Neal Gabler

Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination

VTR Date: November 9, 2006

Cultural critic Neal Gabler discusses his book on American imagination.


GUEST: Neal Gabler
VTR: 11/09/06

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And, at one time or another, I’ve talked here with today’s guest about three of his extraordinary books, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood …. Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality…and Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity.

As an American historian, as a broadcaster, and as a twenty year commuter between New York and Hollywood-with each of these magnificent books- I thought I really “got it”, understood what my guest was doing as a prime chronicler and analyst of our nation’s popular culture.

Well now Neal Gabler is Senior Fellow at the Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society at the University of Southern California, he writes often and extremely well for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times…and he appears also on the media review program, Fox News Watch. But today I really need to ask my guest just WHY he subtitles his new Alfred A. Knopf book on Walt Disney — The Triumph of the American Imagination.

I need to ask Neal Gabler just what he meant recently as well in answer to the question “Why Walt Disney?” by saying quote, “… if one could understand Walt Disney, one could go a long way to understanding a vital part of American popular culture.” What did you mean?

GABLER: Well, there are two questions there. First question is “The Triumph of the American Imagination.” To understand Walt Disney himself before you even get on to America, I think you have to understand the power of wish fulfillment and how it operated within Walt Disney’s own life and how he kind of transmitted that to America generally.

There are many themes that run through the life of Walt Disney and through the work of Walt Disney. But I think the most powerful theme is the idea that we can impose our will on the world. Because that’s exactly what Walt Disney did.

Walt Disney imposed his will on the world in terms of animation. And when you think of it, what is animation after all? But you take inanimate objects, drawings, and you bring them to life. It’s a very powerful and empowering kind of medium. And there are only two entities that I can think of who have the power to take the inanimate and bring it to life and that’s God and Walt Disney. And believe me Walt Disney saw the affinity between the two. (Laughter)

But he also taught us that idea throughout his life. That the mind can impose itself on the world and recreate the world in the image of one’s own dreams.

So … and he did that successfully. He conveyed that successfully. So that’s what I mean by “The Triumph of the American Imagination.”

Now the second question you asked, is “How does Walt Disney enable us to understand America?” Well, in this respect he enables us to understand America because America is so much about perfectionism. America is so much about will. America is so much about progress and improvement. These things are so embedded in the DNA of this country and understanding Walt Disney helps us understand these elements of the American character.

But, of course, there are many, many aspects of Walt Disney that link to the American imagination and to the American character. I describe in the Introduction Walt Disney and American as forming a double helix. And I think in many respects they do. Not only the respect I talked about, but in terms of Walt’s attitude toward history, toward values, toward technology, towards nostalgia, towards vision.

There are so many areas in which the values of Walt Disney and the ideas of Walt Disney link up, tightly, to the values and ideas of America.

HEFFNER: You make him a much more complicated person, it seems to me, than most of us assumed him to be.

GABLER: Well, of course, part of that assumption is based on Walt’s own projection of his image.

The image of Walt Disney that we all have in our heads is Walt as a very avuncular kind of genial fellow who introduced those broadcasts on Sunday nights in the 1950’s and then later into the 1960’s. And Walt was very self-conscious about creating that image. And he knew that it was a brand, that it would have its effect on the public, though Walt also understood the distance between that image and himself.

I have a line in the book that I love, where Walt says, “You know I’m not Walt Disney anymore. Walt Disney is a thing. You know Walt Disney doesn’t smoke. I smoke. Walt Disney doesn’t drink. I drink.” So Walt was very aware of how different he was from the image.

The Walt Disney inside that image, the real man, was an obsessive perfectionist … I used the word “perfection” earlier …


GABLER: … an obsessive perfectionist. A man who’s expectations were so high about his own work that they inevitably could not be met. So he was a man who lived within a kind of constant string of disappoints. He was a man who suffered melancholy. He was a man who had no social life whatsoever. One of the things in going through his papers that I found repeatedly is … I, I found invitations to various parties or function and Walt invariably would, would write in his bold hand in red crayon, “No”. This is a man who almost never socialized. His life was his studio. And to a lesser extent, a much lesser extent, his family.

That’s not the Walt Disney that most of us think of. A tyrannical man in many respects who drove his employees to reach the same expectations that he had.

HEFFNER: Now you’re not talking about our picture of him?

GABLER: No, I’m talking about the real Walt Disney, that is the Walt Disney within …


GABLER: … the, the image. Again, that image is … you know, Walt Disney is just this genial, sweet, affable, unpretentious, plain-spoken, man of plebian tastes. That’s the Walt Disney we know. Now that’s not entire false. But … it’s not the whole story, either.

HEFFNER: Neal, you, you’ve been so sophisticated in so many of your books as to deal with spin control …

GABLER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … a good deal. How did the images, or how did the image come to be so non-reflective of the man? Not under his control?

