The Godless Side of Walt Disney

A new PBS documentary shows the master animator as a tough, unfair boss—but dodges his anti-Semitism. Walt Disney Company/Reuters

There's an old wives' tale still in circulation at the Disney company, and it goes like this: Roy Disney, the older brother and business partner of Walt Disney, was caught inspecting some off-limits zone of Disneyland while the park was still under construction.

Upon his discovery, the alleged trespasser was asked by a security guard, "Who do you think you are? God?"

"Not at all," replied Roy. "I'm God's brother."

Apocryphal or not, this anecdote does not surface in the likewise dry but for the most part reverential PBS portrait American Experience: Walt Disney, the first of whose two installments premieres Monday, September 14. (Check local listings.) But over the course of the lengthy chronicle by independent filmmaker Sarah Colt, plenty else does, including some reminders if not downright revelations that may color one's long-held perception of the 20th century cultural icon who gave the world Mickey Mouse.

Besides his peerless creativity, Diz, as his childhood friends in his native Midwest called him, was a rakishly handsome young man who maintained an eternal boyishness his entire life (1901-1966) and, as he proved time and again, a hardheaded personality entirely immune to naysayers. He also was a doting father who wanted to have 10 children, an ambitious desire that would leave the constantly driven artist devastated when his wife, Lillian, miscarried before the family finally grew to include daughters Diane and Sharon.

As was true with most of the emotional upheavals in his lifetime, the loss was not a topic Disney would discuss, nor would anyone dare broach it in his presence. Rather, Disney would opt to withdraw into himself and face paralyzing bouts of self-doubt—chain-smoking and drinking scotch with a lemon peel and chipped ice also greased his wheels—until eventually he would permit his personal sentiments to be expressed through his revolutionary screen work.

This was also a man who, though available to his wife and children, could claim no real friends, and whose most intimate confidante over the course of many years was a nurse at his studio named Hazel George. Her constant presence at the end of his workday, to ease his chronic back pain from an old polo injury, was strictly platonic, the documentary insists. (Side note: Despite long being a subject of debate, Disney's reputed anti-Semitism is never so much as hinted at during the four-hour span of the film, a 600-pound Dumbo in the room Colt couldn't sidestep in her previous PBS project, Henry Ford.)

In terms of his childhood, Disney's was one of economic hardship, and late in the documentary it also is suggested that the emotionally detached father at the core of Mary Poppins could easily have been based on Disney's own father, Elias, whose relationship with his younger son never ran a smooth course. On the other hand, no mention is made as to whether the steady parade of dead mothers who populate the Disney canon of classic animated features could conceivably represent Flora, Disney's mother, who tragically succumbed to a carbon monoxide leak in the California house the Disney brothers had built for their parents after their windfall from Snow White.

Not that life's setbacks were strictly a family affair. As an employer, Disney may have been generous when it came to his boys' club of high-ranking company executives, but his callous treatment of studio underlings was truly jaw-dropping. The most egregious example involved the women who toiled endless hours as animation colorists only to be deprived of comfortable working surroundings, let alone a living wage.

When in spring 1941 his workforce expressed dissatisfaction, Disney, having long pulled down a weekly salary of at least $2,000 (nearly $32,000 a week today), was openly contemptuous. Calling all employees into an assembly on the lot, the studio chief used harsh language to berate and blame them for not bettering themselves on their own.

A strike was ignited, and when physical violence erupted on the lot, Disney removed himself to South America for a 10-week vacation, leaving the problem at the studio to his brother. As a result, in October 1941, his brother settled the walkout by giving the workers everything they wanted, and Disney gave the world José Carioca.

Disillusioned and forever distrustful of the environment he had helped create, Disney developed a private file on all those who had been "unfriendly" toward him. From the start of the conflict, the great storyteller imagined Communist agitators lurking behind the scenes to organize his studio, despite his total lack of evidence. Keeping his fury alive but at low flame, he sought revenge in 1947 by appearing as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington. There, based solely on what he admitted were only his suspicions, Disney named his longtime foe, union organizer Herbert Sorrell, as a Communist.

"If you crossed him," a veteran Disney animator says about his onetime employer, "he was a mean SOB."

He also could be completely deaf when others tendered advice. Because the company's version of life was uncomplicated and idealized, Disney, though warned repeatedly, foresaw no problems with his telling of Joel Chandler Harris's antebellum folktales, Song of the South. He merely deemed the combined live-action and animated project, with its overly simplistic take on the master-slave relationship, as the Disney answer to Gone With the Wind. And so it was—an immense box-office hit in 1946 that nevertheless served as the target of an NAACP boycott. (The film today remains out of circulation.)

"It's as if Walt divorced himself from social context," art historian Carmenita Higginbottom says in the documentary. "It's sort of stunning."

Then again, Disney knew better than anybody the brand he had created, the man he was and what the country wanted from him—and what he, in turn, wanted from the country. Such self-realization would eventually allow him to create his greatest expression of himself, Disneyland.

At one point in the documentary, however, son-in-law Ron Miller recalls Disney screening To Kill a Mockingbird for his entire family and declaring, "Boy, that was a helluva picture." Then he lamented, "I wish I could make a picture like that."

Even Walt Disney, it seems, was aware of his restrictions. What this documentary does is put them on stunning display for everyone.

Stephen M. Silverman is a critic and journalist whose latest book, The Catskills, will be published by Knopf on October 27.