Tom Hanks wasn’t allowed to smoke as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. The closest he was allowed to come was stubbing out a cigarette as the camera entered the room. Never mind Walt died of lung cancer two years after the events in that movie; never mind we all know he smoked like a chimney whenever there wasn’t a camera turned on him. He didn’t want to be shown smoking, so to this day, the company that bears his name does its level best to make sure that he isn’t shown smoking. The past will be how it should have been.
There are two ways to handle an untoward past. You acknowledge it and deal with its implications, or you pretend it never happened. Disney tends toward the latter, and it’s one of the things that bothers me most about them. Walt’s smoking is just one manifestation of the problem, of course, but it leads to some of the strangest results—I read this week about cast members at the parks who are expected to point with two fingers, because there are a lot of pictures of Walt gesturing with two fingers for some reason, and gee, what’s that all about? It’s not that they’ve airbrushed out a cigarette, obviously; it must be a weird way of pointing, right? Right!
It’s ever so slightly Stalinist, really. Those photos that started out as group pictures but were, after enough purges, just Stalin alone. I mean, Michael Eisner didn’t have Jeffrey Katzenberg airbrushed out of pictures—that I know of. But Fantasia is not a whole movie anymore. Melody Time. Make Mine Music. And that’s just of movies that have been released in the last thirty years; I saw Song of the South in the theatre in 1986 and on a Japanese bootleg in college in 2000 and do not expect to see it in an official release any time soon.
And I mean, don’t get me wrong; some of what’s been erased is a lot worse than smoking. Song of the South inarguably does not feature happy, singing slaves—because it’s set after the Civil War. That doesn’t mean it has great racial politics for all that. Is it better to completely wipe out the performances of people like James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel than to show children such blatantly stereotyped performances? Man, that’s a long discussion. But Disney won’t even release the film for academic settings. And I mean, it was cinematographer Gregg Toland’s first Technicolor film, which is worth looking at for that reason.
But how many of you thought Song of the South was about happy, singing slaves? And of those of you who did, how many of you had seen it? So much of what Disney hides gets whispered about and exaggerated. I read speculation once that one of the reasons there’s so much urban legend that Walt was cryogenically frozen was that the family kept his funeral arrangements low-key. (Perhaps ironically, he was cremated.) What they erase is bad; by erasing it, they give rise to certainty that it’s worse.
As I always say, this is where I give the win to Warners. Their releases of their cartoons is blunt—some of the stuff in their cartoons is awful. Racist, sexist, you name it. Because that was the prevailing attitude at the time. I don’t know that sunlight is always the best disinfectant, but I think that being open and honest about how Walt may have shared the common anti-Semitic tendencies of someone born when and where he was makes people less likely to insist he wore SS pajamas in his secret lair under Pirates of the Caribbean.
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