Monday, March 22, 2010

Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince commentary

I finished this biography of Walt Disney, by Marc Eliot, a few minutes ago. Eliot wrote a biography of Bruce Springsteen called Down Thunder Road among other books. This book was written in 1993, when Michael Eisner was at the helm of a very strong Disney Company. I wanted to comment on the book before I go and read anything else about it from other sources.

I'm probably somewhat biased - I have previously read Pat Williams' How To Be Like Walt and both Barrier's and Gabler's biographies of Disney, and have come to really admire Walt Disney from their depictions of him. In his acknowledgements Eliot talks about other bios of Walt, like Bob Thomas's book, the Leonard Moseley book, and Diane Disney Miller's bio of her father, and how alike they are to each other. They are all "authorized" in the sense that permission was granted to freely use the company archives, and that this permission seemed to come with strings attached...that is, that the studio gets input into the content and the presentation of the information. He further states that when he sought access to the Disney Archives, he was eventually turned down, and that a PR representative told him (off the record) that he didn't need the archives - "no one had ever been given any information by the studio it didn't want them to have", which explained the similarities between the other Disney biographies.

Part of the point of all this is that the author seems to have gone into the writing of this book with a pre-existing determination to discover "dark secrets" about the life of Walt Disney. Indeed, as he writes about certain events in the life of Disney, he seems determined to interpret them or present them in the most sinister light possible. Some are things that I can't imagine how he might know other than someone (who also probably didn't "know") repeating stories that had been told - things like peaks into Walt's personal life and intimacies with his wife. Some seem to be pure speculation on the part of the author, especially those items relating to his and Lillian's relationship. Some are well known stories, cast in a different light, through the filter of possible anti-Semitism, anti-Communism, his FBI connections, and his perceived cheapness and unwillingness to share credit.

All of these things might have been true of Walt Disney, but there is a matter of degrees in any of them. Having read the other, even more comprehensive biographies of Barrier and Gabler, I can (and have) see the different lights that many of these things can be cast in, by Disney employees and colleagues, by friends and enemies alike.

Some of the more interesting details in the book are some pretty detailed descriptions of the mechanisms that Disney went through to get his first theme park financed. I also felt that this book went into more depth in reporting the events surrounding the strike in 1941, with solid sources and detail that backed up a lot of what was alleged about both the actions of strikers like Art Babbitt and Dave Hilberman, and Disney management, personified by Walt Disney and his brother, and also including Gunther Lessing and Willie Bioff, than the other biographies I read.

Some of the more fanciful speculations include those about Walt's heritage, possibly being born illegitimately to a Spanish maid, with convolutions that are as crazy as some of the JFK assassination speculations, and the insinuation that perhaps Walt had an affair with Dolores Del Rio (and others, though no names are mentioned). The author also insinuates a less than normal relationship between Walt and his adopted daughter Sharon.

Some of this book was very interesting reading. Some struck me as not much more than the type of writing one might find in the Weekly World News or the Enquirer. Some struck me as irresponsible speculation. In the end, I didn't admire Walt Disney any less, or feel I learned anything earth-shattering about him.

So now I'll go off and read some other comments on this book and see what sort of reaction others have had to it.



JuliusCaesar108 said...

I, too, recently just read this book (although this is December now, and you wrote this in March). And I honestly don't know what to think of all this. Some parts sound like conspiracy because of discussions of cover-ups.

Whenever it talked about the countless times it talked about Walt going to lock himself in to weep, I wonder where did he get this information. Some of the other things mentioned of how he treated his family, where did he get that if he abused his family, and the family would never talk about that. Although I would probably need to go to the source information and get the sources he retrieved. I'm even tempted to see if I can access the declassified document on Disney from the FBI, if possible.

I can see you are a Disney fan - I on the other hand, am a Disney-hater because I worked in the park in Anaheim and was treated like a number and not a person. This book resonated with memories of how I was treated. But at the same time I question how much of this speculation had any legit ideas, and how much of this research was research.

Scott said...

Thanks for commenting. I received an email from the author mentioning that his sources were very good, but still, some of the stuff just doesn't seem like it could possibly come from the "horse's mouth" so to speak. In court, they'd probably disallow much of the stuff as hearsay.

Sorry to hear you didn't enjoy your experiences with the Disney Corporation as your boss. I've read many accounts of cast members saying how much they like working there, but they are a huge business after all and they do seem to be overly concerned with their spreadsheets, if the info posted on Disney fan sites is to be trusted. I don't know when you worked there - was it when Walt was in charge?

Unknown said...

Cognitive dissonance. Look up this term. There are a lot of reasons why people reject facts. Just because You as a reader didnt look for root sources does not mean that they do not exist. For every truth seeker out there know when anything truthful comes out the first post you will see will be someone usually working in the interest of said person or even organization. I found the sources. So can you. A lot more out there if you dig into declassified documents. Like Disney's FBI contract for his movies to be used for mass mind control. Dont believe me. Look it up for yourself. It's public domain now. Cognitive dissonance is what is really wrong with the world. Wake up people.