Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960by Nicholas Sammond
Linking Margaret Mead to the Mickey Mouse Club and behaviorism to Bambi, Nicholas Sammond traces a path back to the early-twentieth-century sources of “the normal American child.” He locates the origins of this hypothetical child in the interplay between developmental science and popular media. In the process, he shows that the relationship between the media and the child has long been much more symbiotic than arguments that the child is irrevocably shaped by the media it consumes would lead one to believe. Focusing on the products of the Walt Disney company, Sammond demonstrates that without a vision of a normal American child and the belief that movies and television either helped or hindered its development, Disney might never have found its market niche as the paragon of family entertainment. At the same time, without media producers such as Disney, representations of the ideal child would not have circulated as freely in American popular culture.
In vivid detail, Sammond describes how the latest thinking about human development was translated into the practice of child-rearing and how magazines and parenting manuals characterized the child as the crucible of an ideal American culture. He chronicles how Walt Disney Productions’ greatest creation—the image of Walt Disney himself—was made to embody evolving ideas of what was best for the child and for society. Bringing popular child-rearing manuals, periodicals, advertisements, and mainstream sociological texts together with the films, tv programs, ancillary products, and public relations materials of Walt Disney Productions, Babes in Tomorrowland reveals a child that was as much the necessary precursor of popular media as the victim of its excesses.
“Babes in Tomorrowland is an impressive work that meticulously documents historically shifting conceptions of the American child. This finely researched book will make a valuable contribution to our understanding of how children serve grown-up needs as adults strive to craft a better child to ensure a better tomorrow.”—Heather Hendershot, editor of Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics, and Economics of America’s Only TV Channel for Kids
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BABES IN TomorrowlandWALT DISNEY AND THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN CHILD, 1930-1960
By Nicholas Sammond
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2005 DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDISNEY MAKES DISNEY
Introduction: Walt Disney and the Celebration of the Self-Made Man
There is an urban legend that when Walt Disney died in 1966, he had his body frozen until medical science could progress to the point that it could cure what had killed him. Disney is also reported to have made a series of short films for his employees shortly before he died. Every five years, they were to play the next film in the series, in which Walt would issue instructions for the company's next five years of operation. In this way, the company that bears his name could remain on the path he had set for it, forever enacting his dreams.
The durability of these legends derives from an intimate association between the man and his corporation, the idea that the company was nothing more or less than the physical manifestation of his innermost desires and dreams, a fantasy he made real and shared with the world. In the space of about ten years, the company that bore Walt Disney's name went from a one-room operation in Kansas City to a global enterprise that has become today one of the most powerful corporations on the planet. In the hagiography of Walt Disney, thishappened because one man with a clear vision, a good heart, and sound, middle-class Protestant values struggled through hard times in a single-minded effort to make the world laugh and cry. Walt Disney Productions was not simply an industrial concern; it was the vehicle through which the man imprinted himself on the landscape that produced him. Walt Disney, it has been said over and over, embodied America, and in doing so gave America back to itself, and eventually to the world.
This is the way that stories about Walt Disney, be they laudatory or critical, inevitably begin: with the man. What I hope to demonstrate here is that the Walt Disney of hagiography and demonology alike was the creation of his own corporation (in collusion with its consumers). As much as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bambi, or Pinocchio, the Walt Disney that circulated in the American public imaginary-in newspapers, in magazines and books, and on television-was produced in the studios alongside the other creations nominally credited to him. However based in the facts of the man's history it may be, the saga of Walt Disney's life that has been told over and over since the company's inception-a story of humble beginnings and hard times, of aspiration and perspiration-is the company's most enduring tale, and its most important.
I wish to reverse-engineer Walt Disney the self-made man-but not because I want to reveal that he was a fraud or that the company was putting something over on its public. He was a talented entrepreneur with a brilliant head for business, good organizational skills, and a keen sense of the currents of American culture. No, ultimately I wish to explore the discursive and social construction of Walt Disney because I am interested in its relation to the social construction of the twentieth-century American child, because that child was created in conjunction with the fantastic figure of Walt Disney. The man's life story, which his company repeated and refined, and which journalists, reviewers, and biographers placed at the center of Disney's ability to create products ostensibly good for children, is ultimately a celebration of his own commodification. As Walt Disney gradually transformed into Walt Disney Productions and Walt Disney Enterprises, the man and the company became the mutually sustaining embodiments of a fantasy of capitalist self-control, one in which the proper management of one's personal resources promised a near-absolute control over the disposition of one's life as an adult. This was (and is) the middle-class American fantasy of personal development, one in which the child so masters its attitudes and behaviors that in its adult life it becomes the master of its own fate, rather than a worker in the production of the social and material capital of others.
