Saturday, May 26, 2012

It was never really about the money...

Although kings, presidents, and generals can have a tremendous impact on history, others sometimes influence our lives in even bigger ways. Think of the impact on society and culture by people like Ray Kroc (McDonalds), Elvis Presley (need I even say his last name?), Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. And sometimes those people are a lot more interesting to read about than the kings, presidents, and generals.

A year ago I reviewed biographies about Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Schulz who certainly left an impact in their mediums and on our culture to a degree. One who was perhaps more broadly influential was Walt Disney. The company he created still influences the movies and television shows we watch and the music we listen to – especially if you have young children – as well as the way many people enjoy their vacations. But for Walt, it was never really about the money...

...well, almost never. Walt Disney was always more interested in "the next thing," and making money on a venture was usually just a way to finance his projects. Initially drawn to animation but burned by dishonest partners, he created his own studio to produce animated "shorts" – short Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons shown before regular feature movies. But he was always pushing for better animation and quality, eventually creating "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first feature-length animated movie, with the best animation for the time. But even as his fame soared he wasn't breaking-even financially and eventually had to cut corners just to pay the bills and some movies were made just to generate income (like "Dumbo" and some live-action films). As Walt became bogged down in the studio and trying to make too many movies at once and always striving to create something bigger or better (realism in "Bambi" and high-class art in "Fantasia"), plus with WWII forcing him to rely on government work just to keep going, he became discouraged. As a result, the animation that was once the top in the industry lost its edge and Walt turned to other interests like trains and eventually television and Disneyland. But in the end he left a legacy of memorable characters and family-friendly entertainment that still continues.

Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was especially enjoyable to read because I'm familiar with a lot of his work and felt a real connection. I still occasionally watch "The Parent Trap" (the original, of course) and "Follow Me, Boys!," and most of the videos we own are Disney movies. But I was surprised to learn that Disney was always financially strapped and borrowing anywhere he could until after Disneyland opened. And it was fascinating while reading to go back and watch some of the movies, like "Three Little Pigs" and "Snow White" (which I never really liked before) and compare the styles, knowing what went into them and what made them great. And visiting Disneyland after reading the book makes you look at the place differently and notice more details. But I was also surprised to learn that the genius behind "the happiest place on earth" usually wasn't a very happy man himself. Mr. Gabler describes Walt's constant need to create "control" in his surroundings that drove his efforts at perfection. Animation, his trains, and Disneyland each in turn gave him an escape from reality into an environment where he had near-total control.

Books about Walt Disney either paint him as a saint or an evil tyrant, and I guess he could be both depending on the perspective. Gabler is careful to point out where the "legends" were embellished, and that "Walt Disney" became more of a brand than a man, but I thought he portrayed him fairly and honestly. Gabler tells Disney's faults, ego, and the complaints many of his employees had, but also why he did what he did and what motivated him. It sometimes bogs down in too much detail about finances, but it not only shows why he was so culturally influential but also that he was as human as all of us.

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