Julia Schneider

December 2000

Walt Disney — "Everything Begins With a Story"


"Everything begins with a story. We don't have ideology or theology, we dance." (1990) Walt Disney danced from the very beginning of and throughout his professional career, turning one story after another into successful tales of woe and grandeur. In The Power of Mythology, "A typical hero's sequence of actions are detected in stories and the adventure he is ready for is the one he gets." (1990) Walt was in essence a storyteller of his own adventures and always succeeded in getting what he wanted.

In a series and/or a sequence of actions, harbored Walt's landscape; a three-dimensional shared reality. His landscape was composed of scenes before his eyes and in his mind. In essence, Walt had a story and a plan for everything. By outwardly projecting these models of thought, Walt encompassed and encapsulated his entire staff and audience with awe, fright, laughter and an idealistic way of viewing the world. Thus, succeeding in making these models of thought a shared reality.

Walt's life "evokes character of a higher place", like a master to his craft. (1990) He set himself up for pitfalls of risk and failure. The results of such adventure were jackpot windfalls. He constantly tested his entrepreneur style investments with long term goals in mind. Therefore, exemplifying Joseph Campbell's notion of presenting "danger and glory in its own way." (1990) Thus, returning a "hero" of his own art.

In order to present "danger and glory in its own way", Walt had to employ this desire. "When a searching curiosity and a restless, boundless type of vigor are mixed in proper proportions and rigorously disciplined, two things result - a staggering breadth of engagement with life and a prodigious productivity." (3) Walt demonstrates this behavior in a psychiatric theory of Karl Menninger's The Psychiatrist's World. The problem with Walt's amount of vigor was finding the money to keep up with the rate of production he had in mind for his filming studio. For years, he continued overextending his budget for films.

As soon as Walt received the profits from his latest release, he would reinvest that money into the next film production, leaving little to spare and often empty payroll envelopes. The result of such adventure usually left Disney productions in critical need of alternative means of cash flow. In searching for a solution, Walt began to see the lucrative possibilities that merchandising Mickey Mouse could gain.

According to Bob Thomas in Walt Disney, An American Original, "With his staff expanding, Walt Disney began to establish the attitudes and modes of operation that would continue throughout his professional career." (105) This "mode of business" progressed merely from his first offer of "$300 in cash for permission to imprint Mickey Mouse on school writing tablets." (99) In realizing that he could make money to use towards his animation and movie business through the licensing of his characters, he went full force with the offers and, as he predicted, this proved to be very profitable. This included the Mickey Mouse cartoon strip, which continuously published from 1930 through 1975. I might add that Walt never drew a single cartoon for this strip.

By employing this new attitude and business approach, one can clearly see that Disney was able to hurdle his financial problems while making his name more well known.

When Walt and Roy, his brother and business partner, were ready to capitalize on the merchandising aspect of their business, a salesman from Kansas City, Herman Kamen posed an intriguing offer. Kamen and Disney saw even greater potential by partnering up with and helping out other kinds of businesses which were going bankrupt. "Kamen licensed the Lionel Corporation, pioneer in manufacture of toy trains, for the merchandising of a Mickey and Minnie wind-up handcar with a circle of track for the price of $1. Lionel had been hit hard by the Depression and had filed for bankruptcy. Within four months, 253,000 of the handcars had been sold, and the association with Disney was credited by a bankruptcy judge as a major factor in returning Lionel to solvency." (101)

Disney had also brought the Ingersoll-Waterbury Company back from insolvency through the manufacture of Mickey Mouse watches. With the growing popularity of Mickey Mouse, they sold scores of these watches. There would be a continued succession of ventures throughout the remainder of Disney’s days and into the Millennium providing him with recognition, revenue and credibility.

Walt would be recognized for many of his great achievements. One of these great achievements would occur while working on the first animated feature length film. At the same time, Walt and his engineers were also working on the development of the multiplane camera. The new multiplane camera allowed cels to be physically set apart (on glass) at intervals. With this new technology, lighting and filters could be used between cels to create a feeling of depth. With its first use, during the filming of Snow White, the effect was dramatic. When Snow White sheds a tear while looking into the well, we see the tear drop fall and cause a splash. Prior to this technology, the tear would have little dimension and no depth while falling into the well.

Throughout Walt's life with the employ of many brilliant and talented artists and engineers by him, he was able to achieve greatness and personal satisfaction. Indeed, Walt needed and relied upon the talent of others in order for his dreams to come into light. He always hired the best people he could find in the industry and often succeeded. Artists and animators alike would come from all over the US for a chance to work for Walt Disney Productions. Surely, they must have believed in what he was trying to accomplish in the animation world. Certainly, from the near beginning, his best people were more talented than he was.

He also had the power to extract the best from them. At times, his employees exceeded their own professional and artistic expectations. Walt sent his animators to art school so they could improve their techniques, broaden their style and compliment the studio's own animation projects. They observed the movement and interaction of live animals, while also studying bodily movements of real people. Through their study, the artists gained a truer sense of the fluidity of movement. They also studied the realistic treatment of figures. These newly developed techniques are especially noticeable in the ballet scene of the hippopotamuses in Fantasia. Art Babbit, one of Walt's senior animators, studied the art of ballet by watching his wife, Marge Belcher, perform on stage. Never before were hippos and elephants so graceful.

