Story Man: Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
Walt's challenges from decade to decade are spelled out in haunting detail: scrambling for cash to fund his first Laugh-O-Grams; looking for a distributor for his Oswald cartoons who wouldn't rip him off; obsessing over every detail on Snow White; trying to beat back what he thought was Commie infiltration when his studio artists struck in 1941; struggling to even have a studio during the war; doing the impossible, dreaming the improbable, proving the nay-sayers wrong.
Walt's own artistic elation peaked and waned according to the level of control he could exert. When the studio had only one feature -- its first -- in production, and Walt could have a hand in everything every character did on-screen, he exalted. After the war, with several films in production at once and with cash and Walt's attentions spread too thin for the product ever to meet his standards, he grew disenchanted and shifted his obsession to planning Disneyland. And once that was rolling he grew bored yet again; and God help you if you were working at Disney Studios in that era. "The staff lived in fear," Gabler writes, "total abject fear." One prospective TV writer at the studio remarked of her colleagues that "They liked their work; they valued their careers; they knew better than to cross their tyrannical boss."
Yes, this was an amazingly driven creative personality who could also be a major asshole. But he wasn't quite Satan incarnate. Disney has sustained many attacks on his character over the years, which is natural for a public figure; and, naturally, not everything you've heard is true. If you'd asked anyone working for him in the early 1930s they'd probably agree that the studio Disney had established was quite near the sort of first-name-basis artistic Utopia that Walt had wanted to build all his life.
Gabler's book happily dispatches a lot of apocryphal received wisdom about Walt, starting with his book's wonderful opening sentence: "He was frozen." (Turns out impish Ward Kimball had a lot to do with that rumor's longevity. He didn't start it -- the tabloids did -- but he loved spreading it around. I would invite any readers made angry over the dispelling of this cherished urban myth to forward their complaints care of the Dorfandorfandorfandor Tape Measure Club, Burbank.)
Walt has a well-earned legacy of bringing happiness and artistic inspiration to millions, as much during his lifetime as in the four decades after his death. He also has some not-insignificant sociopolitical sins to pay for, and Gabler considers everything without unnecessarily downplaying or blowing up any of those sins. It's a sign of Gabler's objectivity that we can still enjoy a little schadenfreude at the many cultural blunders committed over the years by this conservative, sometimes neolithically un-progressive Typical Midwesterner, all without having to believe Uncle Walt was really the raging anti-Semite/closet segregationist his accusers claim. Yes, Walt approved Song of the South, a story of black life in the 19th century deep South that was so rosy-looking it was revisionist. Bad move. But it was 1946, and Walt was just as cluelessly unenlightened on the subject as every other Republican that year. It's complicated. And yes, he did invite Leni Riefenstahl to visit the studio in 1938 -- again, bad move. But basically the guy was apolitical. It's complicated. Life is a Pointilistic mega-mural of complication, and no biographer yet has succeeded in connecting Walt Disney's dots like Gabler.
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler. New York, NY: Knopf, 2006. 888 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-679-43822-9. ISBN-10: 0-679-43822-X ($35.00).
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. For years he has been putting magnetic inventory control devices in your clothes, which automatically activated when you reached this sentence. If you go to the mall today don't enter through Macy's.