Was the Real Walt Disney Shown on PBS?

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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The four-hour documentary 'Walt Disney' on The American Experience, which aired September 14-15, must have been one of the most watched episodes on PBS. Speaking of which, there is some wonderful supplemental material.

As you might suspect, I got e-mails and phone calls almost immediately all asking about my opinion about the documentary, since I have been studying Walt Disney and Disney history for nearly three and a half decades.

Basically, I was greatly disappointed at such a missed opportunity to introduce new generations to an amazingly complicated man who is so often misunderstood, and for many people who think he is not a human but some sort of vague legendary figure.

I watched the show objectively with no previous knowledge, although some of the teaser trailers were a trifle troubling that some things might be sensationalized. I have gone back and re-watched it and read the reviews of people that I greatly respect, like Todd James Pierce.

Prior to this Walt Disney documentary, Sarah Colt according to her website “wrote, directed, and produced 'Henry Ford' for American Experience and 'A Nation Reborn' and 'A New Light' for Frontline and American Experience’s special series 'God in America.'

“In 2009 two of her films aired on PBS: 'The Polio Crusade,' a one-hour program about the development of the polio vaccine for PBS’s American Experience and 'Geronimo,' also aired in 2009 as part of PBS’s special series on Native American history, 'We Shall Remain.'”

That is certainly an impressive resume, so it is understandable that people at PBS felt that, because of her track record, Colt would do a solid job on one of the most beloved, complicated and misunderstood American geniuses.

After all, there are some similarities between Walt and Henry Ford, about whom she did a popular documentary. Walt was inspired by Ford’s assembly line to create a new process of producing animation by assigning specific people to specific tasks. Walt was inspired by Ford’s Greenfield Village in his design of Disneyland. Ford, as a leader, treated his workers as an extended family just like Walt. Of course, there are only four hours so no time to explore those things was included.

Ford and Walt were part of that same American generation, like Thomas Edison, who came from humble beginnings and, because of their passion, perseverance, vision, and development of new technologies, became powerful and influential leaders. In the past, leaders came from wealth or noble birth. No, none of that was in the documentary either and how a rural upbringing ingrained important moral values that guided these men in their successes.

Colt spent more than two years on the Walt Disney documentary, even being introduced to Diane Disney Miller before her death. Colt recorded more than 50 hours of on-camera interviews and had full access to Disney Archives with head Disney Archivist Becky Cline (who I greatly respect for her knowledge and passion for Disney history) assisting with whatever Colt needed.

Miller told me that she had always resisted repeated offers from PBS and the History Channel and others to do a biography on her father because she felt they wouldn’t “get” Walt.

She was not concerned that unpleasant things would be said about her father. She realized that Walt was human and, especially in the later years of his life he was in constant physical pain from the old polo injury, a reoccurring sinus problem, lung cancer, and more, so that sometimes it caused him to lose his patience and lash out. Sometimes Walt could just be dumb or stubborn. Facts are facts and Miller wasn’t afraid of them.

Because when you review the final ledger sheet, Walt had infinitely more hits than misses. He transformed animation from a novelty to an art form, produced live-action films that are considered classics today, was a pioneer in television, branding, new technology and outdoor entertainment venues.

Of course, he was instrumental in creating a greater awareness of the need for conservation and space exploration. He actively donated to hundreds of charities, not only money but merchandise, free tickets to Disneyland, and even having Disney performers go and entertain.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The fact that the hospitality industry uses name tags and switchback queue lines comes from Walt. Did you see any of just those few highlights of Walt’s life in the documentary?

Miller’s goal and the goal of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco was to show Walt as a son, a brother, a husband, a father and a grandfather.

Supposedly, that was the intent of the American Experience documentary, as well, but it was not achieved. Nor did the documentary address how what Walt did transformed the world and impacted not just American culture, but world culture.

Just the processes Walt put in place on how to do animation technically and philosophically influenced every other animation studio. How many entertainment venues have tried to copy what Disneyland Park does? How many people took jobs in forestry because of the True-Life Adventures documentaries?  

This documentary has been justly vilified by countless people who knew Walt and know Disney history. It didn’t even address how Walt’s approach to cross-merchandising changed commerce.

Disney Legend Bob Gurr said the best way to watch the documentary was as a silent movie. Turn off the sound and just enjoy the wonderful new images and film clips that were a true treasure.

