The Real Walt Disney, Not the ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Version

Many of us either think of him as a deity—innocent and imaginative—or a demon—fascist and racist—but what was the man really like? Is the truth anywhere to be found in the new film Saving Mr. Banks?

Who was the real Walt Disney? There is a moment about three-quarters of the way through Saving Mr. Banks, the new Disney movie about Uncle Walt’s attempts to wrest the rights to Mary Poppins from her very protective creator, author P.L. Travers, that strikes me as a winking reenactment, courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures, of our continuing curiosity about the real man behind Mickey.

In the scene, Travers (Emma Thompson), who is prim, snappish, repressed, and almost supernaturally English, marches into the Disney executive suite demanding to see the genial, resolute Walt (Tom Hanks). She is upset about those blasted dancing penguins. Disney promised her no animation.

Disney’s secretaries try to deter Travers. You can’t go in there, they squeak, tottering in her wake. Mrs. Travers, please! It seems that something is happening in Walt’s inner sanctum that no living soul is supposed to witness.

Travers doesn’t care. She throws open the door anyway.

And there, at last, is Walt: daydreaming at his desk, a halo of family photographs on the wall behind him—and a cigarette (gasp!) in his hand. “I’m sorry,” Disney sighs as he puts out the butt. “I’d hate to set a bad example for the kids.”

It’s true that Walt Disney wasn’t perfect, the movie seems to be saying. After all, he smoked!

How you react to this “revelation” depends on what you believe about the fellow. Disney was fairly uncontroversial while he was still alive. But ever since he died in 1966 from (what else?) lung cancer, he’s been inspiring some very mixed feelings.

If you’re the sort Disneyphile who thinks Walt could do no wrong—and there are lots of you out there on the Internet—you’re likely to see Saving Mr. Banks and say to yourself, Good for Walt Disney Pictures. They were under no obligation to show the old man warts and all—but they did. Bravo.

If, on the other hand, you’re a Disneyphobe—and there are lots of you out there on the Internet, too—you’re likely to have an altogether different reaction. Warts? you might say. What warts? When Travers barrels into that office, we should have gotten a glimpse of what Walt Disney was really like behind closed doors.

At which point you might recite the now-standard litany of “dark” Disney secrets. “Walt was a fascist.” “Walt was an anti-Semite.” “Walt was a racist.” And (if you’re the sort of Disneyphobe who dwells in the deepest, darkest corners of the web) “Walt was an Illuminati pedophile who liked to wear his mother’s dresses and lipstick and was obsessed with the human buttocks.” (None of which, by the way, is even remotely true).

Why do some of us need to believe that a figure like Walt Disney was a saint? Why do the rest of us need to believe that he was a dastardly, irredeemable creep? Why isn’t the truth about Disney good enough? It’s certainly much more interesting than either of these reductive caricatures—as the truth usually is.

The guy was hardly perfect. In 1941, Disney’s animators staged a strike that took four months—and the intervention of the federal government—to resolve. Walt was convinced that leftist agents had stirred up trouble on behalf of Screen Cartoonists Guild, and from then on he was a virulent anti-communist, even though he wasn’t particularly political. (He would go on to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a friendly witness.)

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In the 1940s, Disney’s fellow right-wingers convinced him to join an organization dedicated to ridding Hollywood of commies: the Orwellian-sounding Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Many of its members were known anti-Semites—so much so that Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner, both anti-communists themselves, refused to join. Disney had no such qualms. He also approved a pair of cartoons, Three Little Pigs and The Opry House, that poked fun at Jewish stereotypes—the former by disguising the Big Bad Wolf as a hook-nosed peddler and the latter by having Mickey dress and dance like a hasid.

Disney’s cartoons could be racially insensitive as well. In Mickey’s Mellerdrammer, the iconic mouse appears in blackface. The original version of Fantasia featured a half-donkey, half-black centaurette servant named Sunflower; in the pop-up book, she eats a watermelon. And the full-length film Song of the South was controversial even in its own time; upon its release the NAACP said it “perpetuate[d] a dangerously glorified picture of slavery.” While casting the movie, Disney himself used the term “pickaninny,” and during a story meeting for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs he “referred to the dwarfs piling on top of each other as a ‘n***r pile,’” according to Neal Gabler’s exhaustively researched 2006 biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

Disney even tangoed with Nazi sympathizers on occasion. Animator Art Babbitt claimed to have seen his boss at a pre-World War II meeting of the German American Bund, an immigrant association with “a definite pro-Nazi slant,” and former Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl once said that when she was looking for work in Hollywood after Kristallnacht, “no studio head would even screen her movies except Walt Disney.” (According to Riefenstahl, Disney “told her he admired her work” but was worried about damaging his reputation “if it became known that he was considering hiring her.”) In The Wayward Canary, from 1932, Minnie Mouse seems to own a lighter with a swastika on it, for some reason.

