Mickey and Minnie Mouse made their screen debuts in 1928 in an obscure silent short called "Plane Crazy", a quickie Lucky Lindbergh cash-in whose only claim to fame is that it briefly played as the supporting feature to the very first talkie, Warner Brothers' The Jazz Singer.
That set the tone for Walt Disney's relationship with Hollywood: for most of his life, he was a pipsqueak supporting player to the big boys; the real moguls were the brothers Warner, Harry Cohn, Louis B Mayer, Daryl Zanuck... Great names all, but today just sepia photographs on commissary walls. Only Disney endures as a brand, and only Walt endures as a mogul. He died (supposedly) half-a-century ago: December 15th 1966. Yet five decades after he was (according to which version you prefer) either cremated or cryogenically frozen, the statue of the man and his mouse still greet visitors at the entrance to Disney World in Florida. Behind him sprawls a drained swamp twice the size of Manhattan, within which, in the years since his death, all his craziest dreams have gradually come true - from Epcot, the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, to the "utopian community" of Celebration, a Disney municipality you can actually live in, where every home is wired to a fiber-optic network on which you can order groceries and have your vital signs monitored round the clock by the town's health agency.
Oh, and he's still a movie mogul: on the 50th anniversary of his alleged cremation, he had a boffo opening weekend with the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, the world's most lucrative motion-picture franchise, now newly Disneyfied and featuring (faintly creepily) a CGI-ed Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, 22 years after the actor's death. Which suggests that Walt's craziest dream of beating the Grim Reaper is now within reach - if not yet de-cryogenised at least sufficiently computer-generated to resume weekly hosting duties on The Wonderful World of Disney.
True, there have been innovations here and there of which he would not approve: the annual Gay Day, for example, for which DisneyWorld throws opens its gates to gay and lesbian families and allows its stars to cast off their sham press-office relationships and emerge from the Hollywood closet. Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck stroll around arm in arm, and so do Mickey and Donald. If that's not enough to cause meltdown in Uncle Walt's Frigidaire, then don't forget the Disney movie Priest (1994), in which the eponymous hero is a very active homosexual, and Powder (1995), the first Disney film to be directed by a convicted pedophile. But so what? The business was always full of types Walt didn't care for - Jews and Commies and relatives. Gay mallards notwithstanding, if the avuncular weirdsmobile isn't directing operations from inside his icebox, he might just as well be.
To today's children, that welcoming statue is a bit of a puzzle: he's no longer the familiar TV uncle he was to their parents and grandparents, the Mouseketeer generations who grew up with him week after week on ABC. His was the first studio - in 1954 - to cut a TV deal, mainly for the promotional benefits. From there Disney would go on to buy ABC itself, as well as launch the Disney Channel, and Radio Disney ("We're All Ears!"), the 24-hour network for pre-teens who feel the need to sing along to favorites from The Little Mermaid at two in the morning. Walt invented the animated feature in 1937 (Snow White), and the modern theme park in 1955 (Disneyland). He invented, in a word, synergy - or, in another word, convergence. In the Nineties and the Oughts, the merger men at Sony and AOL Time Warner cooked up the labels and made a big hoo-ha about it, but Walt had been doing it decades ago. The original blockbuster promotional spin-off? The Mickey Mouse watch: Ingersoll were selling two million a year by the mid-Thirties.
The Mickey Mouse watch was cheap, and so was Walt. He paid peanuts and got boffo monkeys ("Now I'm the king of the swingers/The jungle VIP..."), and so his most famous creation became the only film star to do additional duty as a term of disparagement: Mickey Mouse money, a Mickey Mouse operation, etc. On the centenary of Walt's birth in 2001, the Mickey Mouse operation was taking in around $4 billion per annum, and Disney itself was doing gangbusters business as a global term of contempt, an easy shorthand for American cultural imperialism in all its venal, plastic, hollow, grinning indestructibility: Disney embodies everything the anti-Yank Euro-elites loathe about America, not just the general chirpiness but all the details, like the cupcake brassiĆØres in The Little Mermaid.
If Osama bin Laden wasn't such a loser, he'd have played up that angle. Among the many revealing items uncovered at an abandoned al-Qa'eda training camp near Jalalabad in the wake of the Afghan war was this application letter from Damir Bajrami, a Kosovo Albanian:
I am interested in suicide operations. I have Kosovo Liberation Army combat experience against Serb and American forces. I need no further training. I recommend suicide operations against parks like Disney.
To be a name brand in Jalalabad, that would have impressed Walt. From the earliest days, it was always about the franchise. He provided Mickey's voice for the first few years, but he never drew him, even in Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie. He'd begun sketching at the age of seven, in Marceline, Missouri, in a household that lacked pens and sketchbooks and so obliged him to make do with coal on toilet paper. But he was never more than an indifferent draughtsman and after 1920, when he hooked up with another aspiring commercial artist called Ub Iwerks, he was shrewd enough to leave the visuals to his partner.
