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"The Disney Version" by Richard Schickel

Discussion in 'Visual Arts' started by Matheus Bezerra de Lima, Jan 11, 2021 at 6:04 PM.

  1. Matheus Bezerra de Lima

    Matheus Bezerra de Lima Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Brazil, Pará
    I read some of the book "The Disney Version" by Richard Schickel. If you think that I'm misrepresenting anything about it, feel free to say. While I consider myself an admirer of many things about Walt Disney, his passion and artistry (if you have any doubt, just check my thread about Bambi), Schickel makes some interesting comments and criticisms about Walt Disney. I'm probably not intellectual enough to understand all that he is saying, but he makes some points that are interesting to think about, like Walt's obssession with realism, technology and control might have limited Walt's artistic growth in animation by comparison with the Looney Tunes, the Tom & Jerry shorts and the Pink Panther shorts, which weren't unafraid of using artifices such as limited animation and had an anarchic energy and open-mindedness that Walt couldn't ever fully understand. He offers a critical view of Walt's development of the multiplane camera, for example. He makes criticisms

    In an article outside the book, Schickel talks about how many european intellectuals that came to America and how Walt, who was initially heavily praised by them, lost their favor from Fantasia (Schickel argues that Walt's lack of understanding and deep appreciation about the original classical music, and his staff of animators as well, led to distasteful and crude visual representations of this music, Schickel uses Stravisnki's Rite Of Spring as a big example) and the rest of his life. Schickel praises the simpleness and creative energy of Dumbo and criticizes the realistic animals from Bambi as being at odds with the backgrounds.

    Even the very existence of Snow White had already caused some complaints by the intellectual crowd that hated cinema's adherence to any form of conventional narrative, loved animation for its limitless potential and looked upon Disney's feature-length films unfavorably compared to the Silly Symphonies and Fleischer's cartoons. Adorno criticized the Donald Duck's cartoons in the 40s and 50s as manipulation people to behave well in a conservative way because Donald Duck always got in trouble for his temper. By contrast, Adorno loved the provocative sexual aspect of Betty Boop. Yet Schickel acknowledges that this view hold by many intellectuals of that time, who also criticized the arrival of talkies as a vulgar cheapening of cinema and what made it unique, was too simplistic, though their complaints were not entirely without merit worthy thinking about. In the case of Snow White, Walt was right in concluding that the anarchic model of traditional short cartoons would never hold an audience's attention for a feature-length film.

    Even when I disagree about many conclusions that Schickel makes about Walt as a person and artist, he rarely seems like someone who just wants to be a radical contrarian wanting to tear apart Walt and his achievements. He seems well intentioned and also firmly believes that the limitations of much of Walt's artistic views are a fruit of him being essentially an untutored average person who never received intellectual instruction, and did what he truly believed was right, a man who was faithful to his vision. In the decades after writing book, Schikel says that he had come to respect Walt's achievements a lot more.

    One big thing that I disagree with Schickel is when he says that Walt didn't have the soul of an artist because of his treatment of Stravinsky. And while I agree, at least based on what this book tells, that Walt was disrespectful and ruthless with Stravisnky as an artist, I'm not so sure in saying that this means that Walt didn't have the soul of an artist, whatever that means.

    Walt was ruthless in pursuit of his own vision of what he truly felt and loved, however narrow his vision could be. And he wasn't unafraid of making his own vision without caring about the original work. He reportedly said to his animators in Alice In Wonderland something more or less like: "**** what Lewis Carrol's fans think". Whatever you think about this from a moral and ethical perspective, I'm sympathetic to the idea of making your own vision no matter what. This defines an artist in my opinion. Does this necessarily makes the person an amazing artist? In the case of Walt, I would say that the answer is yes and no at the same time. And, as Schickel himself said in the preface of the third edition, Schickel might have been too influenced by folklore purists in much of his criticisms of Disney's adaptations.

    I would like also to mention something that Schickel, maybe due to lack of knowledge about this, didn't ever mention in his book, feel free to correct me if I'm mistaken. Walt complained that Alice and Peter Pan didn't look anywhere as unique and bold as Mary Blair's art. While he was disrespectful of Stravinsky, he loved the work of Mary Blair, who made concept arts for Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. He felt that her bold vision had been watered down by Disney's house style. Considering that one of the big criticisms that Schickel throws at Walt is the need to fit everything to his own style (and it's not a criticism without any merit, to be clear), leaving out this seem dishonest or Schickel just didn't know about this.

