At an early point in his career, probably no later than 1930, Walt Disney lost the ability to draw what he wanted his cartoon characters to look like or his animations to do. So he began to act his cartoons out. In story meetings with his growing staff of animators – some of whom he had trained in Los Angeles at his studio on Hyperion Avenue, others whom he’d poached from the great New York studios – Disney would get up, according to Neal Gabler’s new biography,
enter his trance, and suddenly transform himself uninhibitedly into Mickey or Donald or an owl or an old hunting dog . . . ‘He would imitate the expressions of the dog, and look from one side to the other, and raise first one brow and then the other’ . . . ‘You’d have the feeling of the whole thing,’ Dick Huemer noted. ‘You’d know exactly what he wanted.’
Mickey Mouse’s gestures ‘were copied from Walt’s when he performed Mickey at story meetings’; until 1946 Disney also voiced him, in falsetto. In another new Life, Michael Barrier’s The Animated Man, the studio head is seen by animators acting out ‘how a Chinese turtle should dance’, or doing ‘any of the people in the pictures, valets, anything – he all of a sudden was a valet.’
One such episode was burned in Disney animators’ memories from three years before the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first ever feature-length animation and Walt’s personal masterpiece. (Biographies of Disney chart a long decline after this peak, despite endless new achievements.) Disney was 33 years old, and the studio still an animators’ utopia offering steady work during the Depression and an atmosphere halfway between a college campus and a kids’ clubhouse. One night, Disney told his animators to get their dinner and then come back to the soundstage. In Gabler’s retelling,
none had any idea of what Walt had in mind. When they arrived, about fifty of them, at roughly 7.30, and took their seats on wooden tiers at the back of the room, Walt was standing at the front lit by a single spotlight in the otherwise dark space. Announcing that he was going to launch an animated feature, he told the story of Snow White, not just telling it but acting it out, assuming the characters’ mannerisms, putting on their voices, letting his audience visualise exactly what they would be seeing on the screen. He became Snow White and the wicked queen and the prince and each of the dwarfs . . . The performance took over three hours . . . ‘That one performance lasted us three years,’ one animator claimed. ‘Whenever we’d get stuck, we’d remember how Walt did it on that night.’
At least three types of artists are known for having made great work by such inartistic means. One is the naive artist: the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson reputedly arranged his masterpiece, Pet Sounds, by sitting all day with a small orchestra and singing each instrumentalist his part. He’d have the ensemble perform, then he’d make alterations, listen again, and so forth, until the arrangement matched what he heard in his head. A second type is the aged, or busy, super-skilled master: thus Van Dyck, in his studio in London, might paint only the head and hands of his portraits, while assistants managed the rest. This is close to the division of labour between the early master cinematic animators, who drew key positions in a sequence, and the ‘in-betweeners’ who drew the intervening frames; but it still doesn’t really represent what Disney did. (Though in published reminiscences, Disney animators and theme-park designers – those who didn’t wind up flat-out hating Walt – tend to lean on the example of Renaissance workshops when explaining what their roles were in relation to the great impresario.) The third and most recent type of artist using inartistic means is the conceptual artist. Thus Jeff Koons, who married conceptualism to a deep admiration for handicraft (though never his own), conceived a ceramic Michael Jackson and chimp Bubbles and hired expert Italian artisans to fabricate it; the result is a centrepiece of the Broad Collection. He could never have executed such work himself; but it was his idea.
Was Disney such an artist? Well, he wasn’t exactly like any of these types, though his methods bore some relation to each of the three. He was an old-fashioned craft-oriented artist who dropped or went beyond his handicraft but could never quite acknowledge that he had. There are plenty of photographs and films of him drawing Mickey Mouse, very late into his life, for publicity purposes, but in fact he had hardly ever drawn Mickey professionally since making the drawings in which he first invented the character. The nature of the artistry in Disney’s art has left a confusion in all biographies, all records, all reminiscences of the man. Barrier says outright that Disney’s 1931 nervous breakdown was a result of his managerial turn after ‘years of animating and then directing . . . years of other kinds of jobs that required working with his hands, and before that, years of manual labour’. From another vantage point, the tension between handicraft and out-of-thin-air theatrical invention can also be said to have been the genesis of many of Disney’s greatest creative successes, down to the invention of Disneyland.
