Walt Wednesday: Man Behind the Myth

 Welcome back to Anthony from Moved by the Mouse who is gracing us with another Walt Wednesday!

Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll confirm that I am indeed a media hoarder. In the corner of my small Queens apartment resides a veritable Matterhorn of books, CDs and DVDs. There is a very loose system of organization (something having vaguely to do with genre, period, holiday and/or alphabet), but one things is for certain: all of my Disney collections are set apart and easily accessible.

I’m actually quite proud of the items that I have amassed over the last few years. Collecting has become a bit of a sport to me with Amazon, eBay and secondhand stores serving as my playing field. There is nothing like the thrill of the hunt as you scour the shelves and screens for that out-of-print piece, which typically sells for some ungodly amount, at a reasonable price. The heart races as you press a button to bid or buy, but the greatest high is when you pull that item off the shelf, its price tag marked far below its value, and hold it in your hands, knowing it will soon be yours.

One of these moments happened a few months ago as I was perusing the Disney DVDs in one of my favorite used media joints in midtown Manhattan called Book Off. It is clean, has a fantastic selection, a friendly staff and great prices. (Don’t tell too many people about it. I don’t want it to get overcrowded. Let’s just keep it our little secret, OK?) I was eyeballing the spines when a title jumped out at me. Walt: The Man Behind the Myth. I knew that it was an out-of-print title. A quick check on my iPhone told me that it was currently going for over fifty bucks on Amazon. (The price has since crept up past seventy-five!) I slid it off the shelf to take a look at the sticker and…bingo! Seven bucks! It was promptly purchased and added to my home collection.

When the lovely ladies at This Happy Place Blog asked me to contribute to their Walt Wednesday series, my mind quickly wandered back to that DVD sitting on the shelf. I had bought it knowing that one day the time would come when an uncontrollable urge to see a documentary about Walt’s life would wash over me. Finally, that time had come and I was grateful I snatched it up when it was affordable rather than be tortured later over my inability to overpay for it online when I was finally ready to watch it. (See how we hoarders…uh…I mean collectors justify ourselves? It gets nasty.)

I haven’t been able to find a lot of background information on Walt: The Man Behind the Myth. Apparently it was first broadcast on television for the hundredth anniversary of Walt’s birth, which would have been 2001, but the DVD was released in 2004. It was made with the cooperation of the Disney Family Foundation, which has worked very hard over the years to preserve Walt’s legacy. With this film and the Walt Disney Family Museum, which I have yet to visit in person, though their website is well worth checking out, most especially its wonderfully written and informative blog, they have done an admirable job of making sure that we remember the man and not just the corporate figurehead.

The movie is beautifully done in widescreen, not feeling at all dated ten years after it was made. Employing very uncomplicated, straightforward techniques to tell the story of Walt’s life and narrated by Dick Van Dyke (always a joy to hear his voice), it follows Walt from a farm in Marceline to Walt Disney Studio during its heyday through his death. It uses home movies, new location footage and, most impressively, interviews to paint a warts-and-all portrait of Disney.

Any worries that this would be an whitewashed version of his life were put to rest when it broaches such dark times as the studio strike, the Communist witch hunts in Hollywood, and claims of anti-Semitism. Don’t get me wrong, Walt comes out the other end relatively unscathed, but this is not the place to muckrake. It’s a place to celebrate the life of an ordinary man who possessed extraordinary creative talents.

At this point, we will never have a completely accurate account of Walt’s life. Despite the film’s title, over forty years after his passing, it is inevitable that a sort of mythology will build up around him. All we can do now is gather as much information as possible to create a comprehensive tapestry of viewpoints of a man who is no longer here to speak for himself. That is where this movie shines. Imagineers, artists, family members, actors, contemporaries all lend their recollections to the mix. The fortunate timing means that it committed to celluloid a generation of them before they passed and their thoughts were lost to time. In fact, the documentary captures the great Marc Davis’ final interview. Capturing these moments is something we can truly be grateful to the filmmakers for.

I know that this DVD is hard to come by. Disney seems to take a bit too much pleasure in locking things up in their famous vault. (I’ll get you one day, Walt Disney Treasures Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, if it’s the last thing I do!) Though I can’t let you borrow my copy (sorry bout it), Walt: The Man Behind the Myth is more than worth the effort of seeking out. I promise you’ll be glad you did. If you don’t know much about Walt, it’s a wonderful way to get a pretty extensive overview of his life and if you know a lot, it’s great to be able to deepen that knowledge with firsthand accounts from those who knew him. In either case, watching it is a perfect way to reflect on the impact of this creative genius who changed the world, and each of us in turn, with his singular vision.

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