About two weeks ago I was standing at the corner of Hyperion Avenue and Griffith Park Boulevard in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, drinking in the vibes. An upscale market stands there now, but from 1926 to 1940 it was the site of the old Walt Disney Studios; the period almost perfectly coincides with Disney’s active interest in animation. This was where Disney brought Mickey Mouse to life, where he pioneered the sound animation (Steamboat Willie, 1928), the Technicolor animation (Flowers and Trees, 1932), and the feature-length animation (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937). Here Disney pushed the animator’s art from crude and elastic black-and-white drawings to highly detailed renderings of the human form with delicate chiaroscuro effects. Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), and the Depression-era touchstone Three Little Pigs (1933) were all hatched on Hyperion Avenue.
My head was full of Disney from reading Neal Gabler’s excellent biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. I’d been looking for a good book about Disney but wary of choosing one that portrayed him as a tyrannical SOB, so I was pleased to hear about this new volume by Gabler, one of my favorite writers on popular culture. He’s already written an indispensable biography (Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) and an indispensable social history (An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood), and his measured, meticulously researched book on Disney reveals the great producer to be . . . a tyrannical SOB.
Oh well. Gabler is the first biographer to have been granted complete access to the Disney archives (in his acknowledgements he writes that he wasn’t asked to submit a manuscript for approval, only to write a “serious” book). With these resources at his fingertips, Gabler has pulled together a remarkable story of a young entrepreneur who created a sort of communitarian guild in the late 20s and early 30s, a cult of animation with himself as the creative guru. Disney reviewed every frame, working projects through numerous story revisions, acting out the characters, and passing harsh judgments on his animators’ work in stuffy Movieola rooms (“sweatboxes,” they were called, eventually yielding the transitive verb “sweatboxing”).
Finance often explains a lot about filmmakers’ creative careers (take Tom Darden’s Buster Keaton biography The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down), and Gabler shows how the business model for Disney’s films was fatally flawed: his obsessive attention to quality and detail drove up labor costs, and the independent studio he and his brother Roy operated was constantly mired in debt. The financial windfall of Snow White impelled Disney to design and build an elaborate new studio in Burbank, but its follow-ups, Pinocchio and Fantasia, lost money on their first release. The lack of revenue and the cost of keeping the studio going forced him to discontinue animated features in favor of government-training and wartime-propaganda films.
Gabler provides a gripping account of the bitter strike by Disney’s animators in May 1940, which forever soured Disney on the studio and, more generally, animation (and, even more generally, commies; he testified as a friendly witness to the House Un-American Activities Committee). By the end of the decade he’d turned his attention to innovations in television and of course Disneyland, which Gabler portrays as the impossible dream of a pathological control freak. I’ve come to detest what Disney represents in American culture, and Gabler paints a fairly depressing picture of him as a man. But I still felt something funny standing on that street corner in Silverlake.