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"The Animated Man" offers an intimate, more immediate look at the life of Walt Disney

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"The Animated Man" offers an intimate, more immediate look at the life of Walt Disney

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I've been getting a lot of e-mail lately about Michael Barrier's new book, "The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney" (University of California Press, April 2007). Particularly from Disneyana fans who just purchased Neal Gabler's "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" and are now wondering:

A. Is the Barrier book any good?
B. Do I honestly have to read another Disney biography right now? I mean, wasn't Neal's book supposed to be definitive?

Well, all I can say in response is:

A: Michael's Walt bio is excellent. Right on par (At least when it comes to Barrier's in-depth insights & thorough scholarship) with his earlier "Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age"

Now as to that question about "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" and/or which of these books should now be considered the definitive Disney bio ... Er ... Um ...

Copyright 2007 University of California Press

We got any "Inherit the Wind" fans out there? If not ... There's this great little moment that comes at the very end of this Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee play (Which -- FYI -- was based on the Scopes Monkey Trial). Where Henry Drummond (I.E. The character that stands in for noted defense attorney Clarence Darrow) holds a copy of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species" in one hand & a Bible in the other. Before exiting the courtroom, Drummond puts these two books together and then carefully places them in his briefcase. Suggesting that science & religion can actually co-exist.

That's the image that honestly came to mind when I first tried to figure out which was the better biography here. The way I see it, if you want a thorough understanding of who Walt Disney really was, you should probably read both of these books.

I mean, sure. Because Gabler had exclusive access to the Disney Archives, Neal does a much better job of walking you through Walt's life story. Giving you a clearer understanding of why Disney turned out the way that he did.

Whereas Barrier's book ... Because Michael didn't have access to Disney's official files while he was working on "The Animated Man," he had to work that much harder. Combing through old newspaper interviews, digging through the corporate archives of companies that Walt Disney Productions used to do business with, etc. In order to come up with different sources which he could then use to help illustrate Walt's life story.

The end result is ... Where Gabler tends to keep Disney at a distance, Michael paints a much more immediate & intimate portrait of Walt. Giving us a better sense of how truly bright Walt Disney was, how nothing ever seemed to get by this animation pioneer.

Walt testifying before the House Committe on Un-American Activities
in October of 1947. AP Photo

Take -- for explain -- this story that Barrier includes as part of his book, where ...

Card Walker remembered that Disney toured the lot every day after lunch, going "from one shop to another. And if you ever made those trips with him, it was fantastic. He really knew what was going on." If a set was under construction, Walker said, he would check it carefully to make sure he approved of it. "The guy was just that interested in every damn detail of production."

And then -- to expand on that point -- Michael talks about Winston Hibler's experiences with Walt back in the early 1960s. When that writer / narrator of the True Life Adventures series was transitioning to producing live-action features at the studio. Anyway, Hibler had been assigned to produce "The Ugly Dachshund." And as he was prepping this production ...

Walt called and asked what we were doing in the back lot. I said, 'That's where the dog picture is going to be shot.' Walt said, 'I think it should be shot inside' -- and mentioned the time of year, etc. So that's where we shot it. On the first day of shooting I was on the set and Walt came up, tapped me on the shoulder and asked, 'What's it doing out there?" Sure enough, it was raining. Walt just had good common sense judgment about everything."

Of course, this isn't to say that Walt was infallible. To hear Barrier recount the Ol' Mousetro's life story, Disney could often be as petty and small as the rest of us are. Take -- for example -- how Lillian Disney having one too many cocktails wound up costing Ken Annakin his career at the Mouse Factory.

The Disney family -- Lillian, Walt, Diane and Sharon (L to R) -- return to
Los Angeles from England in August of 1949. AP Photo

As Michael tells this story, Ken and his wife, Pauline, were having Walt and Lillian over to dinner at their London apartment. And given that this party was coming right on the heels of the release on Annakin's latest picture for Disney Studios, "Swiss Family Robinson," things were going swimmingly. With Ken seeming to win Walt over to his idea for a "SFR" follow-up project. Which was to have been a film based on the life of Sir Francis Drake.

And as Annakin talked with Disney ...