Disney had drawn since his earliest youth in Chicago, Kansas City and Marceline, Missouri. He drew portraits, and cartoons for the funny pages. He drew pictures in tar on the side of his parents’ whitewashed farmhouse. He perfected copies of the caricatures of ‘Capital and Labour’ in the Appeal to Reason, to which his agrarian socialist father subscribed. He grew up in a stern religious world that idolised the country but could only afford to hustle in the city (the Disneys lost their farm in Marceline after just two years), that hated Capital and favoured Labour, but really needed to make a buck. Walt’s father, Elias Disney, had been ‘railroad machinist and carpenter in Colorado, farmer in Kansas, hotel proprietor and orange-grove owner and mail carrier in Florida’, as the historian Steven Watts records it, before five more cross-country moves in Walt’s lifetime. The son was made to earn money for the family, carrying newspapers, selling on the railroads, even peddling butter to his rich classmates’ families. Walt and his older brother Roy – later the main businessman for the Disney Companies, whose initial qualifications were that he had once worked in a bank and had always looked out for Walt – never entirely escaped their elders, or wanted to, unlike two other brothers who ran away overnight from Elias’s demands. They just learned to make their own way, thanks to Walt’s strange habit of drawing.
As a truck driver in the Ambulance Corps in France – a volunteer in the World War One adventurer-tourist milieu that spawned the Lost Generation – Walt, aged 16 to 18 (he’d lied on the entrance forms), spent his off-hours volunteering illustrations and caricatures. The places where he was stationed – Paris, Auteuil, Neufchâteau – may have helped him develop a taste for the Old World illustrations used in parts of Cinderella and Fantasia; he may only have been educated up to the age of 15, but he wasn’t unworldly. In 1920, having returned to a job as a commercial artist in Kansas City, he taught himself the new technology of silent film animation using a library copy of Edwin G. Lutz’s Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development, a book of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies, and a film camera he borrowed from work and mounted overhead in his father’s garage. He soon went to Hollywood and, with superior drawing help from his Kansas City partner Ub Iwerks, produced a series of fairly undistinguished cartoons.
After the appearance of The Jazz Singer in 1927, Disney jumped at the idea of synchronising a full soundtrack precisely to an animation. He worked out the details himself, surrounded by friends, with a metronome and frame-counting and homemade instrumentation, and later – all alone in New York and nervously paying a recording orchestra for its time – by hastily improvising a bouncing ball and click track to be printed on the sound film. Steamboat Willie premiered Mickey Mouse with synch sound: the success of the two, cartoon sound and Mickey Mouse, were simultaneous. Though Walt had been the first to draw Mickey, Iwerks, a far better animator, redesigned and animated him. Out in front of his New York competitors, Disney hired other artists who drew better still, and kept expanding and modifying his personnel to meet the new styles that the studio teams developed under his prodding. Instead of angular, ‘rubber-hose’ figures that stretched with the direction of the action, the Disney animators worked out ways to maintain characters’ volume (‘squash and stretch’), devised the technique of ‘overlapping motion’ to create greater realism, and delayed the movement of clothes and hair so that it reacted to bodily motion rather than remaining fixed to the figure. Meanwhile, Disney strove for perfection in what was often an art form of speed and sloppiness, and fought to add Technicolor elegance to the old black and white slapstick, winning a unique two-year contract for the use of the three-colour process in cartoons. He achieved the depth and changing focus of live-action cinema by using a multiplane camera to truck and pan through panes of glass affixed with painted cels. As the studio’s skills changed, he asked a new star, Fred Moore, to redesign Mickey once again. Meanwhile, he remade himself – becoming an icon, a studio head, a mogul, the ultimate mover behind Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi – until the Disney momentum failed in 1941, the end of the studio’s ‘golden age’.
