Assignment 1: Readings Response
your own words, drawing on the readings for this week, write a summary
of about 1000 words that describes how Walt Disney himself (his art and
his politics) evolved up through the post-war period, and how Disneyworld was an extension of that evolution. Please include your thoughts on the main features of Disneyworld and how it reflected Walt Disney’s worldview.  Then describe how, in your own view, the current incarnation of the Disney media empire does or does not adhere to the ideas about popular culture discussed in Grazian’s Chapter 6 “Risky Business.”The link to the video’s: plagerism free 100% good QualityJournal of Urban History
Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Film Noir, Disneyland, and the Cold War (Sub)Urban
Eric Avila
Journal of Urban History 2004; 31; 3
DOI: 10.1177/0096144204266745
The online version of this article can be found at:
Published by:
On behalf of:
The Urban History Association
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Film Noir, Disneyland, and
the Cold War (Sub)Urban Imaginary
University of California, Los Angeles
This article takes popular cultural expressions as a window onto the transformation of the American city after World War II. First, it considers the film genre known as film noir as evidence of a larger perception of social disorder that ensued within the context of the centralized, modern city, which peaked at the turn of the
century. Second, it turns to Disneyland as the archetypal example of a postwar suburban order, one that
promised to deliver a respite from the racial and sexual upheaval that characterized the culture of industrial
urbanism. Together, film noir and Disneyland illuminate the meanings assigned to the structural transformation of the mid-century American city and reveal the cultural underpinnings of a grass-roots conservatism
that prized white suburban homeownership. Ultimately, this article emphasizes the interplay of structure and
culture, demonstrating the linkage between how cities are imagined and how they are made.
Keywords: popular culture; suburbanization; race and ethnicity; Disneyland; film noir; whiteness
Urban life in the United States underwent a dramatic transformation toward
the middle of the twentieth century. To the extent that one can think of the history of the American city as a series of successive but overlapping paradigms,
the 1930s marked the beginnings of a transition from the modern, industrial,
centralized city, which emerged around the turn of the century, to the postwar,
decentralized urban region. The shifting concentration of public resources and
private capital, coupled with federal incentives toward suburban home ownership among broader segments of the population, accelerated the pattern of
decentralized urbanization in postwar America and decimated the economic
and social life of the inner city. The regional biases of such development were
manifest in the postwar ascendance of the Sun Belt, which cradled a compelling vision of the suburban good life, whereas an “urban crisis” took shape
within the Rust Belt cities of the industrial Northeast. 1
This transition accompanied a profound reconfiguration of social relations.
In the second half of the twentieth century, after a wave of labor strikes during
the mid-1940s, class gradually subsided as the discursive basis of social conflict, whereas racial and gendered divisions assumed greater prominence.2
JOURNAL OF URBAN HISTORY, Vol. 31 No. 1, November 2004 3-22
DOI: 10.1177/0096144204266745
© 2004 Sage Publications
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What role the spatial transformation of American society at midcentury played
in this development, however, requires additional exploration. The postwar
suburban boom created a space, literally and figuratively, for reinstating racial
and sexual barriers that weakened within an ascendant urban liberalism that
reached its zenith during the 1930s and 1940s. As the racially exclusive patterns of postwar suburbanization facilitated the “blackening” of American
inner cities, white flight reflected and reinforced the racial resegregation of the
United States. And whereas the modern city incorporated women into public
life—as workers and consumers—postwar suburbanization placed greater
demands on women to return to the private sphere to resume their traditional
responsibilities as mothers and wives. Creating a space for a return to normalcy, the postwar suburban boom offered a setting in which to restore traditional divisions between the races and the sexes.3
Urban historians, geographers, and sociologists have measured and
mapped the political, economic, and social transition from the modern industrial city to the decentralized urban region, but the cultural corollary to this
process has been overlooked. White flight during the postwar period necessitated the formation of a new cultural order, one that marked an exchange of the
heterogeneous, anonymous, promiscuous spaces of the centralized city for the
contained, segregated, homogeneous experiences of the decentralized urban
region.4 This article explores that transformation through the lens of popular
culture, considering the mid-1940s debut of film noir as a popular genre of film
and the successive opening of Disneyland in 1955. Both cultural productions
posited a critique of the modern city and its typical pattern of social relations,
and both arrived alongside the heightened thrust of postwar suburbanization.
If film noir situated its indictment of the racial and sexual promiscuity within
the spatial context of the modern city, Disneyland offered a suburban antithesis, modeling a new sociospatial order that took shape along the fringes of the
urban core. The juxtaposition of film noir and Disneyland within their historical context illustrates a key cultural tension between a reinvigorated suspicion
of urban modernity, on one hand, and a suburban retreat from the black city
and its disordered culture, on the other. This tension underscored the post–
World War II construction of a white suburban ethos and encompassed the
political unconscious of a “silent majority” still in its formative years.5
Not too long ago, a generation of historians discovered the culture of the
modern city as a rich field of historical inquiry and illustrated how diverse
groups of Americans collectively experienced the transition to urban modernity through a burgeoning set of cultural institutions. In world’s fairs, expositions, movie palaces, amusement parks, spectator sports, and night clubs,
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urban Americans reveled in the “new mass culture” that electrified the landscape of the American city at the turn of the century. As the preeminent
metropolis of the nineteenth century, New York City dominated this discussion as the city’s cultural institutions facilitated the transition from a Victorian
social order, with its strict separation of classes, races, and sexes, to a new cultural order, one that promoted a promiscuous set of interactions among a motley crowd of urban strangers. In New York City, as well as in its urban counterparts at the turn of the century, the crowded venues of the new mass culture
reflected the ways in which urban Americans negotiated the perils and pleasures the modern city.6
The vitality of the new mass culture, however, rested in no small part on the
economic fortunes of the great industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest, but such fortunes began to contract toward the middle of the twentieth
century. The Great Depression crippled the urban economies of New York
City, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago, but perhaps more than any other singular event, World War II undermined the hegemony of urban industrial society and culture by initiating the deconcentration of public resources and private capital. Beginning in the early 1940s, the federal government actively
promoted industrial decentralization as a strategy to protect a burgeoning military-industrial infrastructure from the event of an air attack. When the Chrysler Warren Tank Plant took advantage of federal incentives to open on an undeveloped tract of land some fifteen miles north of downtown Detroit in 1941, for
example, it augmented the suburban model of postwar industrial development
that weakened the economic vitality of traditional urban centers. 7
The urban crisis initiated during the war years was as much social as it was
economic. World War II unleashed a wave of racial violence in the nation’s cities, demonstrating the level of discomfort that accompanied the sudden diversification of urban society. The great migration of African Americans from the
rural South to wartime centers of employment in the Northeast, Midwest, and
Far West “blackened” the face of American cities considerably and aroused
hostility from local whites, whose sense of entitlement to defense jobs rested
on an entrenched conviction of white supremacy. On June 6, 1944, for example, ten thousand white workers at Cincinnati’s Wright aircraft engine plant
staged a wildcat strike to protest the integration of the machine shop. Race
riots exploded in cities elsewhere. The year 1943 delivered a moment of
intense racial violence for the nation’s cities, as race riots erupted in New York
City, Detroit, and Los Angeles, where the infamous Zoot Suit Riots between
white sailors and Chicano youth demonstrated the extent to which other racial
groups besides African Americans were implicated within wartime racial tensions.8
As American cities festered with racial violence during the war years, an
emergent pattern of suburbanization materialized during and after World
War II and offered a setting removed from such tensions. Again, the federal
government played no small part in this development. Housing policy under
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the New Deal administration set the stage for the postwar suburban boom and
offered incentives to industrialists and aspiring home owners to abandon the
nation’s urban centers. In particular, the creation of the Homeowners Loan
Corporation, the Federal Housing Administration, and, later, the Veterans
Administration stimulated the national market for housing construction by
shifting the focus of urban development away from the inner city and toward
the suburbs. But, as historians have demonstrated, the discriminatory measures built into federal housing policy created the basis for the racial resegregation of postwar America. The urbanization of African Americans throughout and beyond the war years coincided with the largest phase of mass
suburbanization in American history, in which millions of Americans who
qualified themselves or were qualified as white realized their dream of suburban home ownership. Generally, excluded from the greatest mass-based
opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history, African Americans
and other minority groups largely remained concentrated within decaying
cores of urban poverty. The racial dimensions of the postwar urban crisis thus
gave rise to “chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs,” which became the dominant
paradigm of race and space after World War II.9
As a generation of white Americans pursued their dreams of home ownership in the suburbs and as the face of the American city blackened considerably in the aftermath of that exodus, it is not difficult to understand how the
culture of industrial urbanism entered a period of decline. Reports of the
demise of the new mass culture circulated throughout the networks of public
discourse in postwar America, and not surprisingly race emerged as a primary
explanation for this development. For example, though Coney Island at the
turn of the century reigned as the capital of modern urban culture, the New York
Times reported in 1962 “Coney Island Slump Grows Worse,” drawing attention to the postwar plight of the amusement park. Amidst the many reasons
cited for Coney Island’s decline, “concessionaire after concessionaire” agreed
“the growing influx of Negro visitors [to the park] discouraged some white
persons to the area.” Three years later, Steeplechase Park, the first of Coney
Island’s great amusement parks, became the last, closing its doors forever.10
Chicago’s Riverview Park experienced a similar fate. Once billed as the
world’s largest amusement park, Riverview stood on 140 acres of land on the
city’s northwest region. Whereas Riverview enticed an ethnically diverse
array of pleasure seekers throughout its sixty-four-year popularity, the amusement park could not withstand the changing demographics that ensued in the
era of racial desegregation. By the 1960s, Riverview entered a period of rapid
decline, and on October 3, 1967, Riverview closed its doors forever. The Chicago Tribune explained that the park’s “natural defenses began to crumble.
