It was August.
Yes, I'm quite sure it was
August - had to have been, you know.
It was August, in Northern
We'd been making our way up
the coast, stopping to hunt for antiques and, specifically, for
Disney records. I'd found a few things in Santa Cruz, pretty
much driven straight through San Francisco that morning as fast
as possible, crossing the Golden Gate bridge and finally emerging
on the other side of the Bay, into that most picturesque and
relatively less inhabited region that constitutes the area north
of "The City".
We passed at length through
the town of Santa Rosa, known mostly as the home of Charles Schulz,
as well as the location of Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of
a Doubt", and then headed west, through hills and valleys,
passing old houses and farms, and innumerable cows, and finally
we hit the coast.
We stopped at a restaurant
on the edge of a body of water. It was beautiful. I gazed out
across the water, taking it in, contemplating the finger of land
that jutted out across the horizon - and then the cry of a lone
seagull woke me from my reverie. It was unsettling, for some
At that point a car pulled
up, and the driver, a sheepish looking European, rolled down
his window, a questioning look in his eyes.
I already knew what he was
going to ask . . .
By the time the 1950's came
to an end two of the most immediately recognizable faces in America
belonged to Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock. Both, prior to
the mid fifties, had been known principally as film makers, but
as a result of television they had each become icons, invading
millions of living rooms weekly via their respective shows, "Disneyland"
and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents". As the 50's rolled
into the 60's each had become an indispensable part of the cultural
And they could not have been
Walt Disney was by this time
known affectionately as "Uncle Walt": a genial, grandfatherly
type with a twinkle in his eye, inviting us each week into a
world full of magic and enchantment.
Alfred Hitchcock had a twinkle
in his eye as well, but it was not necessarily as innocent a
For if Disney was the doting,
kindly, whimsical Uncle, Hitchcock was the wicked Uncle.
Like Walt, Hitch would appear at the beginning of each show,
providing a humorous introduction to the entertainment to follow.
However, whereas Walt's monologues would invariably presage Tinkerbell,
Davy Crockett, or Thumper, Hitch's would lead us rather quickly
into a not-so-happy world of dark deeds, madness, suspense, the
occasional ghost, and, above all - murder . . .
The two were artists, perhaps
the greatest in their respective niches in the 20th Century.
And each had a mission. Walt Disney devoted his life toward bringing
out the best in us, the "kinder, gentler" aspect of
our nature, if you will. Through his many films, an extraordinary
number of now forgotten shorts, and the Disneyland park, he reinvented
our past, both historic and mythic, most appealingly, while simultaneously
educating and edifying as he constantly enthused on the great
promise of the Future. He reached deep into our collective consciousness
to bring out the good and heroic in us - he lived to give the
world new and better dreams.
Now, Hitch reached pretty
deep into that collective consciousness himself - but he was
far more interested in giving us nightmares, I'm afraid.
Hitchcock's mission was to find the dark underbelly of our unconscious
selves, to tap into the murderous malevolent monster that lurks
within us all, as in tale after tale ordinary people ended up
behaving in most extraordinary ways - and behaving very, very
badly most of the time.
Truly, these two were iconic
opposites, the yin and yang of the Kennedy-era American Zeitgeist.
And yet their lives paralleled
each other's to a most amazing degree . . .
They were both born at the
dawn of the 20th Century, for starters: Hitchcock just before,
on August 13th, 1899, and Disney just after, on December 5th,
1901. They would each begin their careers in entertainment rather
inauspiciously, and in the same year. In 1919 Walt began working
as a Slide Artist, creating ads to be shown in movie theaters,
while Hitch began creating "title cards" for British
silent movies that same year.
In 1922 the careers of both
rose a notch, as Hitchcock became an Assistant Director that
year, while Disney began producing his own animated shorts, dubbed
"Laugh-O-Grams". For both of them, these respective
steps prefigured the paths their lives would take. Hitch would,
of course, be forever known as a Director, first and foremost,
and the foundation of Walt Disney's empire would be Animated
Films. However, neither of them had quite gotten to where they
wanted to be, as yet. Hitchcock was, after all, only an assistant
at this point, and Walt's little company went bankrupt rather
Disney's luck would change
in a year or two, however. On March 1st, 1924, he released the
first official "Alice" cartoon (a pilot had been produced
the previous year. The Alice cartoons took a live action girl
and placed her in an animated world, and were successful enough
to allow Walt to move to the West Coast and set up shop in Hollywood.
