Walt Disney’s career was so varied, and his reach so great, that there may never be a shortage of material for authors and scholars to mine. Two recent books present fresh fodder that will be of interest to serious Disney buffs. The more elaborate of the two is a weighty coffee-table book called The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Walt Disney’s Movie Magic (Walt Disney Family Foundation/Weldon Owen Publishing), written by renowned animation specialist John Canemaker with a foreword by Pixar’s Pete Docter.
Don’t feel funny if you’ve never heard of Herman Schultheis: he wasn’t one of Disney’s famous artists. In fact, it’s his obscurity that helps make the story so intriguing. Schultheis was a German immigrant with artistic and engineering skills. He made his way to Hollywood in the late 1920s with stars in his eyes and wound up as a jack-of-all-trades at the Disney studio in 1938. During the next few years he documented, in photographs and text, everything that went on in the camera department, where cutting-edge visual effects were invented on a regular basis. He also snapped anything else that caught his fancy. Much of this he did on his own, hoping to impress his superiors and prove his worth. His efforts didn’t pay off and he was let go in 1941. It was only in 1990 that his voluminous notes turned up in his widow’s home in Los Angeles. Serendipity took hold at this point, and Diane Disney Miller was able to purchase the principal notebook for the Walt Disney Family Museum.
The engineer’s notes detailing how Disney artists and technicians developed some of their innovative techniques for Fantasia and Pinocchio are often difficult for a layman to comprehend, but the photos help us to understand some of the elaborate work that went into creating a cascade of snowflakes or replicating the look and feel of a railroad locomotive in cartoon form.
What’s more, Schultheis was a compulsive shutterbug, recording Los Angeles history as well as a wide variety of activities at the Disney studio. An unfailingly graceful writer, Canemaker puts Schultheis’ story into perspective, following the ambitious (possibly overly ambitious) self-promoter through his years of world travel and exploration.
This handsomely designed tome is not for the casual Disney fan, but I was captivated by the multiple layers of its story—and all those fascinating pictures.
On the other hand, Inside the Whimsy Works by James A. Johnson, edited by Greg Ehrbar and Didier Ghez (University Press of Mississippi) is a breezy, posthumously published memoir by the man who put the Disney company into the record business in the 1950s and steered that ship through its boom years. Johnson provides an inside look at the workings of the studio from a business point of view, explaining, for instance, that employees were either “Walt’s boys” or “Roy’s boys.” As one of the latter, Johnson had difficulty getting Walt to take him seriously as a creative individual and not just a pencil-pusher.
Again, a casual Disney fan might not take interest in how Johnson supervised worldwide publishing for the company and maintained personal contacts overseas—but I found it enlightening. His insider stories of maneuvering within the shark-infested waters of the music industry are particularly interesting. Anyone who’s interested in the making, marketing, and distribution of records during the '50s and '60s is sure to find those passages especially fruitful. There are also amusing and personal sidebars on such personalities as Louis Armstrong, Cliff Edwards, Maurice Chevalier, Julie Andrews, Louis Prima, and other notables with whom Johnson had close contact over the years.
Jimmy Johnson has been recognized as an official Disney Legend, and this enjoyable volume explains why he is so deserving of that honor.