Thursday, March 6, 2008

Anatomy of a mid-1940s Walt Disney photograph

The image in this post arrived on my doorstep several weeks ago in a package sent to me by the family of one of Hank Porter's children. I assume Porter kept a copy of this image as it contained examples of two pieces of combat insignia art he created.

The photograph is unique and interesting on so many different levels. I believe the montage was created in either 1944 or 1945. Over the course of the next couple of weeks I will take one item or a group of items shown in the photo and explain their significance, which in turn will explain why I think this is a mid-1940s photo.

One of my first observations was that Walt Disney is not in the photograph. For some reason, a photo of Disney was used in the creation of the photograph. Why is this? I'm not sure at this point in time. Perhaps a magazine requested a montage at the last possible moment and Walt was away on business, precluding his appearance in person? Speculation on my part, but perfectly feasible.

There are so many interesting items to talk about, so for this first post I'll single out two.


The first is the Academy Award statuette seen in the left margin. That Honorary Special
Award was given to Disney in November 1932, in recognition of the creation of Mickey Mouse. To read more about that particular Academy Award ceremony click here. The statuette is unique in that the base is quite stubby. The size of the base actually varied until the present standard was adopted in 1945.

The next items that interested me were the three medals seen in the lower right corner. It turns out these are three very important medals. Here's the story of the medal seen on the far right of the photo.

January 8, 1936 was a special day in Hollywood. On that day, Walt Disney was decorated with France's highest award: the Legion of Honor. Jean-Joseph Viala, the French Consul in Los Angeles, pinned the medal to Disney's left lapel in a ceremony held on the grounds of the Hyperion Avenue Studio. The event was attended by a large group of family, friends and well wishers.
One of the earliest reports of the French decision to make Disney a Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honor, appeared in the December 17, 1935 edition of the Nevada State Journal: "It was reported today that Walt Disney, creator of the popular Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony movie cartoons, has been named for the French Legion of Honor. However, a decree to that effect has not yet been published." A second story appearing 10 days later confirmed the first report.

In this newspaper publicity photo, Walt Disney is about to receive the customary kisses. The award can be seen pinned to his left lapel.

At the ceremony the French Consul general said the award was made, "in recognition of Disney's work in creating a new art form in which good will is spread throughou
t the world." One reporter added the award "was made in recognition of [Disney's] contribution to the screen, as the French people feel that his use of animals to interpret human comedy has made him a modern Aesop."


At least four different Associated press photographs were taken that day. Two show a very serious Walt Disney receiving the customary kisses from the French Consul, while the other two show both men smiling and joking as the French Consul interacts with a huge Charlotte Clark Mickey Mouse doll Disney is holding in his hands.


The award was established in May 1802, by Napolean Bonaparte. The decoration is divided into five degrees ranging from Chevalier, or Knight, on up to the highest degree of Grand Cross. The front of the medal features the head of "Marianne," the country's symbolic figurehead and the words, "Republique Francaise" (French Republic), while the reverse bears the inscription, "Honneur et Patrie" (Honor and Fatherland). The award is in the shape of a five-sided, double-pointed star, encircled by a green wreath of oak and laurel leaves.

An editorial in the Charleston Daily Mail stated:

Probably the French had no particular thought for such ponderous matters as cementing foreign relations or stretching hands across the sea, when they awarded the red ribbon of the Legion of Honor to Walt Disney, which means, of course, to Mickey Mouse. But how better could they have stirred a feeling of appreciation in the hearts of Americans than by that sterling gesture?

It is upon such understandings that mutual regard is built.
The incident has proper comic value. When one pictures the sedate gentlemen, usually in full beards , top hats and long coats, who wear the decoration in France, the award to the mouse (by proxy) may move one to laughter. But will anyone say that it was undeserved?
With a proper regard for and familiarity with the fables of La Fontaine, the French nation has taken to Mickey in a body with enthusiasm. The flexibility of the Legion as a method of recognizing public service, whether civil or military, French or foreign, was never better illustrated. Was it not a Frenchman who said, 'I hurry to laugh at everything, for fear that I may weep'?"


Unfortunately there was at least one article that reported some felt Disney's award was undeserved. Under the headline, "French Dispute Walt Disney's Title as Dean of Animated Movie Cartoons," the February 15, 1936 issue of The Havre Daily News reported: "The French press as adopted an air of injured dignity in regard to the naming of Walt Disney...as Knight of the French Legion of Honor. Several French journalists have banded together to right this 'injustice'."

The perceived sleight by the French government involved 80-year old Emile Cohl, a French artist who claimed to be the "real creator of animated screen drawings." Cohl did in fact create one of the first fully animated films. In August 1908, the French artist released Fantasmagorie, a cartoon made-up of 700 drawings, which told the story of the adventures of a clown. Click here to view a copy of that film.

Cohl explained, "I had been successful in newspaper work and fell into cinema work by a streak of luck, having got my inspiration for cinema cartoons from an advertising billboard I happened to pass in the street. I had much success between 1908 and 1912. I shall protest to the last against those who refuse to admit that I am the first to create animated drawings for the cinema."

Walt Disney never made any claim of being the first to create animated pictures, so Cohl's negative comments seem misdirected and regardless of how a scant few in the French media may have felt at the time, Walt Disney, his family and friends were extremely proud that January day. Walt Disney had been involved with animated films for many years prior to receiving the medal.

The Legion of Honor was just one of several awards presented to Disney since Mickey's debut in 1928. In the years to follow, Walt Disney would garner close to 1,000 awards, making him one of the most recognized and decorated personalities of the 20th Century.

I'll pick another interesting item out of this photo for another post in the coming days.

3 comments:

Matterhorn1959 said...

The image was published in Look magazine I believe. I do not remember the date, but there was an article on the studio. I have that image that is a cut from the magazine for years. I have never taken it out of its mat to see the if there is a date on the back.

David said...

Thanks very much for that! Please let me know if you come across the date.

FrenchDisneyFan said...

You'll tell me if I am wrong but I believe that this medal is now the property of Ms Diane Disney Miller and that, for a time, it was on dispaly at Disneyland Resort Paris' City Hall, unless it was a copy!