Walt Disney

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2162

“He was frozen.” With that terse but intriguing sentence, Neal Gabler opens his biography of Walt Disney. It seems a strange choice of words with which to begin a massive study of the founder of one of the world’s most powerful multimedia entertainment corporations, a man whose name is a household word around the globe. However, the sentence makes poignant sense by immediately calling attention to the myths surrounding Disney and by hinting at Disney’s association with futuristic technologythe idea that Disney had such faith in science that he arranged to have his cancer-riddled body cryogenically preserved to await the time when science could revive him and cure his disease. Gabler also inserts a nice touch by comparing Disney’s alleged frozen state to Snow White’s and Sleeping Beauty’s “hibernating.” One can almost hear the strains of “When You Wish upon a Star” and visualize Tinkerbell flying over Disney’s cryogenic capsule, sprinkling it with “Disney dust,” and seeing Disney come back to life. That opening sentence is a nifty little metaphor of the life and death of a man who did so much to condition modern Americans to prefer fantasy to reality.

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However, Gabler immediately adds that Disney was not frozen. In fact, he was burned. His first sentence, Gabler explains, merely repeats a rumor that arose shortly after Disney died on December 15, 1966. After Disney was cremated, his ashes were interred in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. Gabler might have added that Forest Lawn is an appropriate resting place for a man famous for substituting fantasy for reality, as it inspired Whispering Glades, the cemetery in The Loved One (1948), English novelist Evelyn Waugh’s savage satire of artificiality in Hollywood.

Gabler’s publication of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination coincides with the fortieth anniversary of Disney’s death. By the time Disney died, he was a giant in the entertainment industry; in the four decades that have since passed, his fame has only grown. Disney was a man of extraordinary vision and was, late in life, obsessed with plans for an ambitious expansion of his entertainment empire, but even he would be amazed by his company’s subsequent growth. In 2006, the Walt Disney Companywhich had begun as a tiny animation studio in 1923had estimated revenues of more than thirty-four billion dollars. One wonders what Disney might have thought had he known what the future held for the company he and his brother created. Until 1955, the company’s only business had been film production. That year became a major turning point with the company’s opening of the world’s first theme park, Disneyland, in Southern California. Around that same time, the company was also pioneering in another field: a collaboration with the film industry’s new nemesis, television. It was producing two popular television programs, Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club, for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

As Gabler’s book clearly shows, Disney’s cross-fertilizing experiments in films, television, and amusement parks revolutionized the entertainment industries. During the early 1950’s, the film industry had looked at the fledgling television industry with competitive fear and loathing, but Disney demonstrated that films and television could benefit each other by using his weekly Disneyland program to promote his company’s film productsboth new and old. He also used this television show to promote his new theme parkan idea then considered too radical to succeed. Disney would live only another eleven years after his theme park opened, but by then he had set spinning the wheels that would eventually lead his company to unimaginable heights. By the twenty-first century, the Walt Disney Company owned the ABC network outright, along with all its affiliated cable channels; five giant theme parks in the United States, France, Japan, and Hong Kong; and a host of other resorts and entertainment production companies. The company’s film units continue to crank out highly profitable movies, and the company even moved into the production of successful Broadway musicals. Meanwhile, the symbiotic relationships among all the company’s diverse components that promote the sale of old Disney films in constantly changing video formats, compact discs of Disney music, Disney books, Disney toys, Disney clothes, and myriad other Disney products serve to keep the name “Disney” before the public eye.

It is difficult to overstate the commercial impact of Disney’s legacy, but that particular legacy is not the subject of Gabler’s book. Just as money held little interest for Disney himself, the financial dimensions of his career are not Gabler’s primary concern in his book. As Gabler states in his introduction, Disney’s “influence . . . can only be measured by how thoroughly he reshaped the culture and the American consciousness.” Unlike Disney’s commercial legacy, that is a subject that cannot be assessed in cold, hard dollars and cents. Superficially, at least, Disney’s impact on American culture seems almost immeasurable. Can there be many Americans over the age of ten who are not familiar with the name “Disney” and who do not have some opinions about Disney films, Disney television programs, or Disney theme parks? Probably not, for if Disney’s name is not the most widely known of any twentieth century American, it is certainly near the head of the list.

One of the most surprising things about Gabler’s book is that it is apparently the first full-scale, annotated biography of Disney ever published. How is that possible, especially if Gabler is correct in claiming that the quantity of books and articles already published about Disney “is arguably larger than that of any other figure in pop culture”? Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that so much of what has been published on Disney tends to be adoring praise or tendentious criticism that no one noticed that a solid, thorough, and documented biography of Disney remained to be written. Gabler’s book thus fills a huge void, and it fills it admirably. Despite the book’s almost monumental length and often incredible attention to detail, it is never boring. Credit Disney himself for part of that achievement, but give more credit to Gabler for his mastery of fluid prose and his judgment in knowing what to put in and what to leave out.

By his own account, Gabler read almost everything published about Disney but strove to base his book primarily on unpublished materials, most notably those in the immense collections of the Walt Disney Archive to which Gabler had unrestricted access. This is a notable achievement in itself, as the Walt Disney Company has long been one of the world’s most self-protective entities, one that uses an army of lawyers to guard its copyrights and propriety information and fend off researchers wanting to see its files. When film critic Richard Schickel wrote the first edition of The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney (1968)now considered the classic indictment of all that is bad in Disney filmsthe company refused him access to its records. It was probably also sorry it could not legally stop him from using “Disney” in his book’s title. Times have evidently changed.

