasedwiththemid-
1930smovefromcartoonshortsto animatedfeatures. It germinated in theevening
artclassesfortheanimators -taught originally byDon Grahamofthe Chouinard
Art Institute,theywereheld at the old HyperionStudio sound stage-before
receiving a tremendous technological boost.The multiplanecamera,thebrainchild
ofthestudioengineers, createdtheillusionofdepththrougha ten-foot-high mech-
anismwherea succession ofpaintedcelswerestackedone on top oftheotherwith
a cameramountedat the top. The camerathenmade consecutive shotsthrough
rearranged cels.Theseimages,whenstrungtogetherin thefilm,suggestedthree-
dimensionality. Firstused in the SillySymphony filmThe Old Mill (1937), it was
usedextensively feature-length
in thestudio'sfirst pictures,Snow Whiteand Pinoc-
chio.The culmination ofthisdriveforevergreater realismcamein thepreparations
forBambi (1942), when Walt broughtin live deer forhis artiststo studyand
demandedan exact,animatedreplication oftheirnaturalmovements. As Ken An-
derson,one ofDisney'sassociates,laterrecalled,"Waltwas alwaysimpatientwith
therestrictions ofa cartoon.He strived formoreand morerealism,morenaturalism
in the features.""
Thisaesthetic ferment in the 1930sproducedthematureDisneystyleofanima-
tion.Othercartoonists fromthe 1920s- namely,Otto Mesmerwithhis character
Felixthe Cat and Max Fleischer withhis experimental Out oftheInkwellseries-
had precededthe transplanted Midwesterner in developinga fantastic modernist
stylethatoftenveeredintoa darkrealmofsurrealistic imagery. Disney'suniquecon-
tributionwas to appropriatethisaestheticparadigm,meld it witha sentimental
realismdrawnfromtraditions ofnineteenth-century illustration,and thusmakeit
morepalatableand popular.He beganto develophisdistinctive "personality"ani-
mation,whichencouragedmorenaturalistic depictionswhileendeavoring, in his
own words,"to createthe feelingthattheselittlecharacters are live,individual
personalities-not just animated drawings."Disney thus sought to temperthefan-
tastic,jarringimagesof artisticmodernism withnostalgic,anthropomorphic, and
"cute"imagesrootedin theaesthetics ofan earlierera.The resultwasa hybridaes-
theticof "sentimental modernism."12

10 NorthropFrye,The AmericanCentury(Toronto,1967), 26.


oftheDisneyMultiplaneCamera,"in TheArtoftheAni-
11David R. Smith,"New Dimensions:Beginnings
matedImage:An Anthology, ed., CharlesSolomon(LosAngeles,1987),37-49; TheOld Mill,dir.WilfredJackson
(WaltDisneyProductions, 1937);Bambi,dir.David Hand (WaltDisneyProductions, 1942);Ken Andersoninter-
viewbySteveHulett,May4, 1978,transcript, p. 1 (DisneyArchives).On Disney'sdriveforrealism,see Schickel,
Disney Version,193-95.
12 On Otto Mesmer and MaxFleischer, see LeonardMaltin,Of Miceand Magic:A HistoryofAmericanAni-
matedCartoons(New York,1987),22-25, 84-105;and RussellMerritt andJ. B. Kaufman,Waltin Wonderland:
TheSilentFilmsof WaltDisney(Rome,1992),34. On "personality" animation,see WaltDisneyto KnowlesBlair,
May13,1937,WaltDisneyHistoricCorrespondence file(DisneyArchives); OllieJohnstoninterviewbyChristopher
Finchand LindaRosencrantz, June2, 1972,transcript, byRichardHubler,Feb.
p. 10,ibid.; MiltKahl interview
p. 15, ibid.; WilfredJacksoninterview
27, 1968,transcript, by Hulett,July25, 1978,transcript,pp. 3-4, ibid.

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92 History
ofAmerican
TheJournal June1995

MusicLand (1935),forexample,appearedin theheartofDisney'smostproduc-


tiveand creativeperiodforshortcartoons.One of the famousSillySymphonies,
thiseight-minute piece tolda storysetin the"LandofSymphony" and the"Land
ofJazz,"twoantagonistic kingdomsseparatedbythe"Sea ofDiscord."The princess
fromthe formerrealmfellin lovewiththe princefromthe latter,and whenhe
secretlyvisitedher,the youngman was capturedand imprisonedinsidea giant
metronome. Consequently, warbrokeout,and in themidstofbattlethetwolovers
escapedand fledin a smallboat.Whentheirperilbecameevident,a cease-fire was
called,and harmoniousrelationswereestablishedfora happyending.
On theone hand,thisclever,fast-paced, pun-filled taleskippeddowna moder-
nistpath. With greatwit,it satirizedthe tensionbetweenpopularand classical
music,and in themedleyofintertwined symphonic and jazz stylesthatclosedthe
film,it suggesteda fusionof highand low culturalforms.The cartoonunfolded
fantasticmodernist images:architecture composedofgiantorganpipesand welded
brassinstruments, characterswhoappearedas musicalinstruments, a languagecon-
sistingonlyofreedy, brassy,orstringed voices.Eventheclimactic warsceneconsisted
ofmock-heroic barrages hurledfromone islandand blastsofthe"1812
ofjazz riffs
Overture"fromthe other.On the otherhand, MusicLand clearlyreliedupon
nostalgicculturalelements.It offered a sentimental love storybased on thatof
RomeoandJuliet.It presenteda conventional happyendingthatfeatured themar-
riageoftheprinceand princess, thejoiningofthe"KingofJazz"and the"Queen
ofSymphony," and theconstruction ofa "BridgeofHarmony" betweentheirislands.
The drawingpresentedratherconventional realisticand anthropomorphic depic-
tionswhereinsaxophonesand violinsweremoldedand shapedintohuman form.13
Fantasia(1940),perhapsDisney'smostself-consciously project,offered
artistic a
lengthier,fullerversionofthisaesthetic agenda.It walkedan aesthetic tightwirebe-
tweenmodernism and sentimental realism.The film'smodernist featuresbecame
obviousin the film'sopening,whereJohannSebastianBach'sToccataand Fugue
inD Minorinspireda seriesofnear-pure abstractions.Splashesofcolorandswirling,
meltingformspredominated withonlythebaresthintsofsuchidentifiable objects
as violinbows,all ofwhich aimed to representmusical forms. The bold beginning
wasfollowedbya paradeof delightful, occasionallybizarremodernist images:the
charmofthedancingmushrooms in the"Nutcracker Suite,"thedarkmagicofthe
relentlessmarching broomswiththeirpailsofwaterin the"Sorcerer's Apprentice,"
the hilarityof the daintyhippo ballerinasin the "Dance of the Hours."All the
modernist elementswerethere-the abstractions, theminglingofunlikelyimages
fromhighand lowculture,thecontactbetweenintellect and emotion,thejuxtapo-
sitionof highseriousness and humoroussatire.
But Fantasiacounterpointed thisdominantaestheticmelodywithflourishes of
sentiment and naturalism. Croppingup periodically, they challenged and, bycon-
trast,highlighted themodernist agendaofthefilm.The "Riteof Spring"section,

