New bio answers many questions about Disney

In 1966, Walt Disney lay dying from lung cancer in a Los Angeles hospital. Looking to the future of the enterprise that had indelibly stamped American life, Disney told Ron Miller, his son-in-law and heir apparent, that he was confident he was leaving his empire in good and trustworthy hands.

Disney, as Neal Gabler argues in this massive new biography, was one of the 20th century's most remarkable visionaries, but he wasn't seeing very clearly on this occasion. For years after his death, the studio seemed a rudderless ship and its movies stale and formulaic. Indeed, the most stinging indictment of its waning, but eventually recovered, fortunes came in 1982, when a Variety review hailed Steven Spielberg's masterly E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial as "The best Disney film Disney never made."

One measure of a man's achievement in life is the fate of his legacy, and Gabler could have given us an epilogue on what happened to the Magic Kingdom after Disney died. He also might have moderated the sometimes extravagant claims in his prologue on Disney's influence in everything from pop culture and our need for fantasy to communication, science and city planning.

But, in addressing the extraordinary trajectory of Disney's career, Gabler has produced a fair-minded and judicious portrait that is likely to be the biography of choice for a long time. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination shuns the slavish hero worship of some earlier attempts and rejects the more recent hostile assessments, most notably in Mar Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince.

Was Walt Disney a tormented genius who was also an alcoholic, union-busting, ultra-conservative anti-Semite, as his more vehement critics have charged? Gabler answers the question with unblinking objectivity.

And he brings several advantages to this biography, not the least being the high opinions he won for An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood andWinchell. He also enjoyed full access to the Disney archives – something denied previous tellers of this engrossing tale.

Today, we think of Disney's empire as a global behemoth, and part of the fun of Gabler's book is its detailed reconstruction of the poverty and desperation of Disney's Dickensian Midwestern childhood and his early days in Hollywood.

There are telling vignettes from the '20s, with the brash young commercial artist from Missouri nervously screening the breakthrough Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie, for a few friends and family. He used a bedsheet for a screen and rounded up some animators to play harmonicas and bang on cans to provide a primitive soundtrack.

The Disney who emerges from Gabler's pages is a driven and perfectionist workaholic whose true marriage was to his studio. Certainly his wife, Lillian, was not always a vocal or understanding champion of his work. "I predict nobody will ever pay a dime to see a dwarf picture," she opined of Snow White, the studio's first megahit, before it was released.

Although his name is synonymous with cheer and sunny optimism, Disney himself was prone to bouts of depression. He was not that interested in money, which poured in from his films, television shows and theme parks. Money was only a means of funding new work, and he made it by being ahead of the pack in animation, in seeing the power and potential of television when other studio chiefs in Hollywood fought it, and in shrewdly devising the comforting fantasies of Disneyland.

Not surprisingly in this story of a tireless genius, the chapters dealing with the intricacies of how he made his way to the pinnacle are more involving than those of the years when the millions finally began to pile up.

When Disney died in 1966, a rumor began circulating that his body had been cryogenically preserved to be revived by advances in medicine in the distant future. It was, of course, nonsense. It was also unnecessary. Walt Disney had already earned his immortality in his greatest works and in the mark he left on the world.

Desmond Ryan is a former Inquirer critic.

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