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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination

Here is my review of Neal Gabler's book from

Walt Disney has become a legendary character of the twentieth century. So much was written about him, and so much was inaccurate, that the legends often attained a currency that was not deserved. How many times have we heard that he was frozen? Gabler (who was the first of Walt's biographers to work with rare Disney family records) opens the book with this statement (it's not true.) The truth is much more interesting than that.Disney was an optimistic, hardworking go-getter with an astounding capacity for concentration who fell in love with the early twentieth century's high technology--motion pictures. Motion pictures drawn by hand.He had the perseverance to start over again every time he failed artistically and financially. And fail he did. This is one of the most unlikely success stories ever told, since the Disney Brothers studio was working in a marginal field (animation) in a minor city (Kansas, then Hollywood, when the animation studios were all in New York), and attempting to make it as an independent producer just as the big studios were forming, eliminating independent competition in all but a few areas by 1928.He made it because he had the unfashionable idea that quality would out, he had a tremendous amount of luck and he knew how to make appealing entertainment(Mickey Mouse was NOT the first successful character he created). Disney also had a real genius for hiring talented people. A surprising number of remarkable artists started with him in Kansas City, others were trained right on the studio lot.Mr. Gabler's book is readable and contains much new information. Who would have thought that Charlie Chaplin was, at one time, Snow White's Prince? Chaplin, one of the few independent producers left by 1936, loaned his books for MODERN TIMES to the Disneys to help them ask fair prices for their landmark feature. For Disney's weak spot was running the business--he once actually forgot to add on the profit to the budget for a job in Kansas City, and was forced to work for cost of materials, with no salary for him or his animators! The 1941 strike by his artists was seen as a personal betrayal--but this strike can be predicted when you read about that early project. The Dream was the goal but (as an old cartoon states) coal is still somewhat important. Disney had his head in the clouds, and his brother Roy, who played the father's role to his sibling since childhood, was a major reason why Walt's feet were kept on the ground. It was a fine parntership and this is really a dual biography.The truth about Disney is not sensational or scandalous--just refreshing after decades of inaccuracy and outright fabrication that somehow passed for fact.The weakest part of the book is Gabler's attempts to psychoanalyze Walt's obsession with animation production as a desire to control his world. Of course he controlled his world. This is what all artists do. We animators love creating characters that APPEAR to think and move for themselves. They are really just an expression of our own sentiments and desires; we create life. That's what animation means. It's wonderful being able to control every aspect of the film's production-to be leading man, leading woman, and sets as well! Disney is hardly exceptional in this respect and the psychological insights don't ring true for me.As one other animator told me, Disney was remarkable because 'he was the only man in the world who ever got 500 artists to work together in one building without KILLING each other!"Buy this book.

"Look, Auntie! They're paying me to draw pictures! They're paying me to draw pictures!" --Walt Disney, 1922

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