    And whatever is your opinion on Sleeping Beauty, a film that Schickel seems to declare the pinnacle of Walt ruining his best, most energetic and joyful impulses in favor of cold love for technology (the glorious visuals supposedly contrastic with a cold and passionless film), it was still a result of Walt deliberately wanting to break out from his house-style. He wanted a film that looked as bold an unique as its concept art. Many animators resisted drawing differently from what they used to. Sleeping Beauty ultimately is at least a noble artistic effort and I think that Schickel was too harsh on it as well as Fantasia, Bambi and Alice. I think that he missed some of the point of these works and the new delightful stuff they bring to the table. To some extent, he seems to agree, if not fully, that some of his criticisms were exaggerated. Interestingly, the third edition came in the middle of Disney's renaissance and Schickel says in the preface that some of the things that happened ever since he had written the book, in 1968, improved his impression of Walt, like the huge decline of Disney's company and specially their animated films, ever since Walt's death. How Walt's spark for innovation and new risks have been deeply missed by Disney before the Renaissance. And Schickel also says that a film such as Beauty And The Beast, which he calls a "delight", wouldn't have been possible without Walt's template

    Overall, I would say that the book is an interesting, though often very questionable, reading. Personally, I'm not a fan of the distinctions between high and low culture that intelectual analyses like this seem so prone to make.

    Ultimately, anyone who wants to read this book has to keep in mind the year in which it was originally written, 1968, and also the generation of critics that Schickel belongs to. This book was perhaps the first notable attempt of truly understanding Walt Disney and take him seriously in a time in which he was often dismissed by the intellectual crowd as just Mr. Conservatism and Middle Brow or seen by mainstream as just loveable Uncle Walt. This book was a necessary first step. But Schickel ultimately can't come close to fully break free from all the prejudices and misconceptions of back then and probably never fully did. He was still a prisoner of the ideas of his time and I don't blame him. Newer generations of critics have taken a far kinder look at Walt's work as a whole due to a greater benefit of hindsight and also have access to far more information about the films and Walt that Schickel could ever have hoped for. The reputation of all those Walt-era films have significantly increased and acknowledgment of their amazing artistry too. Fantasia is perhaps the best example. All of this is great to see.

    This text was written without revision, so I apologize for some possible clunkiness and grammar errors.
    hi_watt and reapers like this.
  2. Vidiot

    Vidiot Now in 4K HDR!

    Hollywood, USA
    Note that this book came out way, way back in 1968, and many animation scholars and fans have nit-picked and criticized some of the bad research and sketchy conclusions that Schickel made. Noted film critic and historian Leonard Maltin has talked about the pros and cons of that book several times, but I don't see an online link.

    I seem to recall the defunct magazine Funnyworld doing a long article (maybe even a series of articles) attacking the Schickel book, but I personally think the bulk of the book is true, even if the author threw a negative spin on it. Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research website definitely has some discussions of it here and there, but again, bear in mind that this book is more than half a century old. It's kind of water over the dam now.
  3. antoniod

    antoniod Forum Resident

    I liked "The Disney Version" when I was a precocious pseudo-intellectual Teenager.
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  4. Pizza

    Pizza With extra pepperoni

    Everybody seems to know better when it comes to the arts. It’s easy for Schickel to cast stones toward a lifelong journey and the risks taken that he wasn’t a part. If only we could have the knowledge of 20/20 hindsight in the past. And even then alternate decisions may not have been better.

    Disney created an industry and was a visionary. Disney helped animation to become an art form to be taken seriously. He knew his shortcomings and hired the creatives to carry it out. There were highs and lows just like everything in life. No journey is perfect but I’m still wowed by Disney’s output.
  5. Matheus Bezerra de Lima

    Matheus Bezerra de Lima Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Brazil, Pará
    Yes, I agree.
    In conclusion, Schickel was in this book victim of the prejudices and misconceptions of his time and he was never able to fully let to go of them for the rest of his life, though he softened in his complaints in the preface of the third edition. I thumk that a lot of the problems in the book is the questinable negative spin that Schickel throws towards some things. Like the multiplane camera. He seems to treat it almost as a bad thing. Ultimately, while he makes fair points that Walt had trouble understanding the appeal of other ways of animation, such as the use of limited animation by Chuck Jones, but I think that Schickel makes the same mistake towards Walt's work and also often misunderstands it in a way that seems exaggerated in 2021 and by newer generations of critics. To be clear, I'm not crucifying Schickel, his book was a necessary first step in a serious analysis of Walt's work, however flawed and questionable it is in hindsight.