1935).
Jackson(WaltDisneyProductions,
13 MusicLand, dir.Wilfred

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ArtandPolitics
WaltDisney's 93

forinstance,illustrated IgorFedorovich Stravinsky's famouspiece witha fanciful


yetstrikingly realistic ofthevolcanoes,dinosaurs,
re-creation earthquakes, and bio-
logical traumataaccompanying the earth'searlyevolution.In the "Nutcracker
Suite,"segmentsshowing"dewdropfairies," "frostfairies,""milkweedballerinas,"
and "dancingflowers" transformed natureinto an idealized wonderlandof sen-
timentalbeauty.To accompanyLudwig von Beethoven'sPastoralSymphony,
Disney'sanimatorsattempteda realisticdepictionof mythological themes.The
frolickingofflying horses,centaurs, unicorns, and faunssetthestageforvisualiza-
tionsofBacchus,Vulcan,Iris,and Zeus. The ElysianFields,toweredoverbyMount
Olympus,providedthe physicalsettingforthissegment,and the mountainap-
pearedon screenwitha Breughel-like realism.
The concluding sectionofFantasiaparticularly highlighted Disney'ssentimental
modernism. Combiningtwodrastically different piecesofmusic- ModestPetrovich
Moussorgsky's Nzghton Bald Mountainand FranzSchubert's AveMaria-the seg-
mentdramatizedthe cosmicbattlebetweengood and evil. It also inadvertently
dramatizedthe tensionwithinDisney'saesthetics.The piece beginswithCher-
nobog,theblackgodofeviland death,as he magically appearsoutofthemountain
and gathers witches, demons,and vampires in a furiousdancebeforeflinging them
intoa fiery pit. Thispowerful, otherworldly modernist vision then givesway to an
almostcloying, fake-medieval realism.Withthedawninglightofmorningand the
tollingof churchbells,we see throughthe foga line of candle-carrying pilgrims
advanceacrossa bridgeand througha shadowy forest.As theyemergeintoa bright,
beautifulmeadow,thefilmendsto thestrainsofAve Mariaand thecameramoves
skyward to focuson thebrilliant sun.The aesthetictensionofDisney'ssentimental
modernism is resolvedthroughan apotheosis.14
A long studiomemo of December23, 1935,givesa rareglimpseof Disney's
thoughtson the aestheticweb of modernism,sentimental realism,and fantasy.
Writtento the artinstructor Don Graham,thisdocumentexploredthe aesthetic
principlesunderlying theanimator'sart.The memorepresented theclosestthing
toa treatise thisseat-of-the-pantscommercial entertainer everproduced.It demon-
stratedDisney'slustforpopularity and commitment to quality,butitbetrayed even
moreclearlyhishybridaestheticimpulsesand his awarenessofthepossibilities of
movingwide audiencesbya modernist-influenced appeal to theunconsciousand
the nonrational.15
Neitherabstraction norrealismprovidedthegoalforanimation, Disneyinsisted,
but a combinationof the two.The deviceof "caricature" providedthe key:
Thefirst
dutyofthecartoonis nottopicture
orduplicaterealactionorthings
oflifeandaction,topicture
happen,buttogivea caricature
as theyactually on

dirs.SamuelArmstrong
14 Fantasia, et al. (WaltDisneyProductions,1940). Forinsighton themakingofthis
film,seeJohnCulhane,WaltDisney'sFantasia(New York,1983). On the tensionbetween"stupidrealism"and
advertising,
"magicrealism"in early-twentieth-century see JacksonLears,"UneasyCourtship:ModernArtand
ModernAdvertising," AmericanQuarterly,39 (Spring1987), 135-36.
15 WaltDisneyto Don Graham,memo,Dec. 23, 1935 (DisneyArchives).

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94 TheJournal History
ofAmerican June1995

Thefigures
inthismodelsheet
forFantasia(1940)reflect
thedark,
evenmenacing,
sideto
WaltDisney's
sentimental
modernism. ? TheW~altDisneyCompany.

thescreen thingsthathaverunthrough theimagination oftheaudience,tobring


tolifedreamfantasies andimaginative fancies
thatweall havethought ofduring
ourlives...
Thepointmustbe madeclearto thementhatourstudyoftheactualis not
so thatwemaybe abletoaccomplish theactual,butso thatwemayhavea basis
upon which to go intothe the
fantastic, unreal,theimaginative-and yetto let
it havea foundation offact,inorderthatit maymorerichlypossess and
sincerity
contactwiththepublic.. .. I definitely
feelthatwecannot do thefantastic
things
basedon therealunlesswefirst knowthereal.
Caricature,Disneyargued,promoteda "subconscious association"withintheau-
dienceas it invokedsituationstheyhad "felt,or seen,or dreamt."It involvedthe
audiencein perceivingtheseverallayersofmotivation thatmightlie behindmove-
ment:"thepersonality, theattitudeof thecharacter'"'reactionto stimulithatare
telegraphed tothemindbythenerves," orsimply"instincts.Caricature, forDisney,
also unlockedan audience'sinstinctive, preconsciousgrasp of music. People's
itprimitive"~
attraction
to melodyand timereflected "thevariousrhythms thatenter

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ArtandPolitics
WaltDisney's 95

theirliveseveryday-how rhythmical the bodyreallyis-how well balancedthe


bodyreallyI'S.'16
CriticsdiscernedtheoutlineofDisney'shybridmodernist aesthetic-theuse of
realismto makefantasypersuasive-and,throughfantasy, the appeal to the au-
dience'snonrational and preconsciousmentallife.Whentheywroteoftricks, spells,
potions,illusions,and enchantments, theirverylanguageevokedthe nonrational
realmsaccessiblethroughdrugsormagic.The ArtDigestpraisedPinocchioforits
blendof"essentially abstract notingthat
sequences"withpassagesof"solidrealism,"
withDisney"'abstracts' definitelyfunction
-they havesomething to do
significant
and theydo it."At theotherend ofthecriticalspectrum, a reviewofSnow White
inthepopularmagazineFamilyCircleassertedhappilythat"Mr.Disneyhastricked
us- hascasta spelloverus- to suchan extentthatwe cannottelltherealfromthe
unreal."Westbrook New Yorknewspapercritic,arguedthat
Pegler,an influential
Disneycould"drugyouwitha potionwhichpreparesthespiritto acceptthelove-
OtisFerguson,
liestillusionsas reality." writingin theNewRepublic,perceived that
"Disney'sfantasy. . which
. startsfroma firmbase in the realismof the everyday,"
worksto "steadythefantastic" as hiscreationunfolds.GilbertSeldesmarveledthat
oncethe"Disneyuniverse"establisheditselfin "a reasonableway,themindofthe
spectatoris so enchantedthattheartistcan go to thewildestextremes offantasy."
CyrusLeRoyBaldridge, a moviereviewer fortheBirmingham News-AgeHerald,put
thematterwithsuccinctinsight.Disney'sartisticappeal to popularaudiences,he
asserted,flowedfroman abilityto createcharacters thatwere"realand yetunreal."
as to be merely"an imitation
Not so naturalistic ofphotography," notso unrealistic
that "the fairytale would have brokenaltogetherwithfolkloretraditions," the
filmmaker's worknegotiatedbetweentheseimpulses."Bya successful compromise
betweenrealismand abstraction," Baldridgeconcluded,"WaltDisneycan giveus
muchthatthe motionpicturescreen[heretofore] has failedto provide."17
In the post-World WarII years,Disney'sinterest in animationwanedas he in-
creasingly turnedhis attentionto movies,
live-action naturedocumentaries,televi-
sion,and the planningof his innovative amusementpark.The studio's animated
filmscontinuedto appear,mostlyunderthe managementof Disney'sunofficial
"NineOld Men,"a boardofseniorartists. Thisworkcontinuedthetradition of"sen-
timentalmodernism" thatdefinedtheDisneystyle.Featurefilmssuchas Ladyand
theTramp(1955)and One HundredandOne Dalmatians(1961)blendedmodernist
fantasy withsentimental domestictaleswhereanimalstransparently stoodin for
humans.Othermoviessuchas Cinderella(1950) and SleepingBeauty(1959) used
familiarfairytalesto blendsentimental imageryas they
lovestorieswithfantastic
16 Ibid.
17 SnowWhiteand the SevenDwarfs,"
ArtDigest,Feb. 15, 1940,p. 13; "Starring
"Pinocchio," FamilyCircle,
Feb. 2, 1938,clipping,PublicityScrapbookS26 (DisneyArchives);Westbrook Pegler,"FairEnough,"Knoxville
News-Sentinel,Jan. 15, 1938,clipping,PublicityScrapbookS25, ibid.; Otis Ferguson,"WaltDisney'sGrimm
New Republic,Jan.26, 1938,pp. 339-40; GilbertSeldes,TheMoviesComefromAmerica(New York,
Reality,"
1937),46-47; CyrusLeRoyBaldridge,"SnowWhiteand the SevenDwarfs," Birmingham [Alabama]News-Age
Herald,Feb. 13, 1938,clipping,PublicityScrapbookS26 (DisneyArchives).

