ByMark Newton, writer at Creators.co
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

Disney has always been a major font of urban legends - whether its disgruntled animators inserting the word 'sex' into The Lion King, or claims various rides at Disney Land are haunted - it's often hard to know what legends about Walt Disney's animation empire are actually true.

Let's take a look at some of the major urban legends about the man himself, Walt Disney. A lot of strange claims have been made about the film-making legend, but which are actually true? Add your first instinct to the poll and then check the spoiler tag for the actual truth.

1. Walt Disney Is in Cryonic Storage

It is claimed that following his death, Walt Disney's body was placed in cryogenic storage in accordance with his wishes. The rumor claims his remains were interned in a chamber flooded with liquid nitrogen, and he is currently awaiting a time when technology can revive him.

Poll

Do you believe Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen?

This urban legend is in fact false. No one is entirely sure who or when the rumors started, but the Disney's family's refusal to discuss personal details meant it has long persisted. It seems the rumor gained extra creedance due to Disney's open support and interest for technological innovation.

2. Walt Disney's Last Words Were 'Kurt Russell'

Enduring rumors claim that just before he died of lung cancer in 1966, Walt Disney scrawled the words 'Kurt Russell' on a piece of paper. No one really knows why.

Poll

Do you believe Walt Disney's final words were Kurt Russell?

It might be rather bizarre, but Walt Disney did write Kurt Russell on a piece of paper shortly before passing away - at least, according to Kurt Russell. Back in 1966, Russell was a child actor who was working with the studio, however he had no personal contact with Walt Disney prior to his death. When Jimmy Kimmel brought up the urban legend on his show, Russell explained: "It's true. I don't know what to make of that. I was taken into his office one time after he died and I was shown that."

3. Walt Disney Was Dishonorably Discharged from the Military

This story claims that Walt Disney, who had enlisted in the American Ambulance Corp in World War I, was later kicked out of the military for dereliction of duty. It is suggested that Walt abandoned a broken down ambulance in France while waiting for assistance to arrive.

Despite being dishonorably discharged, it is further claimed Walt Disney was actually proud of this fact, and displayed his certificate of service up-side down on his office wall.

Poll

Do you think Walt Disney was dishonorable discharged from the military?

This story seems to be based on a tiny bit of truth, and not much else. Walt Disney did attempt to join the army during the First World War, however he was rejected for being underage. Instead, he did find employment with the American Ambulance Corp after the war, which was itself a division of the Red Cross, not the military. Therefore, it was impossible for Disney to be dishonorably discharged from the military.

Furthermore, it seems Disney had a generally positive time in France, stating: "The things I did during those eleven months I was overseas added up to a lifetime of experience. It was such a valuable experience that I feel that if we have to send our boys into the Army we should send them even younger than we do. I know being on my own at an early age has made me more self-reliant..."

4. Walt Disney Was an Illegitimate Child of a Spanish Couple

This urban legend states that Walt Disney was in fact the child of a Spanish woman named Consuela Suarez and her young fiance, who was killed in Morocco before the wedding could take place. It is claimed she agreed to hand over the child to an American couple, Flora and Elias Disney, after she emigrated to the United States.

Only upon returning to Spain shortly before her death, did Consuela discover that her child was in fact the incredibly successful Walt Disney. These claims are apparently supported by the fact no birth certificate for Walt Disney exists.

Poll

Do you believe Walt Disney was the illegitimate child of a Spanish couple?

False. There appears to be no solid evidence that Walt Disney is the child of anyone other than Flora and Elias Disney. No real evidence exists to counter this fact, although that hasn't stopped several biographers - most notably Marc Eliot in his book, Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince - from propagating the claims.

It is true that Disney does not have a birth certificate, but this was not that unusual in Illinois at the turn of the century. Birth certificates were not required by law at this time, and children born at home without a doctor present (like Walt was) were often not officially registered.

5. Walt Disney Was an Anti-Semite

This is one of the most enduring accusations that has been made against Walt Disney after he died in the late 1960s. Slowly it emerged, through various anecdotes and some biographies, that Walt Disney was actually anti-Semitic and may have even had Nazi inclinations. It is claimed he attended meetings of anti-Jewish, pro-Nazi groups in the 1930s and even helped establish one of the film industry's most anti-Semitic organizations.

