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Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination Paperback – October 9, 2007
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Neal Gabler's meticulously researched biography, Walt Disney offers the full story (Gabler is the first writer to gain complete access to the Disney archives) of the American icon. Readers will discover the whole story, witnessing Disney's invention of a "synergistic empire that combined film, television, theme parks, music, book publishing, and merchandise." What fans don't know could fill a book (this book in fact), and we asked Gabler to point out a few of the juicy bits. Read our interview with him, and his "10 Things That May Surprise You" list below. --Daphne Durham
Q: Why Walt Disney?
A: When you write about someone as grandiose as Walt Disney, you may tend to get a little grandiose yourself, so forgive me. But I had always set the task for myself to examine the forces that helped define American culture in the twentieth century and those individuals who might be regarded as the architects of the American consciousness. Walt Disney was certainly one of those forces and one of those architects. His visual sensibility is arguably one of the two most important in the last century, along with Picasso's, yet Picasso has received dozens of biographies and Walt Disney had, when I began, not received a single full-scale, fully-annotated biography. I wanted to fill that gap in our cultural studies. I thought that if one could understand Walt Disney, one could go a long way to understanding American popular culture.
Q: One thing that strikes you when reading the book is that Walt Disney never had any money. With all his success how is that possible?
A: It is astonishing that Walt Disney was always--and I do mean always--in dire financial straits until the opening of Disneyland. The primary reason wasn't that his cartoons weren't making money, because they were--at least until the war in Europe when the loss of that market meant disaster for the features. But even as they were making money, the studio was losing money because Walt was constitutionally incapable of cutting corners, enforcing economies, laying off staff. The only thing about which Walt Disney cared was quality. He thought that quality was the way to maintain his preeminence, though quality also had the psychological advantage of letting him perfect his world. The problem was that quality was expensive. To cite just one example, Walt spent more than a hundred thousand dollars setting up a training program for would-be animators, though even then the return was small because Walt was so picky that very few of the candidates actually qualified to work at the studio. Money meant very little to Walt Disney. It was only a means to an end, never an end in itself.
Q: When did Walt first conceive of the idea for Disneyland and what were the initial reactions to the idea?
A: It is very difficult to determine exactly when Walt hatched the idea for Disneyland, though he seems to have been thinking about it for a long time, at least since the early 1930s. Certainly by the time he was taking his daughters, Diane and Sharon, to amusement parks on Sunday afternoons in the late 1940s, he had formulated the idea to establish a park that was clean and wholesome and where parents wouldn't be afraid to take their children. The original plan was to build the park on a plot adjacent to the studio in Burbank, where there would be a train, a town square, an Indian village and kiddieland rides, but as Walt's ideas expanded, so did the need for a bigger plot. As for the reactions to his idea, Roy was initially reluctant, as usual, and Walt's wife, Lillian, was firmly opposed, though she had also been opposed to his making Snow White. Still, Walt exaggerated the opposition as a way, I think of elevating his own foresight and determination. In fact, as the plan grew closer to realization, corporations sought to be included as lessees, and even banks, that had been skeptical, became more receptive. When the park opened, it was an instant success.
Q: What do you think has been Walt's most lasting impact/legacy on American culture?
A: One could answer this question in a dozen different ways depending on one's priorities, but I think his largest bequest is a matter of the American mind. Walt Disney helped change the national consciousness. He got people to believe in the power of wish fulfillment--in their own ability to impose their wills on a recalcitrant reality. That's what Walt Disney did all his life. He managed to replace reality with his illusions--what some people now refer to disparagingly as Disneyfication. He sold us on the idea of control because Walt Disney was himself a master of control. We see the results everywhere--from film to theme parks to virtual reality to virtual politics.
1. He is not frozen. His body was cremated, and his ashes are interred at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California, near his studio.
2. Mickey Mouse's original name allegedly was Mortimer but Disney's wife Lillian objected because she thought it too "sissified."
3. Some of the names originally considered for the dwarfs in Snow White were: Deafy, Dirty, Awful, Blabby, Burpy, Gabby, Puffy, Stuffy, Nifty, Tubby, Biggo Ego, Flabby, Jaunty, Baldy, Lazy, Dizzy, Cranky and Chesty.
4. Walt Disney suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931 and descended into depression after the war, concentrating his attention on model trains rather than on motion pictures.
5. Fantasia was the result of a chance meeting between Walt Disney and symphony conductor Leopold Stokowski at Chasen's restaurant.