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96 TheJournal
ofAmerican
History June1995

trodin thewell-worn pathsofcomforting Disneyentertainment.An occasionalex-


perimentalprojectappeared,such as Toot,Whistle,Plunk,and Boom (1953), an
animatedshortthatsurveyed thehistoryofmusicalinstrumentsusingtheflat,sty-
lized linesof "limitedanimation,"
or theingeniousNoah'sArk(1959),whichused
a "stopmotion"techniqueto manipulatestickfiguresand commonobjects.But
as theDisneyStudioincreasingly focuseditsenergieselsewhere,
thatold war-horse,
the animationsection,becamsesomethingof a relic.18

The SentimentalPopulist

WaltDisneynevercaredmuchforpolitics.Once, whenaskedifhe wasinterested


in holdingpoliticaloffice,he dismissedthe idea witha shrugof the shoulders,
saying,"I would just be mad all the time."Nonetheless,a strong,if unack-
nowledged,politicalsensibilitypervadedhisworkand providedanotherkeyto its
popularity.Likehisart,it developedsomewhathaphazardly fromthe 1930sto the
1960sand tendedto look simultaneously forwardand backwardforinspiration.
In Disney'slateryears,whena politicalturndid emerge,hisoppositionto labor
organizingand supportforanticommunism in Hollywoodseemedto crystallize a
visceralconservatism thatmovedhim into the camp of such politiciansas Barry
Goldwater.As a result,Disneyhas been portrayed as a reactionary.Corroborating
storiesabound:a sourWaltshowingup at theWhiteHouse to acceptan awardfrom
LyndonB. Johnsonwhilewearinga Republicancampaignbuttonunderhis lapel,
his largemonetarycontributions to right-wing Californiacandidatesincluding
RonaldReaganand GeorgeMurphy, hisfriendlytestimony beforetheHouse Com-
mitteeon Un-American in 1947,rumorsabout privateoutbursts
Activities against
AfricanAmericans, Jews,and politicalleftists.19
Thisportrayal offersglimpsesoftruth.Disneywasa conservative Republicanby
the 1950s,but thisfacthidesmorethanit reveals.The realcoreofhis politicslay
in a "sentimental populism."He carriedintoadulthoodan ideology-likehis aes-
thetics,itwasinstinctiveand emotionalratherthansystematic and articulate- that
glorifiedordinary Americans, blendeddemocratic sympathies and culturalconser-
vatism,and flowered fromrootsin hisrural,midwestern background. This"politics
ofnostalgia"assumedan egalitarian castin the1930sbeforeshifting intoan increas-
inglydefensive, suspiciousmodebythelate 1940sand thereafter. Thislargerframe-
workofpoliticalassumptions remainedinplacethroughout Disney'slifeand helped

18 Ladyand the Tramp,dirs.HamiltonLuske,ClydeGeronimi,and WilfredJackson (WaltDisneyProductions,


1955); One Hundredand One Dalmations,dirs.WolfgangReitherman, HamiltonLuske,and ClydeGeronimi
(WaltDisneyProductions, 1961);Cinderella,dirs.WilfredJackson,HamiltonLuske,and ClydeGeronimi(Walt
DisneyProductions, 1950);SleepingBeauty,dir.ClydeGeronimi(WaltDisneyProductions, 1959); Toot,Whistle,
Plunk,andBoom, dirs.CharlesNicholsand WardKimball(WaltDisneyProductions, 1953);Noah'sArk,dir.Bill
Justice(Walt DisneyProductions,1959).
19 Forthefirst
treatment ofDisney'spoliticalconservatism,
see Schickel, DisneyVersion,157-58.Twosomewhat
sensationalrecentpopularbiographies
portray Disneyas a bitterpoliticalreactionary.
See LeonardMosley, Disney's
World:A Biography (New York,1985);and MarcEliot,WaltDisney:Hollywood'sDark Prince:A Biography (New
York,1993).

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WaltDisney's
ArtandPolitics 97

shapehis enterprisefromthe era ofthe GreatDepressionthroughthe Cold War,


but outsidepressuresand internalshiftsof emphasischangedits orientation.
remainedstrong,but it followedno straight
Disney'spopulistsensibility path as
it evolvedduringhis career.20
The formofthepopulistpersuasionforwhichthefilmmaker becamea spokes-
man can be tracedto ideologicalinfluencespersistingfromnineteenth-century
America-thePopulistrevoltin the late 1800swithits ruraloppositionto urban
industrialsocietyand the"moneypower,"theProtestant workethic,and theheri-
"republicanism"
tage of eighteenth-century withits ideologyof civicobligation.
Thispettybourgeoiscreed,suspiciousofthemachinery ofmodernfinanceand its
cashmatrix,demandeda moralvaluationoflaborthrough"producerism" and in-
sistedthatproperty ownershipand personalindependenceprovidedthe keyto
citizenship. elegantdescription,
Accordingto RichardHofstadter's thispersistent
impulsein Americanpoliticalcultureattempted
toholdontosomeofthevaluesofagrarian life,tosavepersonal
entrepreneurship
andindividual andthecharacter
opportunity typetheyengendered,andtomain-
taina homogenous Yankeecivilization....[Populismpromoted]theidealofa
lifelivedclosetonatureandthesoil,theesteem fortheprimary ofcountry
contacts
andvillage imageoftheindependent
life,thecherished man,even
andself-reliant
thedesire andhatreds
(forallthesnobberies tomaintain
itinspired) anethnically
morehomogenousnation.21
Evokingan imageof thevigorous,virtuouscommonman,Disney's1930sfilms
presentedscenarioswherethedoggedpersistence ofMickeyMouseand thelibidi-
nousoutburstsofDonald Duck reaffirmed theordinary citizen'scapacityto survive
In part,the themewas an ideologicalresponseto the
and conquerall adversity.
GreatDepression- broadlypopulist,moreimplicitly culturalthanovertly political,
and morevisceralthandoctrinaire.It defendedthe dignityof the commonman
and elevatedthewisdomofthefolkwhenbothweresuffering massiveassaultand
trauma.
Disney did not stand alone in such a culturalpolitics.Similarsentiments
sproutedeverywhere, as "petty-bourgeois populism,"to use Christopher Lasch's
phrase,enjoyeda widespreadresurgencein the1930s.It appearedin thevillagesen-
ofpopularillustrator
timentality NormanRockwelland the democratic optimism
offolksingerWoodyGuthrie.It surfacedin politicianHueyLong's"everyman a
king"rhetoricand in composerAaronCopland'smusic,such as Fanfarefor the
CommonMan,AppalachianSpring,and Rodeo.It influenced thecriticism ofVan
WyckBrooks,a refugeefromtheradicalYoung America cohort whose Makers and

20
Schickel,Disney Version,157.
21 RichardHofstadter, TheAge ofReform:FromBryanto FD.R. (New York,1959), 11-12.Forsome of the
leadinginterpretationsof Populism,see ibid; LawrenceGoodwyn,DemocraticPromise:The PopulistMoment
inAmerica(NewYork,1976);and C. VannWoodward, TheBurdenofSouthernHistory (NewYork,1969),104-20.
On thehistoriography ofPopulism,seeJamesTurner, "UnderstandingthePopulists,"JournalofAmericanHistory,
ofPopulism,see Sean Wilentz,"PoxPopuli,"New
67 (Sept. 1980),354-73. On recentpoliticalmisappropriations
Republic,Aug. 9, 1993,pp. 29-35.