GABLER: Well … well, yes, it was under his control. To a large extent. And it sprung from truths. Because when Walt Disney was young … the Walt Disney that was young … the jacket of this book is not the …


GABLER: … Walt Disney that we see in the 1950’s. This is a young Walt Disney, a much more hard driving Walt Disney. That Walt Disney, that young Walt Disney was seized upon by the media after the success of Mickey Mouse in the early 1930s. He was seized upon as this kind of artless artist. A naïve folk artist.

Intellectuals loved this idea of a man who had not pretension whatsoever. And since Walt himself was uneducated, he only had a year of high school, he was something of an artless artist. He was unpretentious. And the media kept on purveying that image of him. A man who worked with his employees very, very closely in a sense of camaraderie. A man who had no interest in money, which indeed was true. Walt did have no interest in money. A man who’s only interest was quality. A man who, who’s company had no titles, no organization chart, no time clock. All of that was true. And that image was purveyed.

Now as the company grew, those things became less true. But Walt continued and the media in conjunction with Walt continued to purvey that image of that artless artist. This man who, you know, was called by his employees, not as Mr. Disney … ever. He was never addressed as Mr. Disney, it was always Walt. And almost every profile you read of Walt has that idea in it. They always say, “When Walt walks into the studio, it’s ‘Hi, Walt. How’ya doing, Walt’.” And Walt seems to know the name of every employee in the studio. Again and again and again you get that image purveyed.

HEFFNER: By whom? You say the press.

GABLER: By the press and in conjunction with Walt.

HEFFNER: And the studio.

GABLER: And the studio, yes. Because it benefited the studio. It benefited the studio after a point, particularly, for Walt to be portrayed that way.

HEFFNER: Why do you say, “After a point?”

GABLER: Well, because early on Walt may have been the artless artist and all of these other things that I talked about, but he was also the father of Mickey Mouse. And Mickey Mouse was not a benign figure when he was created. Mickey Mouse was a scamp-ish figure. Mickey Mouse was an imp. Mickey Mouse poked and prodded and pulled and, you know, did all the things that Charlie Chaplin did, after whom Walt had modeled him. So there was this impish element in … not only Mickey Mouse, but in Walt Disney and in the whole portrayal of the Walt Disney studio.

Mickey Mouse reaches a point where he becomes a victim of what one might call the tragedy of success. It’s a kind of frequent story in American culture. Something becomes so successful that ultimately it domesticates itself. And that happened to Mickey Mouse. This little imp, as time went on, became less and less impish as he became more and more successful. So …

HEFFNER: Something majestic about Mickey Mouse in a funny, funny way … because I grew up with him.

GABLER: Yes, eventually something majestic about him. But also something that made him rather personality-less as time went on. That Mickey Mouse was a mouse without a core, without a core being.

And in some ways that reflected many of the things that were going on in the studio generally. The studio as it became more successful became more corporatized, became … had less personality to it. And in that kind of situation of a large corporation Walt became the personality, the projection of Walt Disney became the image of the studio.

When Walt founded the studio initially it was called Disney Brothers because there were two brothers. There was Walt, who was the creative force of the studio and there was Roy, who was the Chief Financial Officer and the man who did all of the financing for the studio.

And when they built the new studio in Hyperion … on Hyperion Avenue, Walt declared, summarily, “From now on the studio’s going to be called ‘Walt Disney Studios’.”

Now Roy later said he went along with this. He said, “I didn’t … I never opposed Walt in this change. Because I felt that Walt was doing this because the studio needed a single figure that people could identify with.”

And, indeed, that idea ran through the history of the studio. To this day Walt has been dead nearly 40 years and yet the studio is still identified with Walt Disney, a man and an image.

HEFFNER: Is there any counterpart that you can think of, of that kind of development of an institution based on a man pictured as the man himself. I can think of anything comparable. The Ford Motor Company …

GABLER: I don’t think there is anything.

HEFFNER: … perhaps.

GABLER: I was … you know that’s the first thing that comes to mind and indeed they had … there was a certain transaction between Henry Ford and Walt Disney. But I can’t think of a single company that does.

And in point of fact it would be very difficult because one, Walt was a protean figure. Walt not only animated … well, he didn’t animate himself, but, you know, supervised the animations. But he also created the theme park and the television show and the music arm of the company and merchandise arm. There are all these various activities that … I can’t think of a single figure who generated as much in the culture as Walt Disney did.

And there’s another thing about Walt Disney. Walt Disney was a lousy businessman. At least initially.

HEFFNER: But his brother wasn’t.