Disney’s biographers have often tried to describe his odd way of working by splitting his efforts between those of the artist and those of the entrepreneur. This doesn’t seem quite right: technical ambition rather than an interest in money seems to have dominated even his business successes; he wanted to see what he (and his wise older brother Roy) could fix up, often on the brink of disaster, and get away with. In the pursuit of market advantage (initially) and then artistic ‘quality’ (once he had outpaced all competition), Disney tried to keep a 19th-century, tinkering, hands-on control of every ‘Disney’ project while continually making 20th-century technological improvements – improvements that, time and again, made his own hands-on abilities obsolete.
Disney now seems most to resemble those later West Coast inventor-artists, the computer technologists, who started out writing code in basements and garages and wound up with massive software companies, their names attached to operating systems whose nuts and bolts they gradually ceased to know and could no longer fix or change, though the direction and achievements of those systems were inconceivable without them. The apt comparison is probably to that other Napoleon of the 20th century who went by a deceptively ordinary-guy name: Bill Gates. But Gates never had to act out Windows.
It makes good sense to speak of a tradition of Disney biography, made up of forty years of writing about him since his death in 1966. The central faultline of this tradition is represented by the biographer’s decision whether to attribute to Walt Disney all that was ‘Disney’ in name, or to focus on other sources of its success – the genius of the animators, usually, or the contributions of social history. Did Walt make Disney movies – or did Ub Iwerks, Norm Ferguson, Fred Moore, Bill Tytla etc? Did Walt make the Three Little Pigs and Davy Crockett and Tomorrowland matter to America by his own genius, or did he mirror back to America its defiance of the Depression, its Cold War myths of individualism and ‘containment’, its affluent 1960s futurism?
This would not be particularly interesting, except that Disney, more than most creators, seems to draw out commentators’ anxieties about the nature of art’s relation to the individual. If you believe that one man could cause so much to happen – from Snow White to a coonskin-cap craze to Mary Poppins to Hollywood’s move into broadcast television and finally to theme parks in Anaheim and Orlando – then you adopt the model of the lone genius, almost to the point of holy respect. After all, Disney did help name every dwarf. He figured out how to do Bambi’s mother’s death scene: off camera. He chose the music for Fantasia (with distinguished assistants) and worked out whole sequences of the movie (with distinguished animators), laying much of it out for stenographers and employees in a kind of lucid dream. He trod every inch of dirt at Disneyland, day after day throughout its construction, and before the crowds came no one believed in the park project as he did; he would move a tree from one spot to another, touch the details of façades to test their quality, ride the attractions while timing their duration, even well after the park’s opening, to make sure that customers got their money’s worth. He had an apartment built above the fire station on Main Street, USA, overlooking the throngs of patrons. It was, Gabler writes, ‘decorated in red velvet, lace and brocades to resemble a late 19th-century home’, and he could be seen ‘standing at the window of the apartment, as he had on opening day, crying, moved by the achievement’. In the sunset days of his life, Gabler also informs us, he would order his musicians to his studio office, go to the window, ask them to play the music from Mary Poppins, and cry.
If you attribute everything to Disney, however, you are a Disney partisan, bound to be accused of having a sweetheart deal with the carefully kept archive of the Walt Disney Companies – from which researchers have frequently been barred. If you try to give credit elsewhere, you enter alternately vexing, academic, ugly and sarcastic territories. This is why biographies have tended to feel either hagiographic or hostile. The famous early masterpiece of debunking was Richard Schickel’s The Disney Version, published in 1968 and a product of that anti-establishment end-of-decade. Loveable Uncle Walt had been dead for less than two years. Schickel’s work is still superbly readable and shrewd even when it is deeply unfair; it disassembled Disney the artist and offered up a Disney whose essence was ‘the entrepreneurial spirit triumphant’, an American capitalist hokum manufacturer. As Schickel portrayed him, Disney was not just an attention-hog but always irritable about the limitations of his own fakery: ‘Disney was continually, if mildly, irked because he could not draw Mickey or Donald or Pluto . . . Even more embarrassingly, he could not accurately duplicate the familiar “Walt Disney” signature that appeared as a trademark on all his products.’ Not only did the man sign everyone else’s hard work, he was signing with a signature he had asked a studio employee to redesign.
