Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Walt Disney: A Career in Three Acts

Republished from The Valve, April 3, 2007.
We have recently been blessed with two comprehensive biographies of Walt Disney. Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination came out late last year while Michael Barrier's The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney is scheduled for release later in April - though Amazon has already been shipping copies. The two books are very different in method, tone and achievement. Gabler's main text comes in at 633 pages while Barrier's has 325 pages; both books have extensive notes. Gabler had access to official Disney archives while Barrier did not - at least not this time around, however, he'd been in the archives on an earlier project, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. As the page count suggests, Gabler crams in more information - more about the company and business affairs, more about the general context, and more about Disney's ancestors. Barrier's book is more focused on Disney and, I believe, more empathetic to him - though Gabler has written that his method is to identify with his subject.

Despite these differences, both present a career in three acts: animation, Disneyland, and the Florida project. To be sure, Disney's studio has always been involved with cartoons and, during his life, Disney was always involved with those cartoons. But the nature of his involvement changed in quality and intensity, allowing other projects to attract his most passionate attention and activity.


Disney began learning the craft of animation in Kansas City in 1920, but left for Hollywood in 1923 with his business affairs in a shambles. There he hooked up with his older brother Roy and they formed the company that, in time, set the standard in animation. Initially Disney did everything - drew the pictures, painted the cels, and photographed them. As Walt Disney Productions became more successful, however, the Disney's hired others and by the mid 1920s Walt was no longer doing the animation himself. But he remained deeply involved in planning the cartoons, coming up with gags and story lines, and supervising every detail from start to finish.

Toward the end of the decade the novelty of cartoons had worn off and the business was getting tighter. In 1928 Disney had the idea of adding a fully synchronized sound to one of his cartoons, Steamboat Willie, the third Mickey Mouse cartoon. Other producers had been playing around with sound, but none had done so very effectively. With the help of a recent hire, Wilfred Jackson, who knew more about music than anyone else on staff, Disney was able to add a musical soundtrack to the film such that music and images were synchronized from beginning to end. Steamboat Willie was a smash hit; in consequence, Disney's business affairs began to turn around.

In the wake of Disney's success other studios rushed into sound, but Disney had a head start and was able to maintain the advantage. In a few more years Disney was the first studio to use color. Along with these technical advances came artistic advances as well. Disney arranged for his animators to take drawing lessons; and, by insisting on perfection, forcing everyone to do things over and over, which inevitably meant learning how to achieve more effective results. One result that became particularly important was creating a sense of personality for his cartoon characters so that their actions would be experienced as coming from that personality. Each of the four characters in Three Little Pigs (1933) - three pigs and the wolf - had a visibly distinct personality. That, and a song, “Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?,” made the cartoon a hit.

The big one, of course, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered at the end of 1937, nine years after Steamboat Willie. Three years in the making, it was the most expensive film made to date and became the highest grossing film to date, though it was soon eclipsed by Gone with the Wind. As the first feature-length cartoon, Snow White changed people's perception of the medium. It was no longer about gags and laughs. Disney had shown that animation could sustain a substantial narrative that elicited deep identification with its characters.

Disney staffed up to produce more features and released Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi over the next five years. Dumbo made a profit, but the others did not. By that time, 1942, the nation had entered WWII and everyone's life changed.

All feature projects were put on hold and, while the production of shorts continued, for the duration of the war the Disney studio's main business was producing propaganda and training films for the US government. Never again was Walt Disney so intensely involved in cartoons as he had been through 1942. When the war was over he began developing new lines of entertainment business, nature films and live action films. Cartoon production continued, but Disney no longer invested them with the passion he had lavished on them in the two decades leading up to the war. Producing cartoons had become a mere job.


In the late 1940s Walt turned his attention to model railroads. Not only did he give them as gifts to himself, and his nieces and nephews, he also learned to construct them. He was already a respectable carpenter - skills he had learned from his father. Now he learned how to fabricate the metal parts necessary for a 1/8 scale railroad which was constructed in the yard at his new house. This railroad was his pride and joy; he loved operating the engine - which was a real steam engine, though not full-sized - and giving people rides on the train.

He also learned how to craft miniatures of various kinds and build to dioramas. At his direction the studio built three dioramas, though the more complicated they became, the less Disney himself worked on them. The studio exhibited some of these dioramas and there was some thought about fielding a traveling exhibit of Americana.

At the same time - the late 1940s - Disney began thinking about creating a “Mickey Mouse Park” on sixteen acres of land near the studio. The original purpose was to have a place where studio employees and visitors could park their children. But, as Disney thought about the park, and investigated amusement parks here and there, his aspirations became ever more elaborate, and ever different from standard amusement parks of the Coney Island type.

In time these two lines of activity coalesced into a plan to create a large theme park to be called Disneyland. Late in 1952 Disney formed a new corporation, WED Enterprises, which became the planning organ for this new park. It was housed on studio property and some of its original employees came from the studio, while others were new hires. This is where Disney's passion found its next, and last, institutional home.

The major problem he faced, however, was financing the park. His conception had grown to the point where his own resources were not sufficient to purchase the land, much less construct the attractions. At this point his entrepreneurial imagination - and his brother's as well - went to work. The solution they came up with was that the studio would provide part of the financing and a television network would provide the rest. They had been thinking about getting into television, in part as a way to promote their films. In March of 1954 Disney signed a contract with ABC, the smallest of the networks (and now owned by Disney). Disney would provide a hour of programming per week (for seven years) and ABC would provide part of the financing for Disneyland. The television show debuted in late October of 1954 and the (unfinished) park opened in July 1955. Both were immediately successful.

