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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Walt Disney’ Shows in Great Detail Influence of Mickey’s Creator on American Culture; Author Neal Gabler First to Have Full Access to Disney Archives

Posted by kinchendavid on December 24, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV  – First off, Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) was not cryogenically frozen, Neal Gabler tells us, upon his death from lung cancer at age 65: He was cremated and his ashes are at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA, — not far from the Disney corporate headquarters in Burbank.

Gabler (“An Empire of Their Own,” “Winchell”) spent seven years researching and writing “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” (Knopf, 880 pages, $35, 32 pages of photos, notes, filmography, bibliography, index) and it shows: The details and insights and revelations provide the most complete picture of Disney and his genius that we’re likely to see. Gabler shows himself in this magnificent biography to be a perfectionist worthy of his subject. “Walt Disney” is on my short list of prize winners; it’s the best biography I’ve read all year.

As Gabler points out, Disney was not a great cartoonist, writer or animator, but he had the vision and imagination – and perseverance – to create immortal characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and create groundbreaking feature-length movies like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) and (my favorite) “Fantasia” (1940) – to mention just two of his dozens of features. “Snow White” was not the first feature-length animated movie, but it was the first in the new Technicolor process and set the pattern for those today that are produced with computer technology but owe their spirit to “Snow White.”

This biography is important if only because we shouldn’t take a talent like the Chicago-born Walt Disney for granted (one of these days I’m going to do an appreciation of the great cinematic talent from the Windy City, including such directing immortals as Preston Sturges and Don Siegel, as well as actors, writers and others as varied as David Mamet, William Petersen and Harrison Ford).

Gabler, himself a Chicago native, demolishes several myths and misconceptions about Disney. One of them is that his studio turned out nothing but box office and critical successes. It’s true that the cartoon shorts enabled Disney to hire the best talent in the business from the late 1920 on, starting in earnest with “Steamboat Willie,” the first talking short cartoon, and continuing to “Snow White” and beyond.

The fact is that Disney was always on the edge of financial disaster because his shorts cost twice as much as competing ones from Warner’s, the Fleischer brothers and other studios and his feature-length animated movies were stupendously expensive and often didn’t return the investment on the first release. Walt Disney in his early years was a perfectionist and perfection costs a lot of money for an animation studio – or any other enterprise. Gabler shows how this perfection withered away to a large degree as Disney concentrated on his theme parks, his work with the New York World’s Fair of 1964-5 and his live action features to the detriment of animated ones.

Another myth that Gabler – famous for writing about Jews in the movie industry – “An Empire of Their Own” – and Jews in show business and journalism – “Winchell” – at least partially demolishes is that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite. Gabler says he sometimes expressed the casual anti-Semitism of the time and was a member of a “restricted” club, Smoke Tree Ranch, in Palm Springs, but Disney was also honored as “Man of the Year” by the Beverly Hills Lodge of the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith in 1955 — the same chapter that less than a decade before had attacked him for the alleged racism of his retelling of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus in “Song of the South” (1946).

After a bitter 1941 union organizing strike at his newly occupied Burbank studios, Disney became a red-hunter who maintained his own blacklist, Gabler tells us. Jews in Hollywood were fully represented in union organizing efforts and were well represented in left-wing, anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi causes before Pearl Harbor. Some of the biggest Jewish moguls were also on far right of the political spectrum with Disney, including the Warner Brothers and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Louis B. Mayer, Gabler notes.

But Disney had many Jewish animators and executives, such as Dave Swift and Harry Tytle (shortened from Teitelbaum) and one of his most enduring friendships was with a Jew, Herman “Kay” Kamen, who brilliantly marketed Disney products beginning in the early 1930s, keeping the quality at the highest levels and creating yet another facet of the entertainment business that is with us today. Kamen and his wife died in an Air France plane crash returning from Europe in 1949 and Walt and Roy Disney began marketing the products themselves.

