A small but vocal demographic (Gladwellocalypse, Part 2 Addendum)
In an earlier article, I characterized Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History (RevHist) episode on golf as a softball piece,¹ I found out there is at least one point of overlap between Gladwell’s audience and people who play golf: surprisingly, the answer is Larry Wilmore. And apparently, the RevHist episode ruffled a lot of other feathers as well.
Wilmore invited Gladwell to appear on his podcast² to talk about other things, mainly his take on Satire,³ which, of course, Wilmore pushes back on as well since it relates directly to his profession .But Wilmore begins by questioning Gladwell’s criticism of golf:⁴
Now, I feel as an attack of country clubs—completely valid. But you go after golf itself. And I’m like, “Wait, hold on a second, Malcolm. Why are you attacking the game?” […] This is what we call playa hatin’ on golf, because there’s no reason to go after the game of golf.
Both of them, people I respect (update: maybe not so much Gladwell anymore), take the opportunity to be both right and wrong on a number of scores. Gladwell contrasts golf with mahjong, saying the former is addictive—in the RevHist episode he said golf was “crack cocaine for rich white guys”⁵—but mahjong is actually nearly inextricably associated with gambling in East Asian culture, as well as being well known for its addictive qualities, which have caused it to be banned in the People’s Republic of China since the Cultural Revolution.
Then Gladwell comes at the golf issue from a different angle:⁶
Gladwell: I cannot believe you of all people are calling me to task for taking on a sacred cow […]. Can I remind Larry Wilmore who Larry Wilmore is?
Wilmore: I’m keeping it a hundred: Larry Wilmore is someone who respects sports.
Gladwell: You served as the inspiration for people like me. I remember your absolutely brilliant [… White House] Correspondents’ [Association] Dinner [speech]: that was one of the high-water marks of my last decade […] watching those guys squirm. So […] if someone had come up to you afterward and said, “Larry, you didn’t have to go that far”? […] and the correct answer is, “Fuck you! I’m not going to pass up that opportunity. They’re all a bunch of fat cats. Let them squirm for 20 minutes.” That’s the right answer.
Wilmore backs down after the exchange, but continues to voice his love of the game of golf, telling Gladwell,
But we have to take you out and play some golf sometime.
Gladwell too backs down. And I suppose for both Gladwell and myself, we should be more cautious about criticizing things we have not experienced. When Wilmore says it’s “a very democratic game”,⁷ he’s actually right: 71% of all golf courses are accessible to the public, and certainly disparaging it because of its Jim Crow past would open that same can of worms for just about any other sport. And maybe my sport, fencing, might seem elitist to those viewing it from the outside, though I think it’s anything but. Still, for all the reasons Gladwell outlined, and from my personal experience of everyone I’ve ever known who was into it, golf seems pretty douchey.
How it really all began (DeDisnification, Part 9C)
I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse.
Once his company, poised on a razor’s edge financially for quite some time, finally found its footing, Disney began mythologizing the company’s origins. Mickey Mouse has become the company’s official mascot to reflect this myth, and “House of Mouse” is the company’s nickname and Mickey is now nearly synonymous with Disney. But if credit were given where it’s due, Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Walt’s business actually stayed on the raw edge of failure (and his previous two ventures, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists and Laugh-O-Gram Studios actually did fail) right up through Cinderella, which one could therefore also argue for as the Disney watershed moment. The only real contender for what started the company, however, would be Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
In the mid-’20s, together with Koko the Clown, a pair of cats dominated the animated films of the day; Felix and Krazy. Felix in particular was a massive hit and Disney’s cat clone, Julius, had already begun appearing in Walt’s early works, including the Alice Comedies.