Contemporary Disney biographies strive for balance, yet it remains surprisingly elusive, perhaps precisely because we still don’t know how to talk about collaborative art, especially as it gives way to artistic ‘empires’. The best full biography in the social-historical mode, escaping the problems of ‘for’ and ‘against’, is Steven Watts’s incisive The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life of 1997 – but his superb book seemed further proof that the only way out of biographical binds was a super-sophistication about social demands and root causes that would fit academic study, but not the biography section of the public library.
Even with two significant entrants this year, it is still impossible to recommend a single volume as the definitive Disney Life. Gabler has certainly written a long and remarkably readable one. Walt Disney: The Biography is a record of Disney’s highs and lows that is likely to remain unmatched for drama; it is hagiographic, certainly, but never dishonest, and it marshals a truly enormous quantity of detail. Pieces of the Disney story that are always of interest, like the astonishing sequence of ad hoc discoveries Disney’s animators made about realistic ‘character’ animation through the 1930s, are vividly retold (they have been best explained before in instructional texts, like Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson’s wonderful but technical The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation), and even hard-to-follow business dealings are presented with something approaching the same intensity. (I found myself in a state of acute anxiety at several points about the loans Disney needed and whether the bank would issue them.) Gabler’s brilliant storytelling is marred, however, by banal psychological theses, ceaselessly repeated: Disney offered his audiences the pleasures of control that he also sought for himself. All of his successes are about control, all his works about either the creation of closed, orderly universes or the temporary loss of control (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). Gabler’s tone, throughout, is strangely anti-intellectual, considering his own excellent research and his association with the University of Southern California. He will cite ‘a scholar’, ‘a critic’, and sometimes goes to awkward lengths to avoid giving a name, in a book otherwise rich with the names of Disney’s contemporaries. In a weird tic of lowbrow biography, he neglects to name his sources in the text, leaving the reader to seek important information in the unnumbered footnotes at the back (this may have been an editor’s bad idea). Worse, he treats other critics’ and scholars’ bad and good interpretations with equal credulity and, thus, an equally trivialising condescension. The book is an inspired arrangement of materials and an inspiring source, but you will have to do much of the thinking on your own.
Barrier’s less exhaustive biography sees Disney from the point of view of his animators. For an earlier book, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, Barrier conducted extensive interviews, and he relies heavily on them here. Disney’s animators felt the warmest devotion and the deepest hatred for him; some managed to feel both at the same time, and to hold onto both in the haze of memory. Many – even of the best of them – were fired or forced to leave according to Walt’s changing standards, foul moods and caprices. As an animator partisan, Barrier would seem to be on the side of the Disney deflationists. Instead, he winds up creating a compelling psychological portrait of Walt, through the observations of the animators, since Disney’s psyche existed only in his enterprises, and his employees saw him at his worst and his best.
By and large, the memory of the environment Disney created through his total devotion to his enterprises wins out over hard feelings. ‘Every day was an excitement,’ the animator Marc Davis is quoted as saying in both biographies. ‘Whatever we were doing had never been done before. It was such a great thrill to go in there . . . Everybody here was studying constantly . . . It wasn’t that you had to do these things – you wanted to do them . . . Very few people have ever, as a group, experienced that type of excitement.’ Scary though Walt could be, the animators missed him when he turned his attention to other projects, like television and the theme park after World War Two. As the modern-day animator and animators’ union head Tom Sito records in Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions (which contains the best account yet of the 1941 Walt Disney strike, with documentation of the union side), ‘even Walt’s fiercest critics still confess a warm spot for him. People who knew Walt Disney best dwell upon his warmth and forgive his actions more than they forgive their own or anyone else’s.’ A sometime Disney animator himself, Sito describes a lunch he had with Joe Grant, who had been drawing for Disney since Three Little Pigs in 1934, and was still at it in 2005. ‘We spent our usual hour bitching about all the problems with the cartoon business,’ Sito writes, ‘and the Disney studio in particular.’ But Disney and the studio weren’t entirely the same thing. ‘After all was said, Joe told me, “Yeah, but . . . you see, you all were working for the Disney Company, but I was working for Walt Disney, and that’s the difference.”’