Racial tension ran rampant inside the park.”11
Amusement parks were not the only genre of popular amusement that fell
by the wayside. Urban baseball parks that grew alongside amusement parks
encountered similar difficulties during the postwar period. Philadelphia’s
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Shibe Park, for example, once hailed as the crown jewel of ballparks, lost
much of its appeal among baseball fans during the 1950s. In 1970, Bob Carpenter, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, removed his team from its inner-city
locale, convinced that baseball was “no longer a paying proposition” at Shibe
Park and that its location in “an undesirable neighborhood” meant that white
baseball fans “would not come to a black neighborhood” to see a ball game.12
Similarly, in the aftermath Walter O’Malley’s infamous decision to move the
Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, one disappointed fan pointed to
Brooklyn’s changing racial profile to explain O’Malley’s decision: “I guess
O’Malley was like everybody else, as long as you’re not my neighbor, it was
okay. But once [blacks] started to live in the neighborhood, it was time to move
Clearly, a complex interplay of factors contributed to the decline of these
cultural landmarks, but in the era of desegregation, a perception emerged that
black urbanization facilitated a retreat from the modern city and its culture
among a white public. Such a perception informed the tenor of American popular culture as far back as the early postwar period. Take, for example, that
body of American film that critics and historians have identified as film noir.
Coined by French film critics in the late 1940s, film noir describes a cycle of
American filmmaking roughly spanning the ten years following the end of
World War II. Defined as a genre, a mood, a sensibility, and a movement, film
noir eludes precise definition but includes a diverse array of crime dramas
ranging from individual case studies of murder and criminal deviance to more
general treatments of gangsters and organized crime.14
Historical assessments of film noir tend to emphasize the experience of the
war and its effects on the nation’s psyche, but when viewed through the lens of
urban history, the genre reveals some striking perceptions about the American
city and its culture at midcentury. One of film noir’s defining characteristics,
after all, is its use of the modern city as setting and subject. Unlike the gleaming spires of the Wizard of Oz, however, the noir city exposed the seedy side of
urban life. Noir’s dark urban vision resonated throughout its titles: Dark City,
City of Fear, The Naked City, and Cry of the City. The noir vision of urban life
drew on a representational tradition in Western culture. In contrast to the
Enlightenment view of the Western city as the summit of social progress, film
noir emphasized the social and psychological consequences of urban modernity. Based initially on the writings of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler,
and James Cain, and with striking parallels to the paintings of Reginald Marsh,
George Bellows, and Edward Hopper, noir’s erotic portrait of an urban wasteland intonated a deep ambivalence toward the midcentury American metropolis. By the 1940s, as the postwar urban crisis took shape, film noir translated
the literary and artistic visions of urban malaise into a more popular cinematic
discourse that paralleled the midcentury fate of the American city.15
Film noir targeted those urban spaces that best conveyed its vision of urban
malaise. The tenement, for example, is a recurrent noir setting, identified as an
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appropriate milieu for noir’s gallery of urban deviants. Its peeling walls, dingy
lighting, and rickety stairs frame the encounters between prostitutes and their
johns in Act of Violence and hide the monstrous fetishes of child molesters in
M. Film noir featured other spaces of the modern city in its blighted urban
landscape. Desolate train stations and abandoned warehouses, vacant streetcars and late-night diners, deserted alleys and empty sewers, seedy nightclubs
and tawdry amusement parks: these were the landmarks of film noir and they
symbolized of the brand of industrial urbanism that entered a period of decline
at the outset of the postwar period.
Noir’s portrait of urban life focused on the social disorder that ensued
within the spatial context of the modern city. In particular, as film historians
have demonstrated, noir emphasized the degraded state of sexual relations at
the outset of the postwar period. Similar to African Americans, women
entered urban public life in unprecedented numbers in the early 1940s, as the
female workforce in the United States rose from eleven million to nearly
twenty million during the war years.16 But the very public profile of “Rosie the
Riveter,” particularly within the nation’s cities, aroused animosity toward
women who abandoned traditional social roles. As men returned from the war
front to resume the routines of work and family, film noir channeled such animosities into its alluring yet disturbing portrait of a new breed of public
woman—sassy, conniving, and out to undermine masculine authority through
her many misdeeds. The femme fatale resurfaced with a vengeance in American culture vis-à-vis film noir, but the urban context in which she debuted
underscored the dangers of a promiscuous urban world where the gendered
divisions between public and private life dissolved. Film noir saw the ascendance of such actors as Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwick, and Veronica Lake,
who perfected the image of the public woman and modeled a clear contempt
for the traditional role of women as guardians of the private sphere.17
Noir’s urban vision of sexual disorder had a racial corollary as well. By the
mid-1940s, amidst the blackening of American cities, film noir—translated
from French as “black film”—offered a recurring portrait of the promiscuous
mixing of the races. Film noir dramatized a larger discourse of race that likened the denigrated condition of blackness to white criminality. In this capacity, film noir echoed a larger discursive affinity between white deviance and
black identity. For example, the National Association of Real Estate Board
issued Fundamentals of Real Estate Practice in 1943, which advised real
estate agents to be wary of those living on the margins of respectability:
The prospective buyer might be a bootlegger who could cause considerable
annoyance to his neighbors, a madam who had a number of call girls on her
string, a gangster who wants a screen for his activities by living in a better neighborhood, a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites. . . . No matter what the
motive or character of the would-be purchaser, if the deal would instigate a form
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of blight, then certainly the well-meaning broker must work against its consummation.18
Within the discourse of real estate industry at midcentury, race and deviance
went hand in hand. In their marketing of a suburban alternative to urban blight,
real estate agents likened blacks to the city’s deviants: bootleggers, madams,
call girls, and gangsters. But within their definition of “blight,” the racial distinctions between black people and white deviants disappear. To real estate
agents and presumably their white clientele, blacks are akin to the white criminals who reside within the noir city: all are equally undesirable as neighbors.
Film noir deploys a similar discourse. In the noir city, white criminality and
black identity are mutually constitutive. The morally corrupt white folks who
inhabit the noir city, for example, often are viewed alongside black service
workers—servants, custodians, garage attendants, shoe shine boys, Pullman
porters, and jazz musicians—suggesting their ease within the city’s black
underworld. In Double Indemnity, for example, arguably the quintessential
film noir, Walter Neff depends on a colored woman to look after him. After he
executes his plans for murder, he relies on the black janitor of his apartment
building for an airtight alibi. Throughout his many crimes, Neff’s whiteness is
compromised by his conspicuous position alongside African Americans.
Moreover, noir’s innovative and masterful use of light and shadow reinforced
the symbolic blackening of white deviants. Darkness pervades the noir screen,
always encroaching on the sources of light within the frame. Noir’s deviants
often are mired in blackened cinematic compositions as if to illuminate their
corrupt souls. Throughout He Walked by Night, for example, the face of a violent psychopath, never seen in its totality, is marred by dark shadows, reinforcing the black connotations of white criminality.19
As film noir coincided with a general retreat from the blackening spaces of
industrial urbanism, the genre honed in on those spaces that sanctioned racial
and ethnic transgression. The nightclub and its exotic music offer a quintessential noir setting where the boundaries between whiteness and blackness
blur. In Criss Cross, Steve Thompson wanders through downtown Los
Angeles, stumbling into “the old club,” where he is hypnotized by the haunting
music of Esy Morales and his Rhumba Band. There, Thompson reignites a
relationship with an old flame that leads him to his demise. In D.O.A., as Frank
Bigelow sacrifices his engagement by swinging with “jive crazy” women in a
San Francisco nightclub, the camera focuses tightly on the black face of a
trumpeter, reinforcing the racialized milieu of urban nightlife. And in T-Men,
as two undercover agents from the treasury department venture into a Chinatown nightclub to pursue a mob moll who fancies silk kimonos and fastens
tiger lilies to her hair, a vaguely Asian music enhances the mood of mystery
and danger. The nightclub, a prominent cultural institution of the Swing Era
that sanctioned racial intermingling, figured prominently with noir’s portrait
of urban malaise.20
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Ultimately, film noir identified a crisis of white masculinity at the outset of
the postwar period, but the spatial context of that crisis demands an awareness
of how filmmakers and their audiences at midcentury shared a perception
of the modern city as a detriment to traditional models of social order.
Noir’s parade of “weak men,” rendered so memorably by the acting of Fred
MacMurray, Robert Mitchum, and Burt Lancaster, underscored the destabilization of the white male identity within the topsy-turvy world of the modern
city. Duped by conniving women at every turn and mired within the shadows
of the black city, noir’s white male antiheroes met their demise within the culture of urban modernity. As many Americans craved some semblance of normalcy after the social turmoil of depression and war, and as they satisfied that
yearning by removing themselves, physically, from the racialized spaces of
the new mass culture, film noir prefigured the need for a “new” new mass culture, one that offered an alternative to the modern city and its degraded culture.
