Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination – Neal Gabler

It’s hard to imagine a time when Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse weren’t household names, but that day, in fact, did exist, up until the 1920s. That’s when animators led by Disney drew Mickey Mouse. In this hefty, thoroughly researched profile, historian Neal Gabler draws a deeply detailed picture of Disney and his business, from his work animating silent-movie shorts in a Kansas City garage through his years of international fame – and troubled finances. Gabler persuasively argues that although Disney classics, such as Snow White and Pinocchio, may be considered relics today, they were revolutionary works of art in their time. This biography’s biggest drawback is its intimidating length, but it rewards readers who persevere.

In this summary, you will learn

  • Why Walt Disney remains a cultural icon;
  • What shaped his life story; and
  • How Disney pursued innovation.


  • Walt Disney was an innovator and visionary during his life, but he’s often remembered as a reactionary and nostalgist.
  • Disney was born in Chicago in 1901 to hard-luck parents. His father often beat him.
  • As a boy, Disney lived for several years on a Missouri farm. This idyllic time colored his view of the world.
  • When Disney created Mickey Mouse in 1928, cartoons were seen as little more than throwaway entertainment.
  • The Mickey cartoon Steamboat Willie was the first short to coordinate the soundtrack with the action on the screen.
  • Disney pioneered color and voices in cartoons.
  • Snow White was the first feature-length cartoon; it took years to create but became a blockbuster.
  • Disney essentially created the nature film and embraced television.
  • Disney hoped to create an idyllic environment for workers, but reality got in the way.
  • Disney’s theme parks were his attempt to impose utopian order on a chaotic world.


The King of Pop Culture

Four decades after his death in 1966, Walt Disney remains one of the most important – and divisive – figures in American popular culture. Disney and his legacy are a tangle of contradictions. He cared little about making money and spent recklessly to perfect his early films, yet his name has become inextricably linked with crass commercialism and big profits. He was an artistic visionary who pushed the limits of technology, yet he’s better remembered as an old-fashioned nostalgist whose films portrayed small towns and cheery endings.

“Arguably no single figure so bestrode American popular culture as Walt Disney.”

Disney had stopped drawing characters by the time his studio created Mickey Mouse, yet he’s seen as the creative force behind his company’s ubiquitous characters. He worked in cartoons, a medium seen as a sideshow or novelty, yet he transformed the form to the extent that Snow White, his first feature film, won critical accolades and huge box-office receipts. Disney yearned for utopian environments both in his workplace and in his theme parks, yet he made employees miserable with his mean streak, vindictiveness and nitpicking perfectionism. He was often oblivious to politics, yet Disney’s detractors paint him as a reactionary who spoon-fed close-minded conservatism to the unwashed masses. However, no one can argue that Disney’s imagination, and his animators’ renderings of his imaginings, have a remarkable grip on the world’s consciousness.

“He had created a new art form and then produced several indisputable classics within it.”

Marceline, Missouri

Walt Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1901 to Elias and Flora Disney. Elias struggled financially and was perpetually uprooting the family to pursue some new scheme. In 1906, Elias bought 40 acres in Marceline, Missouri, and moved the Disney family to a farm that boasted orchards and foxes, rabbits and squirrels. Walt would always remember Marceline as a paradise, a place where small-town values created a perfect childhood.

“Walt Disney was made for Hollywood. He loved dress-up and make-believe, was boisterous, outgoing, self-aggrandizing and histrionic, and craved attention.”

After five years, Elias realized he had no talent for farming. He sold the farm for $5,175 and, in 1911, moved the family to Kansas City. Elias bought a newspaper route and he, Walt and Walt’s older brother Roy delivered the morning Times and the afternoon Star to some 650 subscribers. The work left Walt with little time to play. Elias was frugal and temperamental, and he often beat Walt for a variety of transgressions. The beatings ended when Walt was 14 and Elias ordered him to the family home’s basement so he could beat him with the handle of a hammer. After years of submitting to mistreatment, Walt grabbed Elias’ arm. Elias, realizing that his son now was the stronger of the two, never beat Walt again.

“Improvement was his mantra – the only way to succeed, the only way to get the recognition he so badly wanted, the only way to create a full fantasy world for himself.”

Elias remained a gloomy force in Walt’s life and the youngster, a naturally talented artist, sought refuge by drawing. Walt’s work was impressive enough that a neighborhood shopkeeper hung the boy’s drawings in his store. His father even allowed him to enroll in Saturday classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. As he got older, Walt longed to escape from his dreary life, so during World War I, he volunteered for Red Cross duty. He served as a driver in France.