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98 TheJournal History
ofAmerican June1995

Findersseries,whichbeganto appearin 1936,exaltedthedemocratic tradition of


Americanletters.It floweredin the neorealismof such regionalistpaintersas
ThomasHartBenton,GrantWood,and SteuartCurry, whosecanvasesdepictedthe
workaday heroismofruralMidwesterners. It influencedArchibaldMacLeish'scalls
forpoetryin the mold of "public speech" and Lewis Mumford's agendaforrein-
tegratingindustrialtechnology withthe"cultureofthefolk."As Laschhas pointed
out,thisrevitalizationofAmerican populartradition tookplaceundertheleft-wing
auspicesofthePopularFront.Overall,as WarrenSusmanhas arguedconvincingly,
theneopopulistupsurgeofthe 1930shelpedshapethemajorideologicaltrendof
theperiod:"a growing ofan AmericanWay,"a "fascination
self-consciousness with
the folkand its culture,past and present," identification
a "collective withall of
Americaand its people." Depression-era populismwas at once egalitarianand
nostalgic,democraticand defensive.22
Justsucha politicalsensibilitypermeatedDisney'searlycartoonshorts.Mickey
Mouse,forinstance, becamesomething ofa populistheroas he facedritualhumilia-
tionin storyafterstorybutalwayspersisted to emergetriumphant. In MovingDay
(1936),forinstance,Mickeyand thegangaresixmonthsbehindin therentwhen
thebrutishsheriff, Pete,appearsto evictthemand selltheirpossessions. But a gas
leak blowsthehouseintorubblearoundthesheriff's earsas thegleefulrenters es-
capewiththeirbelongings. Anothervariation on theenduringunderdogthemeap-
pearedin The WormTurns(1937),whereMickeythe chemistconcoctsa courage-
buildingpotionthatturnshierarchy upside down.A flywho swallowsthe liquid
beatsup a spiderwho is tryingto eat him; a fortified mouseclobbersa cat who
Pluto whenthe dog triesto chase him. In
has a similargoal; the cat terrorizes
Donald Duck, Disneypresenteda moreboisterous, who had no
abrasivecharacter
qualms about assertinghis capabilitiesand defendinghis place in society.In
Mickey's Amateurs(1937),forexample,Donald givesan inspirational recitation of
his favoritepoem. When he is hootedoffstage bythe audienceforforgetting his
lines,he fliesintoa rage,rushesbackwitha machinegun,and firesa fewrounds
intothe crowdwhilesquawking"Twinkle,Twinkle,LittleStar"at the top of his
lungs.EventheartierSillySymphonies-TheTortoise and theHare (1935)and The
UglyDuckling(1931)are examples-oftenfeaturedunderdogswhosepersistence
and moralcourageled themto triumph.In all ofthesefilms,Disneyseizedupon
thedepression-era discourseofthecommonman'sresilience and translatedit into
of
an idiom fantasy and humor.23
This Disneyfiedpopulistimageryappearedwithparticularforcein twoenor-
mouslypopularfilmsfromthe 1930s.ThreeLittlePigs(1933),themostacclaimed

22
Susman,Cultureas History,150-210;ChristopherLasch,"Foreword,"in RichardHofstadter,TheAmerican
and theMen WhoMade It (New York,1973),vii-xxiv;Alan Brinkley,
PoliticalTradition VoicesofProtest:Huey
Long,FatherCoughlin,and the GreatDepression(NewYork,1982);ErikaLee Doss, "TheArtofCulturalPolitics:
FromRegionalism to AbstractExpressionism," America:Cultureand Politicsin theAge ofCold War,
in Recasting
ed. LaryMay(Chicago,1989), 195-213.
23 MovingDay, dir.Ben Sharpsteen(WaltDisneyProductions, 1936); The WormTurns,dir.Ben Sharpsteen
(WaltDisneyProductions, 1937);TheTortoiseand theHare,dir.WilfredJackson (WaltDisneyProductions,1935);
The UglyDuckling,dir.WilfredJackson(WaltDisneyProductions, 1931).

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ArtandPolitics
WaltDisney's 99

of all the Silly Symphonyshortfilms,rejuvenatedaudiencesthroughoutthe


country. Itshighlysymbolic tune,"Who'sAfraidoftheBigBad Wolf?," proclaimed
hopein thefaceofoverwhelming whileitsmoraltalepromisedsafety
adversity, and
prosperity forcommonpeoplewhopracticed hardworking diligence.The sober,in-
dustriouslittlepig saved his backslidingbrotherpigs by returningthem to
producerism and prudentialhabits.In 1937,SnowWhitemadenationalcelebrities
of thesevendwarfs, minerswho bentto theirtasksinging"HeighHo, It's Offto
WorkWe Go." It subtlycelebratedthevirtue,independence, and dignityof(liter-
ally)"thelittleguy"who,despitecharacter flawsand a rough-and-tumble life,works
hard,maintainsan uprightcharacter, and pullsthroughtheworsttravailsoffered
bynatureor thesocialorder.Aristocracy takesa beatingthroughout. The Wicked
Queen destroys herself,and the protagonist,a princess,gainsviewersympathy by
herpositionas a servantgirland her no-nonsense habitsof hardwork.
Disney'spersonalfilmstatement fromtheperiod,a little-known SillySymphony
shortentitledTheGoldenTouch(1935),elaboratedthispopulisturge.Apparently
miffed bywhispers thathe wasmerelya managerwhileothersweredoingthecrea-
tivework,he sequestered thestudio'stwotopanimators, FredMooreand NormFer-
guson,and personally produceda filmwithoutthe usual collectivestoryconfer-
ences.The resultwasunsuccessful - the cartoonbombedwithaudiences - but its
storyresonatedpoliticallyas Walt admittedan attemptto "put some social
meaning"intothefilm.DrawinguponthetaleofKingMidas,Disney'sfilmfocused
on a fat,bald old monarchforwhomwomenand winemeantnothingin compar-
isonwith"Gold, gold,gold,I worshipit, I loveit."When an elfgrantshim "the
goldentouch,"he is overjoyed, thenhorrified as everything he touchesturnsinto
thevaluablemetal.Growingsteadilymorehysterical, he tearfully offers all of his
earthly possessions for
forsomefood:"Mykingdom a hamburger!" Whenhiswish
is granted,everything he owns-his treasure, the royalcastle,evenhis clothes-
vanishesas a hamburger on a plateappearsin frontofhim.Clad onlyin hisunder-
wear,he chompsdownand happilyinforms theaudiencethatthisdelightful prize
camecomplete"withonions!"This filmsuggestedthathappinesscould be found
in neithermoneynorelevatedsocialstatus,but onlyin themodest"hamburger"
pleasuresofordinary people.LikeSnow White,The Golden Touchfocusedon the
kingly class,butthestoryreadthesame:hierarchy washumiliated, and elitesgained
truenobilityin proportionto theirhumble acceptanceof the commonman's
values.24
Disney'sbackground influenced the culturalpoliticsof his earlyfilms.Bornin
Chicago,he spenthis formative boyhoodyearson a farmnearthe smalltownof
Marceline,Missouri,and carriedgoldenmemoriesof ruralvillagelifeintoadult-
hood. His wifeonce observedto an interviewer, "therewas somethingabout the
farmthatwasveryimportant to him. He workedhard[there]but he enjoyedthe
work.He liked the animalsand he liked being close to the soil." His father's

24 1935); "Mouseand Man,"Time,Dec. 27,


The Golden Touch,dir.WaltDisney(WaltDisneyProductions,
1937,p. 21.

