Walt Disney, Prophet of Middle America
Thursday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of filmmaker and theme-park creator extraordinaire Walt Disney. Despite Disney’s status as a beloved icon of popular culture, he remains woefully under-appreciated as a filmmaker — especially for his live-action productions, which are often dismissed as trite or inconsequential. As I explain in my book Walt Disney and Live Action, that assessment is far from the truth.
During the last decade of Disney’s life, America underwent tumultuous changes, some good (like advances in civil rights), but others troubling, such as the fracturing of family structure, the rise of moral relativism, and the unrestrained growth of big government. Although most film critics failed to notice, Disney — the prophet of middle America — addressed these topics and more throughout his films.
The Deeper Side of Disney
The Light in the Forest (1958) tackled contemporary racial prejudice in the guise of an eighteenth-century drama about a white youth raised by Native Americans who tries to integrate back into white society. Moon Pilot (1962) poked fun at the nihilism of the emerging counter-culture in San Francisco. A Tiger Walks (1964) skewered the news media’s cynical manipulation of politics. The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963) satirized officious federal bureaucrats.
But perhaps the contemporary issue most effectively explored by Disney’s live-action films was the disintegration of the modern family. The Parent Trap (1961) delivered a profound indictment of no-fault divorce in America. Starring Hayley Mills, Brian Keith and the inestimable Maureen O’Hara, this comedy was one of the top-grossing films the year it was released. By the end of the film, it has become clear that the love which sustains a marriage must be founded on something more substantial than mere physical passion — it must be founded on humility and mutual submission.
The Parent Trap may have been one of Disney’s most direct efforts to comment on modern family life, but it was far from the only one — and sometimes the commentary came when one least expected it.
Mary Poppins and the Modern Family
Consider Disney’s celebrated musical Mary Poppins (1964). Strip away the magical nanny and the chimney sweeps and one finds a wry and witty film about the perils of the modern household. The Banks family in the film is the epitome of the modern two-career family, where both husband and wife are so engrossed by their own activities that the children are left to fend for themselves.
Mrs. Banks is consumed by her devotion to the women’s movement; Mr. Banks, by his quest for wealth and status in his profession. The two make an interesting couple, for they seem almost as alienated from each other as they are from their children. This becomes apparent at the very start of the film in the parents’ opening songs. When Mrs. Banks first appears on the scene, she sings about women’s liberation. “From Kensington to Billingsgate,” she booms, “one hears the restless cries/ from every corner of the land/ ‘Womankind arise!’/ Political equality, and equal rights with men/ Take heart, for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clamped in irons again!”
Walt Disney taught generations of Americans important truths about ourselves and our society.
In perfect counterpoint, Mr. Banks marches through the door a few moments later and expresses the exact opposite sentiment: “I’m glad to be an Englishman in 1910. /King Edward’s on the throne/ It’s the Age of Men!”
The result is an utterly dysfunctional household where neither parent has time to take care of the children. The father is off at work all day and couldn’t care less about his children when he comes home each night; and Mrs. Banks is so obsessed with fighting for women’s rights that she hasn’t time to be a mother. So the couple dispose of their children through the British version of daycare: They hire a nanny.
Mary Poppins quickly sets the family in order. Part of her job is to teach the children (Jane and Michael) how to behave. But her more important task is teaching the parents about taking the raising of their children seriously. In order to fulfill the latter mission, Mary Poppins precipitates a crisis with Mr. Banks at his bank by convincing him into taking his children there on an outing. While there, Michael inadvertently causes a run on the bank by shouting “Give it back! Give it back!” when the head banker tries to snatch Michael’s tuppence for a savings account.
Because of the run on the bank, Mr. Banks loses his job; but through the wise counsel of Bert, the chimney sweep, the disaster ultimately liberates him.
Mr. Banks is now free from the constraints of the quest for power and success, free to give the attention to his children that they require. He recognizes at last that his children — and their love and respect — are more important than money and prestige.
The final scene is revealing. The father has stayed up all night to repair a broken kite that earlier in the film he had spurned as not worth his time. The next morning he presents the kite to his children, and they all go kite-flying together. The father has redeemed himself.
The mother’s redemption is more subtle, but just as significant. The one thing missing from the kite, it seems, is its tail. The mother offers to supply it by giving up the suffragette band she had worn at the beginning of the film. She too has realized that her children are more important than her career. This household will no longer need a full-time nanny. The parents have finally grown up.
A New Appreciation
Walt Disney deserves to be appreciated not only for his animated films and his creation of the Never-Never land known as Disneyland, but also for the way he taught generations of Americans important truths about ourselves and our society. If you haven’t watched a Walt Disney film for a long time, the half-century anniversary of his death might be a good opportunity to rediscover Disney’s live-action legacy.
John G. West is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and author of Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s (Theme Park Press, 2016).