Close-Up: Biographer Neal Gabler on Walt Disney
by Scott Holleran
Neal Gabler signs books at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank
Photo Credit: Scott Holleran
November 29, 2006

Writer Neal Gabler sat down with Box Office Mojo at the Walt Disney Studios to discuss his new biography of the entertainment giant's namesake and founder, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

Bursting with enthusiasm for the book, Gabler also visited the studio's archives where he was warmly greeted for a question and answer session with the staff, with whom he had worked for seven years. Afterwards, Gabler, whose other books include An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality and Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity, headed to the studio store for a book signing, where a long line of eagerly awaiting Disney employees had already formed.

Box Office Mojo: What is the theme of Walt Disney's career?

Neal Gabler: There are several. If you had to enumerate them, number one is the power of wish fulfillment. That sounds something like a cliché, but it was anything but a cliché for Walt Disney. Walt was someone who believed in his own imagination very much, he had tremendous self-confidence about the power of that imagination, and he was able, somehow, miraculously, to do what very few people are able to do—to impose that imagination on the world and to make the world conform to it, at least pieces of the world. The animations are products of Walt's wish fulfillment. The theme parks are products of Walt's wish fulfillment. EPCOT [Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow], had it been designed and executed the way that Walt wanted it designed and executed—as this fully operational city of the future—was a product of Walt's wish fulfillment. So, the rule of wish fulfillment is one of the central themes of his life. In the process of executing that wish fulfillment, there is a theme of control. Walt is someone who was very obsessive, very much a perfectionist. He believed in perfectibility, which is an American theme as well as a Disney theme, and he believed that you could control things—indeed, that you had to control things. Walt never delegated, unless he wanted to. That's not a contradiction; there are things that Walt cared about deeply and he would never delegate when there were things about which he cared deeply. There were things that he didn't care that deeply about, in part because he didn't ever think they could be perfect and, when Walt came to the conclusion that something wasn't going to be perfect, as he did about the animations, frankly, he said: "let somebody else do that." Walt only wanted to be personally invested in things that could be perfect—things over which he would then exercise control. Those are kind of the three [ideas]: wish fulfillment, perfectibility, control—and, obviously, they all link in Walt's life.

Box Office Mojo: Is there a single, overriding theme—?

Gabler: Walt intended, through his wish fulfillment, control and perfectibility, to create an alternative reality. In some ways, whether this was mythology or not and it's very hard to say, because Walt was a great romanticist about his own life, Walt always looked at his childhood—at least his Kansas City childhood—as being enormously arduous, suffering great deprivations, both financial and emotional.

Box Office Mojo: When you say alternative reality, do you mean through representational art, to uplift the human spirit?

Gabler: Exactly—to remove one from the reality in which one lives one's daily life—from the drudgery and from life's complications, in an affirmative sense. That doesn't mean that his [recreation of] reality—in terms of the animations particularly—didn't recognize difficulty. One of the unfair knocks that Walt Disney gets—and it is interesting when you look at the continuity of his career—is that he took the edge off and made everything seem easy, which people were saying in the 1960s. When you go back to the late 1930s and early 1940s, people were saying that kids were terrified by Walt Disney's films—they deal with the complexities of life in ways that children are very much challenged by. His own daughter, Diane, asked him 'why did you kill Bambi's mother?' and Walt's answer is 'because it's in the original source material—it's in the book by Felix Salten.' Diane says, 'yeah, but you changed a lot of things—you're Walt Disney, you can do anything.' His answer to that is that his job isn't to show you how easy everything is—that's not what he wanted to do—he wanted people to realize and recognize some of the conflicts. That doesn't mean he doesn't attempt to resolve them in his alternative reality, but the main aspect of that reality is that it can be controlled. That's the important thing: that [humans] have the power to control our environment. Certainly, Disneyland is a testament to that.

Box Office Mojo: Did Walt Disney seek order and control as an end in itself?

Gabler: To a certain extent, yes.

Box Office Mojo: That's true perfectionism.

Gabler: Yes, and that's what Walt was about, which is why Walt was always disappointed. One of the things you find in Walt Disney's life that is poignant in my estimation is that Walt set the bar so high that he could never meet it. So he could make an animation, even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he would say, 'that's not good enough,' or Pinocchio—'not good enough'—or Fantasia—'not good enough'—nothing was ever good enough, because if your standard is perfection, and if you have that template in your head, nothing is ever going to be good enough and you're always going to be disappointed. Walt Disney was a man who lived within his disappointment, even as he was creating these worlds which we all love and which teach and transport us—but Walt was disappointed in them.

Box Office Mojo: Yet, by your account, he achieved perfection—?

Gabler: Yes. In the final analysis, Walt has a kind of perfection. His life all comes together. He certainly wasn't infallible and he'd be the first to say that, though he had tremendous confidence in his own judgment, which he had to have in order to succeed. But in the final analysis, he accomplished so much. It's a happy ending, in a way—only unhappy to the extent to which Walt Disney had said, 'if only I had 15 more years, imagine the things I would accomplish …,' clearly thinking of EPCOT and urban planning and the true legacy he wanted to leave.

Box Office Mojo: What legacy was that?

Gabler: Changing the world in a physical way—in the way people live. Of course, he changed the world in a number of other ways and that's a powerful legacy unto itself. He created something that some people dislike.

Box Office Mojo: Who? Intellectuals?

Gabler: Yes. Again, it's interesting to see the transformation in Walt Disney's public acceptance, particularly in terms of intellectuals. In the 1930s, he was a darling of the intellectuals, in part because they felt superior to him. Walt Disney was not their equal, in their estimation, he was this plainspoken primitive, artlessly artful, Midwestern fellow who had no pretensions whatsoever—a man completely without pretense and, therefore, they could embrace him. It's very patronizing—and it's also wrong, because Walt Disney always had pretensions to art and he would talk about this. 'We're not making cartoons,' he said at one story meeting that I quote in the book. It's about art. Fantasia became a kind of turning point, because with Fantasia, he tipped his hand. In Fantasia, he exposed to intellectuals that he did have pretensions, that he was interested in art, and it's with Fantasia that intellectuals began to turn on him. They turned on him with a vengeance in the post-[World War 2] period because the animations weren't very good and they felt that he declined in terms of his artistry. That continued pretty much through the end of his life. To this day, there's a great division about Walt Disney. You can almost divide the country, like red and blue states, [between] those who love Walt Disney and those who hate Walt Disney. Those who love him feel he was optimistic, genuine, that he taught them the power of wish fulfillment, and those who hate him felt he took all the menace out of life and had a fascistic potential because Disneyland puts everyone through the same kind of experience. There's less intellectual disdain today than, say, five or ten years ago, but does it still exist? I've encountered it with this book: 'why write seriously about Walt Disney—don't you know that Walt Disney wasn't serious?' So, it's there.

Continued . . .

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