Deconstructing Walt: A Conversation with Neal Gabler
Film critic and historian Neal Gabler's detailed biography on Walt Disney will be released on October 31st.
Walt Disney is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To many, he is a visionary founder of an entertainment empire that includes movies, television, theme parks and Mickey Mouse. To others, he's "Uncle Walt," a paternalistic icon of a childhood fantasy world. To many of those who knew Walt personally, he is an ambitious, driven, even obsessive, creative force with a short temper and few friends.
Contradictions. Walt was a series of them and biographers have attempted repeatedly over the years, with varying success, to capture the essential Walt. Books have ranged from the reverential (Bob Thomas's Walt Disney: An American Original) to the critical (Richard Schickel's The Disney Version) to the scathing and apocryphal (Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince).
Neal Gabler may have finally nailed it.
In his new book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Gabler presents a meticulously researched look at Walt, warts and all. Gabler was given unprecedented unlimited access to the Disney Archives with no caveats other than to write an honest assessment of Walt's life. The result is as thorough and detailed a book on Disney that has ever been written. Gabler does take occasional side trips to explore Walt's psyche that, more times than not, get in the way of the narrative, but the end result is a dense, fact-rich treatment that will appeal to Disneyphiles everywhere.
I had the opportunity to talk with Gabler on the phone about his book, the mountain of research it took to complete it (the book contains over 160 pages of footnotes), and what it was exactly that made Walt tick. At the time of the interview, Gabler and his wife were in Atlanta visiting their daughter who is a student at Emory University. Gabler is an affable and charming man, with an unflagging enthusiasm for movies in general and Walt Disney in particular.
disneytim: You put seven years into researching the book. Why such a long time?
Neal Gabler: There was an awful lot of work that went into that book. I didn’t want people to think I cut corners in any way, shape or form because I didn’t. People may disagree with the interpretations. They may have objections to certain things I do or do not do in the book, but I didn’t want anybody to think that I hadn’t done the full research job. I was given a rare opportunity and I knew it. And I wanted to take full advantage of that opportunity.
dt: When you first started, did you have any idea it was going to take that long to finish the project?
NG: I knew it would take a long time. I set aside about five years—and I knew that was about how much money I had, but like Walt Disney, money became immaterial. It took me, obviously, at least two more years than I thought, and the money ran out. It was a difficult situation and my family was constantly wondering when I was going to finish this thing. But, again, I felt very much like Walt Disney. There is a kind of parallel when you write a book like that. Walt could never cut corners. He was constitutionally unable to do it and I was constitutionally unable to do it. I couldn’t do it to myself. I couldn’t do it to my readers. I couldn’t do it to Walt Disney.
dt: So, did you set out to write the definitive Walt Disney biography?
NG: Well, you never want to use the word “definitive” because somebody’s always going to slap your hand and say, “How dare you do that!” My delusion—and obviously you operate under delusions or you don’t get through seven years—was this was going to be the book that I thought was worthy of a figure that was as important as Disney.
One of the reasons that I wrote this book in the first place was that it occurred to me years ago that there are probably two great visual imaginations of the 20th century. One was Picasso and one was Walt Disney. Picasso has two dozen biographies written about him. Walt Disney has a few biographies—Leonard Mosley, Marc Eliot, Richard Schickel, Bob Thomas—but he had never had a fully annotated full scale biography about him. And I thought that gap just has to be filled. He deserves a big biography.
dt: I agree. For years I’ve considered Bob Thomas’s biography—there’s that word again—the “definitive” biography, but it was still a very Walt-friendly, very studio-friendly version of his life.
NG: Well, he had access, obviously, to materials in the archives, although he didn’t have full access, or at least he didn’t take advantage of it. The very first day I went to the archives, after I got approved to use them, (Disney Archives founder) Dave Smith came (in) and he put a manila folder down on the table that was at least two and a half inches thick. I said, “Dave, what is this?” He said, “This is what Bob Thomas used.” And Dave had apparently filleted the archives and taken out key documents in his estimation.
Now, I’m not saying Bob Thomas didn’t conduct interviews and do other things, but I am saying this is where he began. This was the prime meat of his biography and that wasn’t the way I was going to operate. I looked through the folder, but then I proceeded to begin at the very beginning. I research my books chronologically, so I began with Walt’s grandfather’s deed in Ontario and worked my way all the way through to Walt’s death. That’s why it took two more years than I thought, because that just took years and years to read every piece of documentation in the archives.
Disney archivist Dave Smith. Copyright © Disney.
dt: I keep picturing the Disney Archives like the last scenes in “Citizen Kane” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where you have this massive warehouse of crates.
NG: (Laughs) It was like that, except the people were a lot friendlier. I had people like (archives manager) Robert Tieman, Dave Smith and, probably above all, (assistant archivist) Becky Cline to assist me and to kibitz with me on those long, long days. But, that’s exactly what it was like. You’d take out one tray with all of these boxes and I’d start working through the first one, and then the second one, and the third one until I literally read every piece of documentation in the box. And then they’d bring out another one and another one, so I’d get all these carts one after another. It was a long and sometimes tedious process depending on what you were rummaging through at that moment.
Continued . . .