The Walt Disney Company’s founder was an icon in his lifetime, enjoying sometimes unparalleled levels of personal fame. During his life, Walt was seen as the American dream made flesh: He came from nothing, yet built an entertainment empire. And his influence on Hollywood is outrageous even today. (Name one other studio executive immortalized as a hologram.)
Disney remains the namesake and the genial, smiling face of a company that, in 2019, was responsible for generating almost a third of all box-office sales in Canada and the United States. But in spite of the avuncular “Uncle Walt” character he put on for the public, he isn’t a universally beloved figure. Today’s pop culture associates his name with bizarre conspiracy theories, like being a Nazi sympathizer (not true) and a megalomaniac who was difficult to work for (reportedly true). But underneath the tales of frozen heads and antisemitism lies the truth: Walt was a complicated man who did some great things and some not-so-great things, and changed the course of history in the process.
Walt Disney is the ultimate problematic fave. He was an underdog with boundless ambition, passionate about the arts and education, capable of great kindness, and dedicated to making the world a better place. He also used his platform and his own prejudices to preside over decades of arguably racist and sexist entertainment that spread stereotypes and promoted toxic American exceptionalism. He’s an iconic figure shrouded in misinformation and legend, some of which was his own creation, the rest the result of tabloids, rumors, and outright lies.
The image of the affable, gentle patriarch was a cultivated one; Disney took on the Uncle Walt persona in the public sphere, appearing regularly on television and meeting with the press for interviews. The role heavily informed his reputation, and in turn, helped sell his company’s brand — but according to biographer Neal Gabler (Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination), it was a responsibility he came to loathe.
Gabler writes, “[Disney] had created the studio; then the studio, with his complicity, created him, making him, he fully understood, as much a commodity as a man — the very sort of diffident, genial, plainspoken, unprepossessing, and childishly enthusiastic character who would have produced Walt Disney movies.” Walt once complained to a colleague, “I’m not Walt Disney anymore. Walt Disney is a thing. It’s grown to become a whole different meaning than just one man.”
The real Walt Disney was a man of contradictions. Disney sought wealth, but not for personal fortune — he saw money as a tool that let people pursue innovation and achievement. An article in Ladies’ Home Journal, published in 1941, argues that he and his wife Lillian lived “comparatively modestly” for “motion-picture people.” Years later, in a 1955 profile for The American Magazine, Don Eddy observes that Walt “looked no different from the man next door,” adding, “I never before saw a movie producer pay for his luncheon in his own restaurant.” A 1964 profile by Bill Davidson for Saturday Evening Post characterizes Walt as a Hollywood oddity who eschewed limos in favor of “the cheapest possible” rental cars, opting for “rumpled store-bought suits” over custom-tailored, designer fashion.
What Walt truly craved was glory. This ambition fueled a variety of technical and artistic achievements in the 20th century. Steamboat Willie wasn’t the first animated “talkie,” but it certainly set a high bar for the industry. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first animated feature film with sound, and it was a massive success, earning critical acclaim and industry recognition. The Academy Award-winning True-Life Adventures films are some of the first nature documentaries, and they helped popularize the genre. (They too are problematic.) And Walt made a wealth of contributions outside his studio, like founding an art school, serving as Head of Pageantry for the 1960 Winter Olympics, and the many, many impressive innovations his Imagineers have created over the years for the Disney theme parks.
But Walt was a deeply flawed man. He’s remembered as a great entrepreneur, but his almost lackadaisical attitude toward money didn’t bode well for his capitalist venture. Walt’s lack of business acumen drove his first animation company, Laugh-O-Gram Studio, into bankruptcy. Later, his business deal with Cinephone licensor Pat A. Powers — an unscrupulous man known for his shady dealings — almost ruined Walt Disney Productions financially. Walt’s brother and business partner Roy was instrumental in keeping the spending (somewhat) under control, especially in the early years, but there were many close calls.
Finance was somewhat of a blind spot for Walt. So, seemingly, was human behavior. He had a habit of pushing his animators too hard, expecting far too much from them, then being hurt when they inevitably pushed back. This happened in the 1920s when several of his animators defected to another studio, going to work for Disney’s distributor Charles Mintz after he cut Walt out of the popular Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. (Succession levels of backstabbing.) Then it happened again, on a much larger scale, with the 1941 Walt Disney Animation Studios strike.
