The Man Who Was Walt

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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As you recover from the holidays and view your copy of the Disney Treasures Your Host, Walt Disney which I will be talking about in another column this month, I thought I would share with you the story of the man who was Walt Disney.

The man who was Walt Disney was not Walter Elias Disney. However, his name was indeed "Walter." Walter Fenner to be precise. He was born in Akron, Ohio in 1882 and passed away in Los Angeles, California of complications related to diabetes on November 7, 1947. For millions of people all over the world for the last 60 years, he has been Walt Disney.

Obviously, there must be more to this story.

As a struggling young movie studio, the Disney Studio tried to increase its cash flow as well as its reputation by having its product appear in other motion pictures in the 1930s and the 1940s. This odd arrangement resulted in everything from a monkey costumed as Mickey Mouse performing in Laurel and Hardy's March of the Wooden Soldiers (1939) to original animation in films like Servant's Entrance (1934) and Hollywood Party ( also 1934 which not only included original Freddy Moore animation of Mickey Mouse interacting with a live action Jimmy Durante but also a "lost" color Silly Symphony) to product placement of Donald Duck toys in the David Niven-Ginger Rogers' film Bachelor Mother (1939).

It is debatable whether at this time the biggest product of the Disney Studios was Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Snow White or ...Walt Disney himself. The name "Walt Disney" was becoming as well known as his animated creations but like most of the Hollywood movie moguls, Walt would have been difficult to recognize by most ordinary people meeting him in public until the popularity of his television show.

While many people have remarked on Walt's amazing acting abilities, Walt was also very shy and in fact, didn't want to host his own television show. So when Columbia Pictures needed the character of Walt Disney, they found someone else than the man himself. At one time, Columbia Pictures had even distributed Walt Disney short cartoons so they were well aware of the popularity of the name "Walt Disney."

With the harsh reality of World War II still very much a part of the hearts and minds of theater audiences, the studio felt that a movie with a touch of fantasy might be a welcome release from war news.

Some of the better Disney stories begin with the phrase "once upon a time" but in this case the actual film itself was named Once Upon A Time.

The 90-minute film Once Upon a Time (1944) was based upon a radio play, "My Client Curly" by an outstanding writer named Norman Corwin (from an idea by Lucille Fletcher Herrmann who wrote "Sorry, Wrong Number"). It generated considerable positive comments in radio circles when it was first produced on CBS. Of course, the story had to be expanded and changed somewhat for film.

Theatrical promoter Jerry Flynn (played by Cary Grant) is having difficulty because his last three spectacular shows are no longer bringing in the big bucks, not because of lack of value and talent but because of the nature of the world during wartime.

Things are so bad that the theater that houses his productions is due to be sold to recover debts unless Flynn can come up with $100,000 by the end of the week. It is a shame because Flynn has plans for a huge spectacular show where audiences can forget reality and "escape through beauty."

As he leaves the theater, he runs into a 9-year-old boy who claims that he can make a caterpillar dance for a nickel. Flynn holds up the cardboard box with a hole punched in it and while the boy plays "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" on his harmonica, the caterpillar named Curly apparently dances.

During the film, the audience never gets a chance to see Curly. Today, he would probably be a Henson puppet or a Stan Winston audio-animatronic or a horrible CGI creation but in those days, audiences had to accept the fact the caterpillar danced by the expressions of wonder on the actors' faces.

Flynn sees a chance to make his fortune and despite some objections by the boy's older sister, he becomes the boy's partner and with his promotional skills gets international attention for this little miracle. While Flynn prevents scientists from dissecting the dancing caterpillar, he does fall prey to an offer from an unusual source... Walt Disney.

Mr. Dunhill, who represents Mr. Disney, approaches Flynn about the possibility of buying Curly. "Mr. Disney's thinking of making a picture using a live caterpillar with an animated background," states Mr. Dunhill, who suggests that Walt is prepared to pay any reasonable sum. Of course, Flynn instantly insists on $100,000 and emphasizes the price is "no more and no less" in order to save his theater.

Dunhill is taken aback until Flynn smiles and says: "What's the market value of a fairy tale? Supposing somebody brought Mr. Disney a live Mickey Mouse?"

At one point in the film when the Disney Studios tries to negotiate for a lower price, Flynn has a phone conversation with Dunhill—and in Dunhill's office, you can clearly see a framed photo of Walt Disney surrounded by two Charlotte Clark plush dolls of Jose Carioca and Donald Duck.