When Laugh-O-Gram went bust and Walt moved to Hollywood to start another business, he tried to avoid doing any type of animation at all because of the more well-established studios responsible for the cats, but couldn’t get anywhere with that, so he borrowed money from his Uncle Robert and brother Roy to finish up the first Alice film and send it to a distributor named Margaret Winkler, who said she’d take it. Mixed live action and animation was expensive to produce, however, and when Winkler married Charles Mintz, he took over the business and brought together Disney, all-animated shorts, and Universal Studios. Disney pitched a character to them, moving away from the cats—and potential lawsuits—to a rabbit.
The original model sheet for Oswald is Disney’s work, and it’s both derivative and poor, with some elements of each of the cats, and an overall lumpy and dumpy look. In fact, the first Oswald film, Poor Papa, was rejected by Universal because they thought the character looked “old, sloppy, and fat”. It seems the head-to-body ratio that creates the sense of cuteness was not so well known in those days. Ub Iwerks took on responsibility for adjusting the character to be both more appealing, as well as more animatable for the first public appearance of Oswald in Trolley Troubles.
Disney mythmakers will tell you he was a great artist or a storyteller, but his chief talent seemed to be an Edisonian one: he found people with an amazing knack for art and animation and took credit for their work. Iwerks was only the first of these. Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, who were later to become well known as the duo who founded both the Warner Brothers and MGM animation studios, also worked for Disney in the Laugh-O-Gram days and followed him to California to work on Oswald. We shall also see that after some tough lessons, Walt also developed a nose for profit. Even Disney himself said:¹
Now, to tell you the truth, I was never a good artist. I was never satisfied with what I did, but it was a means to an end.
Oswald was a success, but with that success came trouble. First, they had sold the character, not just the films to Universal, and second, with the tight margins that animated shorts of the day entailed, Mintz started looking to cut the fat. He tried to negotiate a lower contract rate for the films when Disney was looking for more because of their popularity, and failing that simply did not renew. He didn’t need to: he simply stole the studio’s employees and opened his own shop. Mintz’ studio was given the boot in favor of an internal Universal studio only about a year later, an obvious next step.
The studio quickly developed Mickey Mouse as a replacement to which they retained all rights. The new character became popular, and despite the defections of Iwerks, Harman, and Ising, among several others, the team grew strong as well. Disney won every single Oscar for Short Subjects, Cartoons (now called Best Animated Short Film) in the ’30s. In fact, in only three of those eight years did they not have multiple nominated films.
However, the ’30s were also a time of peak funny pic: all the major film studios had built their own animation departments, and there was a plethora of indies as well. All this competition meant that studios had to keep costs low or risk being undercut. Additionally, even though the shorts had begun to draw audiences, the payment model was still based on a combination of the profitability of the features they were paired with and their running time.
The Three Little Pigs, a Silly Symphony short, in particular, was a case study for how the business model would not work: it was a hugely popular both in the US and overseas, scored an Oscar, and continued to play in first-run theaters for a year until it was supplanted by its own sequel. It cost $22,000 to produce and grossed $150,000 over the course of 15 months. Later rereleases tacked on another $100,000 to the gross. Sounds amazing, right?
But the gross isn’t what Disney got to take to the bank. As of four-and-a-half months into the film’s run, when theater owners were complaining about still having to pay full price to show the reel, Disney told the press that his share of the profits still hadn’t covered P&A.² That’s Hollywood jargon for “prints and advertising”, which together with actually producing the film makes up the bulk of costs that the gross dollars taken in by a movie have to repay before it becomes profitable. While The Three Little Pigs had another seven-and-a-half months to try to earn out, all this boils down to the fact that even a phenomenally successful short like this one had the potential to never get into the black. It also was clear that the film was making a lot of money for someone, it just wasn’t the studio.
Switching to feature films might seem like a brilliant flash of lateral thinking, but it was really the only choice for Disney, directly answering the issues I just discussed: bigger budgets, longer production times, a bigger share of the profits and, maybe more than anything, being top of the marquee, and therefore authors of their own box office fate. It’s hardly a coincidence that production on Snow White began in early 1934, the year after The Three Little Pigs’ release.
