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                                                        Flickhead
Book Review
By Tom Sutpen

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Walt Disney:

The Triumph of the American Imagination

By Neal Gabler. 880 pages, illustrated.

Knopf. $35.00 hardcover.

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    In a 1949 Partisan Review essay, George Orwell observed that saints should always be judged guilty, at least until proven otherwise. He was writing, rather tersely, in regard to the recently-departed Mahatma Gandhi, but it’s hardly an unjust principle when appraising the life, meditation techniques and work of any deceased public figure, particularly when that figure repeatedly availed himself of the instruments best suited to craft his own secular beatification. Though it would come to be scorned by many, the life of Walt Disney had, as a public relations phenomenon, already assumed the lineaments of a Horatio Alger-ized, go-getter myth long before wire service obituaries and his company’s ever-capable publicity wizards read it back to us; so much so that when I caught the sub-title of Neal Gabler’s immense biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, I experienced a brief moment of true apprehension.
    There are, after all, two Neal Gablers among us. There is the author of the extraordinary 1994 biography, Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity; but there’s also the Fox News Channel media analyst and Daniel Boorstin manqué who gives us lugubrious screeds the likes of 1998's Life the Movie—one of those anguished polemics on the toxic influence show business has over our society (always assuming, as a matter of course, that we have only the one society in this many-splendored land and no others). All the earmarks, then, of a cultural conservative who could take Disney’s most retrograde tendencies as both an artist and entrepreneur and, with pornographic sincerity, hold them aloft in celebration as the constituent elements of a great and fundamentally American triomphe in the never-ending Culture Wars. The American Imagination, like the American Spirit, emerges from that strain of soft, sentimental jingoism, where the American-ness of absolutely everything becomes its measure, that too often has been the dying fall of the once-talented, from Frank Capra and Thomas Hart Benton, all the way to the dread Civics instructor Ken Burns. Combined with the heft of Gabler’s volume, the prospect of wading knee-deep into full-blown Magic Kingdom uplift (replete with gratuitous flag-waving) did not, I will confess, promise the most engaging read.

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Disney at the camera, c. 1925

    But Gabler’s instincts as a biographer, brilliantly marshaled in his life of Walter Winchell, come to rescue his labors on Disney’s behalf from any enticements to indulge in wanton hagiography; a fate the Walt Disney Company’s cooperation in the project could have forced upon him in spirit, if not in fact. He was granted full access to the company’s archive, as well as Disney’s voluminous correspondence, and it has resulted in the most exhaustive biographical study yet rendered on this pivotal figure in the cultural stratosphere. But while the book, at least in part, is an effort to rescind some measure of the scorn that began to accumulate around the man and his films prior to his passing in 1966, it does Gabler some credit that he manages to defend the honor of his subject without retailing for new generations the limited and ultimately empty Uncle Walt folklore that helped usher Disney into critical purgatory in the first place.
    It’s not a trifling aspiration; nor is it entirely novel (1). For if Disney spawned massive commercial success in his lifetime and a wildly uneven filmic legacy—animated and live action cinema ranging from astonishing to astonishingly poor—he also gave rise to a long-enduring critical backlash that has effectively dimmed the light cast by just about everything of real value produced under his name. Despite its seed of validity, the widespread and prevailing intellectual view of Disney as a belligerent lowbrow—as though he were the only Producer in Hollywood whose impulses personified this condition—has lost much of its connection with reason over the decades; stemming, as it did, from both the general aesthetic decline in his studio’s output after the 1930s and, perhaps more crucially, from Disney’s own steadfast indifference to the very same elite sectors of cultural criticism who found his works beyond embarrassing (beyond embarrassment itself in many instances). “He became,” Richard Schickel charged in the most corrosive of the Disney Twilight books, 1968’s The Disney Version, “a kind of rallying point for the subliterates of our society.” Few others in that sad community have been as kind.
    Writers like Schickel (2) could cavil about the existence of movies like The Ugly Dachshund and Follow Me, Boys!, or weep (as Julian Halévy did in a 1958 essay for The Nation) over the pestilent shadow cast by Disneyland. He didn’t care. Whatever private doubts he might have harbored in his advancing years about the kind of movies that had come to define him (3), Walt Disney had never courted the ever-dubious esteem of critics, not even during his brief honeymoon with them in the 1930s. He never would. But it says, I think, something about the persistence of the backlash against Disney that redressing it in the context of his life would require a book so sizable as Neal Gabler’s. Disney’s cinema, even at its worst (and it could often find extremes of mawkishness and insularity previously unknown in film), was scarcely the wholesome nightmare of antediluvial white noise it is often reputed to be; and his entrepreneurial ventures were on balance no different from what scores of men of his background might have attempted given the money and the will. Pinning him down, as a productive enterprise, could never be a simple matter of biography. Which is perhaps why Gabler goes to such uncommon and, unfortunately, debilitating length in restoring clarity to a life and career at once more complex and more ordinary than anyone, even Disney’s worst detractors, ever wished to believe; to locate, through the thickets of myth and counter-myth, some semblance of a truth that may have been out in the open, outside the archives, all along.
    Born in Chicago in December, 1901, Gabler’s Disney is an almost storybook production of the American Midwest, but at an extraordinary moment in its history. It was a time when vast numbers of those in the so-called Heartland allied themselves with Progressivism, Organized Labor, and the Populism of a William Jennings Bryan—a Populism that was in principle no more than a few steps removed from the Anarchist movements on both the east and west coasts (4). Walt’s father, Elias Disney, was considered a radical in his community, a Socialist and a vociferous supporter of IWW co-founder and perennial Presidential hopeful Eugene Debs. In 1906, Elias moved his family to Marcelline, Missouri, then Kansas City, then back to Chicago, joylessly chasing one paltry business venture or work scheme after another. (Elias was not a happy man.) His son, however, found in the relaxed rootlessness of his boyhood a facility for drawing—becoming, in the end, a skilled draftsman with a particular gift for caricature and cartooning—and a concomitant interest in the nascent medium of motion pictures. (He was, like most of the world in those years, particularly captivated by the work of Charles Chaplin.) After serving in France for a year with the Red Cross Ambulance Corps (a brief episode of WWI Lost Generation romanticism he would never repeat), Disney came back to Kansas City to find work in the Commercial Art racket, grinding out rough sketches by the hundreds for newspaper and magazine ads—then as now, the closest thing to slave labor in Art.