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100 TheJournal History
ofAmerican June1995

an influence.
- also exerted
politics- EliasDisneyhad been an unabashedsocialist
Walt grewup making sketches,in his words,of "the big, fatcapitalist . . . withhis
footon theneckofthelaboringman,"an imageinspiredbythesocialistnewspaper
Appeal to Reason. ManyyearslaterDisneyspokeof his "dad's socialisticideas,"
recallingthatEliaswas"a greatfriendoftheworking man.... He wasverymuch
for'em. I grewup believinga lotofthat."Thusthecartoonist carriedwithhiminto
his adult careermuchof the baggageof midwestern politicalradicalism.25
A lifelongdislikefor bankers,for example,may have stemmedfromthis
influence. Ben Sharpsteen,one ofDisney'sseniorstudioexecutivesand a friendfor
severaldecades,notedthatwhilehis boss realizedbankersmade motionpictures
possible,he "neverhad anyreverence forthem."Disneylikedto playthenaive"boy
fromthe country" whenfinanciers put pressureon him. He wouldinquireif the
studiowaspayingitsinterest; whenassuredthatit was,he wouldask innocently
if thatwasn'thow banksstayedin business.In 1928,Disneyhad his firstcontact
withNew Yorkbusinessculturewhenhe wastrying deal
to workout a distribution
forhisnewsoundcartoons.A longseriesofletters homerevealedhisprofounddis-
taste.Struggling he assuredhis brother
to negotiatea contract, Roythat"noneof
ourprofits [are]goingto someleechsittingat a bigmahogany desktellingus what
to do."A shorttimelater,Waltdenouncedthewholefinance"game"as "thedamn-
dest mixed-upaffairI have everheard of" and offereda blunt evaluationof
businessmen: "Theyare all a bunchof schemers and justfullof tricksthatwould
fool a greenhorn.... [I feel] like a sheep amongst a pack of wolves."26
permeatedmuchofDisney'spersonallife.Throughout
A populistsensibility the
1930s,forexample,he supportedFranklin D. Roosevelt, in
and laterdecades he cul-
tivateda self-consciously
folksyimageamongtheHollywoodelite,appearingatpar-
tiesin hishomedressedin denimoverallsand plaid flannelshirts.In thewordsof
animatorand closefriendWardKimball,"he tooka delightin lettingthemknow
thathe wasa commonman."Thisfamousproduceralsohabitually praisedmanual
craftsmanship "he was reallyquite humble about it," one of his cartoonists
recalled- and oftentoldassociatesofhisenormousrespectforthestudiocarpenters
and cabinetmakers. Disney'spublic pronouncements consistently polished this
populistimage. As earlyas 1930 he promotedMickeyMouse as a heroic"little
fellow"who,likeall suchtypes,arousedsympathy becauseeveryone pickedon him.
"So whenhe finallytriumphs overthebiggercharacters," he concluded,"thepublic
rejoiceswith"him. ThreeLittlePzgsappealedto averageAmericans sufferingunder
the depression,Disney asserted a few yearslater,because of its simple moral:
"wisdomand courageis enoughto defeatbig,bad wolvesofeverydescription, and
sendthemslinkingaway."Ateveryopportunity, thestudiochiefreaffirmed hisalle-

byBob Thomas,April19,1973,transcript,
25 LillianDisneyinterview WaltDisneyinter-
p. 1 (DisneyArchives);
viewbyPete Martinand Diane DisneyMiller,1956 (reel 11,pp. 9-10; reel 12, pp. 26, 28), ibid.WaltDisney's
massiveinterview withMartinand Millerwasrecordedon twelvereel-to-reel ofitisindexed
tapes,and thetranscript
at the DisneyArchivesaccordingto reelnumberand page number.
26 Ben Sharpsteen interview p. 14,ibid.;WaltDisneyto RoyDisney,Sept.
byHubler,Oct. 29, 1968,transcript,
25, 1928,ibid.;WaltDisneyto LillianDisney,Oct. 20, 1928,ibid

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WaltDisney'sArtand Politics 101

a40~~~~~ La Iji ~~~~~~~~


_

- = - -x 1 , {~ s or.- '
~ ~ ~ I
d~~~~~~~~~~~I

ThreeLittlePigs (1933), Walt Disney'sdepression-era


hit film,made celebrities
of its
porcineprotagonists, who demonstrated thatthroughhardwork,prudential
habits,and solidarity,people could triumphagainstadversity.
. The WaltDisney Company

gianceto an ethicof producerism. "I'm not interestedin money,exceptforwhat


I cando withit to advancemywork,"he told an interviewer in late 1933. "Work
istherealadventure in life.Moneyismerelya meansto makemoreworkpossible."927
Perhapstheclearestpublic expressionof Disney'spopulistpersuasioncame on
March1, 1942. Speakingbyradiohookupto the audienceat intermission during
a performance at the New YorkMetropolitan Opera- havinga cartoonist lecture
tohighbrow devoteesoftheoperasuggesteda modernist mixof artisticstylesand
levels
-he addressedthe topic"Our AmericanCulture."Aftera self-deprecating
disclaimerthat"Dopey is as wellqualifiedas I am to discussculturein America,"
heplungedahead. The veryword"culture,"'Disney began,had an "un-American"
connotationabout it thatseemed"snobbishand affected. As if it thoughtit was
betterthanthe nextfellow."This attitudecould lead to a kindof tyranny, where
self-appointedguardiansof traditionerectedand patrolled"a fence around

27WaltDisneyinterview, reel12,pp. 28-29,ibid.; WardKimballinterview byHubler,June4, 1968,transcript,


pp.47-48, ibid; Ollie Johnstoninterview byThomas,May 17, 1973,transcript, p. 2, ibid.; ShellyFord,"He
Wanted a LittleFellow,"
HollywoodQuarterly (June1930),clipping,PublicityScrapbookMl, ibid; WaltDisney,
"Three LittlePigs' ChristianScienceMonitor, Jan. 10, 1934,p. 6; WaltDisneyquoted in AliceT Tildesley,"A
SillySymphony BecomesAmerica'sSlogan,"LincolnStarJournal,Dec. 24, 1933,clipping,PublicityScrapbook
Ml (DisneyArchives).

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102 TheJournal
ofAmerican
History June1995

paintingor artor musicor literature."


ForDisney,suchelitismwasintolerablebe-
cause culturebelonged"equallyto all of us." In America,he insisted,easyaccess
to culturalmaterialsexistedfor"richand pooralikein greatabundance"through
radioand the movies,magazinesand newspapers, symphonies and ballets,poetry
and painting,writingand illustration.
ForDisney,therealtradition ofAmericanculturerestedon a centralidea: "faith
in thediscriminationoftheaverageperson."He preachedrelianceon thejudgment
of the commoncitizenand the need to protectchoice.
As I seeit,a person'sculturerepresents hisappraisal ofthethings thatmakeup
life.Anda fellow becomes cultured, I believe,byselecting
thatwhichisfineand
beautifulinlifeandthrowing asidethatwhich ismediocreorphony. Sortofa series
offree, verypersonal choices,youmight say.Ifthisistrue,thenI think itfollows
that"freedom" isthemostprecious wordtoculture. Freedom tobelieve whatyou
choose -and [to]read,think, say,and be whatyouchoose.In America, weare
guaranteed thosefreedoms. Itistheconstitutional privilegeofeveryAmerican to
becomecultured ortojustgrow up likeDonaldDuck.I believe thatthisspiritual
and intellectual freedom whichwe Americans enjoyis our greatest cultural
blessing.Therefore, it seemsto me thatthefirst dutyofculture is to defend
freedomand resistall tyranny.... I thankGod and Americafortherightto live
undertheflagoftolerance,
andraisemyfamily andfreedom.
democracy,
"Our AmericanCulture"summarized theoptimism, inclusiveness, and egalitarian
instinctsof Disney'sdepression-era populism.28
Manypolitically sensitivecritics
graspedDisney'spopulistappeal. Somefocused
on the recurring underdogtheme,payinghomage to severalof his animated
characters."Mickey, kinto littleDavid, alwayswinsagainsteveryGoliath,"summa-
rizedone essayist."Donald Duck, thecholericknight,fights courageously against
a malevolent world,and the'ThreeLittlePigs'eventually put to flightthebig bad
wolf."AnothercriticpraisedDisneyas a politicalantidoteto the "dictators and
tyrants" oftheage byvirtueofhis drivingprinciple:"The persecutors ofthesmall
areroutedbythesmall."A hostofwriters and reviewersdirectlyconnectedthiscel-
luloidpopulismto theGreatDepression.ThreeLittlePzgsattracted specialatten-
tionbecause,in thewordsofa typicalcommentary, it attackedsocialgloombyin-
stilling"thephilosophy thatifwe havedone theverybestwe possiblycouldunder
thecircumstances whichwerebad at best,we need haveno health-destroying fear
of the big bad wolf."Some saw Disneyas an allyof Rooseveltand his New Deal.
His filmssymbolized"thisnewAmericanNRA spiritin someway-the American
powerto defydisaster,to laughand singin thefaceof dangerand trouble."As a
columnist fortheDes MoinesRegister wrotein 1938,"itis abouttimethatwereal-
ized thatWaltDisney,creatorof MickeyMouse,is one of thegreatpoliticalforces
of our times."29
28
WaltDisney,"Our AmericanCulture,"radiospeechtranscript, March1, 1942 (DisneyArchives).
29See RichardL. Plant,"Of Disney,"Decision,2 (July1941),84; EdwardG. Smith,"St. FrancisoftheSilver
Screen,"ProgressToday(Jan.-March1935),43-44; Spa Engroto editor,DaytonNews,Oct. 22, 1933,Publicity
ScrapbookM8 (DisneyArchives);"Who's Afraid?,"WarrenTimes-Mirror, Oct. 11, 1933, clippings,ibid.; Jay