Walt even took Ub Iwerks for granted. Iwerks was Walt’s close friend of many years, known (now) as the father of Mickey Mouse. He was instrumental in the company’s early success, and he stuck by Walt when almost everyone else at the company went to work for Mintz. Walt refused to properly credit Iwerks for his many contributions to the company, though, which led to a rift between them. Iwerks left Disney to found his own animation studio in 1930, and although he did return to work with Disney in 1940, their friendship was never the same.
In spite of all of this, there’s something undeniably compelling about Walt Disney, the man behind the genial public persona — perhaps because these flaws serve to humanize the pop culture titan. It’s almost endearing how a man who wasn’t particularly well suited for business seems to have thrived by sheer virtue of personality and vision. And Walt had admirable qualities too — not just the things he made, his storytelling skills, or the famous twinkle in his eyes, but the actions and statements that demonstrate his character and values.
It’s hard to believe now, given the reputation Disney films have developed over the last century, but Walt was seen as a bit of a radical in his day. His earlier films were considered daring, experimental, and, at times, provocative. The witch’s transformation scene in Snow White was genuinely horrifying for audiences in the 1930s, thanks to the animators using Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as inspiration. The “Pastoral Symphony” sequence in Fantasia outraged critics, even after the depictions of bare breasts were removed. Dance — something 1920s American Christians feared — was integral to the company’s brand from the first time Mickey bounced his little rodent tush in Steamboat Willie.
In his book From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture, Douglas Brode argues “everything best and worst about what we call the Woodstock generation […] was learned from watching Disney films.” Brode points to the anticapitalist, socialist messages about community and love in films like Three Little Pigs and Snow White, the environmentalist themes about respecting nature in Bambi, and even drug imagery in Fantasia and Dumbo. Ultimately, the book argues that Walt’s films — which he did not direct or write, but was heavily involved in shaping as a producer — taught an entire generation to question authority, rebel against the mainstream, and forge a bigger, brighter tomorrow.
Walt’s dedication to progress was, at times, his downfall, and these moments make him a difficult figure to love. Walt spent a small fortune on constructing his Burbank studio to offer his employees a “paradise” to work in, a progressive stance toward workplace culture, not unlike the Silicon Valley model we know today. According to biographer Bob Thomas, the designs were carefully considered: Each office had an outside view. Top-of-the-line air conditioning kept the building comfortable. And plenty of green space afforded workers a place to relax and play over lunch breaks. As Frank Nugent wrote in 1947, “Most Hollywood studios look like storage warehouses: Disney’s mulberry-and-green layout is more of a cross between a country club and a sanitarium.”
But this luxury came at the cost of his workers’ trust, and it’s hard not to wonder whether the elaborate space was built for the workers, or as a monument to Walt himself. The penthouse, which housed a lounge and athletic facilities, was restricted to those making $100 or more a week, and the culture of insiders and outsiders this fostered led directly into the 1941 animators’ strike. Pay discrepancies, chaotic management, and increasing tensions as the company fell further and further in debt all contributed to a hostile work environment. Ironically, Walt’s “utopia” crumbled under the pressures of capitalism, but he later blamed it all on “the commies.”
Similarly, Walt’s final project, the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (or EPCOT) was a benevolent, philanthropic venture, but was also literally a corporation town where every citizen needed to be employed at all times and would not have voting rights for municipal matters. (There would be no mayor or city council — Walt wanted total control.) The EPCOT designs are still impressive; Walt carefully considered everything from pedestrian accessibility to garbage disposal. But ultimately, he wanted to play with people’s everyday lives to create his own personal SimCity experience.
Perhaps most striking — or at least the dominant reason why he’s my personal problematic fave — is Walt Disney’s complicated history with women in the workplace.
By many accounts, Walt Disney supported and valued the women he collaborated with, at a time when many men still relegated their daughters and wives to the domestic sphere. Perhaps it was Walt’s mother Flora who instilled these values — Walt bragged to the Saturday Evening Post’s Bill Davidson that she “used to go out on a construction job and hammer and saw planks with the men.”
His big break in Hollywood came through a female studio executive — a rarity in 1920s Hollywood. Margaret J. Winkler, founder of M.J. Winkler Pictures, took a chance on Walt when he was a penniless fledgling artist, and helped him develop his early animation experiments, the Alice comedies, into a moderately successful series of shorts. Later, she recommended Walt Disney Studio (as it was then called) to Universal Pictures, which resulted in the deal that made Oswald the Lucky Rabbit into the company’s first hit character.