GABLER: No, his brother was not. But his brother was a facilitator, he brother was an enabler. It’s, it’s a shock to me, when I was going through and researching the book that after Snow White in 1937 which was a tremendously successful film, and which later financed the new studio in Burbank, California, which is to this day the headquarters of the Mickey … of the Walt Disney Company.

All of the succeeding animations, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi … were disastrous.

HEFFNER: You know when I read that I didn’t believe it. It, it’s not possible.

GABLER: It’s true. Only Dumbo, of those golden animations, made money and that only made money because it was made for $650,000 at Walt’s insistence.


GABLER: Now … I just want to finish the point.


GABLER: The point that no one could be like Walt Disney, no one could survive a company that lost as much money as the Walt Disney Company did. Anyone else would have been booted out. Anyone else would have been held to the bottom line. And it was because of Roy in many respects, although not only because of Roy, that Walt Disney was allowed to do the things he did. Was allowed to have the vision he had. That’s a very difficult thing in a contemporary environment, but it was even difficult in historical corporate environment. Walt broke the mold that way.

HEFFNER: You know, Disney to me has always … has long meant, after I was a kid, I think of the union problems …

GABLER: Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: … in the studio. I think of … I, I, … John Hubley was our friend and neighbor …


HEFFNER: … many, many, many years ago. And I realize that there was some feeling that it was the people who Walt Disney had hired …


HEFFNER: Who were truly the great animators.

GABLER: That’s a great question. Now, now first of all let me just address the union problems. Because we had paradise. Paradise was Walt working with these animators all headed towards this great mission of improving animation and there was paradise lost.

And paradise lost was 1941 when the studio was struck by the Screen Cartoonists Guild. It was struck for a variety of reasons. One, Walt hogging credit as you pointed out.

Walt becoming more and more distant from his workers as the new studio grew. Stratification at the studio itself so that animators were no longer having the same sense of espree that they’d had at the Hyperion studio. And all of those factors were, were in play and all of those factors helped trigger this revolt. And it was a revolt.

But if you ask me, having gone through all of Walt’s papers over years and years and years. And all of the story meeting notes, and by the way, I should add incidentally, all of these notes were transcribed.

And you may ask yourself “Why were these story meeting notes transcribed since the animators and story people were in the room with Walt.” They were transcribed because Walt Disney’s word was holy writ. And they had to be transcribed and mimeographed and distributed through the studio so that everyone knew what Walt Disney was thinking. It’s a very Stalin-esque kind of, of quality.

Nevertheless so much of what emanated from that studio emanated from the head of Walt Disney full blown. And you cannot look at those papers, read the memos, without realizing that Walt was not just a figurehead or a supervisor or a name, even though he didn’t animate and he didn’t direct and he didn’t really produce … he didn’t do any of those things. Nevertheless that studio was so fully the product of that sensibility. And the job of every person at that studio was not to collaborate with Walt Disney. The job of every person at that studio was to figure out how he or she could realize what was in Walt Disney’s head, because that was the mission of the studio. Get what’s in Walt’s head onto the screen.

HEFFNER: Neal, do you think someone could describe Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney that way?

GABLER: In, in the sense that … ah …

HEFFNER: You’ve become …

GABLER: Walt Disney?

HEFFNER: … you’ve become such an admirer and such a believer of what you, yourself … you don’t call it a myth … but you call it a picture that projected around the nation.

GABLER: Well, I don’t say I’m an admirer … I, I wouldn’t put it that way. I wouldn’t say that I’m an admirer, and I, I …

HEFFNER: Because you haven’t read the book. I read.

GABLER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You wrote it.

GABLER: I mean I don’t feel that I, that I “bought” Walt Disney hook, line and sinker.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

GABLER: No, not at all. I admire what he did in terms of imposing that will on his company and on his animations and on his theme park.

But I suspect, and indeed it’s proven to be true in the early returns, that if you love Walt Disney, you may think the book is not reverential enough.

And if you hate Walt Disney, you may not think that the book demonizes him enough. It’s not Walt Disney I love … really …

HEFFNER: What is it?

GABLER: It’s the life.

HEFFNER: The life?

GABLER: Now this sounds like a biographer’s answer, but I, I will give it to you. A biographer doesn’t necessarily love his subject or hate his subject. A biographer loves the subject’s life. And what I love about Walt Disney is the complexity of his life, the metaphor of his life, the narrative of his life, the way in which his life enables me to kind of expatiate about various aspects of American culture.

So I love Walt Disney’s life. My feelings about Walt Disney are, frankly, there are times in the book where I like him and there are times in the book where I like him not so much.

HEFFNER: Well, you say metaphor and at the beginning of our conversation today, you were talking about something … I thought you were making a political point about the projection …


HEFFNER: … of America’s dream of itself.


HEFFNER: Of … you say this about Walt Disney …


HEFFNER: Are you making a political point?

