Jan 15, 2006

Walt Disney, a trifle discomfited

Here's another personal find from my days working at Larry Edmunds Bookshop--unpublished so far as I know:

What an expression. That's a pretty uncomfortable-looking man, wouldn't you say? The famous "cocked eyebrow" isn't at full sail but as a story artist I can just imagine the effect this look would produce after an unsuccessful pitch. Wow. Warners better be hiring!

From the presence of the flag behind him, I'd guess this was taken during Walt's testimony during the HUAC hearings--the infamous McCarthy-era search for communists in every facet of american society that resulted in the evils of the blacklist in Hollywood.
One of my rare pre-K memories is of Walt Disney as host of "The Wonderful World of Disney" and his death soon after I started watching it was a huge shock. That evening my family were at the home of two retired university professors, friends of my parents, for dinner and some television. I remember the news coming on with the announcement that "Walt Disney, beloved by millions, has died".
I really lost it at that point. I was four years old, and my father was infuriated that I was making a scene over the death of someone I didn't know. Of course, this wasn't true--I did know Disney, personally as far as I was concerned. It mattered to me that he was dead. His was the first death of any kind I remember understanding and grieving over.
I've always detested the "Uncle Walt" moniker as it's been used so sarcastically and cynically in these po-mo times. He wasn't my uncle, thanks, but a sort of family friend, much like the couple we were visiting, and I was inconsolable.

In the years since I've pondered this emotional reaction and realized that it had to do with a collection of things: the fact that he spoke directly to the television audience from his office, not as a "host" or newscaster but in a startlingly personal and casual way; the ownership and creation of Disneyland, where as a Californian I'd been going since I was born; the films he produced just for me that were more vivid and real than anything else I saw and cared about, excepting the Warner Bros cartoons that were my favorites.
So then, this picture: not a happy guy here...but oddly enough, although I respected and in a way loved Disney as a child, I sensed that he wasn't some fantasy figure of unalloyed sweetness (I mean, how could a late-middle-aged man ever seem to be that to a very small child?). He had a very distinct element of impatience, too, and the possibility of a temper. I'm not saying I analyzed all this at four, but he was definitely intimidating, and I just knew it was in there somewhere.
Had I seen him at Disneyland, I would not have run up to him expecting a hug, exuberant child that I was notwithstanding. But complicated people are attractive and fascinating even to children when their enthusiasm embraces small animated people on their desks under their blotters, or when they show completely genuine excitement while taking us through a boat ride with pirates, or share some "secrets" of animation from a massive tome.
It came as no suprise to me, then, when I eventually read the reminiscences of Ward Kimball, Dick Huemer (again, in Michael Barrier's Funnyworld), Shamus Culhane and others who described the wildly mercurial qualities that Walt possessed.
Creative genius usually comes that way.

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1 comment:

Peter said...

Just guessing here, but Disney looks a little too young for the picture to be from the HUAC hearings. Maybe the photo was taken during WWII.