Walt's unstoppable determination, manipulative and controlling tendencies had its consequences. According to Karl Menninger, "Some philosophies…believe that it is better to exploit these tendencies and glorify them; they say that it shows that you are a superman, and so on." (31) However, with Walt trying to be a "superman", he provoked the Labor Dispute in his company in 1941. Why did it have to come to this - a strike that closed his production company for several months? Why did his staff have to work night and day, and sleep in their offices to make Walt's visions and stories a reality? Walt was an aggressive fellow, with strong views on how his company would operate and how hard his employees should work. "The animation staff wanted union recognition for bargaining power and money, but the money was minor", as Art Babbitt states in an interview commenting on what led to that strike. "He saw himself as the benevolent uncle", and the provider for his entire staff. (1975)

He wanted to be in control of his people, and deemed them "never to fight the system." Art compared how Walt was like his father by stating "his father was a socialist." He also compared him to Mussolini and Hitler stating that "Walt had an autographed picture of Mussolini in his office." (1975) Art also stated that Walt segregated the women in his paint and inking department from the rest of the company. He would make outward and inappropriate remarks about women in general. However, managed to get the women to think that he actually cared about them.

Walt was mindful of others. He was mindful in his manner to manipulate the best workers, "his" artists, animators, painting and inkers into following his suit. Everyone wanted to please him. Is it because they were following their own dreams as well? At a time like this, people were recovering from the Great Depression and trying to make something of themselves. Walt was offering a piece of the "American Dream" and it worked.

Perhaps in theory, Walt was following his "bliss" or spiritual joy. His medium was art. His interpretation was a lustful one, and he stopped at nothing to quench his thirst, to satiate his hunger for the ultimate euphoria and opulence. He set the stage for future films. He was an innovator always taking his ideas and his people to the next plateau. He made sure "his" drawings sparkled with personality, acting out emotion and drama. The creative essence and inspiration Walt were from within his mind.

By following his "bliss", Walt built palaces founded in his dreams and fantasies through his works in a colorful and golden place for all people to relish in. The greatest producer of cartoon animation and movies of all time, this is who Walt was. It is in fact that whatever Walt had in his mind, immerged with vitality. He had the power to "transform his consciousness by tests and trials of revelations." (1990) He sought after it with unstoppable determination and speed only to ascend with bursting success and sense of achievement. Joseph Campbell also states that "if the ego is too small, it pins you down."

Surely, if Walt had a small ego and let his imperfect childhood and numerous hardships in the animation business inhibit his aspirations, he never would have soared to the heights and fruits of his desires. "One can say yes or no to the serpent - the dragon - the ego." (1990) Walt said yes. Through this, we can see the Disney Empire that is grand, beautiful, colorful and sharp in every detail and aspect.

His ego enabled him to portray his ideas, intuitions and stories through his cartoons and films. He also had stories of life to tell and he wanted people to listen. He wanted them to understand the turmoil of real emotions, which exist inside each one of us. Walt recognized what was inside of him and catered to it. This is sadly illustrated through Pinocchio, a boy without a real mother or father. According to Marc Eliot's, Walt Disney, Hollywood's Dark Prince, Pinocchio was a character who "reveals a powerful Fundamentalist underpinning: the quest for self-redemption and the hellish fate that awaits those who lack the inner strength to resist the inherent evils of pleasure." (116) This fairy tale was brought to screen very quickly and shortly thereafter his mother, Flora's accidental death. This put Disney over the edge and into a state of depression. "He ordered nearly all completed footage discarded in favor of a new script that eliminated any mention of the puppetmaker Gepetto's wife. Instead, Disney emphasized the little wooden puppet's wish to become the flesh and blood son to the kindly old man who had created him." (112) It is a fair assumption to say that, because Disney wasn't even sure if Flora was his real mother in the first place, that he acted out these scenes to get back at her for once again an overwhelming "renewed sense of rage at her having once more let him down…the ultimate abandonment" - death. (112)

In order to compensate for the pain of his childhood, his intention was to make sure when a person sees Disney anything, they want it because he led them to associate it with family, fun, friends and laughter. "You can destructively construct a dam, kidding yourself, perhaps kidding most of the people, but certainly not kidding the thoughtful person that you are doing something constructive - making for the citizens a great deal of power, it is going to be one cent cheaper, and so forth and so on. And, meanwhile you destroy billions of dollars worth of fish and fowl and make more mosquitoes. "Who cares?" say those who are destructively minded. But if you are constructively minded, you do care." (32) Walt was both of these mindsets. He wanted to create Disney Land for the benefit of a family place. It would be a place for adults and children to carry out their joy and have the most fun possible without having to leave "his land" - Disney Land. He was careful to make sure each ride and display of characters was the perfect height for a child's eye to gleam with joy. He was careful to design a center park for parents to rest at ease while their children to play in range of their sight.

He wanted nothing more than to thrill his guests with his thoughtfulness and candy-like land. However, at the cost of attaining these highly set standards, Walt needed the world to recognize his name and to believe in what it stood for. The only possible way to achieve this was by being in control. He took advantage of every opportunity before him that would provide him with the money, fame and recognition but most of all, the power he had over his people - his workers and audience.

I was posed the question of defining Walt Disney's Megalomania. The mission was to find the truth of this matter. Although I found truth in some of Walt's actions, it would be hard to claim that I have figured him out. I do know however, that he was a Megalomaniac of the twentieth century who always succeeded in getting what he wanted and becoming the true hero in the art of animation and film industry of the twentieth century.



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