Today I finished reading last year’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler. The book is thick with both pages and info, and as he’s building his studio Walt Disney often comes off as simultaneously the best and the worst boss you’ve ever had. (Unfortunately he generally became a more difficult boss as the studio grew: more mercurial, harder to please, and sometimes even flat-out claiming his own company was producing “crap.”) And I don’t think I ever appreciated how precarious the Disney company was for most of its run – it was never consistently profitable until after Disneyland opened, and during World War II finances were so tight Disney was seriously worried he’d never be able to make any more feature films once Bambi was done – but it survived a lot. And newcomer network ABC might’ve gone the way of the DuMont Network if it hadn’t picked up Disney’s first TV shows and become a partner in Disneyland.
I was intrigued by many details and what-might-have-beens – from good ideas (Walt seriously talked with Paul Robeson to star as Uncle Remus in Song of the South, which would’ve been a much different performance in a far different film) to it’s-good-he-abandoned-them ideas (the dwarf “Deafy,” generally congenial except when he gets mad at something he misheard due to his deafness). I never knew that Ronald Reagan co-hosted the disastrous first broadcast from Disneyland, or that there briefly was a circus at the park, or that Disney never said until the 1960s that his films were for children: if you’re helping to nurture a NEW ART FORM, it should be for EVERYBODY, not just for kids seemed to be his underlying belief for most of his career.
That said, by this point almost every opinion that can be held about Walt Disney has been pondered, pontificated, and published, and Gabler (while giving evidence to debunk other people’s beliefs that Disney was Anti-Semitic in life and cryogenically frozen in death) can’t bring a huge new thesis to play; he instead can present a huge amount of evidence to show Disney’s perfectionist-but-easily-bored nature. And a few times it seemed Gabler really reached to make a point via quotes that don’t quite seem to support what he’s writing. These are moments that feel like laziness in the midst of what was years of work for Gabler. (Plus I get the impression that Walt wasn’t all that quotable a person; he didn’t seem to have a real flair to his speech.)
Gabler kind of frustrates me after the three books of his I’ve read: of those three, I still think his best was An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, while there are giant chunks of Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality where I A) seriously disagree with some of his ideas, and B) feel he didn’t present those ideas coherently.
But honestly? Any evidence that Walt Disney swore makes me smile. So that’s one reason I liked this book.