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WaltDisney's
ArtandPolitics 103

The WorldWarII era,however, inaugurated a sustainedcrisisthatseverelytested


Disney'ssentimental populismand ultimately twistedit hardin a newdirection.
The problemsofthisperiodhighlighted thelatentnaiveteand paternalism in the
filmmaker's politicsand createda devil'sbrewofresentment. MostofDisney'spolit-
icalcrisisstemmedfrompersonalexperiences thattorpedoedhispopulistoptimism.
A bitterlaborstrikeat the DisneyStudioin 1941-literallya case of suspended
animation-providedthe firstand mostdisillusioning encounter. The studiohad
paid mostof its employeesgood wagesthroughout the depression-thetop ani-
matorswerepractically moviestars- butcomplaints had begunto wellup fromthe
ranks.Miserly wagesforlow-level "inkers" and "in-betweeners,"loominglayoffs be-
cause of marketsdepressedby the Europeanwar,resentment of the reportedly
enormousrevenuesgeneratedbySnow White,and Walt'spaternalistic disdainfor
organizedlaborcreatedtension.Eventsescalated.Whenmanyemployees first
agi-
tatedfora labororganization, Disneycountered bytryingtoforma company union.
When theyinsteadadoptedan AmericanFederationof Laborunion,he avoided
seriousnegotiationand refusedto meet theirdemands.Manyemployeesfinally
wenton strikein July1941,but the studiohead triedto breakit and angrily
denouncedthe participants. Afterone of his contractoffers was rejectedby the
strikers,
forinstance, Disneytookouta full-pagead in Variety thatsaid: "I am posi-
tivelyconvincedthat Communisticagitation,leadership,and activitieshave
brought aboutthisstrike." As a highlypublicizedpicketlinenearlyclosedthestudio
gatesforsometwomonths,an embarassedand angryDisneyunburdenedhimself
in a privateletter.The strikeleader,he insisted,was "a tool of the Communist
group";thestrikers were"malcontents, theunsatisfactoryoneswhoknewthattheir
dayswerenumbered."For the embitteredstudiochief,the strikesignaledthat
Americantraditions ofparticipatory government had givenwayto pressure-group
agitation."To me, the realfightforDemocracy righthereat home,"he wrote.
is
"Gutsand not gunswillwinit."Disneyprovedso intransigent thatfederallabor
mediators wereable to settlethestrikeonlywhenhe lefttownon a goodwilltour
of SouthAmericasponsoredby the StateDepartment.30
Disney'spoliticaldisillusionment deepenedwithhis experienceduringWorld
WarII. On thedayaftertheattackon PearlHarbor,theUnitedStatesArmycom-
mandeeredtheDisneyStudioas a supplybase-apparently it wastheonlyHolly-
woodstudioso treated-and turnedhis soundstageintoa repairshop.The army
movedout aftera seven-month stay.Disneyjoined the wareffort by producing
numeroustrainingfilmssuchas Aircraft CarrierLandingSzgnalsand propaganda
cartoonssuchas TheNew Spirit,whichfeaturedDonald Duck urgingcitizensto
paytheirtaxes.Overall,however, Disneyfoundthewartime experience,particularly
his encounters withthe government, extremely frustrating.
The studiowas never

Franklin,"Hope fortheWorldin SnowWhite,"Des MoinesRegister, Feb. 22, 1938,clipping,PublicityScrapbook


S26, ibid.
30 Advertisement, July2, 1941,1941StudioStrikeFolder(DisneyAr-
"To MyEmployeeson Strike,"Variety,
chives);WaltDisneyto Westbrook Pegler,Aug. 11, 1941,Walt DisneyHistoricCorrespondence file,ibid.

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104 TheJournal
ofAmerican
History June1995

paid forseveralproductions, and Walthad a disputewithSecretary oftheTreasury


HenryMorgenthau, Jr.,whenthelatterdisapproved ofDonald Duck as thestarof
the tax-payment film.A tight-lipped DisneyinformedMorgenthauthat"at our
studio,thiswas the equivalentof givingyouClarkGable out of theMGM stable."
SuchdifficultiesreinforcedDisney'ssuspicionsofbiggovernment and itsconnection
tonationalfinancial power.Whenanothermajorproblem thedrastic
- wartime loss
of revenuefromthe destruction of overseasmarkets -was added to the list,the
studioreacheda nadir.Debt-ridden,suffering a loss of direction,and politically
frustrated,Disneybeganto adopt whatassociateswouldcall his "woundedbear"
persona.3'
Disney'sdisarraywasreflected in thehodgepodgeofcreative workthatemerged
fromhisstudioin thedecadeafter1941.Filmsthatblendedanimationand liveac-
tion or glued togetherlooselyconnectedcartoonshortswerethe normforthe
DisneyStudio duringthatperiod. These productionsincludedSaludos Amigos
(1943) and The ThreeCaballeros(1944)- thispair resultedfromWalt's South
Americantripduringthe strike-as well as the musicalanimationsMake Mine
Music(1946),Fun and FancyFree(1947),and MelodyTime(1948). Evenmoreim-
portant,the crisisof the 1940spromptedDisneyto revamphis earlierpopulism.
Embittered bya growing perception oftheoverweening bureaucraticpoweroflabor
unionsand biggovernment, bytheend ofWorldWarII he had mobilizedtheanti-
bureaucratic, provincialelementsof his populistcreed while
anti-intellectual,
shovingthe egalitarianelementsdeeperinto the background.32
Thishardenedpoliticalviewpointcameto thesurfacein Disney'stestimony be-
foretheHouse Committee on Un-American Activities.Thiscongressionalbodyhad
cometo Los Angelesin 1947at the urgingof the MotionPictureAllianceforthe
Preservation ofAmericanIdeals-Disney wasa foundingmemberalongwithSam
Wood,GaryCooper,King Vidor,and AdolpheMenjou,and the group'sprimary
spokesperson wasthewriter AynRand- to investigate theinfluenceofcommunism
in theentertainment industry.Disneyappearedas a friendly witnesson theafter-
noon of October24.
His testimony provedrevealing.Speakingas a producerand studiochief,he as-
suredHUAC thatalthougheveryone in hisorganization wasnow"100percentAmer-
ican,"thathad not alwaysbeen the case. The DisneyStudiostrikeof 1941,he an-
nounced,had involved"a Communistgrouptryingto takeovermyartists." The
strikehad beensupportedby"Commiefront organizations,"while"throughout the
worldall of the Commiegroupsbegansmearcampaignsagainstme and mypic-
31 Aircraft Signals(WaltDisneyProductions,
CarrierLanding Jacksonand
1942);TheNew Spirit,dirs.Wilfred
Ben Sharpsteen (WaltDisneyProductions, 1942).RichardShale,DonaldDuckJoinsUp: The WUalt DisneyStudio
duringWorldWUar duringthewar,see Thomas,American
II (Ann Arbor,1982). ForDisney'sprivateexperiences
Original,175-87; and Schickel,Disney Version,269-76.
32 SaludosAmigos,dirs.BillRoberts,JackKinney,HamiltonLuske,and WilfredJackson (WaltDisneyProduc-
tions,1943); TheThreeCaballeros,dir.NormFerguson(WaltDisneyProductions, 1944);MakeMineMusic,dirs.
JackKinney,ClydeGeronimi,HamiltonLuske,Bob Cormack,andJoshMeador(WaltDisneyProductions, 1946);
Fun and FancyFree,dirs.JackKinney,Bill Roberts,HamiltonLuske,and WilliamHorgan(WaltDisneyProduc-
tions,1947);MelodyTime,dirs.ClydeGeronimi,HamiltonLuske,JackKinney,and WilfredJackson (WaltDisney
Productions, 1948).

