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Live and In Control

Neal Gabler's new biography of Walt Disney is too good to miss.

By 2.13.07

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This review appears in the February 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
by Neal Gabler
(Knopf, 851 pages, $35)

WALT DISNEY HAD MUCH in common with six of Snow White's dwarfs.

Like Doc, the boss of the little miners who checked the authenticity of the gems they dug, the perfectionist Disney inspected every line on every drawing produced by his studio artists until he was satisfied that it was flawless. They always knew when he was coming because, like Sneezy, his signature sound preceded him: a cigarette cough so harsh that it sounded like someone imitating a machine gun. He was Bashful about women, sex scandals, sophisticated parties, and being famous. He was Happy in the optimistic, boosterish style of his native Midwest, but he could quickly turn into Grumpy whenever he was too long away from his work or had to deal with anyone who did not put work first. And like the self-made American businessman he was, he made a point of being Dopey, cultivating an anti-intellectual image with frequent boasts that he never read anything but scripts.

Of Sleepy he had not a trace. His wife complained that on the few nights they went out together, he always stopped by his studio to check on some artistic problem that was bothering him, becoming immersed in it until he remembered she was there and sent her home alone. His all-nighters began on their wedding night, when he developed such a bad toothache that he could not sleep, and stayed up helping the hall porter shine shoes. And the night before Disneyland's grand opening, he decided on the spur of the moment to add the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the attractions. It had to be repainted, and Disney, in a reprise of his connubial performance, stayed up all night painting alongside the workmen.

Neal Gabler, movie historian and panelist on Fox News Watch, has written a behemoth of a biography that will warm the heart, raise the hair, and sprain the thumbs of anyone who tries to hold on to the nearly 1,000-page tome while flipping back to the 165-page endnote section to check the sources of the mind-boggling stories herein. All are meticulously documented but one wishes a few weren't, because Walt Disney comes across as an avuncular schizophrenic.

HE WAS BORN IN 1901 in Chicago but didn't stay there long, moving to the small town of Marceline, Missouri, when he was four. Marceline was the only place he ever loved but he didn't stay there long, either. The family was always pulling up stakes because the father, Elias Disney, was the opposite of the American success story, a Midas in reverse whose touch could turn any business venture into lead. Consistent failures are often charming bums, but Elias was a puritanical hardworking failure. Undeterred by his misadventures in newspaper circulation, jelly manufacturing, factory-town housing, and farming, he never gave up. A dead ringer for the farmer in "American Gothic," he grew steadily more sullen, dour, and pathologically stingy, walking miles to avoid paying streetcar fare. Prone to bitter resentment and self-pity, he got back at the world by voting the Socialist ticket.

He took out his disappointment on his sons, especially Walt, who, he felt, wasted time drawing pictures and considered himself a businessman just because he was paid a nickel for a sketch of the town doctor's horse. But when a person with an inborn creative talent gets paid for doing what comes naturally, he is never the same again. He drew pictures for the barber's window in exchange for haircuts, and when he went to France as a Red Cross worker in World War I, he sold chalk portraits of Doughboys to send home and earned 15 francs apiece for painting fake croix de guerres on the uniform jackets of Poilus so they could impress girls.

He returned home bristling with self-confidence and optimism, imbued with an unshakable certainty that he would succeed as an artist. When his father tried to put him to work in the jelly factory he rebelled and found a job in a Kansas City commercial art shop doing ad illustrations, signs, and letterheads, but what he really wanted to be was a cartoonist. He was drawn to cartooning with an almost mystical intensity, especially the new animated cartoon shorts then being shown in silent movies. He applied himself to the study of animation with the daunting single-mindedness he would always display, and by 1921 his first Laugh-O-Gram premiered at a Kansas City movie theater.

Gabler contends that he was drawn to animation because it gave him "godlike control"; having the power to create an alternative reality, which would culminate in Disneyland, enabled him to re-imagine his unsettled childhood as a perfect time in an idyllic place. Animation was also the means of avoiding the fate of his father, who was always acted upon by forces beyond his control. As he liked to remind people, animation was not about making figures move, but about making them live. The word came from "animus," which meant life. "Making it move is not animation, just the mechanics of it," he would say. To Disney, his father did not live life but merely moved through it, and so the son resolved to make his cartoon characters come alive.

They delighted the entire world with the possible exception of his wife, who called herself a "mouse widow." Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Mickey Mouse cartoons for the White House and in England the terrifyingly regal Queen Mary was late to an engagement because she would not leave Buckingham Palace until she had seen "Mickey's Nightmare." These were also halcyon days at the Hollywood studio; Disney paid high salaries, insisted on being called "Walt" when other studio heads behaved like crazed nabobs, and created an esprit de corps that, said one artist, "was like being in the same class at West Point."

His timing was perfect. The Three Little Pigs was released two months after FDR's first Inauguration in 1933, and its song, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" swept the nation, becoming, says Gabler, "a cheerful whoop hurled in the face of hard times." People decided the cartoon was fraught with hidden meanings. The industrious pig was said to be a symbol of the New Deal, and a Harvard professor solemnly pronounced: "No one will ever know to what extent it may be held responsible for pulling us out of the depression."

