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His Not So Wonderful World : WALT DISNEY: Hollywood's Dark Prince, By Marc Eliot (Birch Lane Press: $21.95; 281 pp.)

July 11, 1993|John Horn | Horn is the entertainment writer for The Associated Press

When the Walt Disney Co. bought independent distributor Miramax Films in April, a reporter asked Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg if the deal would send Uncle Walt spinning in his grave.

It was a fair question, given that the company built on the foundation of "Snow White" and "Mary Poppins" was suddenly in cahoots with the purveyors of the splatter movie "Reservoir Dogs" and the transvestite shocker "The Crying Game."

Katzenberg answered coldly. "I don't know," he said. "I haven't been over to the grave lately."

Walt Disney would have loved Katzenberg's obstinacy. And, despite reservations, he might have approved the Miramax deal, too, for the simple reason it met Walt's overriding priority: It was smart business. For what's startling to realize about the modern Disney studio is not that it abandoned its founder's tactics, but that it remains true to his original, occasionally ruthless, strategies.

During his upstart career and following his death in 1966, Walt Disney was uncritically cast as a creative and financial genius, a Hollywood interloper born with innate show-business savvy. With the under-publicized but essential assistance of his brother Roy, Walt executed that rare capitalist exacta of enriching himself as well as his patrons. Besides Disneyland and Walt Disney World, his legacy includes the enduring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck characters and some of the best animated films ever made, including "Pinocchio," "Fantasia" and "Dumbo." Disney was revered by children and embraced by politicians, proving amid Hays Code panic that the movie industry could in fact deliver wholesome entertainment. The company today, thanks partially to steady income from Walt's creations, stands among the world's most dominant entertainment conglomerates.

But Disney worked in what remains a particularly competitive, back-stabbing town, and while his films and theme parks are all good fun, their conception and delivery were not necessarily equally painless. Rather than reinvent the Hollywood game, Disney instead became one of its most skillful players, tirelessly repelling unions, rivals and soaring production costs. When cronyism worked to his advantage, he didn't complain, but when it hurt, he threw a fit. For example, he threw his weight behind breaking up the studio monopoly on movie theaters that kept independent films like his own off the screen. In a collaborative process, he reserved most of the credit for himself.

In fact, as depicted by Marc Eliot in "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince," Disney was the prototypical studio executive.

It's a testament to Eliot's schizophrenic and clearly unauthorized work that "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince" has worked itself onto the pages of both the New York Times and the National Enquirer. The New York Times showcased the book's revelation that Disney for 26 years was a secret FBI informer, a J. Edgar Hoover mole in the thick of suspicious actors, writers, directors, producers, union organizers and animators. The National Enquirer, on the other hand, serialized the biography, sandwiched between its usual array of celebrity diets and romantic liaisons.

Through Eliot's sometimes lurid telling, Disney comes off alternately as a visionary and as an anti-Semitic, alcohol-abusing, sexually impotent snitch. The book does not stop, though, with Disney's on-screen triumphs and backstage transgressions. It also focuses repeatedly on how Disney's allegedly illegitimate birth, adoption, political skirmishes and studios fights influenced his creative output.

In one particularly creaky armchair therapy session, Eliot tries to explain why Disney took full credit for Mickey Mouse, who was actually co-created by Disney collaborator Ub Iwerks. "By denying Iwerks credit for his role in 'giving birth' to Mickey, Walt may have been expressing more than just the symptoms of an excessive ego," Eliot writes. "He may have been, in fact, trying to avoid any doubt about the 'parental' heritage of Mickey, an echo of the lingering childhood fear and uncertainty Disney carried concerning his heritage."

Disney's Davy Crockett television show, Eliot writes later, appealed to Uncle Walt because "Crockett's courage and ideals in the face of enormous odds clearly symbolized Walt's struggles during his battles against the established powers that had dominated the (major studios) and against the Communist 'invasion' of Hollywood."

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