And yet even though Disney seems to have uttered some racially insensitive remarks, associated with anti-Semites, and met a Nazi or two, he doesn’t seem to have been a racist, bigot, or fascist himself. As Gabler—Disney’s most objective biographer and the first reporter to gain unrestricted access to the Disney archives—has written, “there is no evidence whatsoever in the extensive Disney Archives of any anti-Semitic remarks or actions by Walt,” and while he did use “a variety of crude terms for blacks … there didn’t seem to be any malice in these words, just obtuseness.” Disney hired a Jewish left-wing screenwriter, Maurice Rapf, to draft a screenplay of Song of the South, and he later approached several African-American luminaries—actor Paul Robeson, actress Hattie McDaniel, NAACP secretary Walter White, Howard University scholar Alvin Locke—for input on the film.

According to Gabler, “most of what we hear about Disney as a racist or anti-Semite was circulated by animators who had struck in 1941.” When one of them, David Swift, left Disney Studios for Columbia Pictures that year, he complained that Walt’s last words to him had been “it’s where you belong, with those Jews.” But Swift returned multiple times, first in 1945 and then in the 1960s to write and direct Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, and he later admitted that he “owed everything” to Disney. Walt seemed fond of Swift, too, reportedly telling him “there is still a candle burning in the window if you ever want to come back,” according to Gabler. And Walt “never, either publicly or privately, made disparaging remarks about blacks or asserted white superiority,” again according to Gabler's research.

In short, Disney was a fairly typical product of his era: a man who probably absorbed some racial and ethnic biases as a child in the early years of the 20th century, then worked to overcome those biases as an adult in the 1950s and 1960s—sometimes with mixed results. (He eventually distanced himself from the Motion Picture Alliance and was named “1955 Man of the Year” by the B’nai B’rith chapter in Beverly Hills.) As Gabler puts it, “the truth about Walt Disney seems much more complicated and nuanced than either his enemies or supporters would have you believe.”

So why do we still have such a bipolar relationship with Walt? I suppose both impulses—to build him up and to knock him down—make a certain kind of sense. Instinctively, many of us want to trust the man who, perhaps more than any other, shaped us as children, and who will go on to shape our children and our children’s children. Because we welcomed him into our lives when we were innocent, we’d prefer to think that Walt Disney was as innocent as we were—that his motives were always pure, his intentions were always good, and that he always had our best interests at heart.

The flip side is that, by promoting himself as an exemplar of wholesomeness and decency and childlike wonder, Disney invited our scrutiny as well. Like a pedophile priest or closeted ant-gay politician—anyone, in short, who conveys one image in public and betrays it in private—Disney is a prime target for cynics who believe that any claim of righteousness inevitably masks some sort of secret depravity. He’s good hypocrite material.

But insisting that Disney was a hero, or a villain, makes him a little less human—and a lot less fascinating. (The same is true of any celebrity, really.) Saving Mr. Banks is a perfect example. In the film, P.L. Travers is eventually persuaded to relinquish the rights to her beloved Mary Poppins when Disney shows up at her house in London, dials up the sincerity, and demonstrates that he really understands Mary—and, by extension, Travers herself. A few minutes later, Travers is sitting in a darkened theater at the star-studded premiere, smiling and weeping and singing along to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”

It’s happy ending. It’s just not true. Travers did, in fact, cry throughout the premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964. But those weren’t tears of joy; they were tears of frustration. Unlike in Saving Mr. Banks, Travers was never won over by Disney, his minions, or the movie they made together. Even at the premiere she was still pleading with Walt to axe the animated penguins. Disney’s response was brief and barbed. “Pamela, the ship has sailed,” he said. Then he walked away. Travers “spent the rest of her life maligning what she saw as the maudlin mess her Mary Poppins had become on the big screen”, and when she agreed to a stage an adaptation in the 1990s, she insisted, right there in her last will and testament, that no Americans, and certainly no one who had been involved in that dreadful Disney film, would be allowed to participate.

The Walt Disney who could have that effect on P.L. Travers and still make a great children’s movie—that’s the real Walt Disney. And he’s an inspiring Walt Disney because he’s a human Walt Disney—neither deity nor demon.

Sadly, he’s nowhere to be found in Saving Mr. Banks. At the end of the day, the man behind Mickey was hardly some sort of bitter-tasting medicine. But he wasn’t a spoonful of sugar, either.