“I am not trying to be a teacher,” Walt Disney said. “I want to make stories to apply to a broad field, so that mother and father can understand the need and will help the child. If we can accomplish that, our work has been worthwhile.”
Although Walt humbly denied that he had any aspirations to be an educator, throughout his career, his work proved time and again that he was an educator — and a remarkably skilled one, at that.
He began young, in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1922. Kansas City Dentist Thomas B. McCrumb commissioned Walt’s short-lived Laugh-O-grams studio to make a short silent film to help make dental hygiene more understandable. “Tommy Tucker’s Tooth” is a lesson on the benefits of regular tooth brushing, and tells a fairly simply story of contrast: Tommy Tucker cares for his teeth, Jimmie Jones doesn’t. The live-action film features advice on proper dental care techniques. Walt produced and directed, and his lifelong friend Walt Pfeiffer ran the camera.
Disney historian Jim Korkis observes that Walt’s technique for delivering effective messages was already in place. “Watching the film today, it is still effective because Walt cleverly connected dental care principles with things that people already knew and understood, like refrigerating food and darning socks,” Korkis says. “The film shows how Walt understood how to communicate important information with humor and using familiar similarities that would be very evident in the military training films and educational films that the Disney Studios would make decades later.”
“Tommy Tucker’s Tooth” was a success for Dr. McCrum, and a few years later, after Walt was established in Hollywood and making the “Alice Comedies” series of shorts, the doctor asked Walt for for a sequel. In August 1926, Walt’s niece, Marjorie Sewell Davis, appeared in the title role of “Clara Cleans Her Teeth.” In the film, Clara refuses to see a dentist, but an animated nightmare (courtesy of Disney Legend Ub Iwerks) changes her dental ways.
Walt’s next foray into the educational film didn’t come until 1942, when he began to make a variety of training and education films for various government entities. He later recalled, “The war intervened and our studio, with all its talent and skills, was taken one hundred percent, producing hundreds of thousands of feet of vital film for the war effort. It was here that we learned the true meaning of diversification.
“We produced thousands of insignia for the various fighting units — hundreds of films on such subjects as ‘How to Hate Hitler,’ ‘The Vulnerability of the Japanese Zeros,’ ‘Fighter Tactics,’ ‘Bomber Tactics,’ ‘Meteorology,’ briefing films on the hundreds of islands to be captured in the Pacific; and our series on simple sanitation with such alluring subjects as ‘How to Control the Malaria Mosquito,’ How to Avoid the Hook Worm,’ ‘How to Get Rid of the Body Louse,’ ‘How to Build and Where to Locate a Privy So as Not to Pollute the Drinking Water’ — and many more I don’t care to mention.”
Though Walt’s recollection of the Studio’s war work was delivered with high good humor, he also knew that the experience of mixing education and entertainment had been productive.
“You might say we didn’t come out of the war smelling like a rose, but we had acquired a wonderful education — and a determination to diversify our entertainment product,” he continued. “So we started experimenting with the living nature subjects and live-action features.”
The True-Life Adventures are a perfect example of Walt’s resourcefulness. During the production of “Bambi” in 1942, hundreds of hours of footage of woodland animals was shot for the use of animators as anatomical and motion reference. Walt found that the footage itself told fascinating stories and presented nature’s creatures as characters. An idea took hold.
The result a few years later was more than a dozen short subjects and feature films that used entertainment to educate audiences about the wild (among them “The Living Desert,” “The Vanishing Prairie,” and “The African Lion”), a series that enjoyed a long life in cinemas, theatrical reissues, on the Disney television outlets, and on home video. Walt dubbed them “True-Life Adventures.”
The executive producer of the current DisneyNature film series, Don Hahn, says, “The format of telling compelling stories about animals and transporting the audience to new and exciting places was an easy fit for the guy who brought you ‘Bambi.’ In the True-Life Adventures he developed a format of comedy, drama, entertainment, and education that is still used today — and that we aspire to in our DisneyNature films.”
The work on these films likewise educated Walt. As he worked with naturalists, animal caregivers, and nature photographers, his view of nature’s world grew more sophisticated and enlightened. Walt wrote, “The immediate need for education and practice in using our natural resources of soil, forest, water, wildlife, and areas of inspirational beauty to the best advantage of all, for this generation and others to come, is again apparent to every observant citizen. My interest in these problems has been sharpened by our motion picture production of wildlife subjects, and the relation of animal life to all the other conservation issues during the past few years.”
Although the educational films of the 1940s had been simply a means to keep his Studio open and his staff at work, as the years went by, the teaching value of the medium continued to impress Walt, and his Studio showed a real finesse for such work.
“Educational films will never replace the teacher,” Walt said. “The three R’s ["reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic"] are basic, but their advancement by means of the motion picture screen will give more people in this world an opportunity to learn. Pictures can make both teaching and learning a pleasure. And educators agree that when a student has begun to learn and like it, half their problem is solved.”
For the generations coming of age in the late 1950s and on, entertaining Disney projects with some solid lessons to teach became standard (and welcome) experiences. Such projects as the Kimberly-Clark-sponsored short “How to Catch a Cold” (1951) and the Donald Duck shorts “How to Have an Accident at Home” (1956) and “How to Have an Accident at Work” (1959) used comedy to teach health and safety.
One of the most ambitious and longest-lived of Walt’s teaching films has been “Donald in Mathmagic Land,” a 27-minute Donald Duck “featurette” released with “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” in 1959. Directed by Disney Legend Hamilton Luske, the film was nominated for an Academy Award® (Best Documentary, Short Subject). Two years after its theatrical release, it was the centerpiece of the premiere program of “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” The film was then made available for educational institutions, and became one of Disney’s most popular educational films.
“The cartoon is a good medium to stimulate interest,” Walt said. “It is an ideal medium for teaching and it has always been my hope that we could do something that way. But it would have to be of general interest, yet helpful in teaching. It should be used for opening people’s minds and meeting their needs.”
Another educational film, “Donald’s Fire Survival Plan,” directed by Disney Legend Les Clark, was produced in association with the National Fire Protection Association in 1965, and taught the fundamentals of preparedness and safety in the case of home fires. It was revised, updated, and reissued for two decades afterward, and became a staple of elementary school assemblies and fire prevention programs.
Ultimately, although Walt had never set out to be a teacher, he was comfortable with having become a teacher — and a good one. Walt wrote, “We have always tried to be guided by the basic idea that, in the discovery of knowledge, there is great entertainment — as, conversely, in all good entertainment, there is always some grain of wisdom, humanity, or enlightenment to be gained.”
By Jeff Kurtti
Jeff Kurtti is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history. The author of more than 25 books, Kurtti worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Most recently he was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for the cornerstone exhibit at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California.
Now, Jeff brings his passion and expertise to Disney Insider through a unique online presence called “The Wonderful World of WALT.”