Nonetheless, Walt’s vision wasn’t an easy sell. Hollywood dubbed it “Disney’s Folly” and the fact that production ran to nearly four years with costs running to $1.49M—an enormous sum for the day—did nothing to diminish their derision. Roy Disney tried in vain to talk his brother out of it, but Walt instead proceeded to mortgage his house to help finance the effort. The studio continued to execute shorts, but they became proofs of concept for the feature rather than money-making ventures in their own right.
Snow White premiered on December 21, 1937. By May of the following year Disney was able to repay all the loans he had taken out to produce it. After six months, the film had grossed $2M, and by the May following that, it had become the highest-grossing US film ever at $6.7M. The studio became self sufficient and used the profits to put a down payment on 51 acres in Burbank and a purpose-built production facility for animated films.
In 1990, the Team Disney Building opened as the company’s new corporate headquarters. I’ve been a guest there on a few occasions, and depending which side you enter from, you will see an architectural tribute to the importance of Snow White in the studio’s history: the facade incorporates the Seven Dwarfs as caryatids. The decision to use them in this way was nonsensical since they rather obviously lack the stature to work well as pillars, not holding up the whole building but only the top few floors.
Getting comparatist with “Snow White” (DeDisnification, Part 9B)
So what is meant by folklore? While the matter wearing this label can be quite old, the term itself is actually a relatively modern coinage—one that can be accurately pinpointed to August 12, 1846. The coiner and locus are also known: a letter pseudonymously signed “Ambrose Merton” to a journal called The Athenaeum.¹
This long-defunct London weekly’s cover announced its themes as “literature, science, and the fine arts”, and each huge folio volume was still more dizzyingly eclectic within. Nonetheless, in those times of rampant polymathy, The Athenaeum’s readership was both broad and loyal. The letter’s writer, whose real name was William John Thoms, had identified one particular thread in the journal:²
Your pages have so often given evidence of the interest which you take in what we in England designate as Popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature (though by-the-by it is more a Lore than a Literature, and would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folk-Lore,—the Lore of the People)—that I am not without hopes of enlisting your aid in garnering the few ears which are remaining, scattered over that field from which our forefathers might have gathered a goodly crop. No one who has made the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc., of the olden time his study, but must have arrived at two conclusions:—the first how much that is curious and interesting in those matters is now entirely lost—the second, how much may yet be rescued by timely exertion.
Not only did The Athenaeum publish Thoms’ note in its letters column, they created a folklore department and installed him as its editor.
More importantly for our purposes, we have a definition, albeit quite broad, for what belongs in this category. Just as Italo Calvino describes the “artlessness” of these tales, Thoms says they are not literature, but lore. That they are originally an oral tradition is clear from Calvino and also hinted at by Thoms when he says they were being lost. In Telling Tales, Zanzibari media scholar, Mariam Hamdani, discusses how this loss is occuring:³
When we were little, you know, it was the grandmothers who were telling stories. Most of the stories were about these genies, magicians — [in] all these stories somebody was turned into a stone, somebody was turned into a snake, somebody was turned into a cow, whatever. Within there, they were teaching us: be nice to the neighbor, be nice to each other. So they were teaching us—all these stories—the meaning of them. […] Which is different from nowadays: people don’t have time for that, you know.
Despite Thoms’ and Hamadani’s dire predictions, folktales are everywhere today, and in particular form the basis for many of the Disney Animation Studio’s works. This is possibly in part because they are royalty free. Given the name, one might think that they have always been with us, but this is actually far from the case. The way in which such tales came to be part of pop culture is discussed by Calvino in the introduction to his Italian Folktales (Fiabe italiane) beginning with how the folktale became a matter for aristocratic literature:⁴
[E]ver since the seventeenth century in France, fairy tales had flourished in Versailles at the court of the Sun King, where Charles Perrault created a genre and set down in writing a refined version of simple popular tales which, up to then, had been transmitted by word of mouth. The genre became fashionable and lost its artlessness: noble ladies and précieuses took to transcribing and inventing fairy stories.