Finally, Flynn gets a call from Los Angeles. It is Walt Disney himself. Walter Fenner is turned sideways and the lighting in his office is dim and he speaks in a confident Midwestern voice that had me believing the first time I ever saw the film that this was indeed Walt Disney making a cameo appearance as a lark. On the desk is a large Charlotte Clark plush Mickey Mouse doll.

"Hello, Flynn. This is Walt Disney. Well, Curly is an internationally famous figure now. He really doesn't belong to you. He belongs to the world just like Mickey Mouse does. And we're paying you your price," says the genial Walt impersonator. (The biggest fantasy element in the film is that a cash-strapped Walt during this time period would so easily come up with $100,000 to buy a caterpillar he has never seen.)

Of course, Walt isn't aware of the bond between Curly and the young boy and that Flynn promised the boy to never sell Curly. That complication causes some problems that result in a surprise ending in keeping with the realistic fantasy of the rest of the film.

The film was directed by Alexander Hall, who had directed in 1941 (three years before this film) one of my favorite fantasy films, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (later remade with Warren Beatty as Heaven Can Wait). Obviously, Columbia felt he would bring that same whimsical touch to this material. Hall would later direct a mostly forgotten fantasy film that I also love, Down to Earth (1947) with Rita Hayworth playing the goddess Terpsichore come down to Earth to help a department store employee.

Once Upon A Time was released May 11, 1944 and was not a success. The script itself has some problems but the biggest problem was Cary Grant. During the 1940's, Cary Grant decided to select some material to showcase his acting ability and establish that he was more than a popular screen personality. These films included None But The Lonely Heart and Penny Serenade.

However, Once Upon a Time might have been one of his most difficult roles as he had to balance his personal charisma with his cynical consuming goal to save his theater. At one point, he evens hits the boy. Nobody wanted to see Cary Grant hit a little boy even if his character would be redeemed at the end of the film. Even Grant's cohort, the wonderful James Gleason, is appalled at how Grant's character behaves so callously. In the original radio show, Grant's character was not a theatrical producer but a theatrical agent and there was a much closer link between the character and the boy.

Bosley Crowther in his June 30, 1944 review in the New York Times stated: "The wide possibilities for satire in this story are casually skipped, except for a few gentle passes, in favor of wistful romance. It is not the flashy aspects of a dancing caterpillar that are dwelt upon so much as the tender significance of this wondrous worm to a boy. And, in this, the story follows a rather obvious and conventional line, familiar in stories relating adults, children and animals. The writing, too, is only moderate in its qualities of tenderness, but a charming twist, based on nature, gives the climax a poetic lift."

Variety in its April 26, 1944 review, states: "One of the more novel scripts of the year, 'Once Upon a Time' is certainly bizarre—and yet charming. It's unfathomable—and yet intriguing. It is certainly absurd—and yet boxoffice.... It certainly must have required considerable courage for Columbia to have undertaken a production that manifests so few popular ingredients that make for big b.o.... That title really tells it. There's a foreword that suggests to the audience, in effect, to pull up a chair and relax. It's the kind of suggestion that had best be taken literally."

Why has the fame of being the first actor to play Walt Disney escaped Walter Fenner? Well, for one thing, he is not credited on the film as playing the part of Walt Disney, perhaps to convince audiences they saw the real Walt. However, dozens of other performers including Lloyd Bridges playing an aviator captain are also not credited.

Fenner was just a journeyman actor. He had had some experience on the Broadway stage before coming to Hollywood and working in several low budget films. The same year this film was released he also performed in two Henry Aldrich films: Henry Aldrich's Little Secret and Henry Aldrich Plays Cupid but he played different characters in each film. Obviously, he wasn?t one of those memorable supporting players that are instantly recognizable even when you don?t remember their name.

Fenner passed away just three years after being the man who was Walt Disney.

In the years following Walt's death, two other performers have performed as Walt Disney. Len Cariou who might be better known to audiences as the demon barber Sweeny Todd from the Broadway musical production became Uncle Walt for the television biography: A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story (1995).

Robert Minkoff, who among his many impressive credits include directing chores on The Lion King and Stuart Little , cast a performer making his official acting debut in the role of Walt Disney for a five-minute, live-action film entitled "Mickey's Audition" featuring cameos by folks like Mel Brooks and Angela Lansbury. The film which chronicled how Mickey Mouse was discovered for motion pictures was done for the Disney-MGM Studios theme park. The actor portraying Walt Disney was his nephew, Roy Edward Disney, who many people felt looked eerily like his uncle.