Walt Disney was a wretched businessman.
This seems like a comically counterintuitive statement, with the Disney machine standing foursquare throughout the world as an impregnable marketing monolith, but this commercial hegemony is a comparatively recent phenomenon. It was only in the last 10 years or so of his life, with the opening of Disneyland, that Walt Disney could get off the financial high wire and relax.
His business acumen, or lack thereof, is not the most important thing about him, but it’s a consistent subtext of Neal Gabler’s authorized biography. Throughout the early part of his career, Disney spent more money on his movies than could reliably be recouped, at least in the short term, and his brother Roy was always charged with finding the money for Walt’s pipedreams.
The only time Walt guessed right was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which was the highest-grossing American movie before Gone with the Wind. After that, Disney mortgaged the farm and spent $3 million on a new studio, and invested millions more on Fantasia (1940), Pinocchio (1940) and Bambi (1942). All were financial failures, while the inexpensive Dumbo (1941) turned only a small profit.
And so it was that by 1942, Walt Disney would have surely fallen long and hard into bankruptcy had not World War II providentially intervened. Government contracts for training and propaganda films provided enough cash flow to keep the wolf from the door.
IT’S HARD TO OVERESTIMATE THE SIZE of Walt Disney’s accomplishment. He took animation, a medium used largely for its curiosity value to arouse random chuckles, and raised it into an art form, more or less through force of will. Every modern animated film owes something to Walt Disney, if only because he alone understood that for feature animation to succeed, it had to play by the same rules as conventional filmmaking—the path to greatness lay in a combination of stylistic virtuosity and emotional identification.
Disney’s story has been told before, but never with complete access to the vast holdings of the Disney archives. The result is an ocean liner of a book—bulky and a trifle slow. Mr. Gabler’s previous biography was about Walter Winchell, and his measured, professorial tone was counterbalanced by Winchell’s frantic personality. Winchell was always a man to stick his nose or some other appendage where it didn’t belong—a biographer’s wet dream. Disney’s personality is entirely different and doesn’t always mesh well with Mr. Gabler’s style. On the other hand, this ocean liner does get you to your destination, and there are some wonderful scenes on the way.
There are no skeletons in Walt Disney’s closet. He was a classic workaholic, an obsessive-compulsive from the Midwest, raised by a hard, humorless father whom he loathed. Walt enjoyed a single drink at the end of his habitual 14- to 18-hour day, and then went home to his family. No women, no drugs, just the self-imposed quest for excellence. He worked and worked and worked until he wore out. On those occasions when he was home, he was a decent husband and a good father to his two daughters, but he wasn’t home very often.
He was a man of dichotomous parts. A hard-core conservative, he presided over a studio that was in most respects an aesthetic collective. That said, for most of the latter part of his life, his people were scared of him, because the collective was ruled by a benevolent dictator who could turn unbenevolent on a dime. There was only one way to do things, and that was Walt’s way, and if you were out of favor with Walt, you were a pariah throughout the studio. “[H]is whole approach to everybody,” said animator Ward Kimball, “was to put somebody down.”
Balancing that was an endearingly childlike sense of joy. There are pages and pages in Mr. Gabler’s book about Disney building a railroad for himself—at first a regular basement layout, then an honest-to-God one-eighth scale model that ran around his property, with parts he machined himself. When his beloved standard poodle died, he kept the dog’s bed in his workshop for years.
It’s impossible to hate a man like this, but equally impossible to trust him completely. He was the Disney you might expect if all you knew were his sentimental animations about shattering loss and maturation, and he was also the Disney you might expect if you knew nothing other than his impeccably designed but relentlessly corporate theme parks.
MR. GABLER WRITES FROM THE OUTSIDE in, as opposed to the inside out; the tone is analytical rather than emotional. He sees Disney as a character to be explained rather than a man to be identified with. (Check out Simon Callow’s recent volume on Orson Welles as an example of the latter style.) That said, Mr. Gabler writes honestly, weighing judiciously the good and the bad. He seems remarkably free of the biographical equivalent of Stockholm syndrome, by which the author occasionally excuses egregious flaws of behavior or character because of the considerable emotional investment of spending too many years with the subject. Mr. Gabler is particularly good on the process by which Disney, a cutting-edge talent in the early 1930’s, had, by the early 50’s, become culturally and politically reactionary.
I do think he gives Disney something of a pass on the charges of anti-Semitism that have dogged him through the decades. The critical question is: Was Disney anti-Semitic by the standards of his time, or of ours?
Politically as well as aesthetically, he had a deeply nostalgic, paternal personality, as can be gathered from his producing Song of the South—happy slaves?—as late as 1946. He was an archconservative, and a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance, which harbored some of the most noxious anti-Semites west of the Mississippi.
There are a few too many anecdotes about Disney’s backhanded remarks, and even dropping into a Yiddish peddler’s dialect, for it all to be guilt by association. That said, he was clearly not rabid, and most of the Jews who worked for him never saw any evidence of anti-Semitism at all.
Disney was a farm boy from the Midwest, a time and a place where Jews were at best distrusted, at worst considered Christ-killers. Anti-Semitism is a bitch always in heat. Disney would have been an unusual man indeed if he’d been entirely free of it, especially considering the brutal hiding he took when he first landed in Hollywood from low-end film distributors who happened to be Jewish. And Disney was always a man to personalize things. I suspect he was the sort of period bigot who would have been deeply hurt if you’d called him a bigot.
Mr. Gabler structures his book in two parts: Before World War II, Disney is molding an art form out of an ideal in his head and hundreds of intransigent employees. After the war, he frets about his inability to equal his great animation accomplishments and finds a second career in what amounts to commercial real estate. The creation of Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953) and Disneyland is simply not as interesting as the creation of Fantasia or Bambi. The result of this narrative arc, and of Mr. Gabler’s arm’s-length approach, is a book that isn’t exactly a slog, but still very long.
I think Neal Gabler is right to characterize Walt Disney’s life as a triumph, and a quintessentially American one at that. In his relentless, grinding allegiance to work, in his preference for a brilliantly processed metaphorical gloss on reality rather than the thing itself, Disney was a man—and an artist—absolutely in the American grain.
Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer.
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