The drama of Walt Disney transpired in two acts, with a pretty strange intermission in between. Act One ended in 1941. Two things changed for the apolitical Walt in that troublesome year: the Great Disney Strike, which took place during the unionising battles of the spring and summer (in which Walt, the son of a socialist, acted like a colossal capitalist jackass), and the transformation of the studio for war work following the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Disney had been feeling financial pain from the war since 1940, as the Nazi onslaught cut off European markets and eventually froze existing UK receipts.) After this, the studio’s work never entirely recovered its quality. The last ‘golden era’ film already in production, Bambi, came out the following year, and there was no memorable full-length animation success again until Cinderella in 1950 (and animation historians will tell you that the artwork for it was notably inferior).
The strike was a disaster for Disney, but financial troubles were the real cause of the collapse of the studio: a combination of over-expansion, the commercial flop of some of the studio’s best films, and Disney’s inability to step back and grasp his new situation. Walt thought he had remained one of the crew, a boy leading the boys. He was a paternalist who was also a kid. Snow White and Dumbo had made his chief animators rich, while he ploughed money back into the company and hired new layers of lower-level artists for lower wages to meet an expected surge of animation production. The company was heavily in debt – forced to go public in 1940, with a quickly devalued stock – and struggling to hang onto huge numbers of new personnel, from whom Walt was personally distant. Musicians, cameramen and make-up artists were already unionised, in line with Hollywood practice. When the animators wanted to unionise, Disney read it as ingratitude. He couldn’t understand that he was a boss now – Capital rather than Labour – and he failed to communicate both his genuine need for his employees (or a wish to keep them on at fairer rates) and the dangerous state of the studio’s finances. In Sito’s evaluation, Disney didn’t understand the emotional and pragmatic realities beyond his own wounded sense of self: ‘In this one episode, his instincts faltered: when artists expected to see the fellow artist, he showed them his business side, and when businessmen expected to work with the businessman, he gave them the emotional artist.’
Once Disney lost his ill-advised battle, half of the workforce was laid off anyway. Walt himself became somewhat dementedly bitter. His studio was no longer the workers’ paradise he’d dreamed of, and it was barely his in any case, as he came under increasing pressure from Bank of America, the holder of his debt. The man whose new form of collective artwork had been cheered in the 1930s by the left, with whom Disney had then been happy to go along, blamed the strike on the phantom enemy that, conveniently, had become America’s bugbear of the postwar years: Communist subversion. Walt testified eagerly before the House Un-American Activities Commission, and got in bed, as Gabler puts it, with Hollywood’s ‘professional red-baiters’. He switched his allegiance (and political donations) to the Republicans.
In the years immediately after the war Disney seemed to have lost interest in animation and started playing with model trains. A New York Times visitor ‘came away feeling sad’: to all appearances absent from his studio’s movie-making, Disney seemed ‘wholly, almost weirdly, concerned with the building of a miniature railroad engine and a string of cars in the workshops of the studio’. Deciding to make a train from scratch, himself, he found a place in the studio’s machine shop (where they repaired cameras) as an apprentice machinist. The shop head recalled that he ‘made the whistle, flagstands and hand rails on the lathe. He learned sheet metal work by laying out and fabricating the headlamp and smokestack. Then [he] made numerous parts in the milling machine and learned to silver solder and braze on many small fittings.’ Meanwhile, the studio’s animated output – following the miseries of wartime instructional films like Flush Riveting and Disney’s long-range-bombing propaganda piece Victory through Air Power – didn’t improve with peacetime: Song of the South was condemned in 1946 for being both racist and lame, and other releases were essentially compilations of short episodes. Walt began producing live-action films but remained distracted. By the time of Cinderella, the animators intensely missed his presence.
Meanwhile, Disney was finding new pleasures at home in amassing a large collection of doll-sized miniatures. He began fabricating and selling miniatures himself: handmade pot-bellied stoves that he sold on consignment. He insisted on building a new house for his family, but chose the site mainly so he could build a 2500-foot miniature railway that he could ride with pals and guests; it included a raised track and a ninety-foot tunnel under the garden. Walt’s wife and daughters were not thrilled. Ever the hustler, he fought hard to get the retail price of the pot-bellied stoves raised from $15 to $25, and, according to Barrier, ‘eventually recouped much of what he had spent’ on his instantly famous home railroad – which cost $27,000 in Gabler’s estimation, $50,000 in Barrier’s, all in 1950s dollars – ‘by selling castings and construction drawings through advertisements in Miniature Locomotive magazine’.
