Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
“Walt Disney's influence can only be measured by how thoroughly he reshaped the culture and American consciousness”
No other 20th century artist had a greater impact on American arts, culture and history than Walt Disney. Even now, 41 years after his death from lung cancer, his influence is still being felt in the corporate model he helped create, in the films that his company still creates and in some sense, the entire notion of American entertainment. But, there is a strange dualism contained in the figure of Walt Disney; on one hand you have a man whose energy and creativity were astounding and on the other you have a man whose inability to empathize with his fellow man is equally astounding.
Neal Gabler comes to the difficult task of examining this paradoxical man with an excellent pedigree. His previous books (An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) were carefully researched and well-written. His reputation is excellent and he appears to be a smart, hard-working intellectual: just the kind of person the Disney Company and the Disney family would want to open their massive archives to. But that's just the problem: to write a full biography of Walt Disney, you have to have access to the major documents about him. The catch is that they are all owned by an organization and family that has stake in the image of Walt Disney they want presented. And so, Gabler's biography is beautifully detailed and expertly researched, but in the end it lacks the realistic portrait that such a major figure deserves. There is a superb laying out of facts, but no real significant conclusions (or criticisms) are made. And despite Gabler's obvious love and enthusiasm for Disney and his works, the writing tends to bog down at times in an overabundance of facts and dates.
After an excellent introduction (one of the best parts of the book), Neal Gabler captures the early, formative years of Disney in such a way that he seems to be almost a fictional character (perhaps he is to some extent). The book follows Disney into Chicago where he is first exposed to animation and eventually starts his own company with brother Roy as the “money man”. Then it's off to Los Angeles, the creation of the Mickey Mouse character and his first animated feature film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” which became an extraordinary world phenomenon and made Walt a rich man. He made so much money he was able to expand his studio, hire many more artists and create even better feature films. Gabler captures this period (most of the first third of the book) extremely well, despite an occasional dry recitation of dates and events. His portrait of Walt and his manic creativity (and equally brutal frankness with his workers) seems spot on. Gabler also spends a good deal of time describing just what Disney did that was so revolutionary in animation. You get a basic course in the history of early American animation along with a biography of it's leading figure. Some have criticized his factual accuracy here, but I haven't found anything out of place or incorrect. In fact, the whole development of the animation industry with Walt at the center was one of the most engaging parts of the book for me.
“I've always said that if you get forty people in a room together and ask each one of them to write down who Walt Disney was, you'd get forty different answers”
-Roy E. Disney (nephew)
However, problems come during world war II, both for Disney and for Gabler's biography. I had no idea that it was the American government that saved Walt Disney and his company from bankruptcy (and also made him a spy for the FBI , a fact completely missing from this biography). As distasteful as it was to him, Walt began to make propaganda films for the U.S. Government. Of course, it drove Disney to near collapse both mentally and physically. In this part of the book, Gabler seems to lose his hold on Disney, the artist and man. Disney seems to become more distant and hard-hearted as a person, especially after the war when all kinds of labor troubles and fears of communist invasion of Hollywood bedevil Disney and his company. Gabler is careful to present the facts and attempt to remain neutral while describing Walt's increasingly mean-spirited and thoughtless behavior, but I never got the feeling that Gabler was really serious in his study of Disney at this time. Gabler essentially starts making good excuses for Walt and his brother Roy. Walt's genius, his innovation, his feelings of being betrayed by the workers he was like a “father” to and his attempt to control a company which became much like a family in his mind; all of these reasons and rationalizations make any anti-semitic remarks or irrational behavior forgivable to the biographer. At this point, the book lost a lot of legitimacy for me and I found myself seeking out other sources for a more accurate portrait of Disney at this time. Perhaps this is the influence of the Disney family at work here. There is no way to know for sure.
“Walt seemed to realize he was hopelessly addicted to work at the expense of family and friends”
Eventually, though, the biography began to catch fire again when Walt walks away from the daily operations of the, now huge Disney company, and becomes obsessed with trains. Gabler describes this growing obsession so well and understands it's source (the desire to create another dream world that Walt could control) so perfectly, it seemed that he had once again latched on to a more personal portrait of this great genius. The book becomes a gripping read as Gabler describes the origin, the financing, the construction and opening of Disneyland. In what is probably the best section of the book, Gabler so completely describes the genesis of this extraordinary re-imagining of the amusement part, that when Walt breaks down and cries at the opening it might bring tears to the readers eyes as well.