... Pauline talked mainly to Lillian, whose glass (she) seemed to be refilling more than usual.

When the Disneys' limousine arrive at the end of the evening, Annakin wrote, Lillian "began descending the six stone steps onto Onslow Square, teetered and fell, sprawling on the ground. I rushed down to help her and was raising (Lillian) to her feet when Walt took over. Brusquely, he pushed me aside and led her limping to the car. As we waved them away and closed the door, Pauline said 'You'll never work for Walt again."

And -- as it turns out -- Annakin's wife was right. Even though Ken had already directed four very successful films for Walt Disney Productions, he never again worked for that studio. Supposedly because the Ol' Mousetro just couldn't get past the idea that Annakin had seen his wife take a tipsy tumble down a set of stone steps.

Walt -- with the help of Mickey Mouse -- was grand marshal of
the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 1966
Photo courtesy of the Tournament of Roses Archives

This is the Walt that you'll get to meet if you read "The Animated Man." Not just the dedicated film-maker who ordered 14 different tests for a single scene in "Bambi" before he'd finally agree to allow this footage to be folded into that 1942 release. But also the practical Midwestern. Who -- when asked how Walt Disney Productions of the early 1950s was dealing with having to crank out both motion pictures as well as TV shows -- responded by saying:

Once you are in television, it's like operating a slaughter house. Nothing must go to waste. You have to figure ways to make glue out of the hoofs.

That's the real beauty of "The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney." In that Barrier catches many of the stories that Gabler seems to have missed. Like that live-action version of Felix Salten's "The Hound of Florence" that Walt wanted to produce back in March of 1941. Or -- better yet -- that version of "Alice in Wonderland" that Disney tried to put into production in the mid-1940s. Which was modeled after "The Three Caballeros" and "Fun and Fancy Free," in that a live-action Alice was to have served as the storytelling glue that held together all of the crazier moments of this animated feature.

These are the sorts of gems that you'll find should you pick up a copy of Michael Barrier's newest book. Which -- while it makes no claims at being the definitive Walt Disney biography -- certainly shows us where Neal Gabler's book came up short.

Your thoughts?

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  • Good deal ... I'm looking for something new to read and this will fit the bill!

    Anyone besides me admire Jim for being able to fold a reference to the Scopes Monkey Trial in with a story about a biography of Walt Disney?  ;)

  • I love that photo on the front.  Although it can be jarring, sometimes it can be nice to hear stories like the one about Walt and Annakin.  It's kind of like finding out Santa Claus has a secret addiction.  Okay, maybe not that crazy.  It's just nice to find out that even the most famous and successful can make mistakes and are concerned with covering their wounded pride.

  • I am just completing Neal Gabler's WALT DISNEY and finding it a very entertaining read. I appreciate that Gabler develops facts and scenarios with reams of heretofore-unknown details; he doesn't much editorialize.

    Readers are given room to weigh for themselves Walt's genius, his passions, his priorities, his fears, and what made him tick. Calling Gabler's tome "distant" is miles from the truth. WALT DISNEY by Neal Gabler is thorough, well-written and--in its meandering from personal to public activity--indicative of Disney's life.

    great article, thanks!


  • I'm quite fond of Walt Disney, by Neal Gabler. Such provoctive writting, superb chapters on the keystones of Walt's life. He's 2nd to Charlie Chaplin of rarely recieving Bios that claim to be defintive. Have to gander at Animated Man sometime when I'm done with my current book: Walt Disney, unlike some people who are drawn to Disney cause of his rep. as an film pioneer, I was drawn to the creative, child like personality Mr. Disney brought to the world/priv. life, as metioned before Walt is 2nd to Charlie Chaplin of most diffucult to define in history.


  • I'm not fond of Walt Disney. I heard he was an evil man who was very intolerant. I love the work his studio produced though- absolutely fantastic and groundbreaking but merely visions of a corrupted hateful antisemitic mind.

  • Hey Neal Gabler (aka "parisian nightmare") now we know what posting handle you use here on Jim Hill Media.  ;-)

    Your book is  not as good as Barrier's , but I guess your version of Walt as a corrupted, hateful, intolerant, antisemitic, evil man sells more books, eh ?

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