He was now officially in the cartoon business, a business that
he would never actually leave.
Within the year, Alfred Hitchcock
finally directed his first film, and "The Pleasure Garden"
was released in England on November 3rd, 1925.
With such relative success,
the two apparently decided that it was time to get married, and
so they did: Disney on July 13th, 1925, and Hitch on December
2nd, 1926. Both would remain with their respective spouses, Lillian
and Alma, until their deaths.
The following year would mark
a major turning point for each. Hitchcock, though a bona-fide
director by now, had been turning out rather ordinary films.
On Valentine's Day in 1927, however, he released "The Lodger",
a Jack-the-Ripper yarn that was his first "suspense"
film. It was innovative, and very well received.
That same year Disney retired
the "Alice" series, releasing the last one in August,
and the following month began a new series featuring Oswald,
the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was an immediate hit, and soon eclipsed
the Alice shorts. Disney had seemingly hit paydirt.
Unfortunately, Disney did not
own the rights to Oswald, and its popularity proved to be his
undoing, as within a year the character was stolen from him,
along with several of his animators. Undaunted, Walt decided
to create a new character, one he could copyright. He had Ub
Iwerks, his longtime partner and chief animator, modify the Oswald
character, turning the rabbit into a mouse . . .
Now, Hitchcock and Disney had
achieved a small level of distinction by this point, but neither
really stood out from the pack. Hitch was one of many British
directors, and Walt was owner of a new, untested cartoon character
in a rather crowded field. They were both in search of a gimmick,
something that would set them apart from the rest.
And both found it as a result
of another film released in 1927, a rather nondescript little
thing that became a sensation for one reason: Sound.
Al Jolson's "The Jazz
Singer" was a huge hit. Movie studios had been fighting
against adding sound to pictures, even though the technology
for doing so had existed from Day One. After all, Edison originally
devised his version of the motion picture as something to be
used in conjunction with a previous innovation: the phonograph.
Still, silent films had proven to be financially and artistically
successful, and few in the Film Industry wanted to mess with
However, in 1926 commercial
radio took the country by a storm, prompting a huge drop in ticket
sales, and it was only a matter of time before someone decided
to produce a "talkie". Warner Brothers did so the following
year with the aforementioned "Jazz Singer", and an
upheaval of biblical proportions soon followed.
In 1928, however, sound was
still something of a gamble. While many studios were rushing
"soundies" into production, others felt that the new
technology was nothing more than a passing fad, as, for instance,
3D would prove to be in the early '50's. For fledgling filmmakers
looking for a gimmick, however (such as Disney and Hitch), Sound
was the answer to their prayers.
Walt Disney released the first
ever "talkie" cartoon, "Steamboat Willie",
on November 18th, 1928, introducing Mickey Mouse to the world.
Seven months later, on June 30th, 1929, Alfred Hitchcock released
the first British sound film, "Blackmail". The success
of the two was now assured, and, indeed, Disney and Hitchcock
became two of Entertainment's "golden boys" as the
1930's progressed. As a matter of fact, their paths intertwined
ever so briefly when, in December 1936, Hitch used a Mickey Mouse
cartoon in a sequence of his film "Sabotage".
So it was that, by the mid
'30's, Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock were comfortably established
in their respective niches: Disney as the prime purveyor of animated
cartoons, and Hitch as Great Britain's most distinctive director.
Were we dealing with average individuals, this might have been
the end of the story. For these two, however, there were more
peaks to scale.
Hollywood still felt itself
in mortal combat with Radio, and was therefore looking for more
gimmicks to get people out of the house and into the theaters.
Even as the sound revolution was barely complete, the next major
innovation had already arrived: Color.