As Calvino also mentions, following on this movement, the Grimms saw their work as one both reflecting and promoting the Volksgeist, essentially a form of German nationalism, and so they altered the source material to reflect proper German morals. Netflix’ surprisingly good series, Myths & Monsters, takes up that thread:⁵
[T]he brothers began a patriotic project to collect the folktales of their own land. They spoke to German peasants and aristocrats, farmers and city dwellers, and documented the stories they heard […].
They were adapting the tales, of course, for an educated, literate public, a middle-class aristocratic public and they were adapting the content of those tales, of course, to the expectations of that public.
The Grimms’ enterprise was not simply an act of scholarly record, however; over the years, the brothers rewrote many of the stories themselves. They minimalized sexual elements and softened other darker themes. In earlier versions, Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the Big Bad Wolf, Sleeping Beauty was raped, not kissed, and Hansel and Gretel were neglected, not by their evil stepmother, but by their own parents.
Nor was Snow White sent out with the Huntsman to be killed by a stepmother; in an earlier version, it is her natural mother who takes her out to the wilderness and abandons her there. According to Kurt Ranke, a leading scholar of Germanic folktales, this switch was performed,⁶
[T]o make the villainess an outsider in the family circle.
So while from the time of Louis XIV down to our own, various people have been trying to record folktales, this preservation also changes them. As noted in another episode of Telling Tales, when there is an oral tradition:⁷
[E]ach telling is different, and each storyteller and each listener is different. It reflects the culture it emerges from and has to be understood in that context, and it is part of a continuous line of teller and listener caught in time and place.
Or, as folklorist Kay Stone notes:⁸
Stories created verbally are continually fluid and adaptable according to time and place, tellers and listeners, and other contextual factors. Some folklorists describe this vibrancy as “emergent quality,” meaning that the precise text of any story emerges at the actual event of its telling. […] No one story can be considered original in the sense of either primacy or individual innovation.
When the Grimms or Calvino set down a version of a tale, it is their telling and they change it, seeming to fit with the same pattern. But the fact that a well-known author is the one who has set it down moves it from lore to literature. It also becomes concrete, a definitive version which is cited and alluded to forever after. As Stone continues:⁹
Stories composed in writing tend to become fixed and unchanging, and authors and readers no longer share simultaneously in the creative event. When texts become attached to specific creators, the notion of originality in the dual senses of primacy and uniqueness come into play.
Then we come to the content of these tales. Discussing his people’s legend of the saguaro, Vice President the Tohono O’odham Nation, Verlon Jose, says:¹⁰
Like so many ancient tales […] this story can be understood on numerous levels and deals in an abstract and symbolic way with human behavior, emotions, aspirations, and deep psychological issues.
Calvino, as I’ve previously noted, shows restraint in altering the source materials, but as we’ve already seen, the Grimms much less so. It is for this reason that comparing versions is not only interesting, it’s necessary. Dr. Steven Swann Jones, in advocating for a comparative method of study in the field, notes that there is a:¹¹
[…] folkloristic axiom that a folktale is the sum of its versions. It is in the different versions that we can observe the changing shapes that the tale assumes and the consistent patterns of forms that it maintains.
So, to return to Snow White, she is clearly a wunderkind: her mother wishes her into being in the Grimm version. La schiavottella (The Little Slave), a slightly wry version found in the Pentamerone, meanwhile, makes the supernatural birth of the heroine the result of her mother swallowing a rose leaf during a jumping competition.¹² Other sources say she is an orphan, another common mysterious birth trope.
