Walt Disney: An Artist with Death in Mind

Snow White in her Coffin

He could entertain the masses and give out universal messages about morality and the meaning of life at the same time. He is an American mythic hero, because his works and his life story convey many fundamental truths about the American way of life. For children of many generations, his name was synonymous with fun, fantasy, and adventure.

But the force of Walt Disney’s voice as a mouthpiece for American life depended on a peculiar (though culturally resonant) obsession with death which can be found both in his personal life and in early animated films he produced. The American public loved these early films in which death and death-related themes were prominent. They were like many fairy tales and other types of children’s literature in that they presented unpleasant realities, including death.

Steamboat Willie, in 1928, introduced Mickey Mouse to the world, playing music on nursing piglets and cow’s teeth. This secured “Uncle Walt” his place in American culture. In October, 1929, just before the stock market crash, Disney produced the animated short called The Skeleton Dance, the first of the Silly Symphonies. In this short, a fight between two tomcats in a graveyard awakens first one, then four animated skeletons who emerge from their graves to dance. The dance is playful, modern, and funny.

The hilarious images of death in The Skeleton Dance were not immediately loved by all. One of the theater managers who previewed it said to Walt’s brother, according to Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, “What’s he trying to do, ruin us? You go back and tell that brother of yours the renters don’t want this gruesome crap… what they want is more Mickey Mouse. You go back and tell Walt. More mice, tell him, more mice!” But after a showing in Los Angeles, critics and patrons raved about it, so Disney finally had a hit, as he had told his chief animator, Ubbe Iwerks, he would.

Other animated films deal with the theme of death; the haunted graveyard returns in the last sequence of Fantasia (1940); in Pinocchio (1940) the wooden puppet has to die to become a real boy, and Bambi (1942) introduced many children to the tragedy of death in the ruthless killing by hunters of Bambi’s mother. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was Disney’s first full-length animated film; in this retelling of a Grimm brothers fairy tale, a jealous queen wants to kill and innocent young girl because of her beauty.

It’s the queen’s plan that Snow White will eat the poisoned apple and be “buried alive”, no longer a threat to her status as the “fairest of the land.” According to Laderman, Disney avoided funerals in real life maybe because of his obsession with death, but he knew the dramatic possibilities of a deathbed scene, that intimate moment with family and friends and fresh corpse. It is clear from transcripts of story conferences for Snow White that Disney was aware of these possibilities. In one, he imagines the conclusion of the film:

Fade in on her in the glass coffin, maybe shaded by a big tree. It’s built on sort of a little pedestal, torches are burning, two dwarfs on either side with things like guards would have, others are coming up and putting flowers on the coffin. It’s all decked with flowers. The birds fly up and drop flowers. Shots of the birds: show them sad. Snow White is beautiful in the coffin.

The dwarfs do not bury Snow White; the Prince kisses her and brings her back to life; the queen’s plans are foiled. The dwarfs, fixated on being close to the beautiful body, were like many Americans at the time; they were too entranced by the body to say good-bye to it forever. Laderman finds it significant that there are no undertakers, no professionals mediating between the dead and the living; Disney himself is the mediator.

The dwarfs do eventually have to say good-bye; after the prince’s kiss she ascends with him to a castle above the clouds. Here a central message in Disney films is conveyed: it is only after death has been vanquished or overcome that we have the happy ending, and death is overcome by virtuous actions that give the flavor of an eternally loving family unit. The promise of domestic bliss is a common ending to Disney films, which gives to the public a ray of hope in a dangerous, dark world. The American public must have had a similar preoccupation with darkness and death, for Disney films to achieve the popularity they did in the twentieth century. The fantasy of bringing the dead back to life was very popular and resonated with Americans who in that period were transfixed by the reality of death.

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