    Important to mention Leonard Maltin. A historian of animation and strong defender of Walt's work, specially Fantasia. He and plenty of other critics, scholars and historians of animation have since then exposed many of the questionable conclusions and bad research of the book and made many discussions talking about the good and the bad of the book, like you said.

    Overall, it's an interesting book, but now extremely dated, prejudiced, often simple-minded and narrow analysis of Walt's work by a modern perspective. It's water over the dam now, as you said.
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2021 at 9:43 AM
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  6. Vidiot

    Vidiot Now in 4K HDR!

    Hollywood, USA
    All this was true, but Walt made some enormous mistakes in his life, and could be extremely prejudiced, judgemental, and difficult. The Disney Strike of 1941 was a huge problem, and lots of key people left (or were permanently shunned), and that hurt the studio quite a bit. Some observers point out that things were never quite the same after that.

    There's conflicting reports on whether Walt was a racist or was anti-Semitic, but noted former Variety editor Peter Bart has said for years he visited Disney in 1965 for a Wall Street Journal report, and had lunch with the studio chief. At one point, Bart asked him for some financial information, and Walt said, "wait here -- let me get my Head Jew to give you some answers," :eek: and Walt brought over his CFO to give him the numbers. Bart was taken aback, but also admitted at the time, it would have been considered improper to quote a celebrity like Disney in that context, particularly in the WSJ. But Bart did tell the story decades later in one of his many books about Hollywood. Bart also pointed out that among all the major studio moguls, Walt was the only non-Jew in Hollywood, at least during the 1930s and 1940s.

    My take is that the "real" Walt Disney is somewhere between the ogre shown in the Schickele book and the genius/god shown in the Bob Thomas/Neal Gabler/Leonard Maltin books. I think Disney was a terribly flawed man, a huge chain-smoker (which ultimately killed him), an alcoholic (who was routinely ticketed for drunk driving on the way from Burbank to Beverly Hills, very temperamental, prone to fits of depression, and also somebody who held grudges against people he perceived as disloyal for decades. But I also think he was a genius who created some of the most legendary, important, and memorable films in history, I think his cartoons had a profound effect on pop culture, and I also think his combinations of technology (the multiplanar camera, live action & animation, rotoscoping) transformed filmmaking in many positive ways. Many who worked for him said that Walt was very difficult as a boss, but that he brought out the best in them and made them work harder than they ever thought possible. I think Walt was a very complicated man who would be difficult to describe fully in a single book or one documentary.

    That doesn't make the Schickel book wrong -- I think it just means the author set out with an agenda and reported quite a few facts (some of which have been disproved), then pushed them in a specific direction for a negative conclusion. It's not the first time somebody wrote a biography with mostly facts and believable interviews, done in a way mainly to sell books and be sensational; the Albert Goldman Lennon book is another example.
  7. antoniod

    antoniod Forum Resident

    Daryl F. Zanuck was also a non-Jew.
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  8. Vidiot

    Vidiot Now in 4K HDR!

    Hollywood, USA
    That's true -- actually Swiss and protestant. Still, Disney did gripe about this quite often.

    Neal Gabler's excellent book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood goes into a lot of the story from the 1920s through the 1960s, and Disney has quite a few mentions in it.

  9. antoniod

    antoniod Forum Resident

    Disney's family(except for his Grand-Niece Abigail, who was only seven when Walt died)all insist that Disney was not an anti-Semite. They point to his donations to Jewish charities, his award from B'nai Brith, his lack of objection to Diane dating a Jewish Man, and expressions of what sounds more like Philo-Semitism. And of course his many Jewish employees. In the pre-PC days people used to indulge in playful ethno-baiting, and I guess it's misunderstood now.
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  10. jbmcb

    jbmcb Forum Resident

    Troy, MI, USA
    Two things I've noticed:

    1. Those who are the most vociferous critics of art are usually those who don't create it. This is especially true of collaborative art, like movies and music. In those cases, artists are as much managers and personnel departments as artists.

    2. Those who have criticized Disney as anti-semtic or racists (or nearly anyone else for that matter) are usually people who didn't know him personally, or never worked with, or spoke to him. I think that if you are going to be lobbing such accusations at someone, especially if they are dead and unable to respond themselves, you are going to have to bring some *really* solid first hand evidence.

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