Mary Blair, an artist Walt (first) hired in 1940, quickly became one of his favorite employees, and wound up having a major influence on the company’s brand — most famously, she’s known for the It’s a Small World ride design, found at all the major Disney theme parks except Shanghai Disneyland. Her unique, vibrant aesthetic informs much of the early-’50s animated films Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, and her modernist art style continues to influence the world of animation today. Walt trusted her greatly, and clearly respected her work.
Walt fostered close platonic relationships with the women who assisted him day to day as well. He was a difficult man to work with, prone to fits of anger, yet the women who worked with him say he wasn’t degrading or patronizing. He once told his secretary Tommie Wilk (née Blount), “I pay you to be smarter than I am!” (per Thomas). He walked her down the aisle at her wedding, and paid for the reception. Hazel George, a lyricist turned nurse of sorts, assisted him with pain treatments and offered counsel. The two developed a genuine camaraderie, and she could get away with saying things to the increasingly cantankerous Walt that others couldn’t. On his final day in the studio before his death, Walt sent for her in particular, and the two shared a tearful goodbye.
Julie Andrews spoke glowingly about working with Walt in the ’60s on Mary Poppins, her breakout film role, and one of Disney’s most successful live-action films. Andrews recalled how he responded to news of her pregnancy: “Well, that’s all right, we’ll wait until after you’ve had your baby.” (A far cry from, say, Joss Whedon’s attitude toward Charisma Carpenter’s pregnancy several decades later, when they were working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
There are glimmers of progressive leanings in Walt’s character. In the talk he gave his employees right before the 1941 strike, Walt made a point of justifying his decision to train women as animators, rather than leaving them in their traditional role as inkers and painters: “Girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe that they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could.” (From the Walt Disney Archives, reprinted in Walt Disney: Conversations.)
At the same time, Walt was often guilty of the same misogynistic attitudes and behaviors that were rampant in mid-20th-century America. (And today.) Nathalia Holt describes an incident in The Queens of Animation in which Walt humiliated story artist Bianca Majolie, broke down her door, then (allegedly) said, “This is why we can’t use women […] they can’t take a little criticism.”
Walt also told Grace Huntington he preferred not to hire women for the story department because “it takes years to train a good story man. Then if that story man turns out to be a story girl, the chances are 10 to one that she will marry and leave the studio high and dry.” (Maybe Walt was thinking back to how Winkler retired from the business when she got married and let her husband, Charles Mintz, take over her company, which was the beginning of Disney’s problems in Hollywood, and directly led to him losing Oswald.)
To his credit, Walt did add that any women who “could write,” but wanted to leave their careers in order to be homemakers, were welcome to continue working by contributing ideas from home. That doesn’t sound like much, but this was the 1930s — the second-wave feminist movement was decades away, and the work-from-home movement even further in the future. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ended up having a few women working on it, although only Hazel Sewell, an art director (and Walt’s sister-in-law), and Dorothy Ann Blank, a skilled journalist in the story department with Majolie and Huntington, received credit. (That wasn’t just gender-related, though — many of the staff, male and female, were never properly credited for their contributions.)
In that 1955 profile piece, Eddy notes, “Few of the top hands are women — Disney doesn’t like to trust women with responsibilities.” It’s a devastating statement that contradicts the sentiments shared by Walt a decade prior, that women could do the work as well as men (maybe even better!) and deserve the same opportunities. Was this the result of the man being embittered by the strike? Or a case of a journalist putting his own sexist bias into his reading of the situation? Walt certainly trusted Mary Blair with responsibilities in the 1960s, putting her in control of the It’s a Small World project for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, so I choose to believe the latter.
The Walt Disney Company has an obvious interest in mythicizing its namesake as much as possible, leaning into the most globally appealing, least offensive caricature possible. It’s airbrushing his faults over the decades since his death, retreating further and further from the actual complexity of the man who founded the company a century ago. In letting the company turn Walt into a simplified figurehead, though, we lose the human element that’s so essential to creating the true spark at the center of Disney’s history. The real Walt Disney — warts and all — is destined to be a divisive figure. And that’s fine: We can celebrate the good while we condemn the bad, and use what we’ve learned as we look toward the future.