A Kick in the Teeth May Be the Best Thing in the World for You

Walt Disney? Diane Disney Miller? Pete Martin? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Animator, producer, and entrepreneur Walt Disney suffered many setbacks before he became a world-famous entertainer. For example, he founded the Laugh-O-Gram company to make animated films in Missouri, and the pioneering studio ended up in bankruptcy. Disney learned from his mistakes and persevered, and that is why I enjoy the following statement credited to him:

You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.

I visited Wikiquote, but the supporting evidence listed was an attribution in a book published in 2004. In my opinion, that is weak substantiation because Disney died in 1966. Could you examine the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Starting in 1956 The Saturday Evening Post published a series of articles under the group title “My Dad, Walt Disney”. The byline listed Diane Disney Miller who was the daughter of Walt Disney and Pete Martin who was the primary author of the articles. Part three of the series appeared in the December 1, 1956 issue and was called “The Coming of the Mouse”. In the following excerpt Diane Disney Miller discussed her father. Interestingly, the quotation from Walt Disney used “kick in the pants” instead of “kick in the teeth”: 1

He’s told me more than once that all the hard licks he ever got really did him good. Dad functions best when things are going badly.

“When things are going good,” he says, “I’m afraid something’s going to crack under me any minute. A kick in the pants can be the best thing in the world for you.”

The material in the magazine articles was combined and revised to form the basis of a book titled “The Story of Walt Disney” published in 1957. This volume included an instance of the quote using “kick in the teeth” that matched the version given by the questioner: 2

“I function better when things are going badly than when they’re as smooth as whipped cream,” he said. “When I’m in a fight I don’t worry, but when things are going good I’m afraid that something’s going to crack under me any minute. You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The words of Disney were noticed, and a 1964 compilation of sayings called “Distilled Wisdom” included the statement: 3

You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you. — Walt Disney

In 1966 the Newark Advocate newspaper of Newark, Ohio printed the quotation above ascribed to Disney together with four unrelated sayings under the title: Quips & Quotes. 4 In 1969 the Omaha World Herald of Omaha, Nebraska published the quotation, 5 and it has appeared in many periodicals and books from the 1970s forward.

An interview with Diane Disney Miller dated November 18, 2010 can be found on the website of The Telegraph newspaper of the United Kingdom. Miller discussed the creation of the book about her father: 6

At the age of 20 she married Ron Miller, a college football star. They bought a house funded by the sales of a book, The Story of Walt Disney, which Diane was supposed to have written.

In fact, the book was written by a man called Pete Martin, making Diane a rare sort of biographer – one with a ghost. She was there for the interview sessions, sitting in the garden with Martin and her father as they recorded hours of tapes about Walt’s life.

‘It was rather a pleasant experience, listening to Dad talk about his life. If you listen to the tapes you can hear my little voice now and then, my high, girlish voice.’

In conclusion, there are two versions of the quotation. One with “kick in the pants” and one with “kick in the teeth”. QI suspects that Walt Disney approved both for publication. He may even have said both during the hours of interview sessions. The Saturday Evening Post and “The Story of Walt Disney” were the two vectors that initiated the dissemination of the quotations.

(Great thanks to top researcher Dennis Lien who told QI about the book serialization in The Saturday Evening Post. He also obtained scans from the 1957 book. Special thanks to Derek Houck whose inquiry led to the construction of this question and inspired this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1956 December 1, Saturday Evening Post, Volume 229 Issue 22, The Coming of the Mouse by Diane Disney Miller and Pete Martin, (Part 3 of Series: My Dad, Walt Disney), Start Page 28, Quote Page 67, Column 3, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Academic Search Premier EBSCO)
  2. 1957, The Story of Walt Disney by Diane Disney Miller as told to Pete Martin, Quote Page 89, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system)
  3. 1964, Distilled Wisdom, Compiled and Edited by Alfred Armand Montapert, Quote Page 106, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1966 June 28, Newark Advocate, Section: Opinion Page, Quips & Quotes, (One quotation in a miscellaneous set of five), Quote Page 4 (NArch Page 16), Column 5, Newark, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1969 July 10, Omaha World Herald, Quick Reading: So They Said, Quote Page 22, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 2010 November 18, The Telegraph UK, Diane Disney Miller interview by Horatia Harrod, Telegraph Media Group, United Kingdom. (Accessed at telegraph.co.uk on May 21 2013) link