Thursday, December 19, 2013

As promised, here is the introduction I wrote for Disney's Grand Tour:

[For more than twenty years, I kept hitting a brick wall.

The official history of Disney in Europe seemed to start after World War II. We all knew about the various Disney magazines which existed in the Old World in the ’30s, and we knew about the highly-prized pre-World War II collectibles. That was about it. The rest of the story was not even sketchy: it remained a complete mystery. For a Disney historian born and raised in Paris this was highly unsatisfactory. I wanted to understand much more: How did it all start? Who were the men and women who helped establish and grow Disney’s presence in Europe? How many were they? Were there any talented artists among them? How did the businessmen operate? Where exactly did Disney have offices? How were those offices structured? How did Walt and Roy interact with them?

I managed to chip away at the brick wall, by learning about the existence of Disney’s first representative in Europe, William Banks Levy; by learning the name George Kamen; and by piecing together the story of some of the early Disney licensees. This was still highly unsatisfactory. We had never seen a photo of Bill Levy, there was little that we knew about George Kamen’s career, and the overall picture simply was not there.

Then, in July 2011, Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney’s daughter, asked me a seemingly simple question: “Do you know if any photos were taken during the ‘League of Nations’ event that my father attended during his trip to Paris in 1935?” And the solution to the great Disney European mystery started to unravel. This “simple” question from Diane proved to be anything but. It also allowed me to focus on an event, Walt’s visit to Europe in 1935, which gave me the key to the mysteries I had been investigating for twenty-three years. Remarkably, in just two years most of the answers were found.

As we will see, Walt’s trip to Europe with his family proved to be one of the most influential journeys he ever undertook. It took place in the midst of the Golden Age of Disney animation, at the height of Walt’s international fame and professional success, and had a tremendous impact on his sources of inspiration and on his understanding of the world. The itinerary of the journey (United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy) was reminiscent of the one young aristocrats from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century would follow during their Grand Tour, the traditional initiatory trip of their youth. No history of Disney would be complete without a thorough understanding of what happened during Disney’s Grand Tour and what it meant to Walt and to those who surrounded him.

It was therefore with pure delight that I read Roy and Edna Disney’s diary of the trip and that I explored Walt and Roy’s correspondence from the months of June and July 1935.
But what made the journey even more special from my standpoint is that the mystery I had struggled with for so many years started to unravel: I finally understood the history of Disney in Europe before the Second World War. I discovered who was who; I understood how the Disneys had set-up their operations in Europe and how those structures had evolved during the ’30s; I understood how their European creative and business ventures operated and how they interacted with them. In other words, following a thin thread, I was able to peek behind the brick wall.

Why did it take so long? In short, because solving the mystery meant reaching a very high level of maturity in terms of Disney knowledge and personal knowledge, as well as being helped by tools which did not exist even a few years ago.

From a personal standpoint, I had to be able to read documents in French, English, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, and to get help when it came to translating those in German, Swedish, and Danish. The mastery of those languages took years to achieve.

From a Disney-knowledge standpoint, I had to thoroughly understand the business history as well as the creative history of the company, I had to know who was who within the Disney corporate structure in the ’30s, and I also had to locate many documents that were extremely well hidden, like the never-released autobiographies of O.B. Johnston, Jimmy Johnson, and Mel Shaw, or the Robert Hartman Papers. Each of them contained key pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, which shed new light on the entries in Roy and Edna’s diary and on Walt and Roy’s correspondence, all of which led to a cascade of new discoveries.

Finally, I was lucky to have access to tools that historians of the past did not have at their disposal. Although researching the origins of Walt Disney – Mickey Mouse S.A. at the Registre du Commerce is still done the old-fashioned way and involves physically getting there and being locked up in the room for several hours without any digital tool, there were many instances in which access to online archives proved to be a game-changer: from the Open Library, to, to the online archives of the Daily Mirror and The New York Times. In one instance, the old and the new merged in astonishing ways: when I tried to locate the address of the 1930s Italian Ministry of Press and Propaganda (to find out if Walt had actually met Benito Mussolini), I had to rely on some 1934 footage which had been posted online, in an excerpt from a 1936 book quoted in an online forum, and on Google’s StreetView! None of these tools—old and new—alone would have done the trick.

In the end, the brick wall crumbled, and I am able to lead you to the other side. I thought I was just following Walt’s footsteps—I ended up discovering a whole new Disney History continent.]

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