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Artand Politics
WaltDisney's 105

tures."Disneythennamedpeople involvedin the strikewhomhe believedto be


Communists -the animator David Hilbermanwho,suspiciously, "hadno religion"
and had studiedat the MoscowArtTheater,the labororganizerHerbertSorrell,
and union agentsWilliamPomeranceand MauriceHoward.His earnest,folksy
commentary culminatedin a warning. revisedpopulist
In Disney'spost-depression,
vision,communismhad replacedculturalelitismas the deadliestthreatto the
Americanfolk:
I believe
itisanun-American thing.ThethingthatI resent themostisthatthey
areabletogetintotheseunions, takethemover, andrepresent totheworldthat
a groupof peoplethatare in myplant,thatI knoware good,100-percent
Americans, aretrappedbythisgroup,andtheyarerepresented to theworldas
supportingallofthoseideologies,anditisnotso,andI feelthattheyreally
ought
to be smoked outandshownup forwhattheyare,so thatall ofthegood,free
causesin thiscountry, thatreallyareAmerican,
all theliberalisms can go out
withoutthe taintof communism.... I feel if the thingcan be provenun-
American I thinkin somewayit shouldbe done
thatit oughtto be outlawed.
without withtherights
interfering thatwillbe done.I have
ofthepeople.I think
thatfaith.Without I mean,withthegood,American
interfering, thatwe
rights
all havenow,andwantto preserve.33
Theold insurgentimpulseinDisney'spopulismcontinuedtosurface sporadically
in hispost-World WarII films,althoughin increasinglymutedordiffuse form.For
example,the Song of the South (1946) has been unable to escapethe burdenof
itsembarrassingUncleTomracialstereotypes. Yetthepicturerevealsanother, more
subtledimension:itssuggestion ofa Black/whiteruralallianceof"outsiders" (Uncle
Remus,littleJohnny whohas been isolatedbyhisseparatedparents,thepoorlittle
whitegirlGinny)thatis held togetherbythe inspiration ofBrerRabbit,thefolk
characterwhoseclevermaneuvers outwitmorepowerfulantagonists. The Storyof
RobinHood (1952) dramatizedmoreovertly therevoltofvirtuous rural"bandits"
againstthecapriciouseconomicand legalpowerofan evilmonarch.Twenty Thou-
sand Leaguesunderthe Sea (1954) leaped offthe screenas a fantastic adventure
story,butitalsoposedtheself-reliantindividualin oppositionto a corrupt,bureau-
craticpowerstructure.EvenTheAbsent-MindedProfessor (1961),a silly
particularly
film,includeda subtleprotestagainsttheimpersonal modernworld,wheretheav-
eragemanstruggled to breakfreeoffinancialelites,government bureaucracy,and
machine-age anxiety.34
In thepost-World WarII world,Disney'spopulismwas channeledintoa full-
fledgeddefenseofthe"American WayofLife."Thisideologicalinfluence pervaded
a waveof vaguelyhistoricalDisney films.Disney'sversionof historyreviveda
populistimageoftheAmericanWASP"folk,"surrounded themwitha defensive cul-
33 U.S. Congress, Committeeon Un-American
House of Representatives, HearingsRegardingthe
Activities,
Communist oftheMotionPictureIndustry,
Infiltration 80 Cong., 1 sess.,Oct. 20-24, 27-30, 1947,pp. 280-86.
34 Song of the South,dir.WilfredJackson(WaltDisneyProductions, 1946); The Storyof RobinHood, dir.
Ken Annakin(WaltDisneyProductions, 1952); TwentyThousandLeaguesunderthe Sea, dir.RichardFleischer
(WaltDisneyProductions, dir.RobertStevenson
1954); TheAbsentMindedProfessor, (WaltDisneyProductions,
1961).

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106 TheJournalof AmericanHistory June1995

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turalembankment, and homogenizedthe social normsand characteristics of the


groupwithin.This culturalstructure defendeda sentimental viewof thefamily, a
traditionalgenderideologyof separatespheres,and an ethicof ruggedindividu-
alismand productive labor.Such deeplyfeltfilmsas So Dear to MyHeart (1949)
and Pollyanna(1960)-among Walt'sfavoriteproductions-construct historical
archetypes ofthisidealizedworldview.Disneytolda reporter, "So Dear wasespe-
ciallycloseto me. Why,that'sthe lifemybrotherand I grewup withas kidsout
in Missouri."DirectorDavid Swiftnotedthat"Po/lyanna wasWalt'sfavoritefilm.
Because it made him cry.I rememberI showedhim the roughcut of Pollyanna
. .. and I wassurprised to see himcryingrighttherein thesweatbox." Bothfilms
wereself-consciously didacticand nostalgic.The former, detailingthe adventures
ofa youngboystruggling to gethis belovedblacksheepto thecountyfair,evokes
virtuousrurallifeon theKincaidfamilyhomesteadin 1903.The filmfeatures an
arrayofcomforting socialfigures:a pious,stern,but gentlegrandmother, a hard-
workingand kindlyblacksmith uncle a crankyvillagestorekeeperwitha heartof
gold. Pol/yanna a
portrays youngorphan who unitesa smallvillagecommunity in
anotherturn-of-the-century setting.Faced witha depressingatmosphere of old-
fashionedfatalism, Pollyannainjectsjoyintothetownwithwhatshecalls"theglad
game,"herknackforseeingthe good thingsin life.Her influencetriumphsas a
lonelyhypochondriac overcomes herinvalidism,an eccentricold hermitbecomes

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WaltDisney'sArtand Politics 107

MainStreet ? The Wlalt


U.S.A., Disneyland. DisneyCompany.

a congenialmemberofsociety, and a fire-and-brimstone preachertransforms him-


selfintoa discipleofChristiancharity.In thesetwo films,as in manyothers,Disney
re-createda historical
imageofthevirtuousAmericanfolk:hard-laboring people,
stablefamilies,community cohesion,a God-fearing culture."5
ManyofDisney'spostwarmoviesalso legislateda kindofculturalMarshallPlan.
Theynourisheda genialculturalimperialism thatmagicallyoverran therestofthe
globe with the and
values,expectations, goods ofa prosperous United
middle-class
States.Davy Crockett:-King ofthe WildFrontier cashedin on
(1955), forinstance,
the success of the television characterwith a full-scale movie that glorifiedthe
wilderness heroas a prototypical
nineteenth-centuryAmerican:Indianfighter, po-
liticalreformer,and conquerorof thecontinentwhosedeathat theAlamoplaced
himat the cuttingedge ofsouthwestern expansion.SwissFamilyRobinson(1960)
offered on thistheme.Herea familystrandedon a Pacificislanddemon-
a variation
strates the superiorpowerof the Protestantethicand solid kinship.The hard-

35So Dearto MyHeart,dir.HaroldSchuster(WaltDisneyProductions, 1949);Pollyanna,dir.David Swift(Walt


DisneyProductions,1960); Maltin,DisneyFilms,89; Mosley,Disney'sWorld,260. ForotherDisneyfilmsofthe
erathatpromotea senseof culturalhomogeneity, see Westward Ho the Wagons!,dir.WilliamBeaudine(Walt
DisneyProductions,1956);JohnnyTremain, dir.RobertStevenson(WaltDisneyProductions, 1957); Old Yeller,
(WaltDisneyProductions,
dir.RobertStevenson 1957);and TheLightin theForest,dir.HerschelDaugherty(Walt
DisneyProductions,1958).

