By Neal GablerKnopf
For better and for worse, Walt Disney (1901–1966) implanted his creations more profoundly and pervasively in the national psyche than has any other figure in the history of American popular culture. When the young cartoonist—a product of the worn-down midwestern petite bourgeoisie and of wearisome childhood toil—had his first popular character, Oswald the Rabbit, stolen from him by his film distributor, in 1928, he quickly, in desperation, created a new protagonist: Mickey Mouse. By the early 1930s, a million audiences were watching Mickey Mouse cartoons each year. In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, The Mouse’s image adorned more than forty items, from diamond bracelets to blackboards, bringing in $35 million in domestic sales alone. A year earlier, Disney had released Three Little Pigs, an eight-minute cartoon that was universally regarded as a populist parable of the Depression. It entranced the country; FDR quoted it; dozens of articles dissected it. Its theme song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?,” became, along with “Happy Days Are Here Again,” an anthem of the decade. And of course, this was just the beginning. To millions of Americans, a truculent Donald Duck symbolized the good fight against the Axis (“Der Fuehrer’s Face,” the hit song to Disney’s most popular cartoon, was the wartime counterpart to “Big Bad Wolf”).
Disney then gave the postwar generation its deepest common cultural experiences. The releases of Cinderella, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Mary Poppins, and 101 Dalmatians—and the rereleases of Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, and Dumbo (probably Disney Studio’s finest feature)—were among the most universally and vividly experienced childhood events of the American middle class. The Mickey Mouse Club helped raise the children of the 1950s (and supplied Boomers with their own anthem). The broadcasts, on the television show Disneyland, of Davy Crockett (the first miniseries) spurred the biggest kids’ fad of the decade—the “coonskin” cap (10 million of which were sold) became the central element of the middle- class boy’s uniform. The show’s later iteration, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, was probably the most significant factor in making color television a fixture in suburban living rooms and helped assuage the peculiar melancholy of the school year’s Sunday nights. Within eleven years of Disneyland’s opening, in 1955, the theme park’s apparently intoxicating blend of nostalgia and futurism, of order, artificiality, and spotlessness, had, according to one assessment, lured roughly a quarter of the country’s population. In the year of Disney’s death, an estimated 240 million people worldwide watched a Disney movie, 100 million saw a Disney television show every week, and 80 million read a Disney book or magazine. To be a mainstream American in the American Century was to inhabit Walt Disney’s world.
But Disney’s career and legacy are a good deal more complicated than that. From the frenetic early Mickey cartoons—which inventively borrowed elements of popular music, comedy, vaudeville, and dance—through the finely wrought shorts and features of the golden age of the Disney studio in the 1930s and early ’40s, to the increasingly sentimental, banal, and uplifty animated and live-action films of the 1950s and ’60s (think Son of Flubber), Disney’s work evolved radically. Although intellectuals of the 1930s and early ’40s lauded Disney more enthusiastically than any other popular entertainer save Chaplin (The Nation declared in 1934 that Mickey Mouse was the “supreme artistic achievement of the moving picture”), they soured on him in the postwar years. By the 1950s, the cultural elite castigated his sensibility and creations, even while the silent majority (as it would soon be known) increasingly and defiantly embraced him as its avatar. His career, then, exposes both monumental shifts in popular entertainment and a concomitant social and cultural divide that remains largely unbridged today.
Though social critics have been assessing Disney’s significance since the early 1930s, the film writer Richard Schickel’s 1968 book, The Disney Version, established the terms of interpretation and debate through which nearly all subsequent works about Disney, including this one, have approached their subject. Gabler—the author of the spiky and authoritative Winchell, among other books—has written an exceptionally intelligent, carefully researched, and absorbing doorstop (it’s more than 800 pages). Although reviewers will call it “definitive,” it tells a story that for the most part Schickel and Steven Watts—in his outstanding and, alas, largely overlooked Magic Kingdom, which places Disney in the richest cultural and historical context—have already related. (Schickel’s remains the most analytically and aesthetically penetrating portrait, but it’s the least detailed and reliable. And while Gabler is wrong to say that Schickel excoriated his subject and “portrayed him as mercenary and mendacious—Schickel in fact stressed Disney’s sincerity and lack of cynicism—the sometimes jarringly intemperate Disney Version was clearly written by an iconoclastic young man in the late 1960s, although one with a remarkably nuanced critical mind.)