This fantasy is deeply interwoven with longstanding ideas about the primacy and sovereignty of the individual in American social and cultural discourse, and in one form or another it certainly predates the twentieth century. Yet the shape it has taken, and the importance of mass media in that process, are unique to the century and to the emergence of producers such as Disney. The past century marked the emergence of a specifically scientific conception of the child, one that drew upon prior moral and sentimental notions of childhood as an ideal period within which to structure the eventual adulthood of a person, but which increasingly subsumed the moral and sentimental within rubrics of empirical observation and controlled experimentation. The isolation and verification of standards by which to chart the normal physical and behavioral development of children, the circulation and discussion of those standards in mass-market programs for child-rearing, and their importance in emerging discussions of the regulation of consumption of mass media signaled a shift in the way that members of an expanding middle class imagined the role of childhood in the production and regulation of shared cultural and social relations. While the story of Walt Disney partook of sentimental fantasies of self-making, its framing in the tale of the rise of a major media concern intersected with, naturalized, and recirculated assumptions about the nature of the child involved in the fantasy of self-making in twentieth-century mass culture. If the child is the father to the man, Walt Disney was the fantastic father to that child.
The figure of Walt Disney is chimerical-part man, part corporation, part myth, created between fans, critics, columnists, reviewers, and, of course, the company's public relations department itself. That Walt reportedly couldn't reproduce the trademark signature that to this day magically appears at the beginning of each Disney animated feature, or that he set up a corporation named Retlaw-"Walter" spelled backward-in the 1950s to regulate the use of that name are both emblematic of the difficulty of speaking of Walt Disney as a self-determining, unified subject. This is the first obstacle that must be overcome, the powerful synecdoche in which the man stands in for the studio, and the symmetrical metonymy in which the studio appears as nothing more than an extension of the man. Beyond that, however, ranges a complex of determinations in which the man and the corporation stand for an ideal American past and its continuation into an ideal future, the meeting of artisanal practice and scientific management, the elevation (or corruption) of the fairy tale, and the realistic portrayal of nature. Yet the assumption behind each of these discursive operations, whether positive or negative, has been that the man embodies the corporation as its generative and regenerative principle, and that the corporation embodies the man as the highly coordinated physical realization of his mental processes. This has been true since the early days of the corporation: "Walt Disney has not drawn his own pictures for nine years. To turn out the mass production issued nowadays under his name, he would have to have 650 hands. And 650 hands he has. With slim, 36-year-old Walt Disney as the guiding intelligence, his smooth-working cinema factory produces an average of twelve Mickey Mouse films and six Silly Symphonies every year," reported Time magazine in 1937 ("Mouse and Man" 1937, 19).
In this public fantasy, Walt Disney sat like Shiva at the center of a well-oiled Fordist fun factory, his innate intellect virtually animating his employees to produce films that simultaneously informed and entertained the masses. This was possible, the public was told, because Disney was uncommon, a native American genius, a born tinkerer and inventor, like Henry Ford or Thomas Edison. The conflation of the man with his eponymous corporation was a reflection of an actual physical (and perhaps metaphysical) situation: Disney's imagination was so vast that his own two hands were inadequate to the task. Walt Disney Productions was the tool that the man fashioned to incorporate his vision, just as Ford had done. One popular profiler claimed that "it can never be said that Disney is inarticulate, but he seeks to avoid, by refusing to put his thoughts and ideas into words, the impression that he's a genius" (Churchill 1938, 9). Yet even if Disney demurred, the company, in its public relations, wasn't shy about touting the man's abilities:
Walt Disney has pioneered every forward step in the history of present-day animated pictures.... The first animated sound picture ... "Steamboat Willie" ... The first [cartoon] in color ... "Flowers and Trees," which raked in awards both in the United States and abroad.... The first animated picture to show an illusion of third dimension [sic] ... "The Old Mill." ... All of these developments have taken place within the last ten years, since Disney started his now-extensive studio in the back of a garage. (Walt Disney Productions 1938, 37)
In a sense, this claim was true. Disney rarely blew his own horn in his own voice. But his corporation, an extension of his being, did praise him as a genius.
And as is so often the case with invention, many of those innovations were not his, but those of his workers and associates. Credited with bringing sound to animation, Disney applied an existing system that he had recently purchased to a cartoon he had already produced-Steamboat Willie (1928). The same is true for the multiplane camera, which Disney was lauded as having introduced; the device was designed and built by animator Ub Iwerks (once Disney's partner) and William Garrity, another worker in the studios (D. Smith 1987). And although Disney was for many years the voice of Mickey Mouse, he couldn't really draw his most famous creation, nor could he easily reproduce his own hallmark signature during autograph sessions. In both cases, he had to rely on junior animators for lessons (Wallace 1949; Schickel 1968). As with other famous American inventors such as Edison or Ford, Disney's talent and drive were amplified by convention into genius, the acceptance of which converted his considerable skills at industrial management into generative creativity and reduced his employees to mere factota.