“When Mickey engaged in fantasy only to have it punctured by reality, as so often happened in his cartoons, he was acting out the central tension of Walt Disney’s life.”

Kansas City: An Artistic, but not Financial, Genius

Walt Disney returned to Kansas City in 1919, driven by the dream of being a professional artist. Walt was outgoing and charming by nature. He was full of self-confidence and optimism, tempered by remarkable intensity and a dogged work ethic. As a Kansas City teen, Walt had met another young artist, Ub Iwerks. He shared Walt’s love of drawing but his personality was Walt’s direct opposite. The taciturn Iwerks later drew Mickey Mouse as a Disney employee in California. In Kansas City after World War I, Walt launched a new business, Laugh-O-Gram, and created short films that would play before the feature at Kansas City’s biggest cinema. While audiences liked Walt’s Laugh-O-Grams, the market for them was limited. Walt struggled financially, skipping out on leases, and Laugh-O-Gram filed for bankruptcy. In 1923, Walt left Kansas City for Los Angeles.

“The idea of a thinking, feeling cartoon character…with psychology and emotional range, was a revelation even at Disney…where just a few years before there was concern over whether an audience would accept a voice emanating from a drawing.”

California Downs and Ups

In California, Walt quickly set himself up in the animation business. In 1925, he married Lillian Bounds, and they had a daughter, Diane, and later adopted another daughter, Sharon. Walt and his older brother Roy cobbled together enough cash to give Walt a new professional start, and he created Alice’s Wonderland, a combination of live-action and animated production that was rudimentary but impressive enough to land him a distribution deal. The shorts received positive reviews, and Walt produced 56 over the next few years. As his staff grew to 22, the young animator became obsessed with improving his films’ quality, and became increasingly harsh and demanding of his employees. He pushed to imbue his cartoon characters with personality, trying to create posture and body language that conveyed their state of mind. Despite his early successes, Walt continued to struggle financially. His employees, annoyed by Walt’s abusiveness, defected, and his distributor double-crossed him.

“’We invest them with life,’ Walt told a reporter of his animated creations.”

In spite of these setbacks, Disney pushed ahead. In 1928, with a smaller staff, he began working on a new character, Mickey Mouse. Ub Iwerks did all the animation, although Walt was the creative force and later the voice of Mickey. The first Mickey Mouse short, Plane Crazy, cost $1,772. Crudely drawn by today’s standards, Mickey nonetheless captivated audiences. Disney’s next goal was to coordinate a cartoon’s soundtrack with its movements on the screen. Until then, the action and the sound had little relationship. Walt set out to change that. For the Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie, he hired a New York orchestra to perform music in synchrony with Mickey’s actions. But perfection was elusive. Bad timing invariably ruined the recordings, and Walt pushed Roy to borrow money to pay the musicians. After days of failure, Walt had a breakthrough. He had a ball printed on the film and on the soundtrack; the orchestra played while the conductor watched the film, and the rise and fall of the ball let him know when to speed up or slow the musicians’ tempo.

“Disney became the first studio to recognize…that one could harvest enormous profits from film-related toys, games, clothing and other products.”

When Steamboat Willie debuted in 1928, audiences and critics loved it. Meantime, other animation studios realized that Disney’s breakthrough was nothing short of revolutionary. Mickey’s success spelled the doom of Felix the Cat, previously the nation’s most popular cartoon character.

“As Walt saw it…television was not the enemy of the motion picture; it was its ally.”

While Mickey was an artistic success, he initially did not provide a financial windfall. Walt’s revenues from the shorts barely covered his costs, partly because he spared no expense. He demanded perfection and paid little attention to budget. But Mickey became such a phenomenon that Walt eventually succeeded financially. An ambitious theater manager established a Mickey Mouse club for kids who came to the cinema, and suddenly children throughout the country were clamoring to join Mickey Mouse clubs. Newspapers nationwide printed the Mickey Mouse comic strip and Mickey merchandise began flying off the shelves. This was in spite of the mixed messages sent by Mickey’s character. The early Mickey wasn’t exactly lovable; he was mean-spirited and cheeky, although over the years Mickey turned milquetoast. The belligerent Donald Duck took over as his foil.

“With the success of Disneyland, he saw himself…as a visionary planner who could impose his will on the environment as he had imposed it on the screen.”

