"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books."

Borges

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Fred Patten Reviews Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination




Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
Author: Neal Gabler
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN; 10: 0-679-43822-X
ISBN; 13: 978-0-679-43822-9

This massive biography – over 600 pages, plus over 200 more of notes, appendices, bibliographies, and index – is advertised as “the definitive portrait of one of the most important in twentieth-century American entertainment and cultural history. […] meticulously researched – Gabler is the first writer to be given complete access to the Disney archives […]”

It probably is definitive. It is notable that where virtually every other Disney biography since his death in 1966 has been heavily criticized by animation experts for gross factual errors and deliberate misrepresentation of his attitudes or motives (such as claiming that Disney was a spy for the FBI, encouraged anti-Semitism, or was really an illegitimate son of a Spanish dancer), the worst that Gabler’s critics have been able to accuse him of are minor errors on the level of whether serious production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs began in September 1936 or several months earlier. These errors may be significant to cinematic historians, but the average reader will find them trivial.

Gabler’s book, with more than 65 photographs from throughout Disney’s life plus other graphics such as a teenage life sketch and his first business card, ought to replace every popularized Disney biography previously written.

There are no big surprises here, and there is much detailed information about events glossed over in previous biographies. For example, every book has told how Disney created Mickey Mouse to replace his earlier cartoon star Oswald the Lucky Rabbit when the latter was stolen from him, but few have told exactly how this happened. Gabler devotes five pages to the event, giving names and dates. Want to know about the notorious but previously vaguely-described Disney studio strike of 1941? Gabler gives it pages 356 to 371, again going into detail. Any questions that a reader may have about Disney’s personal life or his career should be answered in this book.

To a large extent, Disney’s story is the story of the whole American animation industry. Many of the men who became famous at other studios in later years, such as Warner Bros.’ animation director Friz Freleng and music arranger Carl Stalling, got their start among Disney’s first employees.

Gabler notes how many other studios hired away some of Disney’s best men to create cartoons for them during the 1930s, or during the ‘40s made parodies of Disney’s features such as WB’s Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and A Corny Concerto. It would be an exaggeration to say that Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination can serve as a one-volume history of the animation industry, but it is without doubt an essential read for every animation fan and an essential purchase for every public and academic library.

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