Recent scholarship emphasizes the degree to which black urbanization and
white suburbanization belonged to a larger set of social, economic, and political processes that enabled the transition from the centralized metropolis to the
decentralized urban region. For this reason, popular culture in the age of white
flight included a suburban antithesis to its noir vision of urban life. If film noir
dramatized the degraded condition of the black city, Disneyland premiered the
cultural mythography of suburban whiteness. Arguably the preeminent cultural impresario of postwar America, Walt Disney took deliberate steps to
model his theme park as the very antithesis of its New York predecessor,
Coney Island. In its proximity to freeways, its highly disciplined ordering of
space, its validation of patriarchy and the nuclear family, and its thematic
emphasis on racial distinctions, Disneyland provided a spatial articulation of a
new suburban ethos that millions of Americans adopted in their claim to home
ownership after World War II.
Disney’s decision to locate his new theme park in Orange County, California, underscores the significance of that region to the shifting basis of cultural
capital in postwar America. Whereas Detroit suffered the most severe effects
of the postwar urban crisis, Orange County profited handsomely from the
westward migration of federal defense expenditures during the cold war. In the
decades following World War II, the region sheltered the development of a vast
military industrial complex that for decades provided Orange County’s main
source of income. The growth of a regional defense industry, in turn, spurred
suburban development, as ranchers turned property developers and real estate
speculators marketed affordable, suburban tract housing units for an expanding middle-class population. Orange County’s expansion during the postwar
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period was nothing short of spectacular. While in 1940, 130,760 people made
their homes in Orange County, that total reached nearly 1.5 million by 1970.21
The very newness of Orange County’s suburban communities created a cultural space for the resurrection of traditional social values that seemed to dissipate within the promiscuous spaces of the noir city. Removed from Southern
California’s dominant urban center and far distant from the cosmopolitan culture of eastern cities, Orange County fostered a distinctive political identity
that increasingly appealed to groups of Americans disaffected from decades of
New Deal liberalism. In a region sustained by a militarized economy, a staunch
nationalism and a rigid defense of the American way took shape against the
presence of un-American outsiders, whereas the privatized nature of suburban
growth in the region nurtured a homegrown appreciation for the values of privacy, individualism, and property rights. The region’s remarkable social
homogeneity, moreover, coddled an antipathy toward the expansion of a collectivist welfare state and a repudiation of federal interventions on behalf of
civil rights activists and other special interest groups. By the 1960s, Orange
County sheltered a conservative populism that catapulted New Right ideologues such as Ronald Reagan into California’s and ultimately, the nation’s,
highest public office. With 72 percent of its electorate voting for Reagan in
California’s 1966 gubernatorial election, Orange County first emerged as
“Reagan Country” toward the end of the postwar period.22
Orange County sustained a political culture amenable for not only Reagan’s
postwar metamorphosis from a crusader for the New Deal to an ideologue of
the New Right but also Walt Disney’s foray into other cultural enterprises
besides filmmaking. In fact, as if to underscore the ideological affinities
between the two men, Reagan “starred” at the opening ceremonies of Disneyland held on June 17, 1955. Both Reagan and Disney emerged as men of their
time, embracing a set of values that resonated with an expanding middle class
who sought refuge from the disordered culture of the modern city within the
well-ordered landscapes of suburbia. Not unlike Reagan, Disney underwent a
political transformation during the cold war, in which his hostility grew toward
those groups whose gains during an era of New Deal reform threatened to
undermine the postwar prospects for resurrecting the American way: intellectuals, racial and ethnic groups, labor unions, and, most of all, Communists.
After an embittering experience with labor unions during the war years and at
the height of cold war anxiety, Disney retreated into a vision of a homogeneous
WASP folk who for him embodied the traditional values of hard work, rugged
individualism, tightly knit families, and traditional gender roles. Such values
inspired the basis for not only a spate of Disney films including Davy Crockett,
Swiss Family Robinson, and Pollyanna but also the creation of Disneyland.23
As postwar Americans withdrew from the racialized spaces of the modern
city, Disney labored to create a cultural alternative to its noir culture. The war
years left Walt Disney Productions in financial disarray, prompting company
executives to seek alternate venues in which to market Disney products.
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Following his foray into television, Disney began to think seriously about the
creation of an amusement park, and he expressed the “need for something
new” but admitted that he “didn’t know what it was.” He was clear, however,
about his aversion toward that paragon of urban industrial culture: Coney
Island. The showman once remarked that Coney Island and its generation of
amusement parks were “dirty, phoney places run by tough looking people.”
After visiting a dilapidated Coney Island in the course of planning Disneyland
in the mid-1950s, Disney recoiled from “its tawdry rides and hostile employees.” Subsequent admirers of Disneyland affirmed Disney’s indictment of
Coney Island. New York Times reporter Gladwin Hill asserted that Disneyland
marked a departure from “the traditionally raucous and ofttimes shoddy
amusement park,” delighting in the fact that Disneyland eliminated the “ballyhoo men to assault [the visitor’s] ears with exhortations to test his strength,
skill, courage, digestion or gawk at freaks or cootch dancers.”24
Disney repudiated the slick cynicism of the noir city and sought to restore
the innocence and wonder that seemed lost on generations of urban Americans. Raised by a strict father who cautioned against the “corruptive influences
of a big city,” Disney remained suspicious of modern urban culture throughout
his life. His disdain for New York City, for example, became public after the
success of Disneyland. When asked by a reporter to consider New York as the
site for a second theme park, he dismissed that suggestion in large part because
he doubted the capacity of New Yorkers to embrace the Disney worldview.25
“He said that audience is not responsive,” recalled Disneyland’s chief architect
and Disney’s close associate, John Hench, “that city is different.” Hench also
elaborated on Disney’s conviction that urban modernity preyed on the moral
conscience of Americans:
In modern cities you have to defend yourself constantly and you go counter to
everything that we’ve learned from the past. You tend to isolate yourself from
other people . . . you tend to be less aware. You tend to be more withdrawn. This
is counter life . . . you really die a little. . . . I think we need something to counteract what modern society—cities—have done to us.26
Having to “defend yourself constantly” became a hallmark experience of the
noir city, especially at places like Coney Island, where women, particularly
unescorted women, were forced into a defensive posture against the unwanted
advances of lustful men. As Kathy Peiss discovered in her study of working
women and popular amusements in New York at the turn of the century, the
typical shopgirl at Coney Island was “keen and knowing, ever on the defensive . . . she distrusts cavaliers not of her own station.”27
Disney deplored modernity’s sacrifice of innocent virtue. The average citizen, he once remarked, “is a victim of civilization whose ideal is the unbotherable, poker-faced man and the attractive, unruffled woman.” Disney’s revulsion toward the poker-faced man and the unruffled woman echoed earlier
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cultural anxieties about “confidence men” and “painted women” in antebellum America. Much like the trickster figure of various folk cultures, the confidence man was the seducer who preyed on the naïveté of the strangers, particularly women, for self-aggrandizement. The confidence man, however, unlike
the trickster, owed his existence to the modern city in the first half of the
nineteenth century, where individuals could lay claim to new and higher
social status through deceit and manipulation. In her study of middle-class
culture in nineteenth-century America, Karen Haltunnen located cultural anxieties about confidence men and painted women within the rapid expansion of
the city and its ambiguous social milieu. “Hypocrisy,” the art of deceit and
manipulation mastered by the confidence man, “paid off in an urban environment.” Though removed from the historical context in which middle-class
moralists denounced the rise of confidence men and painted women, Disney,
in his critique of phoney amusement parks, poker-faced men, and unruffled
women, shared a similar antipathy toward the hypocrisy and deception that
defined social relations in the urban world of strangers.28
To combat the dissonance and heterosociality of the noir city, Disneyland
presented a counterculture of visual order, spatial regimentation, and social
homogeneity. Reacting against what Disney criticized as the “diffuse, unintegrated layout” of Coney Island, the park’s designers sought to maximize control over the movement of the crowd through the meticulous organization of
space. Whereas Coney Island had multiple entrances and exits, Disneyland
offered only one path by which visitors could come and go. Upon entering the
park, visitors began their day in Main Street, USA, a central corridor built as a
replication of a small-town commercial thoroughfare that channeled pedestrians toward the central hub of the park, “from which the other lands radiate out
like spokes in a wheel”—Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and
Adventureland. The spatial organization of Disneyland reflected the designers’ intentions to direct the continual movement of people with as little indecision as possible. “Each land is easy to enter and easy to exit,” asserted one Disney official in a speech to the Urban Land Institute, a national organization of
urban developers, “because everything leads back to the central hub again. The
result is a revelation to anyone who has ever experienced the disorientation and
confusion built into world’s fairs and other expositions.”29
Disneyland’s location alongside the Interstate 5 freeway, moreover, underscored the degree to which park designers situated Disneyland within the burgeoning spatial order of the postwar urban region. As Southern California garnered state and federal monies toward highway construction during the 1950s,
freeways increasingly dictated regional patterns of development. Following
the advice of the Stanford Research Institute—a think tank promoting industrial development in California—Disney strategically situated his theme park
alongside the proposed route of Santa Ana freeway and built what was the largest parking lot in the nation at the time. So vital was the freeway to the success
of Disneyland that it earned a permanent place inside the park. Among the
