Video: The Secret Life Of Walt Disney

Last week, we called your attention to Fletcher Markle’s Walt Disney Interview, a film shot for Canadian television in 1963. Thanks to Walt’s candid answers – and the filmmakers’ bare-bones “no cutaways” approach, which keeps the camera focused on Disney for long, uninterrupted stretches throughout the half-hour interview -it’s a great portrait. Disney is gracious, self-effacing, unselfconscious and enthusiastic.

Those of you who loved that video… will hate this one. Fair warning.

It is an episode of a British TV series titled Secret Lives, the premise of which seems to be: “…find fifty minutes worth of dirt on a well-known personality most people tend to like, and then assassinate that person’s character.”

The accuracy of the information presented in Secret Lives is almost beside the point; we know that Disney had flaws, made mistakes, and was mean-spirited on occasion.

Secret Lives presents Walt’s career and reputation as conspiracy, and it is not very subtle in that mission.

When the first scene appears – footage of the young Walt at his desk in Kansas City – it is accompanied by ominously unsettling music that might have been appropriate… had Disney been at work designing a bomb. And it’s downhill from there.

The first interview clip comes from animator/director/producer Bill Melendez, who, with Lee Mendelson, created the critically acclaimed and universally beloved Peanuts TV specials. Melendez passed away last year at 91, and I don’t doubt that he was a sensitive, compassionate individual.

But boy, how much did he hate his ex-boss Walt Disney? He’s positively gleeful as he punches huge holes in the public’s perception of “Uncle Walt.”

Melendez is the most severe critic. As such, the program comes back to him again and again. But animators, authors and even an ex-”ink and paint girl” all take their best shots.

We hear from Marc Eliot, author of Walt Disney, Hollywood’s Dark Prince (“A rare tour through Disney’s World – an empire of power and vengeance… now updated with new FBI information”). This is the book which animation historian (and Disney biographer) Michael Barrier termed “…a Disney biography unparalleled for sheer awfulness… packed with errors and distortions.”

We hear from Richard Schickel, author of The Disney Version, a critical biography published only a couple of years after Walt’s death, which Disney fans didn’t take to very kindly.

And we see some pretty remarkable footage, not only newsreel shots of the studio before, during and after the strike, but also carefully selected “damning excerpts” from the Disney films themselves. The producers must have had a huge budget for stock footage, since they couldn’t reasonably claim “fair use.”

If this program is used as a guide, Disney’s “Secret Life” ended in 1947 with his HUAC testimony. Everything that happened in the nearly twenty years after that date is summarized in little more than a sentence. Then – bam – we’ve hit the end credits.

Secret Lives seeks sensation more than truth; if it happens to find both, so much the better. But it tips its hand and agenda in its title, opening credits, and marvelously mismatched music that suggests that Kansas City Walt – that reprehensible rascal and robber baron-to-be, the guy who would later create that ridiculous Fantasia movie during the tiny amount of time he had available after washing his hands thirty times per day – was plotting world animation domination through deception from day one.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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Video: Walt Disney Interviewed By Fletcher Markle

Many audio and video biographies of Walt Disney have pulled clips or sound bytes from a 1963 interview conducted by Fletcher Markle, an actor-announcer-writer-producer-director who had just finished directing Disney’s The Incredible Journey.

Markle began his career in radio, working in later Orson Welles Mercury Theatre productions, where he met actress Mercedes McCambridge, whom he married in 1950. While working in radio on Studio One, the program made the transition to television, and so did Markle. His later credits include directing and producing episodes of Boris Karloff’s Thriller.

For all his industry savvy, Markle appears a little stiff and formal during the interview with Disney. This may have simply been his style, since his affect is nearly identical in other interviews he conducted, most notably with Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Marnie, probably shot just before or after the Disney interview. (From time to time, it sounds like Markle’s cadences and pronunciation result from an effort to sound like Orson Welles!) There are few cutaways to Markle during the single-camera interview; the focus stays on Disney in long takes, making this 30 minute conversation a rare and illuminating glimpse of Disney in his 60’s.

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The Mouseketeers (And A Mooseketeer) on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow Show, 1975

The original Mickey Mouse Club presented five new hour-long episodes each week during the 1955-’56 and 1956-’57 TV seasons.

In ‘57-’58, the show started slipping away, cut to five half-hour programs per week.

In ‘58-’59, the lights were still on in Mickey’s Clubhouse, but nobody was home.

Production had shut down, and Disney resorted to re-cut half-hour reruns. The loyal viewers who remained to watch the repeats had the unusual opportunity to relive a portion of their childhood while they were still children.

By the Autumn of 1959, these kids had no idea what to do with themselves at 5 p.m. on weekdays. It was in that forlorn condition that they entered the sixties, mere months later, which might just explain the entire decade.

After three years of clublessness, reruns of the show again became available through local syndication, and MMC ran in this manner for another three years, from 1962 through 1965.

If you were eight when the show had premiered, you were a teenager by the second go-round, and distinctly embarrassed if not appalled by how much you used to love this juvenile entertainment. It was left to a new group of eight-year-olds to pick up Mickey’s fallen banner.

As the Mickey Mouse Club returned to the air in September of 1962, the Beatles went into the studio with their new drummer, Ringo Starr, to record six tracks. By the time the MMC “went dark” again, the Beatles had played Shea Stadium and received their MBE’s.

The show then made a strong bid for obscurity, remaining “dark” for ten long years. Depending on my math skills – and the month of our fictional eight-year-old’s birthday – the kid is now 28.

Not old – but not feeling so young, either. “The Sixties” really began in ‘63 or ‘64 (the Kennedy assassination or The Beatles, take your pick) and really ended in ‘74 or ‘75 (Watergate or the draft, your pick once again). This third time around elicited acute nostalgia from the original audience, now fueled by memories of what, in retrospect, seemed a far simpler time. Some of them were watching as the Club reconvened on January 20th, 1975, when the second series of reruns began.

That same evening, The Tomorrow Show With Tom Snyder videotaped an episode featuring original Mouseketeers Darlene Gillespie, Sharon Baird, Lonnie Burr, Cubby O’Brien, Tommy Cole, and Cheryl Holdridge (who died earlier this month at 64). For the many original viewers who were now allowed to stay up late and watch people smoke, the hour-long Tomorrow Show was the electronic equivalent of a grade-school reunion. And, especially for those who were watching their first rerun, it must have been something of a shock.

You see, each morning, you get up, you look in the mirror, and, barring misfortune, you see almost exactly the same face you saw yesterday and will see tomorrow. You never see yourself age. You only come to realize how old you are obliquely, by encountering some other face you haven’t seen in a long while. At that point, logic kicks in: I don’t feel older, but if that person is older, then I must be older.

If it weren’t for those damn Mouseketeers, and those damn memories of winter days when the fading sunlight in our TV rooms imperceptibly accomplished a cross-dissolve with the blue glow from our black and white sets, we could have stayed young forever.

As always, I suggest a visit to The Original Mickey Mouse Club Show fan site.
Why? Because I like you.

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