GABLER: No, I’m not. No, I’m not making a political point. Because one can interpret that again, as I interpret Walt Disney … one can interpret that very positively. I mean this is a country of great ambition, great dreams. And that’s something very beautiful.

On the other hand one can say the imposition of that dream constantly is something that one could read very negatively. So, you know, I don’t read it either way in terms of the book. This book is apolitical, even when I deal with Walt’s politics, which are clearly an aspect of his life, the book is apolitical.

Now, you know me. I’m a political person. But I check that when I write biography. And I like to think, and indeed I’ve been told, that my political proclivities are nowhere apparent in my books. Nor should they be, frankly. Because this is about Walt Disney, it’s not about me and I’m not using his life in any political agenda.

HEFFNER: Well, I knew that about the book on Winchell. I mean I was just bowled over by that that you could, you could maintain any involvement with the life that was enormously sympathetic and still you presented him, as I knew he should be presented. With Disney I’m, I’m kind of puzzled.

The Triumph of the American Imagination, that’s a hell of a lot more positive than anything you’ve written before.

GABLER: Well, it’s a sub-title.


GABLER: No, I don’t, I don’t think it, it … frankly I don’t think that that sub-title you know, tips the hand one way or another. And it’s funny that you say this because … you know when I wrote Winchell one of the things I saved from that period are three reviews from England, which I adore. One says, you know, “Every paragraph Gabler adores Walter Winchell.” One says, “Every paragraph is dripping with hate for Walter Winchell.” And one says, “The wonderful thing about this book is how even-handed the book is.”

And I, I think that readers tend to project their own feelings into the book. I know when I was writing the book that I tried to distance myself, judgmentally, not from the figure, obviously, because if you do that the book doesn’t work. I tried to … I research my books chronologically. I try and stay in the moment with my subject.

I always say that Walt Disney didn’t know he was going to be successful. We know. But he didn’t know at any given point in his career. And you have to convey that sense to the reader. But in terms of issuing judgments, I don’t do that.

So, although I have feelings about … as I said to you … feelings about his, his politics. Feelings about how he behaved during the strike period. I think he behaved rather badly. I don’t impose that on the book. I allow the reader to …


GABLER: … take that information and to assess it.

HEFFNER: But quickly, how would you characterize his politics? His position at the time of the union problems. And what has been characterized as his anti-Semitism?

GABLER: Yes. Well those are three big issues.

HEFFNER: And we only have three minutes.

GABLER: Oh, okay, well I’m going to do it in three minutes. So here’s speed chess … essentially, speed Walt Disney.

Number one … in terms of his politics … Walt was a … basically a non-ideological man. Now this may surprise a lot of people. Walt voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. His father was a Socialist. Walt had no interest in politics until that strike. And when that studio was struck, he believed that it was inspired … the strike was inspired by Communists. Not wholly without reason, as I say in the book. That was a turning point politically for him. And he became a vehement anti-Communist from that point on.

Now that anti-Communist bleeds into the charges of anti-Semitism. Do I believe that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite as you and I now would regard an anti-Semite? I don’t believe he was.

Nevertheless, having said that, I’m not going to exculpate him. Walt Disney allowed himself to join and be used by an organization called The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals which was vehemently anti-Communist, which is why he joined. But it was also widely regarded, widely regarded as anti-Semitic. Almost all of the officers of that group, with the exception of Morrie Ryskind, who was kind of the cover because he was Jewish, were anti-Semites.

And Walt must have known they were anti-Semitic, but he his anger toward Communists was so great that it didn’t dissuade him from joining that organization. And he’s been tarnished ever since because of that association.

HEFFNER: That is the reputation, isn’t it?

GABLER: That is the reputation and it’s half fair.

HEFFNER: What more does it have to be?

GABLER: Well …

HEFFNER: I mean “half-fair” is quite a condemnation.

GABLER: Yes and no. Because personally did Walt every utter an anti-Semitic remark? Not to the best of my knowledge and I was prosecutorial interviewing the Jews who had worked at the studio with Walt. Did he believe in the superiority … of, you know, Christians over Jews? Never. Did he refuse to hire Jews? No, he did not.

There were Jews in very prominent positions at the company, including the man who ran its entire merchandizing arm with whom Walt was very close … Herman K. Kamen.

So … no there is a difference if it’s, if it’s half true. Ah, again, Walt overlooked anti-Semitism of his compatriots because to do so served his interests in fighting Communists. But I do not believe that Walt Disney personally was an anti-Semite.

HEFFNER: Neal Gabler, you’re such a terrific guy and terrific writer, I’m sure everybody’s going to read … Walt Disney …

GABLER: Oh, I hope so. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I hope so for your sake, too.

GABLER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

GABLER: Thank you, it’s a pleasure as always, Richard, I enjoy it.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.