Walt Disney on American Experience

John Hubley Disney strike film color outtakes Walt Disney American Experience

I was rather pleased with Sarah Colt’s two-part documentary Walt Disney shown the past two nights on PBS, as part of its American Experience series. Part of it, I suppose, is that it devoted so much time to the 1941 Disney strike—one of my specialties, after all, is animation labor history. It really did not tell all the story (Colt simply didn’t have the time), but its recognition of the centrality of the event is important; one only has to compare the strike’s treatment here with that of Theodore Thomas’ Walt & El Grupo (2008), the Disney Studio’s official look at Walt’s goodwill tour of South America, which he went on so he would not have to deal with the strike’s coda.  Aside from John Hubley’s official Screen Cartoon Guild strike film (which Colt heavily used along with color outtakes [see image above]), the only other film I know which tried to deal forthrightly with the event was Imogen Sutton’s Animating Art (1988), made for Britain’s Channel 4, whose American distribution was initially restricted.

I was especially pleased that the film acknowledged (in images if not words) the 1937 Fleischer strike (several of the photos used were from those saved by my father Joe, who worked at Fleischer, and which I had variously loaned to The Animation Guild and the Museum of the Moving Image. (I also had some part in getting Art Babbitt to donate his copy of the Hubley strike film to the UCLA Film Archive; I later helped expedite the donation of the film’s color outtakes via Faith Hubley.)

In terms of omissions and elusions, the film fails to follow through on what happened to Ub Iwerks, who seems to disappear from the narrative without a trace. Iwerks famously left Disney in 1930 to set up his own studio, which was big news at the time; however, Iwerks soon after gave up animating and directing in favor of “tinkering” (e.g., building the first multiplane camera used in an animated cartoon), which has led some historians to feel that he was a tinkerer at heart. I bring this up because Colt clearly shows Disney similarly withdrawing from close creative involvement with his films to build model trains. Disney seems to have  then channeled his puttering into creating Disneyland, though Iwerks’ tinkering did not have such epic results. (My wife, Vickie, and I speculated on the reasons Ub Iwerks gave up animating and directing in “The Independent Animator Model in Early Animation: The Case of Ub Iwerks,” a paper presented at last year’s Society for Animation Studies conference.)

Roy E. Disney

Roy Disney at 2003 Animation Guild Christmas Party

This snapshot, which I took at The Animation Guild’s annual Christmas party on December 12, 2003, was the closest I ever got to meeting Roy E. Disney, who died yesterday, December 16th, at the age of 79. He appeared there in the midst of an epic struggle for control of the Disney Empire with Michael Eisner, in which he eventually prevailed three years later.  (See my report on his surprise appearance at the party here.)

Most frequently identified as Walt Disney’s nephew, it would be more appropriate to note that he was the son of Roy O. Disney, Walt’s older brother who was the Disney Studio’s co-founder and long-time CEO; after all, Roy E. Disney, like his father, made his mark not so much as a creative producer, but as a creative executive who helped steer the Walt Disney Company to become one of the world’s major entertainment companies. In the process, he helped rescue a foundering company more than once, making Disney a real player in Hollywood in both live action and animation.

The animation community has long recognized his efforts to pull the studio’s animation operations from the brink of extinction in 1984, after he managed to oust president and CEO Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law, in favor of the team of Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells; it turns out the three were essentially ready to ditch animation to concentrate on energizing its  moribund live-action slate, but Roy Disney persuaded them to do otherwise. Luckily, Katzenberg took up animation with a vengeance and soon made the studio into an animation powerhouse which came to dominate theatrical animation in ways it had never done before. (I suspect these efforts were made possible by Katzenberg’s equally impressive work in the live-action arena.)

In addition to his role as an executive, Roy E. Disney had a strong sense of history which led him to try to extend his father’s and uncle’s legacy. When Fantasia 2000 was in production, I was told by several artists on the project that Michael Eisner was personally supervising it, I immediately realized that Eisner was acting as an agent on behalf of Disney. He also pushed the studio to resurrect and finish Salvador Dali’s Destino in 2003, 58 years after the project was started. Incidentally, a non-legacy project he also championed, without success, was trying to get the Disney Studio to allow Richard Williams to finally complete The Thief and the Cobbler the way he  wanted to.