Unfortunately, Gabler continues to describe the “crying Walt” through several more chapters as he continues on through the last part of Walt Disney's life and career. It's as if Walt has become a symbol again. This time the stereotyped symbol of the romantic suffering artists who's inner sacrifice brings great art to us all. That's not to say that the last part of the book isn't interesting, it is. But it seems that, like the post war period earlier, Gabler holds Walt at a distance and venerates him more than criticizes him.
At the end of his life, Walt is diagnosed with cancer (he was a heavy smoker all his life) and Gabler's description of his last several months is moving. I was also amazed at how his family and employees were shocked to hear of his death. It's as if a man so protean, so filled with the energy of genius could cheat death. No, Walt himself couldn't cheat death and paid the price for a lifetime of smoking, but his creations would continue to inspire and entertain long after he is gone.
Neal Gabler's biography of Walt Disney is probably the best general book on the life of this American genius, but it's by no means definitive. Gabler's excellent descriptions of Walt and his brother essentially creating the animated feature film; his insight into Walt's re-creation of the American amusement park; the early adoption of television as a medium; his creation of corporate synergy; his creation of the “wildlife documentary” and his willful re-creation of America's past with shows like Old Yeller and Davy Crockett. And these are just the highlights. Neal Gabler understands what Disney has done and he understands (for the most part) what it was that drove Disney to create so brilliantly and massively, he just doesn't want to address the darker side of Walt Disney's character. His obsessive need to control, his anger, his hidden fears and prejudices, his lack of commitment to his family and his complete lack of understand of those who worked for him. Sure, Gabler addresses many of these issues, but only half-heartedly. I would have wished for a more honest portrait of Walt Disney.
“I am not Walt Disney anymore. Walt Disney is a thing. It's grown to become a whole different meaning than just one man”
For better or worse, Walt Disney changed the way we look at the world. He and his brother created a corporation that was years ahead of it's time in integrating it's various departments around a single idea or single project. Walt defined, in many ways, the modern entertainment conglomerate. His energy and obsessiveness led to completely new ways of looking at art, culture and commerce. As I've already stated, he is probably the single most influential artist of the 20th century. And yet the seeming hypocrisy of his selling wish-fulfillment and happiness in fantasy while being a person that lacked a good deal of empathy for those that worked for him, makes him a difficult person to understand. Neal Gabler makes a good effort to understand and portray the life of Walt Disney, but the truth of the matter is we may never really know the kind of person Disney really was since many who knew him well have died and, most importantly, the essential records of Walt's life are zealously guarded. You see, the Walt Disney company not only owns his works they own his legacy as well.
One of the great side benefits of reading this detailed biography is the fact that the Disney company has been releasing many wonderful treasures from their vaults, so when I learned about the Silly Symphonies, I was able to go and get a great collection of them on DVD. This is also true for the black and white Mickey Mouse cartoons, almost all of the early TV shows and films, along with many, many collections of documentaries and specials on everything from the construction of various parts of Disneyland to Walt's early propaganda films for the U.S. Air Force.
-A good starting point would be the DVD “ Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland, Secrets, Stories and Magic . Also, “ Disney Rarities: Celebrated Shorts – 1920's to 1960's ” contains a wealth of early animated film work. “ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney Special Platinum Edition) ” is a remarkable DVD that rewards close viewing.
-Here is a link to a good interview with Leonard Mosley author of "Disney's World" a biography of Walt Disney published in 1985.
-An excellent NPR interview with Neal Gabler.
-Although it's whitewashed a bit, the Disney Company's "Walt Disney Family Museum " has a wealth of pictures, clips and history.
-Finally (this list could be endless), Remembering Walt by Amy Booth Green and Howard E. Green is a collection of interviews and photos of Walt by those who knew him well. This book was recommended to me by a Disney producer who, after I complained about the Gabler biography, offered the remark “maybe the best way to know Walt is by reading what many people had to say about him”. You know, I think he's right.
Ricky Grove [gToon], Contributing Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
December 31, 2007
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