Speaking of Roy Oliver Disney (1893-1971), he’s a relatively minor figure in Gabler’s book — where the focus, naturally, is on Walt. Gabler does credit Roy, co-founder of Disney Productions and its CEO from 1929 to 1971, as the financial anchor to his creative brother. Roy was almost always the one who went hat in hand looking for money from the Bank of America and elsewhere and wasn’t the naysayer to the creation of Disneyland that I always thought he was.

Roy and Walt came up with the idea of WED Enterprises, a private company within the publicly traded Walt Disney Productions — with the view to protecting the studio from Walt and Walt from the studio, Gabler says — and was instrumental in bringing ABC and Disney together that led to the wildly successful, for both ABC and Disney, “Disneyland” television show. Today, of course, Disney owns ABC.

Roy made sure that his younger brother was immortalized by renaming the Florida theme park from “Disney World” to “Walt Disney World” and oversaw its completion, retiring in the fall of 1971 when the park opened and dying two months later at 78. Bob Thomas published a biography of Roy Disney in 1998, but maybe it’s time for an update, with full access to the archives. Financial geniuses are creative, too.

The idea for a Disney theme park, which was realized with the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. in 1955, germinated for a long time in Disney’s head. He incorporated parts of his beloved Marceline, Mo., where the family lived during much of young Walt’s childhood, as well as bits and pieces of the 1933 Century of Progress fair in Chicago, Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., European amusement parks like Tivoli in Copenhagen, Denmark and American amusement parks like Chicago’s now defunct Riverview and Cincinnati’s Coney Island.

A devoted family man, Walt took his daughters Diane and Sharon to Southern California amusement parks in the 1940s on Sundays. He wanted what he called a “clean” amusement park, in contrast to the often raffish parks like The Pike in Long Beach and others in the Southland, as Californians are wont to call the greater Los Angeles area.

Although Gabler was granted full access to the Disney archives, this is definitely not an “authorized” biography. Gabler deals fully with the often stormy relationship between the eccentric Walt and his feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground wife Lillian. She was opposed to Disneyland, not to mention “Snow White,” Gabler points out, resulting in a wry comment from her husband that if he had listened to her, his career would have been a shadow of what it became. Disney’s temper and ego are dealt with, as is his 1931 nervous breakdown and continuing bouts with depression.

The deal with ABC secured financing for the park and businesses scrambled to be represented in the Orange County facility. Oil companies, chemical companies, automobile manufacturers – even the often skeptical Bank of America which had a long relationship with Disney – were enthusiastic about the park and contributed financially for discreet naming rights – another Disney innovation. We learn that one who didn’t make the cut was a Chicago fast-food entrepreneur named Ray Kroc, who trained to be a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I with Walt (Walt saw action, Kroc, a year younger, didn’t go overseas). Walt Disney turned over Kroc’s request to the park’s construction manager, C.V. Wood, who brushed off the man behind McDonald’s!

The park originally was to have been built in Burbank, in the San Fernando Valley, not far from the Disney Studios, but the city’s staid officials objected to an amusement park in the city that was home to Disney and Warner Bros., among other studios. Professional market research, Gabler writes, went into the choice of an orange grove in Anaheim, convenient to the freeways which were being built to replace the extensive network of interurban trains that linked the communities of the sprawling Southland. (It’s ironic that today, the L.A. area is engaged in replicating the rail system which it destroyed after World War II. Rail fanatic Walt Disney would appreciate the irony.).

Forty years after his death on Dec. 15, 1966, Walt Disney is a powerful American icon, polarizing critics and other intellectuals, but remaining popular with mass audiences who grasped that the vast majority of his cartoon features and live action features are not the simple-minded stereotypes that some critics have called them. Gabler has succeeded in showing how Walt Disney was the ultimate “Imagineer.” This is a must-read book for anyone interested in American culture and the movie industry.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.aaknopf.com

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One Response to “BOOK REVIEW: ‘Walt Disney’ Shows in Great Detail Influence of Mickey’s Creator on American Culture; Author Neal Gabler First to Have Full Access to Disney Archives”

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