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Disney Biographies

[This page is devoted to comment on Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (reviewed by me here) and my own The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. Click here to go to the newest postings.]

From Bill Benzon: I've now finished the Gabler bio. It's jam-packed with stuff—though I'm in no position to catch the errors as you are—and that's useful to me. I particularly appreciate the account of what happened during WWII up to the creation of Disneyland. That gives me a better picture of how and why the features went into eclipse—including public and critical reaction—and of Disney's search for a new prime direction.

OTOH, like you, I don't find the "control & community" theme very convincing. I think the various statements of that idea could be dropped from the book without affecting much of anything else. It seems rather artificially tacked on, applied from the outside. While it's presented as the key to Disney's activities, I don¹t sense that Gabler used it to organize the book or even his thinking. It's just there.

And not very convincingly so. If Disney was simply seeking a community he could control, for example, why didn't he become the head of a religious cult? The obvious answer is that he really wanted to make films. That may also have been an activity that spoke to other psychological needs, but the desire to make films has to be taken at face value. What's interesting about Disney is that, not only was he interested in the stories he could tell, but in the whole process through which those stories are put on film. That's what allowed him to be such an innovator; he knew every aspect of the process because, at one time or another, he'd done all the jobs himself.

And that's what I find particularly fascinating about the "run-up" to Disneyland. All the time Disney spent tinkering with miniatures and trains he was learning something of how one physically creates an artificial world. It seems to me that all that was part of the process through which he conceived Disneyland.

I can't help but wonder what EPCOT would have been if Walt had lived to see it through. The conception presented in the film he made to sell the idea to Florida is certainly very different from what got built. And it's certainly possible that that conception would not have been executed. But something a bit more like it . . . .

From Christian Renaut: Now that I have completed reading your book and given myself time to think over what I was going to tell you about it, I allow myself to send you some of my impressions. Not by any stretch of the imagination anything like a review, but just a few thoughts in a jumble.

I'm sure you will agree with me that a list of compliments is not believable unless you add a few less positive comments. I tried my best to find flaws, but you won't be surprised to learn that I loved your book. The only books I think deserve any credibility are those that rely on personal interviews and thorough research, and that's where you're unmatched. The time you've spent in the libraries and archives is admirable, and especially your readings of the transcripts of story meetings. You always had a thought for researchers, indicating what is available or not in the vaults of the Disney company, for example.

I realized you were very careful not to repeat what had been said a million times about the making of Snow White, Disneyland, TV, and so on. While providing the basic information for anyone who isn't as knowledgeable as some of us, you added unheard-of information or looked at the familiar facts from a fresh point of view. You were also extremely thoughtful when you decided not to pass judgment on Walt Disney. You always tried to put forward the contradictions of the man, making him more human than ever, something legitimately in between the ridiculous stories embellished by the company for years and the nasty lies of some grotesque anti-Disney highbrow writers in search of scandals and money.

Everybody agrees the man is hard to understand, and that makes your approach all the more interesting, as you try to find clues that at least suggest what led him to make some decisions. It must have been very hard to strike the right balance. Walt Disney was involved in so many fields, so many projects, that it is always tough not to dwell too much on one of his interests to the detriment of others. That's where I felt a bit frustrated, although I know how biased I can be, when you mentioned some projects just in passing (Lady and the Tramp, some of his live-action movies, etc.). But, considering how much information you must have collected, I admire your ability to have sorted out the best. In fact, my main reproach is how short the book is.

Even though I disagree with some critiques, I always appreciated your honesty and even courage. For instance, few people have called into question Mary Poppins (except P. L. Travers, of course), but you didn't hesitate to criticize it, always on serious grounds.

To put it in a nutshell, your book reads like the work of a scholar, but without the boredom scholarship often entails. I'm glad this book exists to wipe away the rubbish that has been written for years. If it were a movie DVD, I would be thrilled to have access to the "bonus features" about the making of such a work, but it is not and I 'll have to imagine it. Thanks for having spent all this time, thanks for the honesty of the work. You didn't make of Walt Disney a hero, you didn't make him a scoundrel, you made him a man, an animated man.

