Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Uncle Ed

If you can't say sumpthin' nice...

In her 1956 book, The Story of Walt Disney, Diane Disney Miller reveals some very interesting details about her father that don't get a lot of coverage in other sources. One story in particular caught my attention because of the peek it gives into Walt's personality as a boy.

It has to do with his uncle, Edward J. Disney, who was born in 1867. One of nine children of Kepple and Mary Disney, Ed was, in Diane's words, "a case of arrested development". Ed would travel as he pleased, moving between the homes of his brothers and sisters, staying as long as he liked, then moving on when he felt it was time to go. The extended family all took Ed in and enjoyed having him around. Walt referred to Ed as "a boy who never grew up." and loved his uncle so much that when Ed dropped in to visit, Walt never wanted him to leave. Describing Ed, Walt said;

"I've never met a finer person. Uncle Ed may have been touched in the head, but he was happy. He spent hours wandering through the woods. He knew all the birds and their calls, and he knew the names of all the plants. It was a privilege to wander with him. There wasn't anybody happier and friendlier, and I loved him.  To me, he represented fun in its simplest and purest form. I never could figure out who was crazy, Uncle Ed, or everybody else."

I don't know what might qualify as "arrested development", but clearly, Uncle Ed wasn't stupid. He knew how to get around on his own. When it was time to move on, he'd head over to the train tracks near the farm and hitch a ride into town. Knowing the names of all the plants and birds also isn't a trivial achievement. One of the most obvious of Ed's traits is his child-like nature. He clearly had a kind, good and gentle heart, which must have resonated deeply with Walt.

One of the things that many Disney critics seem to have in common is a disbelief that Walt could have really been as good as his "public image". Some biographers seem to go out of their way to find examples which can be interpreted as hiding a darker side. I'm sure there were parts of Walt that could be critical and judgmental. He clearly had significant personal and professional struggles.  It would have been difficult not to pick up some "attitude" growing up having a stern parent, like his father.  But that wasn't Walt's focus. He wanted to concentrate on the positive aspects of things.

David Hand, animator and supervising director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi, says that in the early days some of the staff would see a poorly done movie and want to get a copy so they could criticize it, but Walt wouldn't allow it. He say;

"Look, don't go looking at that kind of stuff. Just look at good stuff. If you find good stuff, let's look at it, but don't look at bad stuff."

There are other stories of Walt expressing disapproval to members of his staff, but it was about the quality of the work, not personal.  Hand said Walt didn't scold people, unless they were in the "sweatbox" before a preview. (We'll talk about Walt's Three Rooms later.)

I suspect that's because Walt learned early about the pain of being criticized and the corresponding need to do things perfectly, in order to avoid further criticism and punishment.

Maybe we could all learn a thing or two from Uncle Ed.  I'm pretty sure Walt did.

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