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Disney and Ub Iwerks

    In 1920, he and another local Commercial Art galley slave, Ub Iwerks, formed a partnership that quickly evolved into the most important creative association of Disney’s life. It took them both into the relatively new medium of animated filmmaking, beginning the steady, deliberate rise that spanned, within a remarkable decade, from the Kansas City Laugh-O-Gram studio and the Alice’s Wonderland cartoon/live-action hybrids, all the way to Hollywood and the creation of the single most beloved—and in time the least interesting—animated film icon in history, Mickey Mouse. By then Disney had given up all hands-on animation work, preferring instead to guide his artists (principally Iwerks) according to the bent of his creative will. Iwerks fled from Disney after a bitter falling-out in 1930 to found his own relatively short-lived company; and though he was the first true genius in animated film and the most essential collaborator Walt Disney would ever know, it’s a testament to Disney’s organizational skills that even Iwerks’ departure couldn’t halt the creative momentum of his operation one whit.
    In the early 1930s Disney was a critical darling: Mickey Mouse, the Silly Symphonies, the sometimes jaw-dropping innovations in color and form, the wealth of refinements in technique that turned the heads of Otis Fergusons and Sergei Eisensteins alike; all of it brought forth with a touch that was instinctively populist rather than deliberately or mechanically so. In that pre-Bugs Bunny epoch, Disney cartoons were the standard by which all other such filmmaking was measured, simply because they looked better than everyone else’s (not a criterion to dismiss lightly). It hardly matters that a Disney masterpiece such as 1935’s The Band Concert wears far less well in retrospect than a routine slab of laughing surrealism by the Fleischer brothers…or even a more obscure and intrinsically glorious Ub Iwerks creation from the same period. There was, in the sheer technical brilliance of Disney animation then, a grace that could be found nowhere else. It galvanized the entire field, almost irrespective of its content. In fact, only a few years later—when Warner Brothers effectively dropped the Disney model for good and began to imbue their cartoons with the smartass, urbanized anarchy of its live action cinema—could moviegoers begin to see just how unmistakably limited the pastoral slapstick of Disney cartoons had always been, despite their often breathtaking formal gift.
    They were, however, enormously popular with audiences, popular enough for Disney to stake everything, the whole shot, on a multi-year production odyssey that resulted in animated cinema’s first feature-length creation, the still-wondrous Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). As the best constructed, most engrossing episode of Gabler’s Walt Disney, the chronicle of this oft-turned-over milestone’s turbulent birth is rendered as a fiscal and aesthetic gamble more fraught with peril for the fortunes of Disney’s studio than any previous account has shown. Indeed, throughout its recitation of the path from Kansas City to Snow White, Gabler’s book sustains a brisk narrative pace, finding a comfortable and altogether intriguing synthesis between the fundamentally populist underpinnings of Disney’s emerging sensibility and the entrepreneurial stratagems that brought it to the screen.