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108 ofAmerican
TheJournal History June1995

working parentsandtheirthreesonsdevelopingenioustechnologies, "civilize"their


naturalsurroundings, enjoya life of materialabundance,and finallyconquer
maraudingOrientalpirateswho constitute a thinlydisguised"yellowperil."36
Disney's1950s-stylepopulismeventuallyescaped its cinematicconfinesand
founda permanent homein Disneyland.Opened in 1955,thisremarkable theme
parknearLosAngelesattracted hordesofeagervisitors witha combination offairy
tale imagesderivedfromDisney'searlieranimatedmasterpieces and sanitizedhis-
toricalimagesfromhis live-actionfilms.Some areas of the park-Main Street,
Adventureland-presented
U.S.A., Frontierland, a vastdisplayof the totemsof
Americana.FromtheJungleCruisewithits playfulconquestof the "darkconti-
nent"to the steamboatMarkTwaincruisingsymbolically throughthe American
heartlandon its man-maderiver,fromthe EnchantedTiki Room withits har-
moniouschorusof ethnicstereotypes to GreatMomentswithMr.Lincolnwithits
roboticizedacclaimfordemocratic constitutionalism,theparksentfortha barrage
ofconsensual messages.IfDisney'spostwar moviespresented oftheAmer-
vignettes
ican Wayof Life,Disneylanderecteda monumentto it.37
Neartheend ofhislife,Disneydroppedanchorat a finalideologicalport,em-
bodyingin the DisneyWorld/EPCOT projectin Floridaa kind of technocratic
populism.Stillenamoredof the Americanfolk,he nowsoughtto engineertheir
contentment throughtechnology and to assuretheirdominancethroughexpertise.
DisneyWorldwouldstimulate and channeldreamlifethrough highlysophisticated
ridesand managementtechniques,whilethe accompanying Experimental Proto-
typeCommunity ofTomorrow (EPCOT)woulddemonstrate a nourishing urbanenvi-
ronment programmed bytechnocraticexperts.Throughsuchstructures, Disneybe-
lieved,muchoftheindustrial residuein Americanlife-crime, poverty, alienation,
inefficient urbanovercrowding,
publicservices, and grime- couldbe cleansedaway.
Here Walt'sold concernforthe commonman converged witha longtraditionof
Americantechnological utopianismearlierarticulatedby suchwriters as Edward
Bellamyand LewisMumford. Uniting socialscienceexpertise populism,social
and
engineering and nostalgia,Disney'sfinalpoliticsof technocratic populismenvi-
sioneda new "cityon a hill" forlate twentieth-centuryAmerica.38

36 DavyCrockett:Kingofthe WildFrontier,dir.NormanFoster(WaltDisneyProductions, 1955); SwissFamily


Robinson,dir.Ken Annakin(WaltDisneyProductions, 1960). Fora scathingindictment of Disneyas a cultural
imperialist,see ArielDorfmanand ArmandMattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideologyin the
DisneyComic(1971;New York,1991).
37 Forcontrary of Disney'sthemeparks,see RandyBright,Disneyland.InsideStory(New York,
assessments
1987); and MikeWallace,"MickeyMouse History:Portraying thePastat DisneyWorld'"RadicalHistoryReview,
32 (March1985),32-57. FortellingcritiquesofDisneyland'sculturalmeanings,see GeorgeLipsitz,"The Making
of Disneyland' in TrueStoriesfromtheAmericanPast,ed. WilliamGraebner(New York,1993), 179-96; and
Karal Ann Marling,"Disneyland1955,"AmericanArt,5 (Winter/Spring 1991),169-207.
38 RichardBeard,WaltDisney'sEPCOT Center:Creatinga Worldof Tomorrow (New York,1982); StephenM.
Fjellman,VinylLeaves: WaltDisney Worldand America(Boulder,1992).

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WaltDisney'sArtand Politics 109

Mediationand HistoricalChange

As historicalchronicler, mass culturemagnate,and engineerof enchantment,


Disneywasa popularmediatorofhistorical change.He laboredas a culturalmedi-
atorat severalcrucialjunctures. A committed producerist,he helpedclearthepath
foradvancingconsumerism. A firmbelieverin the self-controlled characterethic,
he becamean architect ofa culturedevotedto leisureand self-fufillment. An advo-
cateofself-reliance,he helpedeasemillionsofhisfellowAmericans intoan embrace
ofcorporate definitions ofselfhood.A fanofnaturalistic, sentimental art,he helped
shape a popularaccommodation withthe vitalismof artisticmodernism.
Disneywasable to do thispartlybecausehe enjoyeda specialrelationship with
hisvast audience. He styled himself "Mr. Average American." Deeply and genuinely
concernedwiththe valuesand needsof his popularaudience,he reachedout to
graspand understand them.He regularly showedworksinprogress tohisassembled
studiostaffandthendistributed questionnaires and suggestion sheetstohelpguide
the processof production.He secretly previewed filmsat local theaters,sneaking
intothebalconywithhiscreative toviewmoviegoers'
artists reactions.Disney made
hisloyaltiesclear,insisting throughout hiscareerthatifthepublic"doesn'tlikewhat
you'vedone, in ninecasesout of ten you'vedone the wrongthing."39
The enthusiastic embraceofDisney'screationsovermanydecadessuggeststhat
he spoketo something commonto manyAmericans. Perhapsit washiswork'sem-
bodimentofbothmodernist and sentimental tendencies -and itspopulistsubver-
sionofhierarchy and celebration oftheAmericanfolk-thatgaveitsuchresonance.
Or perhapsitwasthatDisney'sartistic fantasiesstroveto reunitewhatmodernizing
societyhad separated:innocentchildhoodand cynicaladulthood,dreamsand
reason,artisticvisionsand ideologicaldesires,workand play.Ironically, in utilizing
thecultureindustry to sendhismagicalmessages, Disneyreliedon corporate ration-
alizationwhilesimultaneously movingto undermineits authority.
His worksattempted magically to reanimate a modernsocietygrownincreasingly
"disenchanted," to use Max Weber'sword,underthe influenceof rationalization.
Disney'scinematizedfantasies, althoughoccasionally nightmarish, soughtto keep
aliveplayful,magical,childlikeinstincts pushedto themarginsofa bureaucratic,
industrial
scientific, society. The youngproducerhad highlighted thisimpulseand
itsalmostuniversal he
appealas discussed hisfilms nearthe beginning ofhiscareer:
in theworldwasoncea child.Wegrowup. Ourpersonalities
Everybody change,
but in everyone of us somethingremainsof our childhood.. . . [This] knows
nothing It'swhere
anddistinction.
ofsophistication allofusaresimpleandnaive
without andtrusting
andbias.We'refriendly
prejudice anditjustseemsthatif
hitsthatspotwithoneperson,
yourpicture it'sgoingtohitthatspotin almost

description
39 ForDisney's as "Mr.Average
ofhimself American'" byHubler,March
seeKen Andersoninterview
p. 2 (DisneyArchives).
26, 1968,transcript, "MickeyMouse
ForthequotationfromDisney,see FrankDaugherty,
Comesof Age,"ChristianScienceMonitor,Feb. 2, 1938,p. 9.

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110 ofAmerican
TheJournal History June1995

... thatfine,clean,unspoiled
everybody oneofus that
spotdowndeepinevery
maybetheworldhasmadeusforget canhelprecall.40
andthatmaybeourpicture
Working hismediatingmagicin theartand politicsofa rapidlytransforming
age,
thissentimentalmodernistand sentimentalpopulistdrewupon thepastto make
In suchfashion,WaltDisneybecame
thepresentpalatableand thefutureinviting.
moretypically, Americanthanevenhe everknew.
fantastically

40 H. H. Gerthand C. Wright Mills,eds.,FromMax Weber:Essaysin Sociology(NewYork,1974);WaltDisney


interview pp. 1-2 (DisneyArchives).
byCecil B. DeMille, radiobroadcast,Dec. 26, 1938,transcript,

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