Disney Legend Floyd Norman said:

“It struck me as condescending and failed to reflect the man I observed and worked for over a 10-year period. These missteps were not due to a lack of information. It was all there, and more. It would appear the producers decided to cherry pick the information that would perpetuate their own bias. Of course, this journalistic approach to documentary filmmaking is celebrated because the filmmakers would never want to be accused of doing a 'whitewash.'

“Lacking in the film’s four hours was the need for true balance. Such as, if half of Walt’s animation staff walked out back in the '40s - why did the other half decide to stay? If Uncle Walt was such a ruthless bastard, how did he garner such incredible loyalty? If Disneyland is such a shallow, idealistic sham, why do millions flock to the park each year?

“Walt had no political or social agenda while building Disneyland. He simply wanted a happy place where families could spend time together. Finally, the idea that Walt lost interest in animation while making Cinderella is pure bunk. Walt was totally engaged in every film including his last, The Jungle Book, even though his health was poor.”

You can read all of Norman’s comments on his blog.

By the way, Floyd Norman is black and was personally hired by Walt as an animator and also promoted to story man, a very high status position at the Disney Studios. Colt interviewed him, but apparently didn’t ask about the Disney feature film Song of the South, because Norman has a much different perspective than was presented in the documentary. Colt must have assumed that a black man who actually lived when the film was first released could add no new insight that agreed with her agenda.

So how did Sarah Colt go so wrong, make so many rookie mistakes, misunderstand and ignored the plethora of information she was given and ended up diminishing the reputation of her, her company and PBS when she was given the keys to the kingdom?

She even falsifies material. For instance, that image of Walt and his sister Ruth supposedly in Marceline is actually of them in Chicago with the number of the house cropped out as Disney Family Museum writer Joseph Titizian has pointed out, along with other flaws.

Read this interview with Colt and it will confuse you why none of this insight translated into her final product.

Colt simply didn’t “get” Walt, didn’t care to tell the real story of an amazing man, and felt she would be considered a more credible filmmaker by bringing in ill-informed, sometimes discredited and often completely unconnected to Disney history “experts” to offer pseudo-psychological assumptions, especially about the “darkness” in Walt Disney.

Instead of depending on the handful of remaining people who actually knew and worked with Walt, Colt gives the majority of the commentary to people like Ron Suskind. I like Suskind and I like his book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism and recommend you get it.

However, he is not an expert on Walt Disney or Disney history, and why he thought it was a good choice to put his exemplary reputation at risk by posing as a Disney expert and trying to make assumptions at what Walt was thinking is beyond me. Did they stroke his ego rather than going with an actual authority?

Even people who lived with Walt could never tell you what Walt was thinking. He was constantly surprising people right up to his death by making unpredictable choices.

I am sure there are many other “talking heads” that you never recognized either, especially as experts on Disney and the Disney impact on culture. It was always more interesting to hear the very, very short clips of Alice Davis, Bob Gurr, Floyd Norman, Ruthie Thompson, Don Lusk, and even Ron Miller, who has been resolute about not talking about Disney on camera for decades.

Wouldn’t it have been more valuable to include more on Ron Miller’s insights? He was part of the family and CEO of the company. No, let’s hear more from Ron Suskind on imagined conversations Walt never had.

Colt seems completely unaware of the huge Disney history community out there with recognized and accurate historians or simply chose to ignore them since they wouldn’t provide sensationalized and false assumptions. I would think the purpose of a documentary is to provide illumination and accuracy about a person.

Using Neal Gabler and Richard Schickel as experts because they wrote biographies of Walt is also problematic. Many reviewers have commented that while their basic facts might be correct, that both authors tend to put in their own personal opinions and assumptions that have little relation to the real Walt.

Schickel was denied access to employees at the Disney Studios, so used as his sources people who had been fired or left the company and had axes to grind. Many of the people who could have provided helpful insights were long dead by the time Gabler began his research, so he decided to make connections on his own of why Walt did things. Diane Disney Miller did not care for either book, again primarily because of all the supposition the authors infused into the work.

For me, the best biography about Walt is still Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas that has been in print since 1976.

As a reporter for the Associated Press, Thomas interviewed Walt many times, wrote two books under Walt’s supervision (The Art of Animation in 1958 and Walt Disney: Magician of the Movies in 1967). Thomas agreed to write the book only if he had no restrictions. He was given full and complete access to the Disney Studios and the people who worked there (including some who have since died and were never interviewed by any other Walt biographer) and the Disney Family.