On to Florida

That was not the end of his absorption with Disneyland. The park was far from complete on opening day and, in any event, Disney imagined that it would be ever-evolving. The park consumed much of his time and energy, and he often spent the night in his private apartment above the fire station on Main Street. Yet, in time Disney began searching for more than Disneyland could give him. In Barrier's view, “Disney was a deeply serious man, but his life had run in reverse - Disneyland, for all its virtues, was simply not as serious an undertaking as his early features” (p. 296) and so he began looking for other projects.

In 1962 he presided over the creation of the California Institute of the Arts, aka CalArts, through the merging of Chouinard Art Institute - with which the studio had been involved since 1929 - and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. Through a generous bequest in Disney's will, CalArts was able to expand and to construct a new campus 1971, though it did not develop into the kind of institution Disney had envisioned.

His major activity, however, was directed toward a project in Florida. By 1963 he had identified Orlando as the location of choice and in 1964 Walt Disney Productions began surreptitiously buying up land, eventually acquiring 27,000 acres, far more than needed for a theme park. Disney had become interested in urban planning and he had more on his mind. He needed a theme park to draw people in, but his heart was set on building an ever-evolving city of the future. He called it EPCOT: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

EPCOT was to be built on a hub-and-spoke plan similar to what he had adopted for Disneyland (Barrier 308). The hub was to consist of fifty acres encompassing a convention center, shopping areas, restaurants, theatres, and office buildings, all enclosed and climate controlled. There would be high-density apartment buildings next to this core, then a greenbelt with open spaces and locations for churches and schools, and, toward the periphery, neighborhoods for single-dwellings. Transportation within the complex would be by monorail and people-mover, no automobiles. Disney further imaged EPCOT as a testing ground and showcase for the latest technologies.

Disney died in December of 1967. Though the Florida project was built and has become a tremendous success for the company, what was constructed as EPCOT was not Disney's city of the future. It is “a hodgepodge of international pavilions and industrial exhibits” (Barrier 320). Nor is it terribly likely that that particular city of the future would have been built even if Disney had been alive to ramrod it. As Barrier has pointed out, that city required a level of central control possible only in a totalitarian enterprise. Thus, while the third phase of Disney's career has proved fruitful, the fruit is not what Disney himself had envisioned.

Disney Redux: Rebuilding the Embodied Mind

Given the evidence Barrier and Gabler have presented, I believe that the foregoing account is a reasonable outline of Disney's career. I also think it a bit misleading in that it implies some equivalence between the three acts. It is not simply that I think his work in developing animation is the most important work he did. It is rather that the transition from animation to Disneyland was deeper and more demanding than that from Disneyland to Florida. Making the transition required more of Disney; it wasn't simply a matter of adjusting his business priorities. Rather, it required substantial change within Disney himself.

However that change was manifest in his inner life, its most visible expression was Disney's interest in model trains and miniatures. As I have already indicated, Disney's engagement was quite active. He went into the studio machine shop and learned about to work with metal. He built the caboose for the train he had installed in his yard, as he built a diorama called “Granny's Cabin,” based on a set from So Dear to My Heart, a 1949 film that combined live action and animation, (as had several other Disney films in the 1940s). This handicraft activity was a vehicle through which Disney made the transition to the next phase of his career.

As Barrier has noted, the Disney of the early 1950s parallels the Disney of the 1920s (pp. 238-239):
In the 1920s, Disney had first animated, then had written gags for others to draw as a directed their work. In the 1930s he finally moved into a wholly supervisory role, and only then, after he assumed that role, did his films begin to change at an accelerated pace. In the late 1940s and 1950s, likewise, Disney first worked with his own hands, using machines and woodworking tools to build miniatures of one kind or another. By 1953, he had realized that the park taking shape in his mind would be, in effect, a tabletop layout blown up (but not quite) to full size.
Before he could get Disneyland in his mind, much less supervise others in designing and constructing it, Disney had to have it in his muscles and bones, beneath his hands and before his eyes. Only then could he transform it into the “abstruser musings” of the cognitive mind - a process consistent with current speculations about mental embodiment.

The transition to the last phase of his career was not so demanding. The Florida project, like Disneyland, was a specialized real-estate project, but larger in scope and different in intention. Disneyland was an artificial world in which children and adults could engage in fantasy play together. EPCOT - as Disney envisioned it, not as it was built - was intended to be real, a place where people could live and work in a futuristic city. Envisioning that was well within Disney's capacities. We do not know, of course, how he would have responded to the challenge of trying to execute that (questionable) vision.

* * * * *

I would like to end with one more comment about the transition from master fabulator to master builder. Why did Disney do it? On the face of it, it seems that he was responding to external circumstances: Only two of the five early feature films returned a profit, and that wasn't enough to cover the losses incurred on other three. As much as Disney had wanted to produce a feature a year, the economics weren't there. Instead, he marked time on government contracts during the war and then maneuvered his way to a different business model in the post-war years.

I suspect, however, that Disney would have forced himself beyond the animation business even if the immediate prospects had been favorable. He was strongly motivated to out-do himself from one year to the next. That's what drove his innovations during the late 1920s and 1930s. The first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was a major breakthrough; but the last one, Bambi, is, in my reading, a dead-end. It is too lovely, too cute, too pat. Those two films, plus the other three features - Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo - staked out a certain aesthetic territory. Disney could have created other features with that territory, but I doubt that he would have been content to do so. For him, there would have been no challenge in doing that.

He had to change or stagnate. As it turned out, the world met his artistic dead-end with a set of external circumstances that forced him out of feature animation. But it is Disney himself who found new ways of being creative that were worthy of his ability.

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