More Walt's Words

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

One of the things that frustrated me for years was that there only seemed to be a handful of quotes from Walt Disney that always appeared over and over and over. Walt was a great storyteller, and once he started talking, the ideas just flooded out—and yet no one seemed to have recorded any of them. Instead, every article always featured the same familiar quotes, whether it was about Disneyland or Mickey Mouse or animation.

So, over the years, I have taken the opportunity to share in my column here at MousePlanet some of Walt’s words—from letters, magazine and newspaper interviews, company publications and more—that have never been republished since they first appeared, so I can  try to add to that selection of quotes. My last column can be found at this link: Walt's Words: Sincerely Walt and that column also includes links to some of my previous columns of Walt’s Words.

In this installment, I am digging through some old magazines for your enjoyment. Usually, magazine articles spent a good deal of time summarizing Walt’s career or trying to explain the process of animation or even publicizing the latest Disney feature film. I have harvested just the quotes as well as any interesting facts I have never seen published elsewhere, to share with the MousePlanet readers.

Since these articles were published during Walt’s lifetime, there is a greater likelihood that they were actual Walt quotes or even if massaged by the Disney Publicity Department, they had to be approved by Walt before they appeared in print.

LOOK magazine for July 26, 1955 had a cover focusing on Walt and the Davy Crockett phenomenon and included a very extensive article about Walt Disney himself by Arthur Gordon. While there are some great never republished quotes that I will be sharing here, one of the things I most love about this article is a photo of Walt wearing a Davy Crockett coonskin cap and kissing his 6-month-old grandson, Christopher, who is also wearing a Davy Crockett cap.

First, from the article is a great quote from the usually press-shy Roy O. Disney, Walt’s older brother:

“Dad was a good dad and a rigidly honest man. He just didn’t know how to handle boys. From the start, we were all as stubborn as Missouri mules. I guess we still are. [Walt] was a bright little fellow: everybody liked him. Even then, he had a powerful urge to draw; once he drew pictures all over our white-painted house with black tar. We had all sorts of pets—even pigs. Walt always felt sorry for the runt of the litter. Walt’s outstanding characteristic is single-mindedness. When he decides he wants to do something or do something a certain way, nothing stops him—literally nothing. He’s a terrific optimist; he always thinks everything will turn out for the best. Usually, his plans and ideas do—in the long run. But this lack of realism can also be a handicap.”

Walt was bored at school and exhausted. Why didn’t he try harder? Walt replied, “If they’d made me see that education could help me make a living, or that arithmetic might be useful in figuring my income tax some day…but they didn’t.”

Walt described his experience as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in France, “They only paid me $22 a month, but I made a little money with my paint brushes. Camouflaged German helmets were prized souvenirs; so I used to camouflage ‘em. Used to paint ‘croix de guerre’ on leather jackets, too. Finally came home with about $500. I was rich!”

Some years ago, Walt took his three girls, a niece and a secretary to Europe. While he was away, a pair of Sardinian donkeys at the studio, that were Walt’s special pets, produced a small male offspring. “Congratulations!” the studio wired him. “At last you have a son and heir! Something of an ass, it’s true—but still, a boy!” Disney was delighted and showed the message to everyone he met. Last winter, Diane presented him with a bona fide grandson—the first, she predicts confidently of several.

A famous and temperamental photographer once came from a considerable distance to make a portrait of Walt Disney. When he found he’d been given just half an hour to do the job, he protested bitterly, “It’s impossible! How can I possibly begin to understand you in 30  minutes?”

“Never mind,” said Walt soothingly. “Some people around here have been working with me for 30 years, and they don’t understand me yet!”

Several Disney staff members were interviewed but were never identified by name but I don’t know if it was to protect them from any retaliation of their honest comments or because again the focus was always supposed to be on Walt.

