Wednesday 23 October 2019

Walt Disney: the original Bad Santa

Cartoon mogul was no angel

Control freak: Walt Disney in 1951
Control freak: Walt Disney in 1951

Damian Corless

Fifty years ago, on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney died of lung cancer, just days after his 65th birthday. The king of family entertainment, who had always played up his Irish roots, fell ill during the production of what would be his final two movies. One was the timeless musical The Jungle Book, which provided the theme for this year's Late Late Toy Show. The other, less fondly remembered, was The Happiest Millionaire starring Tommy Steele as an Oirish migrant to the States whose signature tune was 'I'll Always Be Irish'.

By the time of his death, Disney's specials were already a centrepiece of Telefís Éireann's weekend schedules. Large crowds cheered him in 1959 when he visited Dublin for the world première of one of his pet projects, Darby O'Gill and the Little People starring Sean Connery.

Disney presented himself to his adoring public as a benevolent genius, loving husband and doting father, and when he died in 1966, it was as if part of Christmas had died with him. But behind the merry exterior of Mister Christmas lurked a very Bad Santa.

Disney was a vindictive, paranoid control freak who inspired fear and loathing in those who knew him best. Decades after his death, he would be exhumed as the grasping Roger Meyers Jr in The Simpsons.

Born in Kansas in 1901, Disney endured a harsh, loveless childhood. His father, Elias, was a Bible-thumping, child-thumping drunk capable of flying into demonic rages. Terrified by this wicked parent, the young Walt sought refuge in wishing himself better father figures in his imagination.

The suspicion that he might be illegitimate was fuelled when the 17-year-old enlisted for army service in World War I, only to discover that there were no records of his birth. The mystery deepened when he unearthed a birth cert for a Walt born to Elias and Flora Disney in 1891 would make him 10 years older than he was. This bizarre question mark hanging over his origins haunted him all his life, with no happy-ish ending by way of closure.

So it seems no coincidence that Disney's films are awash with themes of parental abandonment or separation. Stepping into the breach is a guardian who is usually either exceedingly kind or excessively cruel. Bambi is separated from both parents; Snow White is an abandoned stepdaughter; the puppet Pinocchio craves the parental approval of Gepetto; Dumbo strives to find his lost mother.

The world's most beloved family entertainer was a street angel, house devil. Eight years into their marriage, his wife Lillian announced she was pregnant. The shock drove Walt to distraction. His heavy drinking got heavier, he chain-smoked 60 a day, he broke out in nervous tics and began obsessively washing his hands every hour. Made to feel uneasy and threatened by real people - his wife and children included - he exerted absolute control over his cartoon creations. Although full-length animations like Dumbo and Fantasia were complex collaborative pieces involving large teams of top talents, he shared the credit with nobody. To his animators, Disney was a fraud, a mediocre draughtsman who lacked the patience and skill of an artist. To them he was a tyrannical ogre with an industrial-relations policy modelled on Scrooge. He was a master fantasist, however, and he portrayed his employees as one big happy family who whistled while they worked.

But much as he tried to present himself as a Snow White character, lovingly supervising his workforce of merry little people, Disney had most in common with Mickey Mouse. When he unveiled Mickey in 1928, the rodent was an abrasive street punk - a struggling grifter like his maker. As Walt cultivated the affection of wholesome Middle America, he reinvented his mouse as a loveable Mickey Rooney character. Minnie was installed as his equally butter-wouldn't-melt Judy Garland sweetheart. As Walt transformed himself into the world's favourite uncle, Mickey became, in the words of his maker, "a boy scout".

But Disney's employees had no difficulty smelling a rat. To mark Walt's 35th birthday, the animators threw a lavish bash for their boss, topped off with an X-rated cartoon starring Mickey and Minnie. One biographer called it "a pointed metaphor for the way they felt they were being treated by Disney, expressed in the act Mickey performed on his girlfriend". When the lights went up, Walt applauded, said how much he'd enjoyed the jape and asked which staffers had been responsible. When they stepped forward, he sacked them on the spot before storming out in silence. Disney sacked his gifted animators at such a rate that they eventually banded together to set up the rival company UPA, which created the hit character Mr Magoo.

Last month, a US judge ruled in favour of granting the dying wish of a 14-year-old English girl that her body be cryogenically frozen in liquid nitrogen, in readiness for the day when science will bring her back to life. Few scientists believe that someone's personality can ever be revived, whatever about a physical body. Even fewer believed it back in 1972, when stories began circulating that Walt had signed up for freezing until his second coming could be arranged. The myth persisted for decades, until his daughter Disney Miller finally laid it to rest in 2012, saying her kids were being constantly teased about their frozen granddad by other children.

Cremated two days after his death, Walt was not, after all, the original Disney On Ice.

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Life