Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler (2006)

As we approach Christmastime, many Americans will be looking to the films of Walt Disney (1901-1966) for holiday comfort.  Those interested in the man behind the brand could do not better than Neal Gabler’s magisterial biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.  It will leave you with the distinct impression of having met Disney himself, warts and all. 

Surely few American entertainment icons have been more discussed – or subject to more historical revision -- than Disney.  During his salad days of the 1920s and 30s, Disney was regarded as both an important artist (embraced by intellectuals and modernists like Dali), and an emerging American institution.  It was only with the national rupture of the 1960s that Disney’s reputation started to tarnish: books such as The Disney Version by Richard Schickel in 1968 sought to take down the Greatest Generation hero down as many pegs as possible.  (Indeed, Schickel’s attack is so out-of-proportion as to seem unhinged, sadly all too common in that both sad and common decade.)

The simple and irreducible fact is that Disney was neither the plaster saint of the right nor the uber-bogeyman of left, but rather a complicated and contradictory man who achieved remarkable things in animation, live-action filmmaking and that strange mix of theater and amusement park that is Disneyland.  Few American artists have had a more influential or pervasive grip on the American mindset (indeed, I cannot think of any), and fewer have transcended their own art to become a brand name.

In addition, there are few artists as resolutely American as Disney.  Raised on and near a farm in Marceline, Missouri to middle-class parents, Walt’s earliest surroundings were a mix of Tom Sawyer and The Music Man.  Though he would remember having a contentious relationship with his father (Walt always had a touch of self-dramatization), friends and neighbors remember him as perpetually sunny and optimistic.  He was fascinated by cartooning, by drawing, and by the possibilities of animated cartoons. 

After knocking around the nascent animation industry for a bit, Disney and his brother Roy (1893-1971) lit out for California in 1929 to hang their own shingle.  Many would think the rest is history, but not so, according to Gabler’s book, which chronicle the young animation entrepreneur’s struggle over the next decades, not fully finding financial success until well into the 1950s, despite great critical and popular success.

This sense of hand-to-mouth desperation is one of the many details found in this richly detailed book.  A dreamer and idea-man, Disney often drove innovation without regard to the costs, leaving money-man Roy with the problem of finding much-needed funds.  It seems that Disney took every success they had and funneled that money into some other plan, vision or scheme. 

Like many gifted creators of children’s entertainment – Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) and L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) immediately come to mind – Disney was pulled in opposite poles by his idealized vision of home, safety and small-village charm on one side and by an overweening sense of travel, adventure and expansion on the other.  It seems that Walt never fully recovered from his happy years at Marceline, and sought new and innovative ways to recreate it.  (It is no surprise that Main Street in Disneyland – that tribute to small-town hominess – was modeled on Marceline.)  Walt longed to return to his own personal Arcadia, one foot in an idealized past and the other foot in an idealized future.  His studio, and later Disneyland, would be the engines he used to drive him back there.

The central argument of Gabler’s book is that Disney sought to create his own personal Neverland, an Arcadia where he could create in peace and play as he wanted.  Disney’s studio in the early years was an earthly paradise, with drawing lessons, endless fun-and-games and goofy good times, all with Walt watching paternalistically.  This haven was destroyed by a series of strikes that permanently marred Disney, pointing him towards increasingly rightwing or libertarian politics, while also making him more reclusive, autocratic and difficult to work with.

After the war and as he entered the 1950s, Walt seemed to lose interest in his empire, and spent a great deal of his time building man-sized model trains.  Though many thought he was losing his grip, actually Walt was retreating within himself as he conceptualized his next innovation: an actual, physical Wonderland that he could call home.  The creation of Disneyland was a balm to Walt, and he entered his second great phase of creativity – as filmmaker and innovator – once the project gained ground.

Soon after making Marry Poppins (1964), his last great film, and conceptualizing key components of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Walt would be diagnosed with lung cancer and die, his studio and his name becoming a byword for family entertainment.  He also left behind a public persona – part real, part myth – that has attracted debunkers and back-biters for decades.

So, after so many years of pro-and-con debate, where does that leave Gabler’s readers?  There is a great deal of data to sift through in Gabler’s book – the research is exhaustive and the reporting sometimes exhausting.  (This is the type of biography where the author writes, “Walt walked the 90 feet to his office.”)  Gabler had unfettered access to Disney’s papers, and worked on the understanding that he would have complete autonomy over the final product.  Here, then, is the true Disney as he was, take him or leave him.

Disney was too slippery an entity for such classifications as hero or heel.  For example, he greatly wanted to create an Arcadia of sorts with his studio, but was also parsimonious with money, perks and control.  Gabler believes, and I agree, that he had no idea of the acrimony that would lead to such divisive strikes – strikes which cut Walt to the heart because they questioned his own inherent sense of decency.

To the charges that Disney vulgarized everything he touched, Gabler also chronicles the true artistic masterpieces for which he was responsible, including Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Fantasia.  The legacy of Disneyland is perhaps best summed up by the simple fact that a visit there has made countless millions of people happy.

A devoted husband and a doting and caring father, Disney could also be a shark in the realm of business, a credit hog, and a bully.  But Disney also faced hardships of a type that few readers of these words could ever imagine, and still managed to retain his innate optimism and come out sunnily on top.  He had grit and moxie, and, perhaps most of all, he had heart.  Bastard Saint, Everyman Bully, Uncle Hardcase – he was equal parts monster and sweetheart. 

Perhaps Disney managed to connect with America’s children in such a deep and profound way because Walt never completely grew up.  He was a paternalist who was still a kid.  The strike and financial hardship may have unfortunately politicized and soured him, but it never robbed him of his ability to dream. 

Neal Gabler’s book is a splendid chronicle of a complex and contradictory character; a uniquely American visionary of a type never to be seen again.  It is easy to see that, by the end of 800 pages, Gabler has become enamored of his subject, and Your Correspondent left the great man somewhat teary-eyed.  If you read only one book about Disney, make it Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

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