According to Walt's version, he dreamt up Mickey Mouse heading back to Hollywood by train in 1928 and suddenly remembering a little mouse who used to live in his office in Kansas City. According to the Iwerks account (supported by the Disney archives), it was Ub who invented Mickey, though with Walt standing over his shoulder. Iwerks never got credit for his creation, the first in a long line of disgruntled artists, writers and musicians to discover that, at Disney, billing was reserved for Walt and the stars - Mickey, Goofy, Pluto, Scrooge McDuck. Iwerks and Disney were both Midwestern farmboys, both born in 1901, but Iwerks' centenary passed without notice and Walt's prompted the equivalent of royal jubilees from Disneyland to Euro-Disney to Tokyo Disney to his other theme-realms.
To judge from almost everyone I've ever met who had any dealings with him, Walt was not a likeable man. He was beaten by his father, ignored by his mother, and came to the conclusion he must have been adopted, which he wasn't. From the age of 16, he spent years searching for his "real" mother, refusing to believe it was the woman who'd treated him so coldly back in Marceline. Later, after he married, his wife was so concerned about his low sperm count that she insisted he submit to various treatments, including packing his genitals in ice for hours at a time. By the time he eventually impregnated her, he was so sick of the ghastly business that, for their second child, he insisted they adopt. Given that the western world has signed over its offspring en masse to Disney's cultural care, it's no surprise to find scholars pondering what role all this played in his work. According to the psycho-biographers, Walt's inability to acknowledge Ub Iwerks as Mickey's real father stems from his confusion and anxiety about who his own parents really were.
Oh, well. What's more important than who created him is why they did. Disney's first cartoon character was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but he got outmaneuvered and lost all the rights. That's why Walt was on that westbound train, returning from a humiliating meeting in New York and determined that it would never happen again. With his brother Roy running the administrative side and Iwerks and others handling the artwork, Walt was free to be a visionary, and in this he had no peer. He makes the fellows at MGM and Paramount look like nickel-and-dime car salesmen. He saved on source material, preferring out-of-copyright works from the Old World - dark European fairytales that he jollied up for the American market. If getting rich by airbrushing Grimm seems obvious now, it wasn't then. Along the way, he produced some landmarks - the lovely, flowing, graceful animation of Snow White (1937), unsurpassed before or since; the vernal awakening in Bambi (1942), its beauty freighted by death and danger (although it's not per se an anti-hunting film: the salient point about Bambi's mom is that she gets shot out of season). There was a ton of fine songs, from "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?" (a great anthem of the Depression) to "When You Wish Upon A Star" (a hymn to the boundlessness of the American dream: "When your heart is in your dream/No request is too extreme") to Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke's wonderful score for Lady And The Tramp (a soupĆ§on of which turns up on my album Feline Groovy). And, of course, there was a vast accumulation of marketable characters, though few of them bother with screen work these days. Minnie and Daisy long ago joined Liz Taylor in that select group of stars who retain their luster without needing to do anything so tiresome as making movies.
But for those who think Walt made no difference, consider the two decades between his death in 1966 and June 8th 1984, the day before Donald Duck's 50th birthday. As the middle-aged quack was working the crowds at Rockefeller Center, Saul Steinberg, a much feared man on Wall Street in the Eighties, announced a hostile takeover bid for Disney. The would-be corporate raider of Walt's lost ark intended to break up the empire, sell the studio, and run the theme parks himself. The company hadn't had a real hit since The Love Bug in 1969, and, after 15 years, Herbie the Volkswagen had exhausted every conceivable sequel except Herbie Has His Passenger-Side Airbag Removed. To see off Steinberg, Roy E Disney, widely derided as Hollywood's archetypal "idiot nephew", fronted a boardroom revolt that removed Walt's son-in-law, brought in Michael Eisner and transformed the company. Eisner restored the animated feature as the Disney signature, with Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King stacking up profits Dumbo and Pinocchio could never have imagined. After the Herbie years, Disney became a global behemoth mostly by returning to Walt's priorities.
The central thoroughfare of Disneyland is "Main Street USA", an evocation of the clapboard and brick storefronts of a thousand small American towns. Walt's Main Street is a replica of the one from back home in Marceline, but he told the builders to make everything - every brick, shingle and gas lamp - exactly five-eighths normal size. He also insisted that every exterior level be smaller than the one below it, so that the stretched perspective would make adults walking down the street feel like children, without them ever quite being able to figure out why.
Today, it's not just families but honeymooners and retirees who take their vacations at Disney World. That's Uncle Walt's great achievement: he literally distorted our sense of childhood. In Europe, those dark stories of stunted creatures deep in the forest were primal fears to outgrow and escape. In Walt's retelling, childhood became a world you could live in forever. Which, from the company's point of view, makes a lot more commercial sense.
Go back to The Jazz Singer and Plane Crazy in 1928: Warner Brothers made movies, Walt made a Disney world.
~Mark's cat album Feline Groovy includes two numbers from the Disney songbook: The CD opens with "Ev'rybody Wants To Be A Cat" from The Aristocats, and toward the end he combines the above-mentioned "Siamese Cat Song" from Lady And The Tramp with Seventies soft-rocker "Year Of The Cat" into an epic medley. Feline Groovy is available on CD or via digital download from Amazon or iTunes - and it makes a great stocking-stuffer.