Disney had not actually gone crazy. Rather, he had once again turned to handicraft, something he could apparently do all by himself, in order once again to expand into visions that very soon left him, once again, technically outpaced and obsolete. The last stop on Disney’s model train would be Disneyland. First, however, came some very complicated planning, and much leveraging of the studio’s strengths into finding Walt a grand site for his train. It began with memos about a park on the studio lot, then consumer-research studies on the ideal Californian location (Anaheim, said his consultants), then teams of employees dispatched to carnivals, Colonial Williamsburg, Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. With Roy’s encouragement, Walt created a new company separate from the studio, WED Enterprises, where he could dream up tasks for a tiny new team of comrade-employees. A greater investment in live-action films, along with recycled old cartoon shorts and introductions by Walt himself, furnished the material for ABC television’s Disneyland, in which Walt jumped feet first into the new technology, largely to broker a financial deal that would provide capital to bring a physical Disneyland into existence. Walt finally knew exactly where he wanted to put his best train yet – in a track around the best park ever – and as the project grew vastly in scale he set his mind to creating the different villages and sights, no longer miniature, which his train should pass by. Disney pillaged the studio animations for rides and settings, like Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, and went back to his own childhood in the turn-of-the-century Midwest for Main Street USA. The finished park opened in 1955.
Disneyland was animation in three dimensions. The park adopted tricks the Disney studio had learned in film, with physical correlatives of cinematic techniques and linked but distinct stories segueing one into another. No employee from Frontierland must wander into Tomorrowland; the physical shading from one zone to another should be like a smooth dissolve or fade. Façades were conceived as sets, and the ‘dark rides’ – gondolas or cars towed through a dark space in which dioramas could be lit or images projected – were conceived as Disney ‘stories’, not thrill-rides, with the patron in the role of the lead character. Eventually outgrowing Disneyland too, Walt tolerated the beginnings of a park in Florida but didn’t much care about it. (The more significant aspect of Disney’s postwar politics, incidentally, was the California real-estate developers’ anti-government libertarianism. In negotiations with the Florida legislature over the development of Disneyworld, he and Roy infamously were allowed to build it in a district of Orlando outside the control of voters or elected officials.)
Disney had to begin again, to put his hands in and then find the technicians who could outdo him in making his handiwork real. He drew up the plans for an ideal planned city to house the Florida park workers, his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, a ‘five-thousand-acre city arranged in a wheel three miles in diameter’. At last he had cause to draw again. Disney would sit at the worktable, one of the EPCOT ‘Imagineers’ remembered, ‘sketching away with a big pencil while the rest of us were sitting around, ideas going back and forth, right and left’. Disney died of lung cancer unexpectedly in 1966, and the Imagineers went on without him. When the project head, Marvin Davis, presented the final plans to Roy Disney, ‘Marvin . . . Walt’s gone,’ was the famous reply.
But he had his monuments. Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, the pictures on which Disney lost so much money, became profitable in endless rerelease: colour animations proved never to age or look antique, as live action inevitably did. Gabler quotes the layout artist Ken Anderson quoting Walt: ‘You know, tyrants in the past built these huge buildings – look how big and powerful I am. And they towered over the people just to impress the people.’ The implication was that Disney wanted his creations to welcome the people, modestly, untyrannically. Indeed, following up the research of the art historian Karal Ann Marling (who was following up Richard Schickel), Gabler confirms that Main Street, USA was built to take advantage of visual foreshortening – ‘The lower floors of the shops were nine-tenths scale, the second floors eight-tenths, and the third seven-tenths’ – so that the buildings did not look obviously undersized, but somehow seemed to come down to meet the visitor. He had countervailing impulses: to impress the people technically and yet to remain one of them, equally impressed. When Disney spoke of EPCOT near the end, he designated a spot at the dead centre of this 20,000 to 100,000 resident community for his hoped-for old age: ‘This spot with a little bench is where Lilly and I are going to sit and watch.’ A nice idea: megalomaniacal and anonymous at once.