One of his animators said, “Trouble is Walt’s mainly interested in just one set of ideas—his own. If you have opinions to express, he’ll listen politely enough. But he seldom throws the ball back. Sometimes he’ll interrupt you in the middle of a sentence and go off on a complete tangent. He doesn’t mean to be rude. He’s just thought of something that strikes him as irresistibly interesting.”

Another associate said, “He must have a tightly compartmented mind. He can walk out of a conference, empty his brain completely of a thousand details, and be able to concentrate instantly on a completely different set of problems.”

Another said, “Walt doesn’t analyze anything. He just knows whether it’s right or wrong. He has perfect faith in this instinct, or critical faculty, or whatever you want to call it. He makes mistakes, sure: Alice in Wonderland, for example, was so jazzed up that most of the charm was lost. But he learns from mistakes; he’s careful not to be so frantic now.”

Walt will worry about the height of a character’s forehead, or the breadth of his shoulders. When the economic realities demand a departure from perfection (for example, the air brake compressor on the miniature Disneyland train is somewhat out of scale), he’s miserable.

“After you’ve worked with Walt for a while,” one of his animators said, “you become a perfectionist, too. He’s an exciting guy to work for, because he expects the best you’ve got.”

“You have to watch Walt,” another old timer said. “He’ll lull you into a kind of trance with words, then suddenly shoot a question at you. Chances are you’ll react quickly and honestly, which is what he wants. He sort of booby-traps you. Another thing he’ll do sometimes is poke a good idea full of holes just to make you fighting mad; around here, this technique is known as ‘the goose ’ and has nothing to do with ‘the mouse’ or ‘the duck’.”

Story conferences fill the bulk of Disney’s working day. When pleased, he can be generous with praise. But sometimes, the sessions are stormy, with Disney pitching thunderbolts and every one else catching. Not long ago, in a story conference, he spotted something he considered a serious breach of good taste. Afterward, the chastened animators—there were two of them—tottered down to the dispensary and asked the studio nurse for something to quiet their nerves. They weren’t fooling, either.

Walt didn’t think television would ever put movies out of business. “It’s too expensive for one thing. And there’s no foreign market to speak of. Half our movie revenue—the gravy half—comes from abroad. Television will never be able to match that.”

The Saturday Evening Post for November 7, 1953 had the second part of a two part article about Walt titled The Amazing Story of Walt Disney”by Jack Alexander. I have often seen the first part for sale or quoted from several times but never this shorter second installment.

Perhaps it is because over the half the article is devoted to the life of Clarence Nash and how he eventually got the job of doing the voice of Donald Duck. However, for me, the most interesting thing about the article is that Alexander apparently caught Walt in a talkative moment where he launched into a stream of consciousness monologue about animals and animation. Alexander recorded all of it and here is Walt just letting his thoughts ramble:

“The bear is the greatest of scratchers. He goes through a period of doing nothing but loaf, live, eat and scratch, mostly scratch. Most animals do the same thing, even the beaver, who is supposed to work all the time. Not many centuries ago, human begins used to scratch themselves at home or in public without any embarrassment. We’ve lost something there. It’s the penalty for the bathtub, I guess…

“You know why the animals dominate animated cartoons? It’s because their reaction to any kind of stimulus is expressed physically. Often the entire body comes into play. Take a joyful dog. His tail wags, his torso wiggles, his ears flop. He may greet you by jumping on your lap or by making the circuit of the room, not missing a chair or a divan. He keeps barking, and that’s a form of physical expression, too; it stretches his big mouth.

“But how does a human being react to a stimulus? He’s lost the sense of play he once had and he inhibits physical expression. He’s the victim of a civilization whose ideal is the unbotherable, poker-faced man and the attractive, unruffled woman. Even the gestures get to be calculated. They call it poise. The spontaneity of the animals—you find it in small children, but it’s gradually trained out of them.