Even if Walt Disney's abilities as an animator and inventor were to some degree invented, they were not the only facets of his public construction as a genius. As the studios grew, both feature stories and public-relations releases lauded the corporation's industrial techniques and praised Disney's ability to create a family atmosphere in a highly regulated workplace, as in this piece from a 1940 issue of the Atlantic Monthly (written one year before Disney employees went out on strike):
Somebody has made a successful effort not to festoon the place with the lambrequins and trappings of business pomposity. Walt is the president. Roy is the executive vice president. The rest of the official titles you can put in Mickey's eye.... When a boy or a girl who just hasn't made the grade is recommended to Walt for dismissal, Walt is more likely to maintain that the suspect hasn't been used right.... "We have never found Walt's judgment lacking," his playmates say ... "The only employee that's against Walt is the electric elevator," they say. The staff voted not to unionize. (Hollister 1940, 38-39)
Depictions such as this marked a significant departure from previous presentations of the craft of animation. Earlier animators, such as James Stuart Blackton or Winsor McCay, had presented themselves as magicians who brought inert drawings to life. The next generation of animators, the first to truly industrialize the form, had downplayed the celebration of production in favor of a focus on developing popular characters. Disney, on the other hand, presented himself as an entrepreneur, a hard-working manager who organized first a few, then scores, then hundreds of workers who then brought his ideas to life (Merritt and Kaufman 1993). Yet what ostensibly permitted that organization was not the iron hand of corporate control, but the casual atmosphere that Walt Disney himself created in his facilities. "He is little interested in books, but fond of sleight-of-hand tricks and mimicry. Often he regales his workers with some new trick or impersonation learned the night before," reported Douglas Churchill (1934, 13), one of the journalists responsible for the popular production of Disney's hagiography (as opposed to that flowing from his own corporation). Disney was represented as a benevolent patriarch, often referred to as "Uncle Walt," who tirelessly and selflessly oversaw the entire operation, from the creation of individual characters, to the development of specific scenes, to the choice of color schemes, to the final product: "Through the production pattern of every picture Walt threads in and out like a guiding outline. Having done single-handed, at one time or another, nearly everything that is being done in the studio, and having designed every functional fraction of the plant, Walt knifes into the most minute step of the most microscopic element in an effort to help, help, help" (Hollister 1940, 700).
Even though the work was performed by his employees-after 1938 sometimes compared to the happy dwarfs of Snow White-it was his all-seeing eye that stamped the ineffable Disney character on every product. In 1934, Fortune magazine described that character as combining the qualities of Horatio Alger (entrepreneurial determination), Henry Ford (industrial efficiency and management), and Abraham Lincoln (humble origins and hard work) ("The Big Bad Wolf" 1934). In short, the public persona of Walt Disney embodied the very behaviors that parents of the 1930s were expected to engender in their children-industry, modesty, and thrift-and spoke more of upright, middle America than of the morally questionable Hollywood where his studios were located. Inasmuch as those studios were described as a family operation, Walt Disney was the model of what every parent hoped to be, a manager who encouraged obedience and excellence through kindness and inspiration. As Churchill (1934, 12), praising Disney's modest genius in the New York Times Magazine, put it: "He doesn't pose or put up a front. He has seen too much of hard struggle to be very deeply impressed by the to-do over him or by the tributes he receives in every mail. His attitude toward the public, his 175 employees and his product conflicts with every traditional attitude of the 'practical' cinema." In direct contrast to other Hollywood producers, who were often portrayed as immodest, spendthrift, and immoral, Disney's genius as a manager and a creator was depicted as deriving from his basic American-ness. The image of Walt Disney presented over and over again during the course of his life was that Of the archetypal American rags-to-riches story. Born at the turn of the century, Disney was raised on farms and in cities in the Midwest and was put to work at a very young age to help support his family. After leaving home in his late teens to serve as an ambulance driver in World War I, he suffered through years of hardship to realize his dream of making cartoons-becoming rich and famous in the process. Disney's was the sort of inspirational story quite popular in a period that suffered through cycles of severe economic depression.
Excerpted from BABES IN Tomorrowland by Nicholas Sammond Copyright © 2005 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Nicholas Sammond is Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the editor of Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling, also published by Duke University Press.
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