September 2003



It was August.

Yes, I'm quite sure it was August - had to have been, you know.

It was August, in Northern California.

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 reason.

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 . . .

Two Uncles

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 landscape.

And they could not have been more dissimilar.

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 twinkle.

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 quickly.

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 success.

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 Birds".

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.

"Disneyland" (which 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 to Walt.

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 stands.

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 Park.

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 Hitchcock.

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.