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thirteen original attractions included in the park’s opening in 1955, the
Autopia Ride in Tomorrowland was a “real model freeway,” not unlike the
“motorways of the world of tomorrow” that highlighted the “Futurama”
exhibit of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Situated between a rocket-ship ride
and the “Voyage to the Moon” attraction, the Autopia Ride demonstrated Disney’s optimistic vision of the future and how freeways constituted an integral
part of that vision. Like almost every other attraction within the park, and very
much unlike the titillating sensations of Coney Island rides, the Autopia Ride
had a didactic function, “constructed to acquaint youngsters with traffic conditions on the highways of tomorrow.”30
The location and layout of Disneyland reflected a larger spatial culture that
took shape within the myriad suburban communities that sprouted across the
terrain of the decentralized urban region. Lakewood, for example, emerged
alongside Disneyland in the early 1950s, and it reflected the intense preoccupation with order that followed the heyday of the noir city. Like the designers
of Disneyland, the builders of Lakewood positioned their development in
between the proposed routes for two major freeways and incorporated the
principles of efficiency, uniformity, and predictability into its design. Typical
of postwar suburban development, Lakewood was built on the grid system, a
fraction of a larger grid on which Southern California’s decentralized urban
region took shape. At the center of Lakewood’s grid stood Lakewood Center,
an outdoor pedestrian mall featuring one hundred retail shops and a major
department store. Similar to the way in which the designers of Disneyland
organized space to exert maximum control over the vision and movement of
the crowd, the architects of Lakewood Center implemented a rigid spatial
order to create a self-contained environment dedicated wholly to consumption.31
Lakewood also implemented a set of innovations in municipal government
that effected a more homogeneous social environment. In 1954, the developers
of Lakewood struck a deal with the county of Los Angeles. For minimal costs,
Los Angeles County would provide vital services (fire, police, library) to
Lakewood, which incorporated as an independent municipality. Contracting
services from county government without submitting to its authority, the citizens of Lakewood escaped the burden of supporting county government and
enjoyed a greater degree of control over the social composition of their community. “Local control” became a mantra among suburban Southern Californians, whose widespread use of the Lakewood Plan minimized the kind of
racial heterogeneity that characterized the modern city and its culture. Given
the degree to which the Lakewood Plan effected racial segregation within the
context of Southern California’s increasingly diverse urban region, one policy
expert concluded, “The Lakewood Plan cities were essentially white political
If the Lakewood Plan enforced a literal distance between white and nonwhite people within the postwar urban region, Disneyland underscored that
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development by asserting a figurative distinction between suburban whiteness
and racial otherness. Race and racial difference figured prominently among
Disneyland’s many themes. Frontierland, for example, described by publicity
materials as “a land of hostile Indians and straight shooting pioneers,” featured
Indians among its main attractions. There one also could find Aunt Jemima’s
Pancake House, a recreation of a southern plantation where an African American woman, dressed as “Aunt Jemima did . . . on the plantation . . . was on hand
everyday to welcome visitors warmly.” Aside from featuring a southern
mammie, Disneyland included other stereotypes of African Americans.
Adventureland, for example, beckoned visitors to “the sound of native chants
and tom-tom drums,” where the Jungle Cruise attraction featured “wild animals and native savages [that] attack your craft as it cruises through their jungle privacy.”33
The racial dimensions of the Disneyland experience surfaced not only in
those places of the park where images of blacks and Indians prevailed but also
where such images did not appear. Main Street, USA, promoted as “everybody’s hometown,” and “the heartline of America,” reiterated Disney’s populist idealization of a WASP folk. Richard Hofstaeder noted in the Age of
Reform the latent xenophobia within the populist sensibility, which, although
seeking to maintain “the primary contacts of country and village life” also
cherished a vision of “an ethnically more homogeneous nation.” That vision
guided the design of Main Street, USA, where the absence of mammies, Indians, and savages reified Disney’s racialized and deeply nostalgic vision of the
American “folk.” The exclusion of African Americans and their history from
the representational landscape of Main Street was most glaring in the “Great
Moments with Mr. Lincoln” exhibit, which debuted in Disneyland in 1966.
The “Audio Animatronic” Lincoln recited a speech designed to elicit patriotic
sentimentality, although making no mention of such divisive conflicts as slavery or the Civil War.34
The point here is not to elicit scorn or indignation but rather to understand
such racialized representations within their spatial and historical context.
White Americans have long maintained a fascination with race and its
representation in popular culture, but the contours of race relations had
changed significantly in postwar America. After World War II, which brought
unprecedented levels of racial cohabitation in American cities, a new generation of white Americans, or at least those who qualified themselves as such,
looked to the decentralized urban region as a place that could maintain separate and not necessarily equal communities. In the aftermath of the Supreme
Court’s 1948 ruling against racially restrictive covenants in Shelley vs.
Kraemer, and amidst an explosion of civil rights activism, cultural stereotypes
of nonwhite racial groups affirmed the racial distinctions that seemed to dissipate within the politically charged climate of a nascent civil rights era. Disneyland, removed from the “darker” shades of the inner city in Orange County yet
permeated with representations of racial difference, provided a space where
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white Southern Californians could reaffirm their whiteness against the fictions
of the racial other.35 Given the battles that Southern California’s white home
owners subsequently waged against such public initiatives as fair housing,
busing, and affirmative action, it is not difficult to comprehend how Disneyland’s racial representations prefigured the racial underpinnings of a white
suburban identity.
If the presence of Aunt Jemima at Disneyland signaled the subordinate
position of blacks within Disney’s vision of social order, it also symbolized the
subservient position of women in that order as well. Disneyland’s delineation
of a social order appropriate to the tastes and values of an expanding suburban
middle class included an emphasis on patriarchal social relations and the centrality of the nuclear family.36 Suburbanization provided a setting in which
postwar Americans could confront their anxieties about the changing position
of women in American society, seeking comfort in cultural representations of
domesticated housewives and stable nuclear families. Disney’s effort to position the “typical family of four” at the center of the Disneyland experience signaled yet another departure from amusement parks of Coney Island’s generation. The New York Times, for example, described Disneyland “not as a place
where anyone would casually go to take a roller coaster ride or buy a hot dog,
but as the goal of a family adventure.”37
Paradoxically, it was in that section of the theme park touted as a “show
world of the future” where park designers chose to insert a traditional vision of
gender roles. Tomorrowland featured as its centerpiece the “Monsanto House
of the Future,” which invited park visitors to preview “how the typical American family of four will live in ten years from now.” When the house opened to
the public on June 12, 1957, models Helen Bernhart and John Marion acted the
part of the model couple at home. Photographs depicted the husband relaxing
in the “psychiatric chair,” which afforded “therapeutic relief after a hard day at
the office,” with his aproned wife standing in the “Atoms for Living Kitchen.”
Adhering to the reigning vision family life in postwar America, the interior
space of the House of the Future was divided according to the individual needs
of family members. The home’s cruciform plan ensured “added privacy for
various family activities,” separating the children’s room from the master bedroom. A step-saver kitchen opened onto the family-dining room, an arrangement “convenient and perfect for party entertainment.” As postwar Americans
looked to suburban home ownership as means of restoring some sense of normalcy, Disneyland’s House of the Future depicted a futuristic setting where
women could return to traditional gender roles. 38
Moreover, the emphasis on domesticity and private life at Disneyland signaled a shifting cultural focus away from the urban spaces of working-class
culture and toward the suburban spaces of middle-class home ownership. In
the modern city of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, private life
belonged to those privileged enough to enjoy the comforts of a townhouse, a
carriage, or a private club, whereas the city’s working class crowded within the
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congested spaces of tenements houses, streetcars, and entertainment venues.
In the postwar urban region, as greater numbers of Americans attained suburban home ownership through a generous set of public policies, the focus of
American popular culture, as Disneyland demonstrated, gradually shifted
away from the public venues of the noir city to the private spaces of the home.
Thus the park’s emphasis on familial domesticity reflected not only a desire to
return to traditional gender roles but also a more general valorization of private
life that appealed to growing numbers of Americans who entered, or at least
aspired to, the ranks of the middle class after World War II.
Disneyland is a complex cultural phenomenon, and there are other aspects
of the theme park that underscore its significance to the transformation of
urban culture and society at midcentury. Nonetheless, when viewed comparatively alongside simultaneous cultural developments, the theme park illustrates a broader cultural transformation that accompanied the changing configuration of the postwar American city. In its spatial organization, as well as in
its thematic emphases, Disneyland asserted a repudiation of the noir sensibility that captivated the American public at the outset of the postwar period. By
the mid-1950s, as the heyday of film noir began to wane, a new set of film genres won favor with the public—science fiction, musicals, westerns—that not
only upheld traditional models of social order but also delivered the kind of
happy endings that were absent from film noir. Disneyland appeared at this
cultural moment, delivering its own happy ending to the midcentury transformation of urban life, at least for those who acquired the privileges and comforts of suburban home ownership. As film noir rendered its obituary for the
modern city and its new mass culture, Disneyland heralded a new spatial culture that stressed order without complexity, pleasure without danger, and
sociability without diversity.
