8 December 2008

Thoughts On: Walt Disney: Triumph Of The American Imagination


"Walt Disney: Triumph Of The American Imagination" is Neal Gabler's long, exhaustive biography of Walt Disney. A Disney Corp. sanctioned work, it is full of cagey compromise.  Still, it serves well enough as a basic primer on all things Walt Disney.

Since Disney and his works are easy targets for ideological interpretation on the part of any author, I hit the web. A few quick searches inform me that a sizable number of Gabler's facts are considered wrong. Given the density of material here, those errors (the ones that ARE errors, and who has time to check?) are probably excusable, statistically-speaking.

Ultimately, Gabler's thesis is a convincing one: that Walt Disney was first and foremost a man possessed, a man of ceaseless passions.

Big duh. Disney was driven.

Everything positive and negative about Walt, Gabler implies--his successes, his determination to see spotty projects to fruition, his gruffness, his raging ego, his poor staff relations, family difficulties, red-baiting, reactionary politics, you name it--was a secondary effect of his over-riding need to create and control. To have a world of his own in his hands.


Born poor, moved around a lot. Became hammy attention-getter, great idea man. Fought to make animation respectable. Hard on people, a control freak and perfectionist. Also capriciously fun-loving and generous. Snow White a huge hit/achievement. Animator's strike, then war, then financial failures hit one after the other. Studio worked piece meal, Walt grew depressed, lost zest for animation. Found new passion: railroads and models. Hence: Disneyland and later (in theory) EPCOT. Married (more or less happily), two daughters, didn't cheat. Smoked himself to death.


I didn't know much about Disney's beginnings, other than the usual revisionist tripe about "born in a small town", blah, blah, blah. He was definitely more of a big city type, much coarser and more worldly than Wonderful World Of Disney led us to believe. (gasp!) 

I was surprised to learn that Walt was nearly always strapped.  Throughout his career he ploughed all available cash back into new and risky productions. His studio was struggling in the 30's, briefly hit it big with Snow White, then went back to subsistence work during the war years and for nearly a decade after. The feature cartoons were never really money makers. Most of Disney's money came in the late fifties, with the park and the live action movies/TV.

The early years of innovation were surprising, too. I guess I'd never really looked too hard at the early days of animation before. He and he alone moved animation from cheap to elaborate, from black and white to colour, from "rubber hose" physics to realism ("stretch and squash"), from silence into sound, and from short into feature. Nobody else thought the medium was worth a damn, not even at the other animation studios.


Gabler goes out of his way to keep Walt Disney sort of enigmatic. He neither lionizes his subject, nor calls him out. The anti-Semite charge gets a couple of paragraphs before being casually dismissed on grounds of too little evidence. Likewise, his being anti-black dismissed (a bit more effectively) with anecdotes and evidence from the period of production on the infamous Song Of The South, during which pains were actually taken to be politically sensitive. (Really? one is tempted to ask. But yeah, really.)

All in all, I do tend to believe that Walt Disney's reputation got blown out of proportion by intellectuals, and by academia and by the culture of the sixties, to all of whom Walt Disney's product and very existence were, for so very long, anathema.

Walt was a virulent anti-communist. He aided HUAC, informed for the FBI, okayed some bad crap to break up the big animator's strike. Gabler half-cheats around this part of Walt's life, calling him essentially "non-political" (even though Walt was a large, perpetual backer of the GOP).

Gabler kind of gets away with this because much of Walt's later behaviour stems from the animator's strike of '41, which he took very, very personally. Given that Walt went out of his way to build his animators a studio that was practically a full service hotel, and given that he handed out bonuses willy-nilly, the strike came as a blow, to say the least. Of course, the studio was huge by then and Walt was ignorant of how many underlings (countless colour artists and "in-betweeners") were not being paid well, were being overworked, etc. In his mind, however, there were no legitimate reasons for the strike. Thus it was all the work of communists out to destroy him. 

(Several shady union organizers were at the heart of the movement, as it turns out, but the grievances were also real. Wow, an employer/union story with two wrong, unsavoury sides.  Who'd'a thunk it?)


Walt owned two poodles in his life: Duchess and Lady. He was a devoted dog lover. He had a private railroad he called the Lillibelle, named after his wife, Lillian (Lily). 

I have a poodle named Lili who, for years now, we have occasionally called "Lili-belle". I also love trains and artificial worlds. Don't have the meticulous, stick-to-it nature, though.  Otherwise I might have a theme park instead of... uh, a blog.


Grizzly bear, for sure.