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Doing voices: Clarence Nash (Donald Duck) and Pinto Colvig (Goofy)

    But from that point to its conclusion, Neal Gabler’s book (perhaps as a consequence of his unfettered archival access, but perhaps not) undergoes an inclined, discernible shift in priority; moving, almost inexorably, from the biography of a man who had an incalculable impact on a key realm of expression in cinema, to a CEO Soap Opera, crammed to the margins with the minutiae of business adventures. Budgets, distribution deals, Bank of America loans, War Department contracts, recapitalization schemes, number-crunching, television sales, land purchase negotiations; all noted, and all at the expense of a coherent explanation for what caused the often unfortunate aesthetic trajectory of Disney’s filmmaking. It’s not that there’s no effort to explore what drove Walt Disney the artist in the decades after his first and glorious successes, it’s simply that Gabler’s preoccupation with Disney’s byzantine fiscal enterprises (he seems to think the fact that Disney’s finances were precarious almost to the last decade of his life constitutes a revelation of some import) consumes so much of his account that it undermines any intention its author might have had to repair his subject’s blemished reputation in Cinema. What should have been the substance of Walt Disney becomes, rather ironically, almost parenthetical to it.
    I say ‘ironically’ because the standard line of criticism about Disney among his detractors maintains that he was never an artist at all; that all the high-spirited charm and technical invention that made his studio a real presence in American Cinema within such a brief period of time was entirely the work of his animators—future giants of the art such as Iwerks, Rudolf Ising, Isidore ‘Friz’ Freleng and Hugh Harman. The only art Disney himself ever mastered (so the counter-myth holds) was the art of doing business in the hopeless Darwinian veldt of Hollywood or building overblown amusement parks of dubious cultural implication. Like a 19th century industrial Robber Baron (the ultimate betrayal of his roots, in other words), he kept both eyes fixed on increasing his foul revenues and damned all consequence. It’s a view that Gabler (to his credit) rejects, at least nominally; and with good reason. But through his book’s near lunatic emphasis on Disney the corporate titan, Neal Gabler seems to adopt this wrongheaded Party line almost independent of his stated desires, thereby codifying his book’s most unforgivable failure.
    For whatever else one might say about him, Walt Disney was an artist from beginning to end. He may have permanently ditched his draftsman’s skills in the late 1920s; becoming, in essence, a kind of creative overseer rather than anything cinephiles might ordinarily call an auteur. It does nothing, however, to erase the reality that every film brought forth under his imprimatur—good, bad, breathtaking, horrible, mind-numbingly awful or jaw-droppingly beautiful—was informed by a distinct, entirely lucid sensibility: a vision, if you will, with definable (if limited) features, whose ultimate worth one can either accept or reject on its own terms. True, in later life he did give himself over to empire building with the construction of Disneyland and the planning of what became known as Disney World and EPCOT—endeavors that, it should be noted, were not without their own aesthetic components—and he became something of a cheerleader for industrial capital and a ponce for the more misguided strains of post-war anti-Communism. But by the force of his will (not to mention the promiscuity of his creative suggestions) he expressed himself through the toil of others up to the moment of his passing, even beyond it in some cases. His art, difficult as it was, long outlived him.
    In the sphere of cinema, it’s hard to find a case for sainthood as good, or as bad, as that.

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Tom Sutpen is a frequent contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal and co-founder of the blog If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.

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Notes:

1. In recent years a Cinema Studies Professor at Syracuse University named Douglas Brode has argued, over the course of two books, that Disney’s filmmmaking, rather than being a bastion of rosy-cheeked retrograde Americana, embodies a vision so inclusive and downright progressive that it gave life abundant to the nascent counter-culture of the 1960s; thereby proving that an artist can be as poorly served by his blindest admirers as his most irrational critics. (Back)

2. Schickel’s book, Gabler reveals, originated as an officially-authorized biographical love letter to Uncle Walt before Disney himself killed the project due to its insinuation of mortality. (Back)

3. Gabler reports (intriguingly) that, upon seeing Robert Milligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, Disney lamented to friends the fact that his studio had not the sensibility to produce films of its character. (Back)

4. It was a time so unique that even a Republican such as Nebraska Senator George Norris could call himself ‘The Fighting Liberal’ without a speck of irony. (Back)

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Disney and crew brainstorming

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