The new suburban cultural order exhibited in film noir and at Disneyland
also included other cultural institutions. Television’s ascendance as a dominant cultural medium during the 1950s lowered the curtain on the grand movie
palaces of the nation’s inner cities and rendered the experience of going out on
the town an inconvenient waste of time. Suburban shopping malls similarly
offered a car-friendly alternative to the downtown department store, where the
dire shortage of parking repelled a generation of Americans increasingly wedded to their automobiles. Freeways emerged on top of defunct streetcar lines,
introducing a more privatized means of moving rapidly through urban space.
The interior settings of the “new” new mass culture provided that very refuge
that film noir dramatized a necessity for. Its disciplined, contained, and
detached spaces removed consumers from the public realm of decaying cities
and modeled idealizations of a new cultural order that captivated a new generation of home owners eager to create their own suburban retreat from the noir
These idealizations, moreover, delivered more than mere entertainment.
They also provided a blueprint for a nascent political subjectivity that surfaced
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in places like Southern California during the 1960s, where a new conservative
idealism took shape that aimed to restore traditional patterns of racial and
gendered relations. No one better personified that new subjectivity than Ronald Reagan, who championed such principles as property rights, private enterprise, law and order, family values, and small government in his political metamorphosis from New Deal Democrat to New Right Republican. Well attuned
to the dawning sensibilities of an expanding suburban public, and affiliating
himself with the spectacles of the “new” new mass culture Reagan fashioned a
new political agenda by channeling the values hovering within the larger culture. Film noir, fixated on the disordered culture of the black city, corroborated
Reagan’s claim in the aftermath of Los Angeles’s Watts riots that the urban
“jungle is waiting to take over” white suburban communities, whereas Disneyland modeled the very order that his core constituency aspired to.40 Both cultural productions articulated a deep-seated hostility to urban modernity, both
stressed a return to traditional patterns of social order, and both pandered to the
political aspirations of an emerging silent majority that retreated from the public culture of the noir city into the private realm of suburban home ownership.
Popular culture in the age of white flight thus expose the linkages between
structure and culture during the post–World War II period. Disneyland, like
film noir, owed its existence to the very real transformations that wrought new
patterns of urban life in postwar America. Disneyland’s calculated proximity
to new freeways and its suburban location underscored the park’s anticipation
of accelerated patterns of decentralized development, whereas film noir
refined its techniques of on-location shooting to capture an authentic portrait
of urban malaise. In their vital relationship to the postwar transformation of the
American city—and it is well to remember that that process happened not simply through the collusion of unseen, abstract social forces but rather through
the very conscious efforts of developers, planners, policy makers, and home
owners—film noir and Disneyland codified the anxieties and ambitions, as
well as the perceptions and assumptions, widely shared by a public who abandoned their cities for suburban jobs and housing. Their relationship to the postwar emergence of “chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs” was neither incidental
nor merely reflective. In modeling popular aspirations toward a new sociospatial order, popular culture in the age of white flight thus enabled the very
realization of that order.
The cultural history of the American city illuminates how previous generations of Americans have imagined city form, social order, and the proper relations between the two. Urban imaginings are indeed slippery subjects for the
historian to grasp, but popular idealizations of urban life often shape the very
real process of making cities. Daniel Burnham’s White City, for example,
which debuted so triumphantly at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893,
inspired a generation of urban planners who brought the classical imagery of
the Beaux Arts style to bear on the landscape of the American city at the turn of
the century. And for better or for worse, few can doubt the impact Disneyland
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has had on the contours of contemporary urbanism in the United States. Urban
cultural history provides a window onto the urban mythography of the past and
present—that catalog of simulations and hallucinations that contain our deepseated fantasies and anxieties about the metropolis and its place in American
1. Sam Bass Warner, Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900 (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1962); Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United
States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Mark I. Gelfand, A Nation of Cities: The Federal Government and Urban America, 1933-1965 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975); Carl Abbot, The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993); and
Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1996).
2. The heightened racial consciousness of postwar America, though typically associated with African
Americans and the civil rights struggles of racialized minority groups, also encompassed a new generation of
white suburban home owners who defended their interests in racial terms. Becky Nicolaides, for example,
argues that suburban home owners, “grasping willfully for middle class lives in a town with working-class
roots,” evoked “the language of white rights” to offset racial encroachment by the early 1960s. Similarly,
Lisa McGirr locates the origins of a conservative populism in Orange County, which asserted a white backlash to the civil rights gains won by African Americans and other racialized minorities. See Becky
Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); and Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New
American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001). Other social historians recognize the
national bases by which racial and gender division attained greater recognition. See Thomas J. Sugrue,
“Crabgrass Roots Politics: Race, Rights, and the Reaction against Liberalism in the Urban North, 19401964,” Journal of American History (September 1995): 551-78; Nelson Lichtenstein, “From Corporatism to
Collective Bargaining: Organized Labor and the Eclipse of Social Democracy in the Postwar Era” in The
Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980, ed. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1989); Jonathan Reider, “The Rise of the ‘Silent Majority,’ ” in The Rise and Fall of the
New Deal Order, 1930-1980; and Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War
Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
3. On postwar urbanization and racial segregation, see Michael N. Danielson, The Politics of Exclusion
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1976); Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid:
Segregation and the Making of an Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Arnold
Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1980 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); and Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar
Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996). For a contrast between the role of women within a
changing urban context, see Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the
Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); and May, Homeward Bound.
4. To a certain extent, this new cultural order provides the focus of John Findlay’s rigorous study Magic
Lands. Although Findlay identifies the distinct spatial character of postwar culture and its relationship to
new modes of urbanization in the Far West, his analysis does not emphasize the dynamics of race, class, and
gender embedded within these cultural forms and their significance to the shifting (geographic and ideological) bases of national political power. See John M. Findlay, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American
Culture after 1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
5. Frederic Jameson deployed the term “political unconscious” to describe the political meanings
embedding within literary forms. Subsequently, the term has been applied other cultural forms. See Frederic
Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press, 1981). For the relationship between postwar popular culture and the formation of a new white suburban identity, see Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Suburbanism in Postwar Los Angeles
(University of California Press, 2004).
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6. John Kasson identifies Coney Island as exemplifying the new mass culture that emerged within the
context of industrial urbanization and Kathy Peiss describes the “heterosocial” nature of urban popular culture at the turn of the century, emphasizing the role of women within that culture. See John Kasson, Amusing
the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); and Peiss, Cheap
Amusements. Other scholars who have surveyed the history of the new mass culture include David Nasaw,
Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (New York: Basic Books, 1993); Gunther Barth, City
People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1982); Neil Harris, Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of
Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988); Timothy J. Gilfolye,
City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (New York: Norton,
1992); George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World,
1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994); and Karen Haltunnen, Confidence Men and Painted Ladies: A
Study of Middle Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982).
7. Sugrue, The Origins of the Postwar Urban Crisis, 127-30.
8. Howard Chudacoff and Judith Smith, The Evolution of American Urban Society, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), 263-67; John Teaford, The Twentieth Century American City, 2nd ed.
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1993), 94-95.
9. The terms “chocolate city” and “vanilla suburbs” are taken from George Clinton, leader of the outrageous funk ensemble, Parliament, which issued its hit “Chocolate City” on Casablanca Records in 1975. The
song celebrates black political power in American cities, describing black urbanization as a takeover of the
nation’s cities. In contrast to the disparaging and often dehumanizing portraits of the racialized inner city
issued by the nation’s leading social scientists, “Chocolate City” asserts the strength of the black ghetto as a
bulwark against the hostility of a racist society. Subsequently, the geographer Reynolds Farley used the term
“chocolate city” to frame his account of racial segregation within urban America. See Reynolds Farley,
Howard Schuman, Suzanne Bianchi, Diane Colasanto, and Shirley Hatchett, “ ‘Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs’: Will the Trend toward Racially Separate Communities Continue?” Social Science Research 7 (1978):
319-44; and William H. Frey, “Central City White Flight: Racial and Non Racial Causes,” American Sociological Review 44 (1979): 425-48. On the racial barriers built into postwar suburbanization, see Kenneth T.
Jackson, “Race, Ethnicity, and Real Estate Appraisal: The Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal
Housing Administration,” Journal of Urban History 6 (1980): 419-52. See also Melvin L. Oliver and
Thomas M. Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York:
Routledge, 1995), 15-18; George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit
from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 5-7.
10. “Coney Island Slump Grows Worse,” The New York Times, July 2, 1964, 1.
11. Chicago Tribune Magazine, May 16, 1976.
12. Quoted in David Nasaw, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (New York: Basic
Books, 1993), 252. For a more in-depth analysis of the fate of Shibe Park, see Bruce Kuklick, To Everything a
Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).
13. Peter Golenbock, An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers (New York: Putnam, 1984), 38.
14. The literature on film noir is extensive and growing. Foster Hirsch, Film Noir: The Dark Side of the
Screen (New York: Da Capo, 1981); Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” in Film Noir: A Reader, ed. Alain
Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight Editions, 1997), 53-64; A. M. Karimi, Toward a Definition of
the American Film Noir (1941-1949) (New York: Arno, 1976); Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds., Film
Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (New York: Overlook Press, 1979); Spencer Selby,
Dark City: The Film Noir (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1984); James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir
in Its Contexts (Berkeley: University of California, 1998); and Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir,
Genre, Masculinity (London: Routledge, 1991).