“Then there’s the matter of plastic masses, as our animators put it—mass of face, of torso, and so on. Animation needs these masses. They’re things that can be exaggerated a little and whirled about in a way as to contribute to the illusion of movement, you see, like a bloodhound’s droopy ears and floppy gums, or the puffy cheeks and fat little torsos of chipmunks and squirrels. Look at Donald Duck. He’s got a big mouth, a big belligerent eye, a twistable neck and a substantial backside that’s highly flexible. The Duck comes near being the animator’s ideal subject. He’s got plasticity plus.

“For contrast, think of the human being as the animator sees him. It takes the devotion of a whole boyhood to learn to wiggle an ear as much as three sixteenths of an inch, which isn’t much. The typical 25-year-old man of today is slim of face, torso and legs. No scope for animation. Too stiff, too limited. Middle-agers tend to develop body masses—jowls, bay windows, double chins—but you can’t very well caricature a fat man. Nature has beaten the animator to the punch.

“In fantasies it’s a little different. In Snow White we were able to draw the dwarfs as lumpy figures wearing lumpy clothes and that gave us some good masses to toss around a little. Another fantasy, Peter Pan—in this one, we did a switch that gave us some leeway. Instead of animals acting like people, we had Peter Pan and the Darling children flying high and scrambling around like birds and animals. We still lacked truly maneuverable masses, but the power of the story itself, plus the desire of the audience to believe in its basic fantasy—‘I can fly! I can fly!’—made them forget the stiffness of movement. Tinker Bell we created maneuverable, and she sure maneuvered.”

From Electric Trains magazine of December 1951, in an article by Lloyd Settle titled Railroading With Walt Disney, I was able to gather these Walt quotes:

“A secret of remaining young is to keep an enthusiasm burning within. It keeps a harmony in the soul,” said Walt who the article pointed out was “a man young in heart and appearance”.

Walt remembered his first actual experience with a full-sized train when he was about 8 years old. “Several of the fellows and I went down to the tracks. A locomotive was sitting on a siding and the crew was indoors in a shack, eating lunch. I climbed up in the loco and pulled the whistle. How she blew! The men came tumbling out of the shack and I jumped down and ran like mad.”

Walt also recalled his Uncle Mike, who was an engineer on the Santa Fe. “Uncle Mike won our hearts. He always brought my sister and me a bag of hard candy. Afterward, he would fill me full of railroad lore. I think it was from him that I first heard the story of Casey Jones.”

Why did Walt name the engine of his backyard miniature railroad the Lilly Belle? According to Walt, “Playing with electric trains was not unusual in our house. But when I told my wife that I was going to build a railroad, she thought I was nuts! I named the loco after her to stir us some interest. Now, she even asks when we’re going out and steam-up. I use anthracite coal to avoid excess smoke instead of the coal we get in the West. We have it shipped in from the East. It’s a nuisance, but the anthracite keeps us on schedule. I wanted an easy-to-build switch. Finally I got an idea from my Lionel electric train set. I decided to enlarge their switch.”

As for his time as a news “butcher” or vendor on the Missouri Pacific Line where he sold apples, soda, newspapers and candy in the railroad cars to passengers, Walt recalled, “I was a hungry kid. I was hungry to do things, and for things new. I was also just hungry. I sold candy and apples with my papers, and I ate up most of my profits.”

According to the article, passengers on Walt’s backyard railroad included according to the article Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Ward Kimball, Salvador Dali, comedian Red Skelton and movie producer Walter Wanger.

The golden bell that warns the unwary visitor of the approach of the tiny train is authentic in contour and sound. The whistle is a chime type, contributed by a policeman at the Disney studios in Burbank, Calif.

There is even a quote from Imagineer Roger Broggie about Walt working in the studio shop to build the train. Broggie said, “He surprised all of us. In many ways, Walt’s a temperamental guy. Lots of the boys didn’t think he’d be much good in the shops. But he has a high aptitude for machine works.”

Walt’s response to that comment was “Any boy of 16 could build a train like mine if he applied himself. And it wouldn’t cost him much money!”