For a quick overview of the various boardroom battles Disney waged with his long-time business partner Stanley Gold, check out this Financial Times story;  for his role in animation, see Charles Solomon’s appreciation in The Los Angeles Times. But if you’re really interested in his life and career, then by all means take a look at the six-part Archive of American Television oral history interview, the first part of which is embedded below.

Shazam Anyone? On Disney’s Takeover of Marvel

spiderman_6

The commentary about the recently announced $4 billion purchase by Disney  of Marvel Entertainment, home of Spiderman and other popular comic book icons, has focused on a number of issues, but little on the what the deal portends for what it represents in terms of the continuing consolidation of power within the entertainment industry. For instance, Alex Dobuzinskis’ analysis for Reuters focuses on the value of the deal for Disney, which “at best going to take some time to pay off and at worst may have increased some risks for the entertainment behemoth.” (In a follow-up story, Reuters reports Marvel is liable for a $140 million termination fee “if it terminates [the] proposed merger.”)

The deal is yet one more blatant example of the concentration of intellectual property rights (and the economic power that represents) that has become all too common over the past few decades. Some stories have mentioned antitrust concerns, but, they seem to reflect the rather blasé attitude of U.S. News & World Report blogger Matthew Bandyk, who says, “I didn’t think that anyone would raise serious antitrust concerns. Most of the complaints so far have been worries from comic book fans that Disney will dilute Marvel’s content.”

Mark Mayerson pooh-poohs much of this handwringing, who sees it as “one creatively bankrupt company buying another.” He adds:

This is Robert Iger’s second major purchase for Disney. The first was Pixar at a cost of $7 billion. Marvel went for “only” $4 billion. These purchases have defined Iger’s tenure as head of Disney, but not in a way that speaks well for him. While business writers are taken with Iger’s boldness, what we have here is someone who doesn’t believe that his company is able to compete.

When Walt Disney moved into live action, he didn’t buy an existing studio. When he went into television, he didn’t buy an existing production company. When he went into distribution, he didn’t buy a distribution company. When he went into theme parks, he didn’t buy an amusement park. In each case, Walt Disney grew his own company and built its expertise in these areas until the company could compete, and in some cases lead, the particular industry. When Walt Disney was interested in accomplishing something, he did it from the ground up.

(Patrick Goldsmith’s Los Angeles Times story has similar things to say about Iger tenure.)

Though I think Mayerson’s points are well taken, one should also remember that but Disney’s post-World War II expansion beyond animation was done in an era more conducive to smaller, independent studios. After all, his expansion was mostly done in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark antitrust decision in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., et al., which aimed at curbing the monopolistic practices of the major Hollywood studios, including block booking and the studios’ control over many of the country’s  major movie theaters..

However, due to an increasingly lax regulatory climate that had been gaining steam ever since the Carter and Regan administrations, the last few decades have seen the classic Hollywood studio system essentially reconstituted. While the major studios did not start buying up movie theaters again, they did, for instance, buy up or allow themselves to be bought up by TV networks (Disney bought ABC, while NBC and Universal are both owned by General Electric). And in a bald effort to exert increasing control over intellectual property, the TV networks were able to get government regulations forcing TV networks to use independent producers rescinded; in the same spirit, the entertainment industry pushed through The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which was better known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act,  due to the Disney Company’s high stakes lobbying on its behalf, lest it lose protection for a certain trademarked character.

One of Disney’s traditional strengths has been its ability to exploit its characters (many of which were animated) through merchandizing and other forms of exploitation, including theme parks. In recent years, though this acumen has been increasingly applied to non-Disney properties, including the likes of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books, which has been one of the studio’s biggest moneymakers. I’m sure Disney feels confident it can spin additional gold from the Marvel’s legendary cast of 5,000 characters, despite the fact that many of the most prominent among them are already licensed to rival studios; if not, then it will only be out $4 billion, which it can easily write off.

When I first heard of the Disney-Marvel deal, I got to wondering about Captain Marvel, who I liked so much as a kid. Have today’s media conglomerates forgotten him, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr.? Then I realized that the reason they have not gotten the Spiderman/Superman/Batman treatment is that they are now controlled by the Time-Warner empire through its ownership of DC Comics (publishers of Superman, et al.), which in turn had bought up Fawcett Comics, home of Captain Marvel and the rest of the Shazam universe.