Poll

Do you believe Walt Disney was anti-Semitic?

Of course, this is a difficult rumor to categorically confirm or disprove - since unlike some of the others above, there may not be a definite 'true/false' answer. The accusations are certainly true, and it may be that Disney did conduct himself in a way which didn't exactly endear himself to the Jewish community. He welcomed Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl to Hollywood when all other studio heads had retracted their invites following news of Kristallnacht in Germany (he'd later claim to not know who she was). While Disney animator, Art Babbitt, claimed to have seen Disney and his lawyer at meetings of the German American Bund - a pro-Nazi organization.

It has also been reported that Disney occasionally made off-color remarks to Jewish employees. For example, when director David Swift told Disney he intended to take a job at Columbia Pictures, Disney responded - in a mock Yiddish accent: "Okay, Davy boy, off you go to work for those Jews. It's where you belong, with those Jews." Even The Walt Disney Family Museum acknowledges that Disney did have "difficult relationships" with some Jewish individuals, while his early films also contained many ethnic stereotypes.

Disney also helped establish the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals - an organization which was at the center of McCarthyism and the 'Red Scare' in the 1940s and 1950s. This group was certainly anti-Communist, but it also contained many anti-Semitic members. Ultimately, biographer Neal Gabler would conclude his membership to this group is what caused the accusations to persist, claiming: "Walt himself, in my estimation, was not anti-Semitic, nevertheless, he willingly allied himself with people who were anti-Semitic, and that reputation stuck. He was never really able to expunge it throughout his life."

6. Walt Disney Fired Everyone on a Project for Splicing in a Frame of a Naked Woman

The urban legends states that a group of animators and film-makers wanted to test Walt Disney's famous eye for animation. To do this they spliced one frame of a naked woman into a 24 frames per second animation and waited to see if Walt would spot it.

The scene played but Walt did not respond, instead when the film ended he turned to the animators and said: "Whose idea was it to add the naked woman?"

When they responded it was to see if Walt could spot it, he replied, "I did and you are all fired!"

Poll

Do you believe Walt Disney fired everyone for a joke?

This story seems to be partly true. There certainly was an anecdote that passed around the Disney offices to this effect, and Charles Shows, a scriptwriter and producer-director with Disney in the 1950s and '60s, mentioned the story, first hand, in his memoirs. However, importantly, the story does not end with the staff being fired. Instead Walt is proud he has spotted the mistake and remarks, "If that gal had had any clothes on, I wouldn't have paid any attention to her."

7. Walt Disney's Mother's Death Greatly Affected His Movies

This rumor suggests the death of Walt's mother in 1938 greatly affected the future of his movies, which are often typified by a motherless protagonist - such as Cinderella, Bambi, Dumbo, Pinocchio, etc. It suggests Walt felt particularly responsible for her death as he purchased the house in which his mother would eventually be killed by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Poll

Do you believe Walt's mothers death led to the motherless trend in Disney movies?

Once again, this is a difficult one to verify with certainty. Of course, it's extremely likely the trauma of losing a much loved parent - and feeling partly responsible for it - affected Walt's creative direction. But, if this was the case, it seems that he never explicitly stated it, although he was famously reserved about discussing personal things in public. Despite this, longtime Disney producer, Don Hahn, has suggested his mother's death was central to the motherless element of future Disney movies.

However, there is also evidence against this urban legend. Firstly, many of the early motherless movies - Snow White, Bambi and Pinocchio - were storyboarded and pre-produced before Flora Disney's death. Secondly, many of the early Disney movies were not original creations, but drew on older folk tales and children's literature which already featured motherless characters. Thirdly, most Disney movies are coming of age tales of individuals finding independence and their place within the world. This type of story is simply easier and more compelling to tell if there is not a parent figure guiding the character. Finally, the motherless child narrative is also not unique to Disney, but features in many other works, such as Harry Potter, L. Frank Baum's Oz books, and the works of Dickens.

Poll

Which of the Walt Disney urban legends do you find most bizarre?

Source: Snopes

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