Search form

Story Man: 'Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination'

Neal Gabler excavates a life in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, says Taylor Jessen.

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler.

A writer reviewing Make Mine Music in June 1946 asked a question that was becoming typical in an era when Walt Disney was no longer getting a free pass with the critics. Imagine, he wrote, that you're visiting a friend whom you know has great professional skill, an infectious laugh, and a kindness toward animals. But when the friend opens his door you see his walls are covered with paintings of white doves, lacy valentines, and tinsel stars -- and the furniture, while functional, seems to be there primarily to cover the rug. "You would not therefore cease to love the man," the critic wrote, "to laugh at his jokes or to admire his skill; but you would have to admit with regret that his taste is deplorable."

The name Walt Disney has been so tenaciously linked to American kitsch for so long it's important for animation-conscious readers to immerse themselves in a time when the name Disney tracked very avant-garde indeed. That time was 1937, when his studio released the unprecedented animated feature Snow White. As far as Walt was concerned, he'd never top it. There was no greater expression of Walt's hand controlling every aspect of a story from formation to execution. He would make no greater leap from what people previously had thought could be done in animation to what he proved could henceforth be done. In the decades that followed, though, his critical cache plummeted -- partly because he no longer felt the need to prove himself, but also because the novelty of the animated feature had worn off and audiences were looking past form to scrutinize the content.

The diminishing vanguard of Disney's innovation -- and his audience's realization that he basically had cornball sentiment in his soul -- prompted an era of Disney de-mythologizing that peaked in Richard Schickel's acidic book The Disney Version in 1968. But to get a subjective view of Disney's life from inside Walt's personal space, through a survey of his accomplishments and what they meant to him, you should also make a point of reading Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination: an essential biography not just of Disney, the man, but of Disney Studios, the machine.

Gabler's tome -- 633 pages, plus 200-odd more of indices and appendices -- is a comprehensive life story of one of the 20th century's best-known and most influential men. For Walt Disney, who was in the truest sense of the word a genius of storytelling, his life was his art was his business. Gabler explores, probably better than any Disney biographer to date, the multitude of behind-the-scenes business decisions that informed all of Disney's artistic prerogatives -- and vice versa.

Where Schickel's book was an attempt to survey art and artist in order to suss out Disney's total aesthetic agenda, Gabler has settled on promulgating just a few overriding precepts that governed Walt's state of mind. His book is less about theory than the bricks and mortar of Walt's business life, and the edifice he covers is massive. Gabler had unfettered access to the Disney archives, and from the tons of correspondence, interviews, and ephemera, he's threaded all the important formative moments in a long artistic career. He offers a pretty convincing thesis that, from his childhood in Marceline to his last decisions on EPCOT, Walt Disney was driven by a need to create a world that he could control. Making the world adapt to his vision of it drove his aspirations for making animation; and when he had conquered that, his amusement park; and when he had conquered that, his never-finished planned city of the future.

What makes Walt Disney so richly illuminating is the obvious in-depth background Gabler has regarding how the entertainment industry has worked over the last 100 years, and that knowledge helps put Disney's many media adventures into a much-needed historical context. Gabler infuses information about Walt's competitors -- from famous names like the artists of Termite Terrace to obscure also-rans making cheapo 'toons in the silent era -- and he draws insightful historical pictures of how advancing technologies have interacted with audience's always-fickle tastes.

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.