December 15 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Walt Disney, arguably Hollywood’s most influential conservative filmmaker.
Disney usually receives apolitical veneration for his animated films and his creation of Disneyland, but as I explain in my book “Walt Disney and Live Action,” Disney’s live-action films and television shows consistently championed limited government, self-reliance, the American Founding, and Judeo-Christian morality. In short, they schooled millions in the principles of American conservatism.
Through television shows like “Johnny Tremain” and “Swamp Fox,” Disney educated generations of families about the American Founding’s legacy of liberty and equality. In one scene in “Johnny Tremain,” revolutionary James Otis explains that Americans are fighting “that wherever the sun shines a man shall choose who shall rule over him ... For this we fight, those natural rights God has given every man, no matter how humble.”
Ordinary citizens in Disney films were typically oppressed not by vague social forces, but by punitive taxation and capricious government regulations.
In an episode of Disney’s television series “Zorro,” the dictatorial administrator of Los Angeles arbitrarily ejects small vendors from the city square, destroying their livelihoods. In “Son of Flubber,” scientist Ned Brainard receives a visit from an officious IRS agent who demands payment of ruinous taxes on profits Brainard hasn’t even received yet for his latest invention.
Disney’s productions also skewered the modern approach to welfare, which Disney thought demeaned the very people it was supposed to help.
Disney hearkened back to an earlier era when self-respecting Americans did not want to receive charity if they could help it. In “Pollyanna,” the orphan girl of the film’s title observes that the recipients of the canned food she is distributing hate handouts. She adds that she doesn’t blame them. Having come from poverty herself, she despises efforts to patronize the poor as helpless victims rather than treating them as capable citizens.
The ideal form of charity in Disney films was helping others help themselves—as in “Those Calloways,” when friends and neighbors help the Calloways build a new cabin after they have lost their original home to an unscrupulous businessman. This is no handout. The Calloways work alongside their neighbors to build their better life.
The same idea was expressed at the beginning of the television feature “Bristle Face,” when a boy offers to work for a woman in exchange for a meal. He would not think of requesting something for nothing. He only wants an opportunity to earn his way, even if it means menial labor. Any job was more dignified than begging. This view mirrored Disney’s own outlook. “I don’t believe in people getting things for nothing,” he told an interviewer in 1965. “I washed dishes. I carried parcels. I delivered newspapers. It didn’t hurt me.”
If Disney recognized how the welfare state demeaned those it tried to help, he also saw how it demoralized the citizenry who had to pay for it. In a 1957 speech, he talked about how easy it had become for Americans to push off their moral obligation to help others onto the government. Because they paid high taxes for the welfare state, it was easy for them to think that it was the government’s job to solve every social problem.
But in Disney’s view, this vision of government would lead to disaster. A free people must be able to govern themselves and solve their own problems as much as possible. That is why the right kind of private philanthropy remained so important. These private efforts are “what makes this country great,” he said. “It’s not the government doing it, it’s the people themselves. It’s a voluntary thing, a spontaneous thing.”
In the last years of his life, Disney became increasingly worried about the moral breakdown of America, and his films began to articulate these concerns as well.
“The Parent Trap,” one of the top grossing films of 1961, powerfully critiqued the growing prevalence of no-fault divorce. “Moon Pilot” a year later satirized the nihilism of the emerging counter-culture. Here the fringes of the American left were belittled reductio ad absurdum. One woman gives a tirade against technology. She hates machines—“the tape machine, the wish machine and the wash machine. All machines. I hate ‘em, I hate ‘em, I hate ‘em!” Another wails existential poetry: “Nobody can avoid the void./ You can’t./ I can’t./ Neither could Sigmund Freud.”
Although the current Walt Disney Company no longer offers a coherent moral vision of the kind articulated by its namesake, the legacy of Walt Disney continues to shine in the films he and his colleagues made. As long as those films remain available to be seen, they may yet inspire new generations. For as Disney himself well knew, themes of charity, courage, and simple human dignity will never go out of date.
John G. West is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and author of “Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s” (Theme Park Press, 2016).