Anyone who has ever engaged in primary research would surely be awed by the documentary riches that Gabler confronted in the Walt Disney Archive, which seems to have preserved every written document and scrap that Disney and his employees recorded over more than four decades: Disney’s personal notes, interoffice memos, minutes of story meetings, previously recorded interviews, and even Disney’s own doodles. Gabler spent years trying to read every item in the archive and supplemented that research with excavations in other repositories and through extensive interviews with the shrinking number of people who personally knew or worked with Disney. The results show. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination is a richly detailed narrative that exposes the day-to-day inner workings of Disney’s company with details and insights never before published. The significance of what Gabler found in the Walt Disney Archive can be seen at a glance in his book’s 166 pages of endnotes, the bulk of which cite Walt Disney Archive sources. The book’s extensive notes ensure that it will be the starting place for all future research on Disney, and its notes will be mined by scholars researching animation and other aspects of film history. If the book’s scholarly apparatus has a fault, it may be Gabler’s laxness in mentioning dates within his text. In many passages, it is difficult to decipher exactly when events happened.

One of the biggest questions about Disney is the credit that he personally deserves for the important creative innovations that came out of his studio. When he and his brother Roy Disney, the company’s financial manager, started an animation studio during the early 1920’s, they struggled to find work. Their first breakthrough came with their application of sound to their cartoonsimmortalized in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, which introduced the future Mickey Mouse, who would come to symbolize Disney animation. Shortly afterward, the studio cartoons added color and began developing the soft and rounded figures that would characterize such classic feature-length cartoons as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), and Bambi (1942). Disney himself essentially stopped drawing cartoons after the late 1920’s and may not have been personally responsible for any of these major innovations. He was, however, the driving force behind all of them.

The dominant image of Disney the man that emerges from Gabler’s biography is that of a socially awkward control freak or, if that is too strong a term, at least a man obsessed with forcing quality from employees by minutely scrutinizing and criticizing every detail of their work. During the peak years of the Disney studio’s animated feature films, animators often returned to their work areas in the morning to find the remains of Chesterfield cigarettes in their ashtraysunmistakable signs that Disney had been there the night before, poring over their work. Disney could be generous to his employees, but he was a tough master prone to fire almost anyone without warning. One of the most interesting parts of Gabler’s book is its long chapter on the creation of the Disneyland theme park, in which Disney took a truly obsessive interest. It is fascinating to follow Disney and his brother as they struggle to finance a venture that almost everyone thought would fail and to watch Disney himself oversee the park’s planning and take an interest in its minutiae.

What makes Disney most interesting, perhaps, is the immense gulf between the opinions of those who revere his name and those who revile it. In an editorial for the December 17, 2006, issue of the Los Angeles Times, Gabler wrote that if one were to solicit an opinion of Disney from almost anyone, the response would be either a “beaming, misty-eyed tribute from those who recall fondly and enjoy his animations and theme parks, or a scowling, brow-furrowed denunciation from those who see him as the great Satan of modern mass culture.” Moreover, “Disney doesn’t leave much room for anything in the middle.” On the positive side, Disney is credited with promoting uplifting and wholesome values through animated and live-action films that have become beloved by people of all ages; and millions of people actually buy into the notion that Disney theme parks are, indeed, the “happiest places on earth.” On the other hand, Disney is often criticized for appropriating culture by transforming classic works and traditional fairy tales into “Disney versions” that tend to supplant the originals. He is also denigrated for promoting the substitution of artificiality for reality.

Gabler’s book does not attempt to explain the huge cultural divide that separates Disney’s detractors from his admirers, but he provides an immense amount of evidence to show how Disney himself was a product of his own culture and how he responded to it in ways that have fed into the American psyche. The subject is larger than one might at first expect. A question that Gabler does not clearly answer is the meaning of his book’s subtitle: The Triumph of the American Imagination. To whose “triumph” does it allude, and what does Gabler mean by “American imagination”? Given the controversy over Disney’s personal contributions to modern popular culture, one wonders if the subtitle alludes to Disney’s triumph over the imagination of other Americans. Might it be argued that the real impact of Disney on American culture is not to stimulate imagination but to supplant it? After all, films are essentially passive entertainments that require little or no imagination from their audiences. Even theme parks do not require visitors to exercise their imaginations, as most of the imaginative work has already been done for them. Armed with questions such of these, readers will find Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination richly rewarding.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

The Atlantic Monthly 298, no. 5 (December, 2006): 121-123.

Booklist 103, no. 2 (September 15, 2006): 4.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 905 (November 3, 2006): 80.

Film Comment 43, no. 1 (January/February, 2007): 78.

Forbes 178, no. 13 (December 25, 2006): 33.

Los Angeles Magazine 51, no. 11 (November, 2006): 200-204.

The New York Times 156 (November 14, 2006): E1-E6.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (December 3, 2006): 36-37.

The New Yorker 82, no. 41 (December 11, 2006): 66-75.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 38 (September 25, 2006): 60-61.

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