15. Foster Hirsch, Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, 82.
16. American Social History Project, Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s Economy,
Politics, Culture and Society, Volume Two: From the Gilded Age to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books,
1992), 457.
17. Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen, 152-57; and May, Homeward Bound, 62-63.
18. Quoted in Arnold R. Hirsch, “With or without Jim Crow: Black Residential Segregation in the United
States,” in Urban Policy in Twentieth Century America, ed. Arnold R. Hirsch and Raymond A. Mohl (New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 75.
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19. Eric Lott, “The Whiteness of Film Noir,” in Whiteness: A Critical Reader, ed. Mike Hill (New York:
New York University Press, 1997), 93-94. Lott draws on the work of film historian and critic Richard Dyer,
who argues that film noir is part of a broader “culture of light” in the West, in which light and dark are
invested with social meanings. In a racialized democracy that values “white over black,” to borrow Winthrop
Jordan’s famous characterization of Anglo-American social values, the delineation of light in the representation of the social world in structured by racial hierarchies that place a moral premium on whiteness and light.
The cinematic combination of white skin and light evoke ethical connotations associate whiteness with
moral purity and spiritual hygiene and, conversely, the absence of light, or the abundance of shadows, conveys a denigrated state of moral ambiguity. Within the history of portraiture, photography, film, and other
aspects of Western visual culture, the uses of light speak not only to Western notions of the racial other but
also to the West’s conception of itself. See Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997).
20. On the jazz and the urban nightclub, see Louis Erenberg, Swingin’the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the
Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
21. Security First National Bank, The Growth and Economic Stature of Orange County, May 1967, 12-15.
22. McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 209.
23. Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (Chicago:
Ivan R. Dee, 1997); and Stephen Watts, “Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century,” Journal of
American History 100, no. 2 (1995): 84-110.
24. Schickel, The Disney Version, 310; The New York Times, February 2, 1958; “The Never-Never Land
Khrushchev Never Saw,” The New York Times, October 4, 1959, 22.
25. Schickel, The Disney Version, 47.
26. John Hench, interview by Jay Horan, December 3, 1982, transcript, Walt Disney Archives, Burbank, CA.
27. Quoted in Peiss, Cheap Amusements, 127.
28. “The Wisdom of Walt Disney,” Wisdom 32 (December 1959): 77; and Haltunnen, Confidence Men
and Painted Women, 192-93.
29. “Disney’s ‘Magical Little Park’ after Two Decades,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1975, pt. 10, p. 1;
Carl Walker, speech to Urban Land Institute, October 5, 1975, quoted in Findlay, Magic Lands, 84.
30. Disneyland News, n.d., Regional History Archives, Anaheim Public Library.
31. Richard Longstreth, From City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile and Retailing
in Los Angeles, 1920-1950 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 336-40.
32. Gary Miller, Cities by Contract: The Politics of Municipal Incorporation (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 1981), 135; and Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Vintage, 1992), 165-69.
33. News from Disneyland, Walt Disney Productions 1965, Anaheim History Room—Anaheim Public
Library; Disneyland News, August 7, 1956; News from Disneyland, n.d., Public Relations Division, Disneyland, Inc., Anaheim History Room—Anaheim Public Library.
34. Hofstadter, quoted in Stephen Watts, “Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century,” 97;
and “Moving Right Along: Disneyland Grows Ever More Sophisticated,” Los Angeles Times Magazine,
July 13, 1986, 8. Text of speech from “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” Anaheim Public Library—Anaheim History Room.
35. Disneyland’s symbolic delineation of racial hierarchy suited cold war conceptions of racial difference. By contrast, when the City of Los Angeles commissioned local artist Bernard Rosenthal to create a
sculpture for the new downtown police department building, the resulting piece incited a local uproar among
conservative groups. Rosenthal’s piece—titled The Family—depicted human figures without a specific
racial character. The racial vagueness of Rosenthal’s figures led one public official to denounce The Family
as a “shameless, soulless, faceless, raceless, gutless monstrosity that will live in infamy.” In Los Angeles,
abstract art aroused intense opposition among cold warriors for its subversive potential, but humanistic representations of racial ambiguity also aroused considerable protest. See Sarah Schrank, “Art and the City: The
Transformation of Civic Culture in Los Angeles, 1900-1965,” (PhD diss., Department of History, University
of California, San Diego, 2002).
36. May, Homeward Bound 3-15.
37. The New York Times, sec. 2, pt. 2, p. 1, February 2, 1958.
38. “Monsanto Chemical Co.,” Disneylander, March 1958, 2. Disneyland Collection, Anaheim History
Room, Anaheim Public Library. See also “Disneyland’s First Ten Million,” The New York Times, February 2,
1958. For an illuminating analysis of the gendered assumptions built into residential architecture after World
War II, see Dolores Hayden, “Model Houses for the Millions: Architect’s Dreams, Builder’s Boasts,
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Residents’ Dilemmas,” in Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 197-212.
39. Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight.
40. Reagan, quoted in Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 204.
41. Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Metropolitan
Books, 1998), 392. On the relationship between cultural history and urban history, see Timothy J. Gilfoyle,
“White Cities, Linguistic Turns, and Disneylands: The New Paradigms of Urban History,” Reviews in American History 26 (1998): 175-204.
Eric Avila is a cultural historian, studying the historical relationship between urban
space, social identity, and cultural representation. His book Popular Culture in the Age
of White Flight: Suburbanism in Postwar Los Angeles (University of California Press,
2004) traces the post–World War II formation of a white suburban identity within the
landscapes of popular culture in postwar Los Angeles. Currently, he is an assistant
professor of Chicano studies and history at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Recent publications include The Chicano Studies Reader: An Anthology of Aztlán,
1970-2000 (coedited with Chon Noriega, Chela Sandoval, Rafael Pérez Torres, and
Karen Mary Dávalos); “Dark City: White Flight and the Urban Science Fiction Film in
Postwar America,” in Classic Whiteness: Race and the Hollywood Studio System, ed.
Daniel Bernardi (University of Minnesota Press, 2001); and “The Folklore of Freeway: Space, Identity and Culture in Postwar Los Angeles,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, 23, no. 1 (1998).
Downloaded from at Serials Records, University of Minnesota Libraries on January 2, 2008
© 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century
Steven Watts
The Journal of American History, Vol. 82, No. 1. (Jun., 1995), pp. 84-110.
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Fri Feb 22 14:21:39 2008
Walt Disney: Art and Politics
in the American Century
Steven Watts
Walt Disney has been, arguably, the most influential American of the twentieth century. Beginning in the late 1920s, his immense and multifaceted entertainment
enterprise-short cartoons, feature-length animations, live-action films, comic
books and records, nature documentaries, television shows, colossal theme parks inundated the United States, much of the Western world, and beyond. At the
founder’s death in 1966, Disney creations and Disney consumer merchandise had
flooded much of the globe. From Chile to China, tens of millions of people who
had never heard of Franklin D. Roosevelt or William Faulkner or Martin Luther
King, Jr., could identify Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck in an instant. And over this
leisure empire presided the avuncular gentleman with the warm chuckle, the small
mustache, and the large imagination.
Yet coming to terms with Disney is no easy matter. Three barriers to making sense
of this massive presence in modern American culture loom particularly large. First,
Disney’s enormous popularity has contributed to his dismissal in critical circles.
Commercial success, many students of American culture have assumed, stands in
inverse proportion to cultural significance. Second, a swiftly moving flood of Disney
productions has engulfed attempts at analysis. The output of the Disney Studio has
been so extensive, in so many venues, over so many decades that it resists interpretive
synthesis. Third, violently contrasting reactions to the Disney legacy have polarized
opinion in the academy and outside it. Disney disciples venerate Saint Walt as the
purveyor of innocent imagination and uplifting fantasy; Disney denouncers bitterly
decry Huckster Walt as a cynical manipulator of cultural and commercial formulas.
Such strife has created an emotional and ideological minefield for those who wish
to approach Disney seeking neither revelation nor damnation, but understanding.
Over the years several scholars have attempted synthetic overviews of Disney and
his cultural role. In 1942 the Harvard University art historian Robert D. Feild made
Steven Watts is a professor of history at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He is the author of The Magic
Kingdom: Walt Disney andModern American Culture, forthcoming from Basic Books, on which the present article
I would like to thank the following people for their generosity in offering comments on this essay: Jean Agnew,
Ken Cmiel, Robert Collins. Noralee Frankel, Jackson Lears, George Lipsitz, Lary May, Dave Roediger, Joan Shelley
Rubin, Jon Sperber, Cecelia Tichi, Robert Westbrook, and Eli Zaretsky. My appreciation also goes to David Thelen,
Susan Armeny, and Patrick Ettinger for their skillful editorial work on this essay, and to David R. Smith, Robert
Tieman, Becky Klein, and Collette Espino at the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank, California, for their gracious
and helpful responses to my endless requests for research material.