(Symbolism soon spilled over into the real thing. When cantankerous Donald Duck made his debut, the public instantly identified him with FDR's irritable and outspoken secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, whose nickname was the "Great Curmudgeon.")

Disney reached his zenith with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, his first feature length film and one that was fraught with another kind of symbolism that he probably was not aware of: The tyrannical parent, the sentence of drudgery, and the heroine's death-in-life punishment were too close for comfort to the bleak life he might have endured working for his father in the jelly factory.

NOW THAT HE HAD MADE A FEATURE FILM he could not go back to cartoons. He decided to make Bambi, but this time the psychological associations were far more painful. Just as he was struggling with the problem of how to handle the death of Bambi's mother, his own mother died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas furnace in the Los Angeles house he had just bought for his parents. (His father survived.) He was inconsolable, his guilt exacerbated by the knowledge that when his mother had initially complained of a gas smell he had sent his own studio mechanic to fix the furnace; an inspection report later stated that the repair was sloppily done. He never spoke of the tragedy and years later even refused to tell his daughter where her grandmother was buried.

He postponed Bambi and made Fantasia and Pinocchio; then, in early 1941, his studio was hit by a strike called by the Animators Union. Much had changed since the early days, namely Disney's personality. Fame had brought out the worst in him. Initially he had run the studio along egalitarian lines, which he called "Jesus Christ Communism" (never realizing, says Gabler, that he was the Christ). From egalitarianism he had slipped into a cloying paternalism, and thence into naked autocracy. His employees had come to fear his sudden tempers and shriveling rudeness ("You shut up! I'm talking!") and resented his parsimonious withholding of compliments and encouragement, especially since he himself had stopped drawing. Now he delegated everything and took credit for the results, becoming, in the words of his smoldering staff, "a genius at using other people's genius."

If his early egalitarianism was a subconscious bow to his father's socialism, his post-strike hatred of unions and liberalism was a Social Darwinist's condemnation of both the father-as-loser and his politics. "Don't forget this," he barked during an argument, "it's the law of the universe that the strong shall survive and the weak must fall by the way, and I don't give a damn what idealistic plan is cooked up, nothing can change that."

He aligned himself with Hollywood's small right-wing cohort of Ginger Rogers, Robert Taylor, Adolphe Menjou, Ward Bond, George Murphy, and Robert Montgomery, and after World War II took up the cause of anti-Communism with a vengeance, working closely with the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI. The powerful Hollywood Left reacted accordingly. Where once the critics had hailed him as a "folk artist" and praised the "miniature communal society" of Snow White's dwarfs (the Communist Daily Worker had even gushed that the vultures who attack the evil queen were Trotskyites), they now attacked him as "the Old Master of masscult" and "an aesthetic troglodyte."

He did not help matters by flaunting his Dopey side with statements calculated to infuriate intellectuals. He opined that his animation of classical music, Fantasia, "will make Beethoven," and courted the complacent with: "If people would think more of fairies they would soon forget the atom bomb." He embarked on a steady march down the path of a philistinism strewn with coonskin caps, mouse ears, and enough traditional values to gag Norman Rockwell, turning out movies like So Dear to My Heart, which Gabler calls "kitschy, syrupy, unimaginative -- essentially a greeting card."

It was all building up to something, and we know what that something was -- "the consummate act of wish fulfillment" that was Disneyland, the "modern variant on the City on a Hill of Puritan Dreams," as Gabler so felicitously puts it. Gabler is a beautiful writer who never misses le mot juste and possesses a vocabulary so rich that it makes a reviewer weep with gratitude; my favorite is "anhedonic": joyless, an inability to experience pleasure in any form. It's a shame, therefore, that a writer who can hit the nail on the head feels it necessary to hit his readers over the head with a compulsive restatement of his theme.

THE THEME OF THE BOOK is that Disney was a control freak. Well and good; it becomes immediately apparent, but Gabler keeps saying it. Not only does it run through the text like a trout line ("…not escape but control… another way for Walt to assert his control"), but it is also set off in ways that cause it to loom up in front of us:

Chapter opener: "It had always been about control…."

Final chapter summation: "[H]e demonstrated how one could assert one's will on the world at the very time when everything seemed to be growing beyond control…."

Parallelism: "[I]t was not the control of wonder that made Disneyland so overwhelming… it was the wonder of control." (This one is particularly irritating because Jesse Jackson has made parallelisms unbearable.)

Then there is the exhaustive research. Great chunks of the book are incomprehensible to anyone except agents and intellectual property lawyers. There are so many lapidarian details about contracts, options, royalties, debentures, capital gains, insurance, licenses, leases, and taxes that it could be used as a text at the Harvard Business School. Finally, besides the 165 pages of endnotes, there are the footnotes, e.g.: "Memo, Walt to Chuck Clark, Apr. 4, 1944, C Folder, Walt Disney Corr., Inter-Office, 1938-1944, C. A1626, WDA."

No wonder Gabler harps on control. He's as much of a control freak as Disney, but his book is too good to miss, so I suggest you do what I did: Skip the business stuff and read the good parts. There are lots of them.

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About the Author

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, The Florence King Reader, and, most recently, STET, Damnit!: The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991 to 2002 (National Review Press).