[Posted July 8, 2007]

From Clifton Coles: I wanted to let you know how much I've enjoyed your Disney biography. Given the heft of Gabler's biography, one would think there was nothing further to know about its subject. I'm happy to learn that there is more to know, and that it has been told better and more engagingly by you.

I am not a fan of Walt Disney's non-cinematic ventures of the 1950s—the Disneyland story has never interested me much. But I learned some things—Walt's interest in miniatures, for example—that were new and compelling to me. There is, in addition, the strong whiff of hagiography about Gabler's book. Obviously, you love your subject as much as Gabler, but there is an objective distance that I appreciate.

I also want to congratulate you for saying what needed to be said: Mary Poppins is a flawed film —beautiful, charming, but episodic and ultimately unsatisfying. You also described the Disney product of the 1960s aptly by using the word "airless." I've tried for a long time to put my finger exactly on what is amiss in the Disney films of the 1960s and 1970s. The sound is all wrong—I have never been able to describe it. But "airless" is exactly right.

[Posted July 9, 2007]

From Gary Parker: I've detected a bit of an "anti-Gabler" feel to your website, vis a vis his weighty bio on Walt of a year or so ago. (Let me say, first of all, that I have The Animated Man and definitely enjoyed it.)

Back to Gabler: I can say without hesitation, that I enjoyed it. It's funny...but I after reading it, I came away with a very conflicted view of Disney. First of all, let me say, that Walt was firmly seated in my pantheon for the first 28 years of my life. It was only after reading a transcript of his appearance before HUAC that I began to feel differently about him. Anyhoo, after reading the first half of Gabler's book, I was ready to re-install him in my hall of heroes. He's depicted as so caring and so noble during the first part of the book that I was forced to re-examine the re-appraisal I'd made of him in my late twenties. Then (at least according to Gabler), the guy becomes Rasputin, using fear as an employee motivator (something I despise; 'sides, it doesn't work) and in general, just being pretty impatient to his underlings. So needless to say, I emerged from reading the book with a very ambivalent take on the "old guy."

Interesting sidebar: Shortly after finishing Gabler's book, I was called on jury duty down here in the Palm Springs area. While I'm waiting to be called, I spy an elderly, very distinguished gentleman, reading Gabler's bio in a nearby seat. I approached him, told him I'd just finished the bio and asked him his thoughts. To my amazement, he told me that he was one of Disney's attorney's in the '50s and '60s. I immediately asked him for his "take" on Walt—you know, what kind of guy was he?  His reply: "He was a wonderful man." When I told him how Gabler's bio really veered into an unflattering direction in the second half of the book, he looked thoughtful and said, "That''s interesting." He then proceeded to tell me how he was present at one of the first demo's of "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" at the Disney studio and how Walt, while quite charming to his guests, was very rough and demeaning to the men who worked for him. Almost seems to validate the Gabler take on Walt as two separate personalities, no?

MB replies: As for Walt's being "very rough and demeaning" during work on "Mr. Lincoln," I think that's all too understandable. That Audio-Animatronic figure posed many intractable problems, to the point that, at the last minute, Walt had to delay its debut at the New York's World Fair in 1964. I doubt that he had experienced so much stress since he was finishing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he was of course a much younger man then.

Diane Disney Miller has suggested that that attorney who was reading Gabler's book was Ronald Gother, who as a partner at the Los Angeles firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher was the Disney family's estate planner from 1964 until his retirement in 2003. He negotiated Lillian Disney's $50 million gift for construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

[Posted April 10, 2008; reply posted April 22, 2008]

From Castor Dekker: I've just read The Animated Man and Gabler's biography back-to-back. I agree with your assessment of the latter, but also can't emphasize enough that, reading it, you absolutely get no idea of who the man was and what drove him. Where's Disney in all those letter fragments, contracts, business deals? It's a bit like reading a biography on Mozart by someone who doesn't really care much for classical music. And isn't it sort of ironic that the man who hammered so much on animation (the art of making the inanimate live) remains such a cardboard figure after 700-odd pages?