The Journal of American History
June 1995
Walt Disney’s Art and Politics
the initial attempt in The Art o f Walt Disney, a book that praised the filmmaker’s
work as “perhaps the most potent form of artistic expression ever devised.” About
twenty-five years later, the distinguished film critic Richard Schickel came in with
a less flattering verdict. His book, The Disney Version, presented Disney’s productions as reflecting the worst impulses of mass culture, and he scathingly denounced
them, as well as their popular audience, as “vulgar. . . . tasteless. . . . crassly commercial, sickeningly sentimental, crudely comic.” Several recent collective assessments look at their subject through the lens of high-tech cultural theory. Disney
Dircozlrse, a 1994 collection of essays by scholars from the humanities, offers mostly
disapproving analyses of the “Magic Kingdom” and its imperialist global impact,
conservative corporate politics, and efforts to control the reception of its products.
“The World according to Disney,” a special 1993 issue of the Sozlth Atlantic Quarterly, contains postmodern commentaries, by scholars from cultural studies, that
condemn the influence of the Disney empire?
Such interpretations, however, leave considerable room for thinking historically
about Disney and his influence on American culture. Two cultural trends in modern
American life – modernism and populism -suggest useful ways of making sense of
the artistic and political impulses in Disney’s work. Disney’s aesthetic endeavors
during the 1930s and the subtle political patina that he then applied to his work
engaged populist and modernist trends that had surfaced during the Great Depression. These categories open windows on Disney, providing critical ventilation and
light and suggesting fresh ways of thinking about this most familiar of modern
Americans and his cultural significance. Looking at Disney in the context of Thomas
Hart Benton and Huey Long, Aaron Copland and Will Rogers, New Deal public
art and fireside chats, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and
Hollywood, trade union organization and surrealism, the red menace and the
American nuclear family forces us to reconsider him as a historical actor.2
The Sentimental Modernist
It is hard to remember that Walt Disney was once taken quite seriously as an artist.
Throughout the 1930s,while millions of consumers cheered his films, he also earned
widespread praise in intellectual circles for his innovative animated fantasies. A darRobert D. Feild, The Art of Walt Disney (New York, 1942), j3-57; Richard Schickel, The Disney Version:
The Life, Times, Art, andcommerce of Walt Disney (New York, 1968), 361; Eric Smoodin, ed., Disney Discourse:
Producing the Magic Kingdom (New York, 1994); and the special issue “The World according to Disney,” ed. Susan
Willis, South Atlantic Quarterly, 92 (Winter 1993). For the basic, detailed, nuts-and-bolts biography, see Bob
Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original(New York, 1976). For a reasonably complete listing of the enormous
literature, see Kathy Merlock Jackson, Walt Disney: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, 1993).
This essay offers preliminary conclusions drawn from my manuscript in progress: The Magic Kingdom: Walt
Disney and Modern American Culture (New York, Basic Books, forthcoming). My approach to Disney has been
influenced particularly by the growing analyses of many cultural activities-amusement parks, book clubs, advertising, fairs, cheap literature, night clubs, movies, popular music-that have made it necessary to take popular
culture seriously and the proliferating study of post-Victorian consumer culture with its values of material consumption, an expansive leisure ethic, and a personal creed of self-fulfillment. Warren Susman served as the intellectual
godfather for these new approaches with his pioneering essays, many of them collected in Warren Susman, Culture
as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1984).
The Journal of American History
June 1995
A youthful Walt Disney at work on Mickey Mouse, the animated character who provided his
breakthrough success in 1928. O The Walt Disney Company.
ling of the critics for Silly Symphonies such as Three Little Pigs, Mickey Mouse shorts
such as The Band Concert, and feature-length animations such as Snow White and
the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, he elicited acclaim from writers of nearly every
stripe. David Low, for example, described Disney in the 1942 New Repzlblic as the
most significant figure in graphic art since Leonardo da Vinci and trumpeted his
arrival “at the foothills of the New Art of the Future.” By the late 1940s, however,
critical misgivings had begun to mount. A growing perception of Disney’s pandering to popular tastes led to a new portrait: the innovative artist who squandered
his talent to become a hack. Barbara Deming, for example, contended in the 1945
Partisan Review that the filmmaker had become an expert in “artlessness,” creating
works that were “monstrous. . . . a nightmare of these times.” Manny Farber,
writing a year later, was nastier. Disney’s films, he argued, had degenerated into
“lollypop art,” a “bon-bon mode [that] will satisfy the people who do printing on
wedding cakes, those who invented Mother’s Day, the people who write their names
with a flurry and end them with flounces and curlicues.”3
Three Little Pigs,dir. Bert Gillett (Walt Disney Productions, 1933); The BandConcert, dir. Wilfred Jackson
Walt Disney’s Art and Politics
Disney, an enormously gifted entertainer in search of laughs, innovation, and
sales, had stumbled into the arena of modernist art and became an experimenter
with its forms and techniques. His true aesthetic heart, however, continued to beat
to an internal rhythm of nineteenth-century sentimental realism. His Victorian sensibility grappled with the attraction to an audacious modernism, but neither impulse completely triumphed. This internal conflict produced a hybrid “sentimental
modernist” who helped mediate a key cultural transition in twentieth-century
In the United States, modernism emerged in direct opposition to the principles
and sensibility of nineteenth-century Victorianism. Adherents of modernismincluding photographer Alfred Stieglitz, painter Alfred H. Maurer, poet Ezra
Pound, writer Gertrude Stein, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, philosopher William
James, and composer Charles Ives- challenged an older, hierarchical bourgeois culture by undermining several of its key bulwarks: a moral creed based on repression
and rationality, a system of intellectual inquiry based on “formalism,” a “genteel
tradition” of narrative realism in the arts and letters. More positively, modernism
sought to recombine the elements of human experience strictly separated by
Victorianism-human and animal, civilized and savage, reason and emotion, intellect and instinct, conscious and unconscious-in order to reconstruct the totality
of human nature. By smashing through a brittle surface of rationality and genteel
beauty, its enthusiasts hoped to recover a fluidity of perception, a turbulent subjectivity, and a long-repressed vitality that lay in instinctual motivation. Modernism
also endorsed wide-ranging aesthetic experimentation in the hope of capturing an
elusive “simultaneity of experience” that seemed to characterize modern life. No
longer satisfied that literary realism, visual perspective, and the chromatic musical
scale could represent the complexities and confusions of an advanced industrial
world, modernist artists embraced stream-of-consciousness narrative, abstract painting, and atonal music. Adopting aesthetic as well as moral relativism, they borrowed
from non-Western “primitive” cultures, adapted technological artifacts and industrial motifs around them, dipped into European and American folk culture, or tried
to disman-tle barriers between ” h i g h and “low” culture, all in the interests of
revitalizing artistic expression with the fluidity, variety, and dynamism they saw at
the core of modern human experience. Thus, as Daniel Joseph Singal has suggested,
modernism might be viewed most clearly as a wholistic “culture. . . . [that seeks]
to know ‘reality’ in all its depth and complexity, no matter how incomplete and
paradoxical that knowledge might be, and no matter how painful.” Everywhere
modernism subverted Victorian hierarchies -challenging the ascendancy of reason
(Walt Disney Productions, 1935); Snow White andthe Seven Dwarfs, dir. David Hand (Walt Disney Productions,
1937); Pinocchio, dirs. Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske (Walt Disney Productions, 1939). David Low,
“Leonardo da Disney,” New Republic, Jan. 5 , 1942, pp. 16-18; Barbara Deming, “The Artlessness of Walt Disney,”
Partisan Review, 12 (Spring 1945). 227; Manny Farber, “Make Mine Muzak.” New Republic, May 27, 1946, p. 769.
4 Years ago, in an unpublished paper, Warren Susman pointed in the direction of my argument with his description of Walt Disney as an “ambivalent modernist.” See Robert Westbrook, “Abundant Cultural History: The Legacy
of Warren Susman,” Reviews in American Hzstory, 13 (Dec. 1985). 481.
The Journal of American History
June 1995
and judgment over impulse, of educated taste over folk and popular preferences,
of the adult over the childish, of the conscious over the preconscious mind.5
Much of this seems far removed from popular entertainment and the theaters
full of laughing, cheering fans of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. But the culture
of modernism, it seems clear in hindsight, created much of the atmosphere enfolding Walt Disney’s pioneering work in animation. As a commercial entertainer
working at the margins of serious art, he encountered modernism and appropriated
elements, eventually emerging as a kind of popular Picasso. With its enthusiasm
for folklore, the amorphous, the childlike, and the nonrational, moderism seemed
to validate the unsophisticated tastes of this provincial midwesterner. It found many
echoes in his films. Modernist impulses flowered everywhere in Disney’s world of
fantasy as his animation constantly blurred the line between imagination and reality
to produce a wondrous universe where animals spoke, plants and trees acted consciously, and inanimate objects felt emotion. Such impulses had occasionally surfaced at the margins of Victorian culture, for example, in children’s literature, but
the dominant ethos of rationality and repression kept them marginal. Now fluid
perception, free-flowing fantasy, and a yen for simultaneous experience moved to
center stage. Moreover, a preoccupation with the dream state in Disney’s early films
revealed a fusion of intellect and emotion, superego and id as warm fairy tales often
encapsulated dark, nightmarish visions. And throughout his movies, a consistent
blending of high and low cultural forms produced a vibrant artistic whole. This engagement with modernism unfolded haltingly and was never articulated, but it became an important part of the Disney appeal.
