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Book Review: 'Working with Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists'

In Don Peri's new book, insights abound, but the real Walt Disney remains elusive.

Working with Walt is a terrific passel of interviews that holds its own in the Disney literary universe.

Working with Walt is a terrific passel of interviews that holds its own in the Disney literary universe.

Don Peri, no stranger to the world of Walt Disney Productions, has finally released 15 interviews with some of Disney's best-known (and lesser-known) creative minds. The interviews were conducted from 1974-1980, and one immediately regrets that they were not collected and published sooner. In reading these interviews, however, one increasingly gets the sense that the title is somewhat of a misnomer: there is never the sense that any of the interviewees worked with Walt. Rather, they worked for him, and Walt Disney would be the last one to let any of them forget that fact.

As in Michael Barrier's excellent book The Animated Man, Walt Disney emerges as a mercurial, unpredictable, and ultimately unknowable figure; his employees were still trying to fathom him even after years of retirement, and it emerges in these interviews that most of them never will. There is, however, agreement among them on some facets of Walt Disney that are already well known to most of Disney's historians and serious fans.

For example, Harper Goff and Herb Ryman relate that Walt always had an unerring feel for the public's taste. Disney's unceasing drive and determination are chronicled by Jack Cutting, Ken O'Connor, Ben Sharpsteen and Wilfred Jackson. Dick Huemer, Jackson, and Ryman attest to Walt's ability to instantly solve seemingly impossible problems in any production. O'Connor and Sharpsteen chronicle Walt's perfect judgment of his employees' talents and abilities. Everyone marvels at his uncanny acting ability.

Still, none of the interviewees in this book, not even Eric Larson, one of Disney's famed "Nine Old Men," truly knew the man they worked for. Ken Anderson and Herb Ryman both use the term "impenetrable" when talking about Walt Disney, and Ken O'Conner reiterates this. Harper Goff remembers his boss as "a difficult and frightening man" who still gave him nightmares years later.

Both Cutting and Ryman mention that Walt was so multifaceted that no one knew him; Les Clark, the first of the Disney Nine, maintains that Disney wanted no one close to him. Nearly every interviewee agrees on one thing: Walt Disney was all about his business and, outside of his all-consuming studio, there was little time for diversions, small talk -- or other people.

Walt Disney dominates this book like a looming spectral force, a living memory of difficult and temperamental genius. When Herb Ryman states that "Walt was not a deity, Walt was not a superman, Walt was just a regular, live, flesh-and-blood person... " it almost seems that Ryman has to convince himself that it is true. "Awe" is used by several of Peri's subjects in describing their feelings about Walt Disney. As the interviews continue, it becomes apparent that the only method of knowing what it was like to work for Walt is to see him reflected through the prism of his employees.

That is the genius of Peri's book: as an interviewer, Peri always manages to ask a question that reveals each of his subject's unique psychology in relation to their legendary boss. Wilfred Jackson, despite his undeniable talent and creativity, comes off as oddly insecure, his humility reading much like a lack of self-esteem. Ken Anderson presents with almost worshipful fervor. Ben Sharpsteen and Don Duckwall recount the abject terror that came with having a cartoon short go sour at its premiere.

Peri asks many of his interviewees similar questions, mainly about their first encounter with Walt, joining the studio, their experiences of the infamous strike (Art Babbit is universally reviled), and legendary moments such as Disney's performance that accompanied his announcement that the studio would begin production of Snow White. This technique, however, does not make for repetition, since Disney had a different effect on each of those interviewed. A multifaceted portrait of Disney is the only viable one; having several anecdotes and viewpoints of the same events only serves to deepen the book's scope.

Peri interviews some of the lesser-known entities at the studio, and acknowledges that he has done so in order to fill some of the gaps in Disney history; thus, Jack Cutting, Harper Goff, Larry Clemmons, and Don Duckwall are given their due. Their memories of working for Walt are just as revealing as those given by Les Clark and Eric Larson. Of particular interest is a rare interview with Marcellite Garner. Although she voiced Minnie Mouse, one of the most legendary female characters in animation, we learn that it was actually just a side job added to her regular duties in the ink-and-paint department.

Such historical tidbits abound throughout the interviews. Those interested in the early days of Disney, how directors and animators were chosen to work on projects, how production methods and the division of labor evolved, and what Burt Gillett did when he first came to the studio will be rewarded as they read through these lively interviews. Clarence Nash, the longtime voice of Donald Duck, details how he developed the duck from a character he originally called "Mary," and Floyd Gottfredson reveals why his name never appeared on the Mickey Mouse comic strip -- despite Walt's willingness to let him put his signature to it.

In short, Working with Walt is a terrific passel of interviews that easily holds its own against the masterful six-volume effort edited by Didier Ghez. Peri's desire to add information to the Disney story is matched only by his sincere questioning about what it was like to have Walt Disney as your stern employer, enthusiastic leader, savage critic, and shining idol. It is recommended (but not necessary) that the reader have some familiarity with Disney history and personnel, as Peri appears to take this for granted in some of the more in-depth interviews.

This is a highly recommended and important book; at a mere $14.95 on Amazon, it's impossible for any Disneyphile to pass it up.

Working with Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists; by Don Peri. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. 246 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-604730-23-4; ISBN-10: 1-604730-23-4 ($22.00).

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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