[Posted July 12, 2008]

From Kevin Hogan: I just finished reading The Animated Man and wanted to give my “two cents.”

After reading several biographies, watching documentaries, reading websites, etc I want to say that I believe that you give the most complete/ accurate picture of Walt Disney. He is neither the devil-horn wearing individual that liberal writers tend to portray, and neither was he completely the “Uncle Walt” persona that various media sources portray. I feel that you know that Disney was a man—extraordinary and flawed.

However, I believe that your view of Disney is balanced due to my amateur research and not necessarily due to your book on its own. When I read the various pages of your website, add in your research on Hollywood Cartoons and look at your biography, I eventually see a complete figure in Disney. Your book, in my opinion, focuses heavily on the animation process (which I enjoy), but often leaves Disney the man as a shadow.

The section involving the studio's early growth leaves me with questions about Walt’s relationships—I would like to see more of Walt’s relationship with his wife. How was their relationship beyond the picture of his young bride sleeping on the office couch while Walt works? That is a fine and symbolic picture, but hardly complete. Other pieces are missing as well. What was Roy’s reaction to the ascension of his brother up the ladder of public opinion? Jealous? Indifferent?

These are not major things—I generally get an idea of how Disney was as a man/ artist. But I feel that many people who run to Gabler’s book, among others, are doing so because of the “personal” insights that he/ others attempt to give. I don’t think Gabler got it right—far from it. But his psycho-babble gives people more of a sense of intimacy with Walt than your book did.

I enjoyed your recent post on Walt and Dali—I even posted for it. I enjoyed it because it gives me a bit more insight on Walt beyond the nuts and bolts of production. I hope that readers of your book look at your site and other places to get that full view of Disney as a man.

Perhaps you meant to keep your book more centered on Disney the producer/ artist/ business man. If you did, you did a fine job. But if you meant to give people as full and balanced a view on Walt possible, I feel you came up a little short. With all that said, I am always excited to read your next book/ work.

MB replies: I think that Kevin is saying, in essence, that The Animated Man should have been longer, and I agree. If I had ever dreamed that UC Press would publish my book just seven months after Gabler’s—instead of publishing it simultaneously with Gabler’s, or at least a year later—I would have taken more time with it and added 50-100 pages. As it is, I’m proud of The Animated Man, and I think it’s a vastly more accurate and sympathetic portrayal of Walt Disney than Gabler’s book, but I have no doubt that I could have made it even better if I’d had more time. I’m also sure that I ever have the opportunity to produce a revised edition, it’ll be not just longer but richer in every way.

[Posted January 12,2012]

From John Verderber: This is a note of praise for your book on Walt Disney, The Animated Man, which I recently discovered and read. I'm glad I did. Its concentration on Disney's life in creating his animated films (particularly the "Big 5": Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi) is essential reading. I must admit that I did enjoy Neal Gabler's book on Walt Disney very much, but did not think he understood Disney's relationship with animation and filmmaking as well as you did. I know many Disney historians, and the Disney family, were none too pleased with Gabler's book, which I can't exactly understand. Of course I'm no fan of the one that said he was born out of wedlock and fathered by a Spanish Dancer or other rather biased and scandalous portraits. He was not "Hollywood's Dark Prince." But Gabler, I think, did not go in that direction at all. In any event, your book is terrific, entirely different, and entirely necessary. And I suppose any biography of one's loved one written by an outsider is bound to be...a weird experience to go through.

I've become more amazed and awestruck by the work that went into those five films in particular, and how exciting it must have been to work at the Disney Studio then. I am no artist. I'm a writer of stage and screen works for New York—albeit a young one. But when one is a child, he does not realize just how painstakingly exhausting it must have been to create the "Going to School" shot from Pinocchio or the "Nutcracker Suite" from Fantasia...or any scene for that matter! Now that I'm grown, I realize and am stunned and fascinated.

[Posted August 31, 2014]