Thomas did not do a “puff piece” or a “whitewash version.” He mentions Walt’s temper, his nervous breakdown, his “bear suit” and his mistakes. However, unlike Gabler and Schickel, he does not dwell on them in a tabloid fashion, but merely lists them as just facts that happened and moves on.

There are other good Walt biographies out there as well, including Michael Barrier’s The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney (2008), Remembering Walt: Favorite Memories of Walt Disney (2002) by Howard Green and Amy Boothe, and Inside the Dream (2001) by Katherine and Richard Greene, among others. Yes, the books mention when Walt would act badly as well but they don’t dwell on it. I guess nowadays that is considered “whitewashing.”

Two short clips of Barrier are in the documentary, but this is a man who is a decades-long recognized authority on Disney animation. So, of course, use pop culture people who have no understanding on how animation is done and the cultural forces around the Disney animated films, and don’t ask Barrier who, among other things, also wrote the wonderful book, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age (2003). After all, Barrier could not only have given insight into the Disney animation, but how it related to other animation being done at the same time. He could even talk to the cultural atmosphere of the time.

If the PBS documentary had just presented the facts and allowed the audience to make their own decisions, it would not have come under the massive criticism it has.

Also, it has to be admitted that while four hours may be enough to cover the life of an American president, Walt Disney did so much in so many different areas and had such a lasting impact that four hours is not enough. A four-hour documentary could be made just about the making of the Disney animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or the creation of Disneyland or Walt’s unfinished dreams.

For me, Colt should have used two existing documentaries as a foundation from which to expand: the one made for The Walt Disney Story in 1973 and the one made for One Man’s Dream in 2001. Both of those also have shortcomings and can’t cover everything, but they are factual and provide a good basic blueprint of Walt’s life from where to start. I admit freely that I am moved every time I see those films and how great to hear Walt Disney himself tell his own story, something missing in the PBS show.

Colt may have already come in with an agenda and just needed things to support her faulty premise. If so, shame on her.

Why spend so much time on the movie Song of the South and Walt’s testimony for the House Un-American Activities Commitee (HUAC)? Certainly, those should be addressed, but at the cost of never mentioning the 1964 New York World’s Fair or CalArts that produced John Lasseter, Brad Bird, and so many others? No mention of the impact of movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and its connection to a major shift of advertising films on television?

Yes, tough choices had to be made of what to keep and what to eliminate, but so many of the choices were just puzzling.

Why spend so much time on Walt’s product and not on the fact that as a grandfather he would have his grandkids draw a squiggle on a piece of paper and then he would transform it into a funny face or animal? He carried boxes of raisins in his pocket to give them as a treat. He taught his daughters how to swim and drive? He cried at their weddings.

Isn’t all that an important part of a biography about a man called Walt? He was more than just his work. He was well-traveled, kept in touch with old friends in Marceline, and had huge libraries at home and at work.

Walt made sure that blacks were welcome to visit Disneyland and he hired black cast members and, in fact during his life, employed people of every race, religion, sexual orientation and more in all his businesses. No time to show any of that in a biography about a man who never went to church, but firmly believed in God and the goodness of man.


Walt and Peter Ellenshaw look at an early map of Disneyland. The PBS documentary could have spent four hours talking just about that aspect of his life.

No time to show all the sick employees that Walt paid for weeks or months with no complaint while they were out or all the people Walt kept even though they could no longer produce but had produced in the past.

After all, none of that really reveals the type of person he was, right? No, no, we can’t waste time on that nonsense decides Colt, when we can hear from film studies professor Eric Smoodin, art professor Carmenita Higginbotham and history of film and television professor Sarah Nilsen. I am shocked that Colt didn’t seek out actress Meryl Streep to share her insights.

For the infamous strike, there was no mention of Walt’s side that the studio was close to bankruptcy and Walt was fighting to pay the employees anything at all and that his trip to South America was planned months in advance as a way to get work for his employees.

Nope, that doesn’t match with the story of this man who had such darkness, had father issues and craved attention. By the way, Walt loved his dad. In a lengthy series of interviews with Saturday Evening Post writer Pete Martin, they talked extensively that how their fathers behaved when they were growing up was different than modern approaches but was done out of love. Walt held no bad feelings about his dad although he approached life differently than Elias.

Buy the DVD for all the terrific new imagery and for the brief commentary from those who knew Walt. I wonder what other wonderful things they said that we will never hear. Some of it appears on the website, but apparently not on the DVD. Use it as a springboard to read some of the good biographies of Walt and watch some other videos of Walt, who was, in fact, exactly as he appeared on his television introductions.

