My friend Pastor David Ramirez condemned Disney on FB, describing its staff as "groomers."  I added the following comment:
As a child in the 1950s, my father--not a conservative but a Democrat--discouraged us from going to Disney movies, though he did not object to anything about Duckburg and its citizens. When, as an adolescent, I asked him about this, he said he disliked the gooey sentimentalism and lack of reality and he pointed out the contrast between the sappy world of Disney and traditional fairytales and Mother Goose rhymes, Greek mythology, Aesop's Fables, etc.
The one Disney production he encouraged us to watch was Treasure Island, which, though it was sentimentalized, did feature the fine actor Robert Newton. If he had been of my generation, he might have summed up Disney productions as "campy." While I disagreed with many things my father advocated, I sensed he was right on this and always ridiculed Disney, his movie and theme parks, to my own children.
My former colleague Allan Carlson used to say that a small number of men reengineered the American dream after WWII, and he named, among others, Walt Rostow, Henry Luce, and Walt Disney. I believe he admired all of them and their handiwork, but I used to argue, sometimes just to annoy him, that the world that Luce and Disney invented was a Potemkin Village, but, as it turns out, it was more like Fire Island.
This inspired a lively discussion, in which one commenter quoted Tolkien's refusal to have anything to do with Disney, and another quoted his forestry professor's statement that Disney had corrupted the American understanding of nature.  In response, I recalled that my good friend Bill Mills, outdoorsman, poet, fiction writer, used to say that Disney not only ruined the way Americans think about nature but had also turned them into vulnerable saps who think lions and bears are cute. My father was also a great hunter and fisherman, and I only wish I were one tenth the outdoorsman that he was, but that too was one of his objections to the Disneyfication of America. As I watched Americans cowering in fear over a bloody virus, I could only imagine how they would face a night alone in the woods without iPhone, iPad, or GPS.
One of the commenters ruefully contrasted the world of the 1950's with our own dark days. Of course he is correct. For many people who have kept their eyes open, the past 60 years have been an ever-deepening nightmare, but we should not blind ourselves to the shaky foundations of 50's America. Marriage was already fragile, as the high divorce rates revealed, and the revolution that began in after WW I had been only temporarily stalled by Depression and War. Eisenhower had already fired the opening shots that initiated the second Reconstruction, making the hack lefty Earl Warren the Chief Justice, the assault on States Rights launched against Arkansas, etc.
People look for a single cause here and there, but anyone who had paid attention to Paul Goodman and Jack Kerouac or listened to the Southern Agrarians over the years or observed the changing trends in music and pop culture in general would have predicted some kind of earthquake.
Few of the so-called conservatives seemed to have a clue: An important exception was my old friend Russel Kirk, the Bohemian Tory, who praised Paul Goodman and endorsed Eliot's critique of modernism. Would I go back to that funny world dominated by petit bourgois hypocrisies? In a heartbeat, but was it a Golden Age? Hardly, it was the age of television, which Newton Minnow the FCC chairman famously described in a speech to American broadcasters: I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland."
What the prophetic Elliot, in his pre-Christian darkness, had glimpsed in 1922, the banal lawyer and bureaucrat saw enacted all day long on TV screens forty years later.
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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

10 Responses

  1. William Wilson says:

    Pinocchio, said my friend and great Dante Scholar, Tibor Wlassics, is the greatest children’s story ever written down;
    but Disney “destroyed it forever, as indeed he is destroying the mind of all American children.” I cringe to think of what Disney will do to Joseph and his Bothers (Genesis 37-50), have no doubt he will take it on and destroy it too.

  2. Ken Rosenberger says:

    Outstanding, Dr Fleming. This sums up and articulates my own feelings about Disney: rotten from the get-go. Down with Walt!

    The true reactionary instinct is repelled by Disney’s smarmy world. 100% pabulum. Sentimentalism is death. My own parents wouldn’t have it on in the house, but they more or less forced my brother and me to sit still and be illuminated by WC Fields, Laurel & Hardy, & The Marx Brothers. Also films like Harvey & Arsenic & Old Lace. I appreciate them so much for that, although it was a few years before I understood what a Ubangi might be up to in the fuel supply.

  3. William Shofner says:

    The greatest moment in the world of Disney was that day in 1948 when it released to theatres across the US the magnificent “Song of the South”; sadly, Disney committed seppuke in 1970 when it announced in “Variety” that it had permanently retired this work. This film captured the spirit of America’s Aesop ( Joel Chandler Harris) and the tales of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear and shared them in song and animation with millions on Sunday evenings across the country during various editions of the Disney television show broadcasted weekly during the ’50’s and early ’60’s. Such a movie and its recreation in parts on TV was Disney at its finest; but the day it terminated the distribution of all and any portions of this movie was the day that Disney died…at least it was the day it died in my heart and in the heart of many, many others.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Prof Wilson, your friend is exactly right. As a boy, I found Pinocchio both moving and disturbing, and, when I reread it perhaps 20 years ago, I found it even more impressive, but, then, I have often thought that the only children’s books worth reading could be read with pleasure by adults.

