HOLLYWOOD'S DARK PRINCE
Birch Lane Press
! 288 pages, $21.95
When one of the sons of the late crooner Bing Crosby wrote a book depicting his publicly amiable dad as an uncaring, abusive father, Crosby's old "Road" pictures partner Bob Hope quipped that the famous now were so subject to posthumous debunking it was no longer safe to die.
As vulnerable as anyone to post-mortem evisceration was Walt Disney. His personal publicity machine portrayed him as the whimsical, avuncular creator of a magical cartoon kingdom, but apparently in many ways he was not a nice man. A well-known political reactionary even when he was alive, Disney has since been described in the memoirs of some former employees as a brutal boss, an unfeeling slave driver who claimed credit for the creativity of others, terrorized his staff and fired faithful, longtime associates without just cause.
Even Disney's most assiduous detractors, of whom author Marc Eliot now seeks to become the champion, acknowledge that he was, without doubt, a genius -- "an artist of the first rank," as Mr. Eliot admits.
What he also contends, in this breathless, muddled biography of old "Uncle Walt," is that Disney was the compulsively neurotic victim of an abusive father; feared he either was adopted or illegitimate; structured every one of his great films to conform to the theme of family sanctity, and, on the side, was an anti-Semitic informer for the FBI.
Through the good graces of the federal Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Eliot evidently has obtained some documentation that shows Disney did, indeed, send letters to J. Edgar Hoover reporting on the activities of those whom he considered possible Communists or subversives. But Mr. Eliot lamely contends that the FBI "refuses to confirm or deny certain facts regarding its relationship with Disney." His assertion that Disney's supposed association with Hoover was given in return for a promise of FBI help in determining Disney's "true identity" is an ultimately unsubstantiated allegation leveled in the course of a book hopelessly riddled with murky speculations, insufferable psychobabble and sexual innuendoes.
This is the book for you if you are prepared to swallow the twaddle that Bugs Bunny became a more popular box office star than Mickey Mouse because "Mickey's fundamental roundness -- eyes, ears, face, body -- recalled maternal security in the comfort of their breast- like shape," while "Bugs' ears were phallic attitudinizers that never failed to rise to the occasion."
In recent years the Disney empire and image have become particularly alluring targets for deflation, perhaps because the Disney Studio has traded on the concept of fantasy, fun and childhood wonder more than any other movie factory. Some ex-employees had much to be disgruntled about, harbored grievances for decades, and years after Disney's death finally felt free to let fly with their gripes.
For example, in his 1989 autobiography, former Disney storyman Bill Peet, who became an acclaimed author of children's books, provided a blunt, candid account of how he made major contributions to such Disney classics as "Pinocchio," "Dumbo," "Peter Pan," "Cinderella," "101 Dalmatians" and others. But after 27 years, he quit in disgust following one final, nasty encounter with the often-irascible Walt.
Yet he admitted that long after he left the studio -- even long after Disney's death in 1966 -- "I often caught myself wondering what Walt would think" of his children's books.
Cartoonists can be a strange breed. While Mr. Eliot happily picks apart Disney's "raging unconscious," he does not subject his sources to similar scrutiny. Marc Davis, one of the legendary "Nine Old Men" of Disney animation, has observed that Disney's "greatest achievement was getting us all to work together without killing each other."
There were other cartoon factories, but the key point is that none of them had Walt Disney inspiring artists to do their best -- in fact, the other producers of cartoons during this period invariably appear to have been dunces.
In the records of every studio during Hollywood's "golden age" can be found horror stories of underpaid, overworked, unappreciated employees who were treated shabbily by mercurial, crude bosses. And the sad fact is that many of those unsavory bosses were Jews. Even Melvyn Douglas, himself of Russian Jewish extraction and as liberal as Disney was conservative, once acidly described one-time employers such as B. Mayer of MGM and Harry Cohn of Columbia as "a bunch of Jewish gangsters."
That Disney, an independent producer who had to rely on these cut-throat entrepreneurs for the distribution of his cartoons, was prone to denounce them as "grasping Jews" is regrettable but not surprising.
In an effort to make history and Disney's films fit his convoluted theories, Mr. Eliot fills his book with garbled, cockeyed chronology and baffling errors. He has Hollywood power brokers ballyhooing the November 1928 premiere of Disney's wholesome Steamboat Willie," the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, in an effort to somehow avoid responsibility for the October 1929 stock market crash (go figure).
He has the FBI investigating the "true facts" of Disney's birth in the early 1940s, saying this was at the same time Disney "gave birth" to Donald Duck. Donald Duck first appeared in "The Wise )) Little Hen" in 1934 and had his official debut in "The Orphans' Benefit" in 1935. He writes that the "climactic fire that destroys Bambi's forest is, in effect, Walt's acknowledgment" that he could not return to the world of his own childhood -- when, in fact, the fire is not the "climactic" scene in Bambi. The final scene shows "life renaissant in the forest," as studio chronicler John Grant observed, adding, "The story of Bambi is one of the cycle of life."
And Mr. Eliot inexplicably describes the rotoscope as "an invention for realizing animation from individual drawn and/or painted celluloid sheets . . . [that] helped turn animation into more of an artist's medium than a cinematographer's." As animation historian Charles Solomon has noted, a rotoscope in fact is a device that enabled animators to reproduce realistic movement by tracing live-action footage frame-by-frame and using it as a reference. Original animation is done on paper and the drawings then are transferred onto cels, which are placed on top of fixed backgrounds for filming. It's impossible to tell what Mr. Eliot thinks they or a rotoscope are.
It is possible, however, that he thinks anything with the Disney name attached to it will sell. That is the chief hope he has for peddling this book.
Mr. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.