Making reality fit his dreams

Disney's biographer believes the key to his life is the will to power

Review Popular culture

October 15, 2006|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

Neal Gabler

Alfred A. Knopf / 858 pages / $35

Why would I want to be president?" Walt Disney once asked. "I'm king of Disneyland."

During his 40-year reign, Disney left an indelible imprint on American culture. According to one of his many biographers, Disney was a "sentimental populist," determined to reduce reality to smaller, simpler and more comprehensible terms. In the "Magic Kingdom," hard work, decency, loyalty and self-restraint were rewarded. And the "still, small voices that nobody listened to" were heard.

Critics scoffed that Disney sweetened, sanitized and falsified life. But the customers kept on coming. In 1966, the year he died, 240 million people saw a Disney film, 100 million tuned in each week to a Disney TV show, 80 million read a Disney book, 50 million listened to a Disney record, 80 million bought Disney merchandise, 150 million perused a Disney comic strip and almost 7 million visited Disneyland.

Author of an acclaimed biography of Walter Winchell, Neal Gabler is the first writer with unrestricted access to the Disney Archives. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination is a richly detailed, often poignant, psychological profile of a visionary, reactionary, perfectionist, paternalist and petty tyrant.

The wellspring of Disney's appeal, Gabler suggests, was faith that reality could be made to conform with illusion. Forced to cope with a dour, distant, ne'er-do-well dad, and a peripatetic childhood that took him from Chicago to Marceline, Mo., to Kansas City, Walt "understood wish fulfillment from the inside." Through Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Davy Crockett and EPCOT, he put to use "the privileges of childhood" by inventing a world subject to his control. Gabler claims, hyperbolically, that Disney's will to power explains his passion for animation: In that medium, more than any other, he "could exercise the power of a god."

As a young man-on-the-make, Disney did not exhibit a compulsion to control. When his hit series, Oswald the Rabbit, was yanked out from under him by Universal Studios, which owned the rights to the character, Disney wrote a scenario for a mouse named Mickey, and then added sound, with the action syncopated to "Turkey in the Straw." At first lecherous and sadistic, Mickey quickly took on the characteristics of his creator - optimism, pluck and naivete - and mesmerized millions of movie-goers.

In his cartoons, Disney elevated story over gag. Insisting that characters be "believable in motion and emotion," he called his animated universe "the plausible impossible." After he stopped animating, writing and directing, Disney remained the guiding genius at the studio, presiding over story conferences, reviewing screenplays, selecting the names of the seven dwarfs for Snow White and deciding that Jiminy Cricket would be the narrator of Pinocchio - and the puppet's conscience.

In the early years, Gabler indicates, Disney was a benevolent boss. He paid well and created an informal work environment, with no time clock. Employees took classes in art, animation and script-writing, taught by the best in the business. By most accounts, they respected and even revered him.

But by the end of the '30s, Disney had become more erratic, autocratic and isolated. Success, celebrity and honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale might have gone to his head. Equally important, Disney knew that his demand for quality at the cutting edge kept production costs high and profits low, making the studio dependent on creditors and an uninterrupted stream of successes at the box office.

With the disappearance of international markets during World War II, Disney announced an austerity program. When the Screen Cartoonists Guild began organizing animators, he refused to bargain with them and invited in a company union. A disastrous strike ensued. When it ended, a bitter and insecure Disney blamed it all on communists.

Disney then staged a comeback, thanks largely to television. The Davy Crockett series on ABC created a national sensation. No less popular was The Mickey Mouse Club. TV helped publicize Disneyland, which opened on July 17, 1955. Once again, Disney was an icon. Off-screen, however, he was anything but avuncular. He spent much of his time alone, playing with his toy trains. Irascible and impatient, he fired employees for slight infractions - or for no discernible reason.

Gabler concludes that Disney had never been so much a master of fun and innocence as an apostle of order. Perhaps. But like Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane and Robert Penn Warren's Willie Stark, Walter Elias Disney changed as he charged to the top. Like them, he was never all that mercenary. Once he tasted the power born of his magic touch, however, he worked, desperately, to retain it. Terrified of death, he left Disneyland as a legacy of his obsession with control. But just as influential, it is worth remembering, was the brash free spirit who taught Americans to whistle while they worked - and to be not afraid, not even of the big bad wolf.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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