6. During World War II the Disney studio became a war factory with well over 90% of its production in the service of government training, education and propaganda films.
7. The studio stopped production for six months on Pinocchio because Walt felt the title character wasn't likable enough. During this time he devised the idea of introducing Jiminy Cricket as Pinocchio's conscience.
8. Walt Disney received more Academy Awards than any other individual--32.
9. Disney modeled Mickey Mouse on Charlie Chaplin and that Chaplin later assisted the Disneys by loaning them his financial books so they could determine what kind of proceeds they should be getting from their distributor on Snow White.
10. MGM head Louis B. Mayer once rejected the opportunity to distribute Mickey Mouse cartoons shortly after Walt had invented the character because Mayer said that pregnant women would be frightened by a giant mouse on screen.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Few men could be said to have as pervasive an influence on American culture as Walt Disney, and Gabler (Winchell) scours the historical record for as thorough an explanation of that influence as any biographer could muster. Every period of Disney's life is depicted in exacting detail, from the suffering endured on a childhood paper route to the making of Mary Poppins. The core of Gabler's story, though, is clearly in the early years of Disney's studio, from the creation of Mickey Mouse to the hands-on management of early hits like Fantasia and Pinocchio. "Even though Walt could neither animate, nor write, nor direct," Gabler notes, "he was the undisputed power at the studio." Yet there was significant disgruntlement within the ranks of Disney's employees, and Gabler traces the day-to-day resentments that eventually led to a bitter strike against the studio in 1941. That dispute helped harden Disney's anticommunism, which led to rumors of anti-Semitism, which are effectively debunked here. At times, Gabler lays on a bit thick the psychological interpretation of Disney as control freak, but his portrait is so engrossing that it's hard to picture the entertainment mogul playing with his toy trains and not imagine him building Disneyland in his head. 32 pages of photos. 100,000 first printing. (Nov. 6)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
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WARNING to die-hard D23 Disney fans... this is not the book you are seeking; because some of the personal struggles and business decisions you don't hear about are carefully described in these pages. The success of this luminary is covered, as are the dark times, the nervous breakdown, the bankruptcy, the anger... and I'll stop there for fear of hurting your feelings by going further into the darkness. Uncle Walt was a genius in every way... including troubled childhood which fueled his driven need to create the "Happiest Place on Earth."
If you want to protect the happy Americana image of Walt Disney pick up the wonderfully cheerful biographies written by Bob Thomas or Pat Williams. They offer interesting stories of Walt, teach powerful life-application lessons about perseverance and creativity in a clever way that protects the fairy tale ending, while leaving out the dragons along the way.
Hard reading, but explained a lot to me as a life-long resident of Orlando about how one mans driven desire really did change the world.
Among fascinating personal details are Walt's distant relationship with his father, his somewhat naive idea of women including a marriage that seemed more convenient than passionate, but was faithfully maintained to the end of his life, Walt's warm and cold relationship with his brother and business partner Roy, and the death of his mother, for which he blamed himself.
Gabler also touches on accusations often heard about Walt Disney of being a bad boss, a racist, and a Nazi sympathizer. Although he doesn't give Walt a pass, he does make sure to remind readers of the context of the times Disney lived in, and that there were no standards for animation and film workers as movies were just starting to find their feet in the 1920s and 30s.
As a film history through one man's life, this book also reminds us that Disney innovated things we take for granted now-- things like sync sound in cartoons, color animation, camera animation stands that allowed depth of field, and storyboards. The world of movie animation would be very different if not for Walt Disney and the talent he fostered in his studio.
It's a big volume but it is worth every minute you spend reading it. Let Walt's story work its magic on your mind.
The portion of the book dealing with Disney's early life and first jobs is detailed and fascinating. The early studio period gets endlessly mired in financial maneuvering, which is more properly Roy's story than Walt's, who really had no time for the money guys if he could help it. Walt's involvement with the studio takes up the vast majority of the book, leaving less time for his Disneyland and Disney World work. Admittedly, he died before WDW really got established, but I'm sure there are more juicy anecdotes about the conceptualization and development of the first theme park.
Don't get me wrong: this is a good book for an intro to a man who had vast influence on American culture from the 30s on. Just realize that the main focus is the studio. Gabler does spend time evaluating and analyzing just how each film affected the parameters of American film making. And it is not an attack on Disney, as some of the other bios in print clearly are. Definitely recommended.