The Grimms introduced the three-color combination characterizing the heroine. Though white and red are often used as colors characterizing beauty, as in Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot (Snow-White and Rose-Red), or Pomo e Scorzo (Pome and Peel), in other versions, if they describe her hair, it is golden. The color language the Grimms adopt instead draws on Celtic sources relating to the triple goddess, the Morrígna. The colors are an ill omen, representing blood, snow, and ravens. The Grimms even describe the heroine as an Unglückskind—child of bad luck. In later versions, they take it down a notch by having an ebony window frame suggest the black color rather than the death-portending bird of Badb.
As for the relationship of the heroine and her persecutor, La Bella Venezia preserves the information that it is her own mother. This makes it clear that she is jealous of her daughter’s growing beauty, and in this version, the kitchen boy is put up to her murder. Additionally, rather than a queen, Bella Venezia is an innkeeper, a widespread Romance motif. Yet another version Calvino presents is Giricoccola, who is persecuted by her two jealous sisters, similarly to a Greek version, Myrsina—both of which therefore confound the tale with Cinderella. And again, modern literature versions added the step- to these figures.
And this is something that occurs frequently: just as we suddenly found ourselves in Ali Baba or Goldilocks in the wilderness of the previous Part, you can feel that you are wandering into other tales through these versions. In an Armenian variant, Nourie Hadig, you end up in The Dead Man’s Palace, and in La Bella Venezia we find a daughter sent into Rapunzel-like seclusion. Still other versions lead you to Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast.
Bella Venezia’s “mirror” is her guests, whom she charges less if they tell her she is beautiful, and more if they prefer her daughter, while in Myrsina the sun is consulted and Giricoccola and Nourie Hadig evidence a version stretching to the southeast as they ask the moon. In the Celtic Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree, a liminal trout is the bearer of the bad news.
The Grimms must’ve known of more Bella Venezia-esque versions as they share the fairly grisly element of the mother requiring body parts to be brought back as proof of the heroine’s death. In the Italian version, it’s eyes and blood, the Grimms have lungs and liver, and Disney has the heart. Indeed, this is a strong folktale motif that appears again and again, with different tales seemingly trying to outdo one another in gruesomeness. In the Grimm version and others, the evil mother eats these organs, making her a cannibal by intent, if not fact.
Uncharacteristically for these tales, Bella Venezia manages to go unpunished—she is simply not mentioned again after she sends a witch to kill her daughter at the bandits’ lair. When Myrsina’s sisters find out they have failed to destroy her, they simply die of rage. In the Disney version, the dwarves chase the queen, cornering her on a precipice which is struck by lighting, causing her to fall to her certain but offscreen death in a fairly unsatisfying deus ex machina.
But at Sneewittchen’s wedding her stepmother is shod in red-hot iron and dances until she is dead (cf. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes”). The punishment is quite abrupt in the tale, but brings together the idea that a mother should be happy at her daughter’s wedding and so dance, and that because the queen did not naturally have these feelings, she needs to be prompted, but it is also a prefiguration of the torments she is expected to suffer in Hell for her misdeeds. Together with rewarding the good, the punishment of the wicked is nearly a requirement for these tales—often in Dantean contrappassi.
Again, I have only compared a few versions and looked at a few motifs here. Ernst Böklen’s Schneewittchenstudien: Fünfundsiebzig Varianten im engern Sinn (Snow White Studies: Seventy-Five Variants in the Narrow Sense) boasts so many versions in the title that it has just made my reading list. However, as I have only been able to find it in German, it may take me a while to get through it.
Returning to Stone, she describes the final transformation of folktales into movies thus:¹³
Films create an even greater separation of makers and viewers, giving the latter even less possibility for interaction. Both story-listening and story-reading give us the opportunity to provide our own visual, oral, emotional, and other elaborations, but film provides these all ready-made for our consumption.
Strangely, she seems to have an even harsher take than me on the shortcomings of movies. I only went so far as to say that there are elements inherent in each medium that uniquely suit it to specific ways of conveying meaning. Her statement seems to simply condemn the lack of richness and interactivity of the form generally. But that would be taking her remarks out of context; she’s only arguing that film is probably the worst suited medium to the telling of folktales.