Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: Life in the Mouse House

I just finished reading Life in the Mouse House, a memoir by Disney story artist Homer Brightman. It's an unflinchingly honest look at the Disney Studios during the golden years of 1935-1950.

It's a lively read, full of anecdotes about pranks and office politics, and it gives an unsparing portrait of Walt Disney himself. Brightman acknowledges that Walt was a great pitchman and story man, a driven perfectionist who pushed the art of animation forward.

But he was also a difficult guy to work with. Brightman's anecdotes portray Walt as touchy, lonely, suspicious, and unforgiving, meting out underhanded punishments even to his loyal employees.

Disney Story Artist Homer Brightman (center) courtesy Disney History 
The memoirs explain the causes and consequences of the famous animator's strike in 1941. One of the sore points, Brightman explains, was that on the heels of the huge success of Snow White, Disney announced to the press that he would be sharing profits from the film with the employees. But instead of giving out bonuses or raises, he gave a party where he used the moment to chastise them and exhort them to work harder.

Brightman's recollections were lost for a long time, but they were recently rediscovered by his descendants. Other artists on the studio staff are mentioned by pseudonyms in the memoir, but historians have figured out who they are, and there's a key in the book so Disneyphiles can figure out who's who.
Photo courtesy Disney, ©Disney


Tom Hart said...

So another arrow in the friendly, benificent image of Uncle Walt that I grew up loving. I don't want to believe it, but there's undeniable evidence of a dark side to his genius.

He certainly did spawn a wonderful legacy (in my opinion), and at least he didn't try to take all the credit for himself (though I suppose there are some who might argue with that). I struggle to reconcile the two "Walt's" but in the end, I'm grateful for all that was created (and continues) under the name Disney. Could anyone else have done it? Well, all that we know is that no one else has come very close.

jeff jordan said...

Given the current state of "scholarship," I'm surprised there wasn't something going on between Norman Rockwell and Walt.........


Michael said...

I don't think there's any getting around working for a functional psychopath to some degree in a ambitious collaborative endeavor.

Surprise! What jobs have the highest number of psychopaths?

James Gurney said...

Tom, I know what you mean. I'm usually not very interested in the kind of psychoanalytic bio written by someone who didn't know the guy and was trying to take down his reputation. But this one was written by a Disney loyalist who worked closely with him, and it's told in the form of anecdotes. Knowing about the creative climate helps me as a Disney animation fan to better understand why the classic 1930s films were so great, and why the quality seemed to slip after 1941. Disney's personality greatly affected creative decisions and morale. It's a universal story of what works and what doesn't in the management of a creative enterprise.