Forever the Dark Prince of Hollywood: Walt Disney, Psychobiography and the “Practically Perfect” – Meeting Report

On Monday 9th October the Gender and Sexuality Research Network’s 2017/18 Seminar Series was kicked off by John Whitney presenting his fascinating work on psychobiography and the reading of the films of Walt Disney, in particular, Mary Poppins, the last live-action film produced with the personal involvement of Walt Disney.

John began by asking what it was that Walt Disney wanted to convey with the images of his films. With little autobiographical data existing on Disney, John demonstrated how his work could be analysed by using the theories developed within psychobiography. Using Schultz’s theory of the ‘Prototypical Scene’ and Alexander’s theories of Saliency and Springboarding, John has been able to conduct a psychobiographical analysis of the ‘Lets Go Fly a Kite’ scene towards the end of Mary Poppins, whilst reflecting on the varying, and at times contradictory, biographical materials that have been written on the life of Disney.

John’s analysis had us delving into the life of Disney, in particular, the family conflict he experienced and the relationships he held with key figures throughout his developmental period. Biographers Thomas and Moseley both detailed the close bond Disney had with Hazel George, his studio nurse, and the moment of their final goodbye. Described as an intense, and emotionally charged moment that has lead biographers to interpret the underlying relationship between them differently. Whether the relationship was one of parental replacement, or of romantic feelings, the saliency of the final goodbye renders this a definitive ‘prototypical scene.’

Next John had us considering Disney’s anxiety around his parentage, with Senora Zamora posing as a potential biological mother, and Disney’s relationship with his isolated mother Flora Call. Whilst the former figure is omitted from much of the material on Disney, Call appears distorted in the accounts, though a pervading question was asked in Mark Eliot’s highly controversial biography of Disney, ‘why didn’t his mother stop the beatings?’, the fear of his violent father, Elias, adding an important dimension to John’s psychobiography.

Poppins

For John, the ‘Lets Go Fly a Kite’ scene in Mary Poppins symbolised the relationship Disney never had with his parents, in particular his father. The reformed Mr. Banks stands over his young son as the caring head of the ideal nuclear family, settling the destabilising force of the maternal figure. Through this prototypical scene, John demonstrated how Disney sought to heal his sense of absent family relations by replacing it with the familial ideal through fiction.

Thank you so much to John for his rich and insightful seminar, and thank you to everyone who joined and helped facilitate a fantastic discussion afterwards at Park House. We couldn’t have asked for a better start to the seminar series, and we are looking forward to seeing you all for our next seminar on the 23rd October when myself (Faye Bird) will be presenting!

JW, GM, FB

GSRN Coordinator Gareth Mills, John Whitney, and GSRN Coordinator Faye Bird.

John Whitney is a PhD Candidate and Sessional Lecturer researching at the University of Reading within the Department of Film, Theatre and Television. You can contact John via email at J.A.Whitney@pgr.reading.ac.uk for any further information regarding his research.

 

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