Now, experiments with color
had been going on as long as there had been film, but prior to
the '30's results had been mixed, at best. As the decade dawned,
however, Technicolor finally perfected its 3-color system. Anxious
to demonstrate this system, they offered their technology exclusively
to Disney for animation, and in 1932 the first full color cartoon,
"Flowers and Trees", was released, to great acclaim.
By this time Disney cartoons
were loved the world over, and, with this exciting new element,
Walt Disney felt comfortable enough to begin planning his next
leap: a full length animated feature. His studio worked for years
on "Snow White", a project that was laughed at by many
in the industry. The most common line was that no one was likely
to want to sit through a ninety minute cartoon. As a matter of
fact, the bank financing the studio was ready to pull out at
one point, so Walt gave the bankers a sneak preview. It worked,
with one of the bankers exiting wordlessly, then turning to Walt
and saying, "That thing is going to make barrels of money."
In the meantime, Technicolor
had given exclusive live film rights to a small company that
was soon taken over by independent producer David Selznick. Selznick
would actually "loan" the process to MGM for "The
Wizard of Oz", a film that was directly inspired by the
success of Disney's "Snow White".
For "Snow White and the
Seven Dwarfs" was indeed a huge hit from its premiere on
December 21st, 1937 - four months after David Selznick had organized
the first of several meetings with none other than Alfred Hitchcock,
in an eventually successful attempt to bring the Master of Suspense
to Hollywood. The first Selznick-Hitchcock venture, a film based
on Daphne DuMaurier's "Rebecca", would win an Oscar
for Best Picture.
It was thus, as the 1930's
came to an end, that both Hitchcock and Disney moved from their
rather more specialized niches into the Hollywood mainstream.
Now, when I say that Disney
cartoons were loved the world over, I mean that quite literally.
Everybody loved Disney.
Even the Nazi's.
As a matter of fact, Joseph
Goebbels gave Hitler twelve Mickey Mouse cartoons as a Christmas
present in December of 1937. When Der Fuhrer saw "Snow White"
the following year, he was inspired. The Nazi's needed to make
their own animated classics . . .
The principal (and somewhat
laughable) result of this would be 1943's "Armer Hansi"
- a 17 minute fable about a canary who learns that life is better
in its cage. The film is notable mainly for a fairly innovative
electronic score, composed by Oskar Sala.
Sala is better remembered nowadays
for composing the soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock's "The
In 1946 Surrealist great Salvadore
Dali came to Hollywood briefly. His two main projects were for
- yep, you guessed it: Hitchcock and Disney.
For Hitch, Dali designed some
wonderfully bizarre sets for a dream sequence in the film "Spellbound".
For Disney, he worked on an experimental surrealist animated
feature called "Destino".
What's that - you've never
heard of "Destino"?
Small wonder - regrettably,
the film was never completed.
At any rate, both Disney and
Hitchcock had survived World War II, and were now attempting
to acquire greater independence. As the 1950's hit, Hitchcock
wanted greater control over the story material he adapted, and
landed a lucrative deal with Paramount that gave him greater
autonomy over his productions. Walt Disney during this time began
distributing his films himself.
The 1950's were a particularly
troubling time for the film industry in general, however - a
new medium had arrived that dwarfed the industry's previous problems
with radio - Television was a far more formidable foe. Film companies
tried everything they could to lure people away from their TV
sets and back to the theaters, from 3D (which never caught on,
though both Hitch and Disney dabbled in it) to wide screen (which
did catch on). All in all, for Film people, Television
was something to be feared and fought against.
You know what's coming.
Yep, Walt Disney and Alfred
Hitchcock took to TV like fish to water. Each fashioned a weekly
show using their names, and each solved the problem of continuity
(with both "Disneyland" and "Alfred Hitchcock
Presents", there were no returning regular cast members,
as each show was a stand-alone affair) by hosting the thing themselves.
This hosting quickly elevated both to the revered iconic "Uncle"
status they enjoyed by the end of the decade.
became "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" in
'61) premiered on October 27th, 1954. "Alfred Hitchcock
Presents" hit a year later, on October 2nd, 1955. The Look
Magazine 1955 Television Awards honored Hitch's show for "Best
Direction", with "Best Children's Program" going
It is probably around this
time that Hitch uttered his famous quote: "Disney has the
best casting. If he doesn't like an actor he just tears him up."