Some of Disney’s early efforts illustrated the influence of artistic modernism.
Many Mickey Mouse cartoons, for instance, appeared as fantastic romps through an
imaginative playland. In Steamboat Wiiiie (1928), the first cartoon talkie, Mickey
performs a concert by “playing” tunes on various animals: he squeezes a duck’s neck
to get percussive effects, pulls the tails of suckling pigs for a variety of squeaks, and
plays the xylophone on a cow’s teeth. Michey? Garden (1935) features hallucinatory
events prompted by the inhalation of a spray for garden pests. After shrinking to
bug size, Mickey and his dog Pluto careen through a jungle of giant garden plants
as they are pursued by insects and worms bent on revenge. Disney also loved to transgress traditional cultural boundaries by mocking high-culture pretensions with inFor a glimpse of the varying critical responses modernism has inspired, see Malcolm Bradbury and James
McFarlane, eds., Modernism, 1890-1930 (New York, 1976); Robert Kiely, ed., Modernism Reconsidered (Cambridge, Mass., 1983); Bruce Robbins, “Modernism in History, Modernism in Power.” ibid, 229-45; Irving Howe,
ed., The Idea of the Modern in Literature andthe Arts (New York, 1967); David Hollinger, In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Baltimore, 1985). 74-91; and Frederic Jameson, “Reflections in Conclusion,” in Ernst Bloch et al., Aesthetics andpolitics, trans. Ronald Taylor (London, 1977). This rough
synthesis relies upon several scholarly works, including the introduction to a special journal issue on American modernism, Daniel Joseph Singal, “Towards a Definition of American Modernism,” American Quarterly, 39 (Spring
1987). 7-26; Morton White, Social Thought in America: The Revolt against Formalism (1949; New York, 1976);
Cecelia Tichi, Shifting Gears: Technology,Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill, 1987); Marshall
Berman, “Why Modernism Still Matters,” Tzkkun, 4 (Jan.-Feb. 1989). 11-14, 81-86; and David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford, Eng., 1990), 10-38.
Walt Disney’s Art and Politics
spired slapstick humor. Mickey’s Amateurs (1937), for instance, solemnly introduces
a warped concert venue where singer Clara Cluck and pianist Clarabell Cow perform
a painfully funny opera recital composed of shrieking animal noises. Symphony
Hour (1942) follows a similar path. Goofy, Mickey’s inept sidekick, accidentally
drops orchestra instruments down an elevator shaft, and they are partially crushed.
When the classical musicians try to play the damaged instruments, a torrent of comical sounds pours forth that turns the performance into a farce. The crowd, of course,
loves the show and showers the stage with flowers.6
The full emotional spectrum of Disney’s modernist vision-from warm fantasies
to terrifying dangers- appeared in two contrasting short films from the early 1930s.
Flowers a n d Trees (1932), the first of Disney’s Silly Symphonies in color, told the
story of two young trees who fall in love. Aided by their forest friends, the wild birds,
they overcome adversity to marry, with a glowworm for a wedding ring and a
celebrating audience of wild flowers. The Mad Doctor (1933), in contrast, emerged
from the nether regions of dream life to form one of Disney’s most frightening animations. In this dark story, Pluto is kidnapped and hauled off to a castle where a
crazy physician and vivisectionist will use his body parts for macabre medical experiments. When Mickey follows to the rescue, he is chased by skeletons and ghosts before being captured and strapped to a cart. He is about to be horribly cut up by
a power saw descending from the ceiling when he awakens; it has been a nightmare.
These two films seem to embody the post-Freudian view of the mind-libidinous
instincts and superego restraints existing side by side in a precarious balance – as
it had seeped into popular culture. Similar modernist visions multiplied in the spectacular animated features that began to pour forth from the Walt Disney Studio
by the late 1930s: Snow White’s horrifying escape through the woods, where every
tree or animal seems to be a monster, ~inocchio’smotif of misbehaving boys
sprouting ears and tails as they turn into donkeys, Dumbo’s spectacularly surrealist
“pink elephant” hallucination that follows the baby elephant’s accidental imbibing
of some fermented water.’
Critics responded to such efforts with a rapturous chorus of affirmation.
Numerous reviews and essays from the 1930s and early 1940s termed Disney an artistic genuis and a modernist pioneer. The noted film writer Gilbert Seldes, for instance, became a great admirer, arguing that the filmmaker created “masterpieces”
that pivoted on the fascination that comes from “seeing the impossible happen.”
Peyton Boswell, editor of Art Digest, wrote that the animator had created a wonderful “new art form” that brought “abstract art” to life. Emily Genauer, art critic
Steamboat WiLlze, dir. Walt Disney (Walt Disney Productions, 1928); Mickey? Garden, dir. Wilfred Jackson
(Walt Disney Productions, 1935); Mickey ? Amateurs, dirs. Pinto Colvig, Walt Pfieffer, and Ed Penner (Walt Disney
Productions, 1937); Symphony Hour, dir. Riley Thornson (Walt Disney Productions, 1942).
7 FlowersandTrees, dir. Bert Gillett (Walt Disney Productions, 1932); The MadDoctol; dir. David Hand (Walt
Disney Productions, 1933); Dumbo, dir. Ben Sharpsteen (Walt Disney Productions, 1941). For descriptions of many
of these films, see Christopher Finch, The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom (New
York. 1975); and Leonard Maltin, The Di~neyF i h s (New York, 1984).
The Journal of American History
June 1995
for the New York Woordd Telegram, provided a particularly sharp characterization
of the Hollywood cartoonist as brilliant modern artist. “We have no need to talk
again of the substance of abstract art,” she wrote.
Along comes Disney with his visual accompaniment to the Bach Toccata a n d
Fugue- the first number in Fantasia- and it’s all miraculously clear. . . . One or
two of [the animated segments] recall Kandinsky especially. There were several
closely related to the surrealist Miro. And the opening night audience-many of
whom, doubtless, raise up their hands in horror at abstract paintings-loved it.8
Sergei Eisenstein provided a more extensive and illuminating evaluation of
Disney’s modernist aesthetics. Writing in the early 1940s, after a visit to the Hollywood filmmaking community, he breathlessly declared that Disney’s work offered
“the greatest contribution of the American people to art.” This praise flowed from
a keen perception of the cartoonist’s relationship to modernist culture. The key to
Disney’s artistic power, the Russian filmmaker believed, lay in an almost “frightening” capacity for boring into secret recesses of the human psyche and uncovering
its most basic urges. Eisenstein explained Disney’s appeal to the latent primitivism
in modern consciousness.
He creates somewhere in the realm of the very purest and most primal depths.
There, where we all are children of nature. He creates on the conceptual level of
man not yet shackled by logic, reason, or experience. . . . For through his whole
system of devices, themes, and subjects, Disney constantly gives us prescriptions
for folkloric, mythological, prelogical thought- but always rejecting, pushing
aside logic. . . . [Olrdinary lifeless objects, plants, beasts, all are animated and humanized.
In other words, wrote Eisenstein, Disney’s art captured “the structure of primitive
thought” and thus, in the best tradition of modernism, reestablished contact with
the repressed “lower” elements in the human psyche.9
In many ways, such highfalutin aesthetic achievement was quite incidental.
Having but little education and training in art, Disney largely followed his instincts
in marshaling pictorial images, humor, comedy, and music to create mass entertainment. Moreover, by the mid-1930s he had begun to seek greater and greater realism
in his studio’s animations. Increasingly, the object of Disney’s aesthetic quest was
a sunny, naturalistic style with roots in the Victorian nineteenth century. Northrop
Frye has described this aesthetic tradition rather unkindly as “stupid realism”: “a
kind of sentimental idealism, an attempt to present a conventionally attractive or
impressive appearance as an actual or attainable reality.” Here was a “realistic” depic-
Gilbert Seldes, “Disney and Others,” New Republic, June 8, 1932, pp. 101-2; Gilbert Seldes, “No Art, Mr.
Disney?,” Esquire, 8 (Sept. 1937). 91, 171-72; Peyton Boswell, “The Wonder of Fantasia,” Art Digest, Dec. 1, 1940,
p. 3; and Emily Genauer, “Walt Disney’s Music Pictures Range from Beautiful to Banal,” New York WorldTelegram,
Nov. 16, 1940, clipping, Public~tyScrapbook F2 (Walt Disney Archives, Burbank, Calif.).
9 Jay Leyda, ed., Eisenstein on Disney, trans. Alan Upchurch (Calcutta, 1986). 1-3, 23, 42-43, 54-56.
Walt Disney’s Art and Politics
tion of people, objects, and scenes where dark or messy dimensions of reality had
been wiped away.1°
The push for such naturalism in the studio’s animation increased with the mid1930s move from cartoon shorts to animated features. It germinated in the evening
art classes for the animators – taught originally by Don Graham of the Chouinard
Art Institute, they were held at the old Hyperion Studio sound stage-before
receiving a tremendous technological boost. The multiplane camera, the brainchild
of the studio engineers, created the illusion of depth through a ten-foot-high mechanism where a succession of painted cels were stacked one on top of the other with
a camera mounted…
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