    Ken, my parents actually took me to see Harvey when I was 5 or 6 years old. I enjoyed it though I could have understood very little of it. My father also loved the Marx brothers, though my mother–like many good women–did not. Fields, in my view, is in a class by himself or perhaps one that also includes Buster Keaton. I have seen “You Can’t Cheat an Honest man” 3 or 4 times and would watch it tonight with pleasure. Edgar Bergen, not much of an actor in his own right, was a brilliant comic so long as he had Charlie or Mortimer. Their radio shows, when they featured Fields, were incredible. There is one broadcast, with Don Ameche as announcer, in which Fields gets tangled up telling a story about an uncle and reverts to a gag of several weeks before about his own accident. When he breaks into the “clang clang” of the emergency vehicle, poor Ameche–a very find comic actor in his own right–breaks down and cannot quit laughing. The only thing comparable I’ve heard on the radio are those sublime moments when Spike Milligan, who suffered from all sorts of serious psychoses, would start dressing himself down. Poor Peter Sellers, brilliant as he was, could not contain himself.

    I am grateful to the Marx brothers for a specific reason. I was down on my luck in San Francisco: No job, no money, no apartment–had to vacate that very day. I had pawned an expensive tape recorder for $50 and loaned the money to a pal who promptly skipped town. I had turned down a job offer as executive trainee with Met Life after realizing how ruthless their claims division was, and I was faced with a terrible job as waiter in a hotel for retired seniors, where my pay would be a dingy bedroom without bath that I had to share with a Chinese Red Guard College student and two meals a day in the incredibly lousy dining room. Bleak. I had a buck and spent it at the Powell Street movie theater, where they were playing a double bill of “The Prince of Players” (Richard Burton as Edwin Booth”) and “Night at the Opera.” After the Marx brothers, I could not be bothered by anything. I cheerfully took the rotten job, where I could earn a few dollars doing extra shifts or odd jobs and spent my nights barhopping and going to jazz and rock and roll clubs. In my off hours, I read Suetonius and the English Decadents on the roof of the hotel or out in Golden Gate Park. Six months of that, enjoyable as it was, made a return to graduate school seem attractive. I owe it all to Groucho, Harpo, and Chico.

  5. Ken Rosenberger says:

    Priceless memories of Baghdad by the Bay. All that & Lou Reed too?

    I always thought that if I ever met Jimmy Stewart, he would have been exactly like Elwood P Dowd. I think the next time someone asks me, “What can I do for you?” I will reply “What did you have in mind?”

  6. Raymond Olson says:

    Disney went down the chute after WWII. He dumbed down his astonishing animated films by simplifying, if not altogether jettisoning, the techniques that make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Bambi so amazing to watch; by hiring dumber composers and lyricists to make the songs for the animated features; and pacing those features ever more frenetically (Peter Pan, the last good Disney animation, forecasts the debacle in its friction-burn-producing dialogue delivery). While the deliberately but imaginatively simplified imagery of Dumbo, adopted to cut production coast, forecasts the downfall, it was Lady and the Tramp and then, decisively, the execrable 101 Dalmatians and the even more loathsome Sleeping Beauty that set the tone that persists to this day, as far as I know. Disney’s live-and-cartoon action films were, if anything, worse to begin with, though So Dear to My Heart(1948) as well as–as Mr. Wilson points out–Song of the South (1946) are worthwhile. At its best, Disney animation balanced sentimentality and the mockery of it, though in the latter end only because kids were generally becoming more critical. This 1950s kid was, by the time Lady and the Tramp appeared, poised for a new comic book, MAD, on those creaky revolving wire racks in the Rexall store. It lampooned Superman, Batman, Sherlock Holmes, King Kong, the Lone Ranger, and more comics-and-TV icons advanced for juvenile worship, and it suited this kid to a T. Oh, it dumbed down, too, eventually; indeed, rather shockingly soon with the palace takeover by William Gaines. Fortunately, the genius who wrote virtually every word in the earliest MAD issues, Harvey Kurtzman, went on to helm two more and arguably better cartoon humor monthlies, Humbug and Help!, before the financial stress crushed him. By then, he’d made hardened anti-sentimentalists and, better, anti-commercialists out of a lot more young boys than just this kid. At least, I hope he did.

  7. Michael Strenk says:

    Patrick McGoohan listed two Disney pictures that he did, The Three Lives of Tomasina, and Dr. Syn as his best work after The Secret Agent. I haven’t seen either (that I can remember) and am unlikely to as they don’t appear to be available – a good sign that they are probably decent films.

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I think, to be careful, one should distinguish Disney the animator/director from Disney the entertainment mogul, and Walt Disney from the people who actually wrote and directed some of the movies. Disney himself did some technically interesting films in the early days–though the rewriting of the traditional stories is repulsive–and later on people who worked for him made pleasant films and TV shows. Overall, though, I maintain my position that he was, certainly after WW II, a terrible influence on American culture. The only good thing I have go say about “Bambi” is that it inspired Bambi vs Godzilla.

  9. William Shofner says:

    The most enjoyable lectures that I attended while in college…by far… centered around, believe it or not, a wonderful Disney work: “Fantasia”. YES; Disney produced magical movies before WWII, as Tom and Mr. Olson noted above.

    Leonard Bernstein, who was the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry during my sophomore year at school, presented two programs focused exclusively on this remarkable 1940 work by Disney. I felt like I was in Disneyland of the gods. (With these lectures, I think that I at last got something of lasting value out of my time in school during the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, when madness raged on campuses everywhere.)

  10. Dom says:

    I can’t understand the Disney fascination with King Louie the ape. He featured prominently in the original Jungle Book cartoon and, as I understand, in the remake. However, he was not just not in the book; his very character is completely antithetical to the concept of the bandar-log who have no law and no king and no memory.
    Many of the old Disney films are appealing in themselves, but they strip too much substance from the original stories.

    In fairness, I heard the remake, which I did not see, did a good job with the bandar-log war.