Disney Legend Jack Hannah, who directed Walt in more than a dozen episodes where he interacted with an animated Donald Duck, told me that Walt would have fun, often ad-lib unexpectedly and made sure the set of his office looked exactly like his real office so he could feel he was himself. He also insisted that he never lie or take credit for other people’s work. He genuinely loved talking to people and sharing information as if they were gifts. That Walt on television was Walt.

One of the things Colt felt was tremendously important and defining for Walt was his testimony at the HUAC, so for the next two weeks, I will be discussing that event, reproduce Walt’s actual words and even share how one major newspaper at the time made fun of Walt. Once again, I vainly hope by just presenting the facts that readers are smart enough to draw their own conclusions.

Comments

  1. By tourguiderhonda

    Thank you, Jim, for your insights. I really enjoyed seeing all the footage that I had never seen, but I agree that the filmmakers seemed intent on showing more of Disney's bad side.

  2. By carolinakid

    Hated the film maker's agenda, loved the archival footage and film clips. I'd give it a C. Still waiting for the definitive Walt Disney biographical film.

  3. By stan4d_steph

    Quote Originally Posted by carolinakid View Post
    Still waiting for the definitive Walt Disney biographical film.

    What do you expect from a "definitive film?" A presentation that fits with your perception? If you're looking for more information, head to the Walt Disney Family Museum. It is extensive, but stays away from controversy.

    I enjoyed the film quite a bit and thought it was well balanced. There is a lot of material to cover, and not every niche interest can be covered in the four hours that was allotted. I enjoyed getting the extra insight through the "Making of" panel at the D23 Expo. I especially appreciated the information around the strike and Disney's testimony at the McCarthy hearings, neither of which would ever be touched in a Walt Disney Co. production.

  4. By potzbie

    Like so many reviews on NetFlix, Jim Korkis criticizes the PBS special for what WASN'T shown.

    Geeze, Louise! -- It is only a four-hour special. -- You cannot possibly cover (for example) the labor union issue in under 10 hours, alone!

    If you were to include the things Koris mentions, like the 1964 Worlds Fair, or the doodling with grandchildren, then tell me which scene or segment you would EDIT OUT, and still not lose continuity with the the scene/segment immediately PRIOR and SUCCEEDING that segment.

    Again, Koris emphasizes the missing elements instead of the elements which were included. -- If the PBS special had included all the MERCHANDIZING innovations, then the PBS special would be an 8-hour special, and any mention of Marceline would be irrelevant, and any mention of the failed farm would be a distraction.
    Do you want the PBS special to not mention (a.) Marceline; or (b.) the failed farm?
    In their stead, do you want the PBS special to mention "merchandizing" and "advertising" innoventions?
    How does that fit in with Walt Disney's pre-adulthood life?
    And how would the merchandising segment flow, between the loss of Oswald the Rabbit segment and the Hyperion Avenue segment?
    How???
    In only four hours???

    Why does Koris want "merchandizing" emphasized, during the travel scenes of Illinois, Missouri, South America, and New York? (Or between the scenes?) -- What has merchandising got to do with Walt Disney's pivotal moments of personal growth (or personal failure)?

    if I were to be budgeted ONLY FOUR HOURS for the life of an innovator, like Steve Jobs, Nicholas Tesla, Pablo Picasso, Paul McCartney, or Robert H. Goddard, believe me, the MERCHANDIZING aspect would get the short shrift, as I cannot fit in the merchandising influence into a biography, and end up under budget of four hours!

    • Don't criticize the PBS special for what WASN'T shown.
    • Do criticize the PBS special for its errors or lies of what WAS shown.

  5. By disneykaren

    Thanks again for another insightful article regarding the PBS version of Walt Disney's life. I agree completely that they missed an opportunity to tell more about the real person rather than resorting to psudo-psychoanalysis of a man that the commentators had never met. The highlights of the show were the never and seldom seen footage of Walt being Walt, and the brief comments from his former employees. Treasured comments from Alice Davis, Rolly Crump, Floyd Norman, Bob Gurr and Ruthie Thompson give us a glimpse of the man that influenced not only American culture, but also world culture and innovention. His ingenuity and keeping "one foot in the future", helped spur on not only animation and film making, but also space exploration and artificial intelligence for future generations. I wish they would do another 4 hours with our the histrionics of Suskind and Gabler and give the us more of a glimpse of Walt the man and his influence on the world.

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