Mickey Mouse is a lovable character, responsible for making millions of children smile. His creator, however, for all his talent, was a somewhat darker creature.
There were two Walt Disneys. The one the Disney Corporation would like you to remember was a twinkly, avuncular fellow who, through his cartoons, bought joy to millions. The other was an extreme right-wing sympathiser (he supported the American Nazi party), anti-Semite, McCarthyite tough, FBI stooge, male chauvinist and closet homosexual. Admirers and detractors agree on one point, though: as far as animation went, old Uncle Walt was a genius.
Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago in 1901, the youngest of five children. His childhood was not a particularly pleasant one: the family moved around and Disney Sr. was a violent man who treated his children like manual labourers. Unsurprisingly, young Walt withdrew and spent a great deal of time doodling. After the first world war, Disney moved to Kansas City and became a graphic artist. However, he was fascinated by animated films and, in 1920, took a job working on commercials. But advertising couldn't hold him for long - he wanted to work in entertainment and, after a couple of abortive attempts, made his way to Hollywood with $40 in his pocket. Disney soon struck his first deal and went on to pen his first character, 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit'. Disney, as naive as his character was cute, signed away the rights to Oswald and was royally shafted by his distributors.
Stripped of Oswald, Disney went back to the drawing board, vowing only to work for himself, and came up with the character that was to make him rich, Mickey Mouse. Mickey's first two films did well enough, but it was the third, Steamboat Willie, a sophisticated 'talkie', that really made the mouse's name - the rodent earned a fortune, though Hollywood's cartelesque distribution system meant that Disney again saw little of it. Finally, in 1930, Walt bit the bullet and signed a lucrative distribution deal with Columbia. Mickey was marketed worldwide and quickly became an institution.
The overworked Walt fared less well, suffering a nervous breakdown.
After a prolonged rest, Disney returned refreshed (and compos mentis) and decided to break new ground, with a feature length animated film.
Snow White - all 250,000 hand-drawn frames of it - cost four times its original budget of $250,000, but its 1937 release vindicated its creator who used the proceeds to build a remarkably forward-thinking village studio. After Snow White, Disney devoted himself to features and soon Pinocchio was forthcoming. Despite the success of Pinocchio and the following films, by 1940 the studio's debts necessitated selling $4 million worth of equity. Troubles were compounded when the cartoonists walked out; here Disney's darker side showed itself when he bought in strong men to break up the strike and denounced individuals as communists. Indeed, by this time he was in cahoots with J Edgar Hoover of the FBI.
Meanwhile Uncle Walt threw his animated muscle behind the war effort, mobilising his creations for God and country. His patriotism cost him, however, and, by 1945, the studio was once again heavily in debt while its Hollywood stable mates were doing well. The seriously anti-Semitic Disney saw this as another example of the Hollywood Jewish community putting its own interests first.
Though finances remained rocky, Disney's name continued to grow, so in 1953 he set up Buena Vista as an in-house distribution company. He also signed a lucrative, long-term contract with ABC Television, resulting in the phenomenally popular Disneyland Show and the Mickey Mouse Club, the latter, he invited Hoover and his cronies to vet for subversion.
Disney's next move was to make his creations flesh (or at least plastic). A theme park had been mooted since 1948 and after considerable fund-raising difficulties, Disneyland opened in 1955 in southern California. Here, Walt got it absolutely right: the park anticipated both the baby-boomers and a still-innocent America's appetite for saccharine family fun perfectly. Indeed, even that red bogeyman, Nikolai Kruschev was sorely upset when his 1959 visit to the park was cancelled on security grounds. By the 1960s Disney presided over a sprawling family entertainment empire but, unsatisfied, he bought 27,000 acres near Orlando and the towers of a second magic kingdom, Disney World, began to rise above the Florida swamps. But Disney never saw his dream complete: he died of lung cancer in 1966, aged 65. It was his wish to be cryogenically frozen, though to this day no one is sure whether he was iced or simply cremated.
Disney World opened in 1971 and repeated its predecessor's success, though, after that the company rather lost its way until Michael Eisner ascended the throne of the Magic Kingdom. Ironically enough, the man who reversed the company's fortunes, Eisner, was Jewish. What would Uncle Walt have made of this final irony? To find out, we'll have to wait until the technology to thaw and reanimate his frozen corpse becomes available.