Breakthrough upon Breakthrough

Mickey made Walt the king of animation, but, true to form, Disney kept pushing to get better. He sent animators to the Chouinard Art Institute in downtown Los Angeles and then hired a Chouinard instructor to come to the studio to teach classes. Walt wanted his artists to add more emotion and personality to their cartoon creatures. (Later, he would push realism, even bringing deer into the studio to help artists with Bambi.) At the same time, Walt urged his employees to create shorts that offered more than just gags; he wanted narrative. Three Little Pigs, released in 1933, was an example of Disney’s vision. The cartoon, with its cuddly swine, was a critical and commercial success. The theme song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” became a hit.

“When critics would later carp that Disneyland was too serene, too clean, too controlled, too perfect, they were right.”

Walt pioneered the use of color in animation, but he had bigger dreams. He wanted the public and the film industry to take animation seriously. He envisioned turning the fairy tale Snow White into a feature-length cartoon. While Walt didn’t draw, write or direct, his vision dominated; and this was very clear with Snow White. For years, Walt would act out the story in great detail to animators, writers and friends. He gave virtuosic, marathon performances that left his audiences rapt.

“He was a man without vices, passions, or peccadilloes, the very personification of square midwestern probity.”

Walt badgered his employees with his high expectations, yet he also paid them generously, even in the midst of the Depression. With work on Snow White inching along, Disney went deeply in debt, borrowing heavily from the Bank of America. His bet paid off. He spent more than $1 million on Snow White, then a staggering sum, but the movie’s success when it was released in 1937 made Walt a genuine celebrity. He rewarded his employees, doling out $750,000 in bonuses.

“Even though Walt could neither animate, nor write, nor direct, he was the undisputed power at the studio…his sensibility governed everything the studio produced.”

Now that Walt had created a perfect alternative world on film, he likewise endeavored to create a utopia for his workers. Based on Snow White’s profits and the company’s future potential, Disney built a modern new studio that resembled a college campus and was meant to foster a climate of calm cooperation. However, the staff grew to 1,200 people and Walt lost touch. His autocratic style irritated employees. Even in the golden years when Disney Studios produced Fantasia, Dumbo and Pinocchio, his workers were uneasy. His animators ultimately unionized and went on strike. Walt responded by blaming the Communists and trying to crush the union; instead, he crushed the spirit of the studio, which never regained its 1930s ambience.

“For all the talk of collaboration, Walt was an autocrat whose word was the only word.”

Postwar Disney

World War II was a fallow time. Bank of America had demanded tight oversight of Walt’s decisions, and he was relegated to spending some 90% of the studio’s time making educational and propaganda films for the government. After the war, he adopted the “saccharine,” reactionary style that critics began to decry. Yet, in later years when critics bashed Hollywood for making violent, salacious movies, the film industry held up Disney’s wholesome content to deflect criticism.

Disney’s paranoia about Communism started with the strike at his studio, but it didn’t end there. When African-Americans protested the portrayal of black characters in Song of the South, Disney suspected that Communists were trying to undermine him. When he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947, Disney claimed that Communists were lurking everywhere. He even publicly called the League of Women Voters a Communist front.

Even during this rocky period, Walt innovated. He essentially invented the nature film by sending photographers to shoot footage of Alaskan seals. He brought Disney-style quality to television with Davy Crockett, a 1954 miniseries that became a huge hit. Ever a micromanager, Walt made the cameramen reshoot a scene because he could see the zipper on the bear Davy wrestled.

But after the war, Walt’s true passion was his theme parks. After he had created perfect worlds in his films, he began to search for ways to impose his will on the real world. Visits to Williamsburg, Virginia, and a theme park in Oakland, California, sparked his imagination, as did his construction of a miniature train track at his home. Disney would ride around his property on the elaborate railroad set-up.

He devoted most of his time and creative energy to creating Disneyland, the theme park in California’s Orange County that he envisioned as the opposite of loud, dirty carnivals. Disneyland opened in 1955, and the reception was largely positive, although he also was criticized for creating an overly perfect imaginary world. Following Disneyland’s success, Walt had even bigger plans. He quietly began buying land in Central Florida, referring to the endeavor as Project X to throw off nosy reporters and public officials.

A decade later he announced plans for Walt Disney World near Orlando, but he died before it opened. A lifelong smoker, Walt died of lung cancer at age 65 in 1966. Contrary to popular fable, he didn’t order his family to freeze his body after death; he was cremated. Walt Disney World opened in 1971 under the leadership of his brother, Roy, who died three months later.

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