The Unsung Hero of Walt Disney Studio

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I’m going to get something right out of the way: I am no Disney expert.

Walt Disney (third from left) and his brother Roy (far right), ca. 1932

Walt Disney (third from left) and his brother Roy (far right), ca. 1932. Courtesy of © Disney

Before sitting down to watch American Experience’s new documentary about the life of Walt Disney (full video below), the most I knew about the man came from popular culture and the trip I took to Disneyland last year as an adult. But after watching the new film, I can say with confidence: Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother, is the unsung hero of Walt Disney Studio.

It became very evident through the course of the documentary that while Walt was the visionary, Roy was the steady backbone of the organization.

As my wife and I watched the new film last week we developed a running joke. Whenever something bad happened, one of us would yell “Fix it Roy. I’m going on vacation!” While Walt never actually spoke those exact words, he often got himself and the company into trouble. Unable to handle the stress, pressure, and criticism, Walt would retreat from public view leaving Roy to pick up the pieces – which Roy always did. Roy was the one who secured funding for Walt’s next big project, saved the company from bankruptcy, negotiated disputes with the artists’ union. The relationship between Roy and Walt is one of the more interesting themes explored in the film. 

Making the Film

Structurally “Walt Disney” spans nearly 4 hours across two parts.

The first part explores Disney’s early childhood and his rocky relationship with his father and ends with a workers strike at Walt Disney Studio in 1941. The second half of the film picks up with Walt’s tumultuous relationship with the studio’s union, chronicles the construction of Disneyland, and culminates with Walt Disney’s death in 1966.

The filmmakers at American Experience had unprecedented access to the Disney archives and both halves of the film are loaded with rare and never before seen archival material. They use this plethora of material to great effect, especially during the first part of the film where personal photos and home movies of a young Walt Disney help draw the viewer into the narrative.

The filmmakers use the abundance of archival material and interviews with film scholars, historians, and writers to explore the central question at the heart of the film: “Who was the real Walt Disney?” The answer to that question is of course complex, but the film lays out the idea that there were two distinct sides of Walt.

Walt Disney at his desk, circa 1940.

Walt Disney at his desk, ca. 1940. Courtesy of George Hurrell / © Disney

On the one hand he was the forward thinking visionary who was a friend to everyone, and on the other hand he was a controlling workaholic who did not forgive or forget those who disagreed or disobeyed him. At one point in the first half of the film, Ruthie Tompson, an ink and paint artist who worked for Disney says, “He wasn’t ‘Boss.’ He was a friend. And everyone called him ‘Walt.’ If they didn’t call him Walt, well, that was the end of that one.”

Tompson’s quote is a great summary of Disney’s two sides. He both wanted to foster a close, familial like, relationship with his workers but if you didn’t toe the line you might feel his wrath.

Two Sides of the Coin

For the most part the film does a good job of navigating a tightrope-walk between the two sides of Disney presenting a relatively balanced depiction.

One minute the viewer is rooting for a down-on-his-luck Disney to succeed, and the next, they’re upset with him for something he says or does. For instance, during the first 20 minutes, we watch Disney struggle against multiple setbacks. However, just as the company is becoming successful in the 1920s, Walt goes to his brother Roy and tells him that he is changing the name of the company from Disney Brothers Studio to Walt Disney Studio. It’s a moment that challenges our previous feelings about Walt Disney and the dynamic creates an interesting and uneasy tension for the viewer.

The filmmakers also pull off some clever and breathtaking sequences in the film. A stellar example is the use of the forest fire scene from Bambi played with audio discussing Walt’s inner turmoil over criticism. It highlights some innovative thinking on the part of the filmmakers.

Thoughts on the Film’s Style and Structure

Walt Disney and Wife Riding in Antique Auto at Disneyland

Walt and Lillian Disney , ca. 1960s. Courtesy of Bettmann/CORBIS

While the film does many things right, it also suffers from a few miscues and missteps. One of the largest drawbacks of the film, which some might call a strength, is it’s length. At almost 4 hours the casual observer might find it hard to sit down and enjoy the entire film from beginning to end. Some flashbacks and cues also feel out of place and take the viewer out of the experience.

Finally, as the film builds towards its conclusion, the delicate balance the filmmakers had been navigating begins to slowly skew. During the last 30 to 45 minutes of the movie, the voices of Disney’s critics are heard from less in favor of more positive views. Very slowly the negative images of Disney from earlier in the film fade to the background and by the time the credits roll, the viewers are left with the very positive and nostalgic image of Disney as the “visionary.”

It’s a very subtle shift in tone, but I would have liked the filmmakers to have left the ending a little more ambiguous, allowing the viewer to make their own final decision about the legacy of Walt Disney.

These small criticisms aside, American Experience’s “Walt Disney” is a fascinating film and an example of documentary filmmaking at its best. It’s a wonderful exploration of the complex life of Walt Disney and his enduring legacy filled with a richness of absorbing archival material, and definitely worth checking out!

 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mel Birnkrant Collection


Shane JohnsonShane Johnson is a producer for WSKG’s History & Heritage team. Before arriving at WSKG, Shane earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Cinema and History, Master’s Degree in History, as well as his Master’s of Arts in Teaching in Social Studies Adolescence Education from Binghamton University. He has a personal interest in 19th Century American history, especially the Civil War, and as a young lad, he dreamed of becoming a railroad engineer.

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