Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 3, 2006


The Triumph of the American Imagination

By Neal Gabler

Knopf. 851 pp. $35

There's nothing Mickey Mouse about this terrific biography of Walt Disney (1900- 1966), arguably the most influential figure in 20th-century American culture. The research is astonishingly detailed, whether Neal Gabler is deconstructing complex business and financial alliances, revealing the shifting inner dynamics of the Disney studios or describing, in page after mesmerizing page, the creation of such cartoon landmarks as "Steamboat Willie," the Silly Symphonies, "The Three Little Pigs," "Fantasia" and "Pinocchio." There's an entire 60-page chapter just on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), guiding the reader through the long gestation and realization of this masterpiece of animation, the very Chartres of cartoons.

That last analogy may sound almost sacrilegious, but Gabler convincingly compares Disney animation work during its glory days -- the 1930s -- to a collective endeavor rather like the building of a Gothic cathedral. Walt, as he calls him throughout the book, supplied the soaring, transcendent vision while his artists produced the thousands of drawings that turned follies into breathtaking realities. After all, the studio worked for years, with sacerdotal fervor, on early films such as "Snow White" and "Pinocchio" (1940). To many young people of today, I suspect that the Disney animation company in the 1930s will sound a lot like Apple Computer and Microsoft in their pioneering heyday. In both cases, a small group of excited and determined people, working out of the equivalent of a garage or warehouse, was on a mission to change the world. And they did.

Walt Disney grew up poor in Missouri, delivered newspapers and handed the money to his father, received only the most basic schooling, and drew pictures all the time. As a teenager in Kansas City, he started little advertising companies specializing in cartooning, comic strips and primitive animation, and he failed again and again. But this young go-getter was nothing less than indomitable. After his older brother Roy moved to Los Angeles (and took up selling vacuum cleaners door to door), Walt joined him and began working even more intensely on animation. Soon he and Roy formed Disney Brothers to peddle their short, silent films. Roy would be the improbable moneyman, Walt the creative genius. Such dreamers! Yet so it was to be, even when the pair ruled over an empire.

For today we regard the name "Disney" as synonymous with the term "vast media conglomerate." Yet only after the creation of Disneyland in the mid-1950s did the company actually find itself without serious debt. Walt was always overextended, convinced (rightly) that money was merely a tool to achieve one dream after another. For a long period he paid himself less per week than his new recruits, and he generally plowed almost everything he made back into the company. He might spend years on a project, going deeply over budget on the conviction that, say, "Bambi" (1942) would be a huge success. (And it wasn't -- only the rather simple "Dumbo" (1941) came close to matching "Snow White" as really boffo box office.) Refusing the trappings of the typical Hollywood mogul, Walt Disney thought and lived like an artist -- what mattered was creating something beautiful and perfect. And like all real artists, he always ended up convinced that he'd failed to capture fully the fire that was in his brain.

Still, before Walt was 40 he was adored by the public, acclaimed by the critics, envied by competitors such as Max and Dave Fleischer (purveyors of the classic Popeye and Superman shorts), and generally viewed as one of the great creative imaginations of the time. All that changed in the 1940s. It was an era of what Walt saw as betrayals and losses. By then his signature hero, Mickey Mouse, had lost his edge and become a bland milquetoast. At the same time, Walt himself was losing interest in short cartoons and spending less and less time overseeing their production. After "Fantasia" (1940), his third feature-length film, he began to lose interest in that animated form as well: He felt he could never again match the quality he and his wonder boys had achieved in "Snow White" and that anything less was hardly worth bothering about. Then in 1941 many Disney employees went out on strike and picketed for a union. Walt grew bitter at what he viewed as mass treachery (later blaming communist agitators). From then on, he began to behave more and more like an all-powerful god, capricious in his moods, jealous and easily angered when vexed, casually firing longtime staffers as "deadwood." The company stopped being fun and was suddenly a major corporation rather than an artistic community. "There's just one thing we're selling here," Walt told a new recruit, "and that's the name 'Walt Disney.' "

That same Walt remained the master of "imagineering," suggesting the projects and sometimes literally acting out plot-ideas for hours on end to inspire his animation teams. (Everyone agrees that he was an amazing storyteller.) But since Walt was no longer on the floor every day, his artists and directors would end up playing "guess what Walt wants" and when they guessed wrong would risk his wrath or a dismissal.

By the end of the 1940s the camaraderie of the previous decade was long gone, and with it many of the stalwarts of that earlier era. Indeed, Disney Studio's whole concept of animation was now regarded as rather saccharine and old-hat; the hot company was Looney Tunes at Warner Brothers, where Friz Freleng, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones had created the more anarchic comedy of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. A depressed Disney started spending more and more time puttering around in his workshop or tooling around on a model locomotive in his backyard.

Walt Disney Studios had also started to make live-action films such as "Treasure Island" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," neither of which Walt much cared about, though they brought in needed cash. Still, the man wasn't through reinventing himself or his company. His love for miniature railroads and gadgets, his memory of the small town he'd grown up in, and the popularity of his fairy-tale films soon merged in his mind to form an almost mystical vision of a new kind of amusement park, a clean wholesome park for the entire family. It would be, he dreamed, "the happiest place on earth."

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