The shows were godsends for
both. Walt Disney's principal reason for his show was to finance
his latest dream, the Disneyland theme park. As with "Snow
White", everyone thought he was crazy - and financing was
hard to find, unbelievable as that seems nowadays. The television
show gave him the fast cash he needed to build the Park.
For Hitch, television would
pay off at the end of the '50's, when he had trouble finding
backing for his latest project: "Psycho". He elected
to use his television crew, shooting in black and white for dramatic
as well as financial reasons. The result was a very cheaply made
Instant Classic - the first Modern Horror Film, and both an artistic
and commercial triumph.
For his next project, Hitchcock
had a marvelous idea - a spy movie in which the final, climactic
chase sequence would take place in Disneyland. Walt Disney, upon
hearing of Hitch's desires, ordered a special screening of "Psycho".
It was probably about fifteen
seconds into the famed "shower sequence" that Walt
made up his mind - there was no way that a man who would produce
something as horrible that was getting anywhere near
his beloved Park . . .
His Disney dream dashed, Alfred
Hitchcock moved on. He returned to author Daphne DuMaurier, whose
novel "Rebecca" had given him his first American hit.
She had written a short horror story about a world in which birds
suddenly declared war on mankind, and Hitch thought it might
make a fun little film.
He wanted to film in color,
but wanted a suitably foggy coastal town for the setting. He
found the perfect spot: Bodega Bay, in Northern California. Unfortunately,
when filming actually began, the fog had vanished and the days
had turned horribly sunny and nice, to Hitch's great dismay.
Undaunted, filming commenced. About half of the location scenes
were actually shot in the town of Bodega, about twelve miles
inland (including, most notably, the schoolhouse scene). The
rest was filmed in the town of Bodega Bay itself, however, and
indeed the Tides Restaurant, though greatly remodeled, still
The problem of creating an
army of birds was dealt with in various ways - many of the scenes
sported papier-mache birds, some with wires attached to their
wings, while over 500 trained live birds were brought in as well
- some tied to their "victims", others drawn by the
hamburger meat smeared on other unwitting cast members (some
of whom had to be subsequently hospitalized as a result). Additional
birds were added using optical overlay animation.
Hitchcock, ever the innovator,
had one more idea: mechanical birds. He invested $200,000 developing
motorized birds, though the results were somewhat disappointing
and only a few made the final cut by the time "The Birds"
was released on March 28th, 1963.
And, as you may have guessed,
Alfred Hitchcock was not the only one experimenting with mechanical
birds in 1963 . . .
On June 23rd of that year,
three months after "The Birds" hit theaters, the Enchanted
Tiki Room opened at Disneyland. Walt Disney had been experimenting
with new ways of animating statues since opening the Park, and
with the Tiki Room he'd hit upon something big: audio-animatronics.
The birds, flowers, and even faces on the wall of the Enchanted
Tiki Room came to life, moving, talking, and singing to the audience.
This process would be used by Disney at the New York World's
Fair the following year, and would soon transform the Disneyland
So, one final feathered parallel
between these two beloved "Uncles" . . .
Three years later, Walt Disney
was dead. The Hitchcock series had ended a year before, in 1965.
The world was changing, and though Disney's dreams would be realized
to some extent by his successors, and though Hitch would produce
a few more pictures, it was never the same. Nothing Hitchcock
did subsequently would have the impact of "The Birds",
just as nothing the Disney company produced after Walt would
be quite as good. It was the end of a most remarkable era - an
era in which no other film maker achieved anything close to the
universal recognition enjoyed by both Walt Disney and Alfred
I walked over to the European
fellow's car. He asked, "Can you tell me where they filmed
it?" I smiled, and offered a few directions. He drove off,
and a relative silence returned to the waterfront, a silence
broken only by the sound of the occasional bird . . .
Then it hit me - I verified
the date, and laughed aloud.
It was August 13th, 2003 -
Alfred Hitchcock's 104th birthday.
And we were in Bodega Bay.