The word “frozen” reminds today’s movie fans of a blockbuster family film, the first from Walt Disney Animation Studios to ever win an Oscar for best animated feature. Ironically, it also suggests a longstanding rumor about Disney himself. Here’s how Neal Gabler opens his 2006 biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination -- “He was frozen. At least that was the rumor that emerged shortly after his death and quickly became legend: Walt Disney had been cryogenically preserved, hibernating like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, to await the day when science could revive him and cure his disease.”
In truth Disney, who died of lung cancer in 1966 at the age of 65, was cremated, and his remains interred at Glendale’s Forest Lawn. But Gabler’s most memorable revelations are about the young Walt Disney, who was a far cry from the jolly Uncle Walt we Baby Boomers remember. As a youthful cartoonist, Disney was wildly ambitious, desperate to overcome childhood deprivation by using his drawing pencil to make his mark on the world. Gabler explains, “For a young man who had chafed within the stern, moralistic, anhedonic world of his father, animation provided escape, and for someone who had always been subjugated by that father, it provided absolute control. In animation Walt Disney had a world of his own.”
But such was Walt’s fundamental restlessness that he could never be satisfied with a single category of achievement. That’s why the Mickey Mouse short subjects led to the feature-length Snow White, which led to the experimental Fantasia, to live-action features, and wild-life documentaries. Veteran Disney animator Milt Kahl put it this way: “He was interested in a picture until he had all the problems solved and then he just lost interest.” At times, Walt turned away from movies altogether, devoting all his energies to the creation of Disneyland, and then to the concept of a gargantuan utopian community that became Walt Disney World. At the end of his life, his dream of founding a City of Arts evolved into a unique interdisciplinary university, today’s CalArts.
I never met Walt Disney. But in reading Gabler’s portrait of him, I couldn’t help recalling a restless figure who loomed large in my own life, B-movie legend Roger Corman. Obviously they are known for very different kinds of entertainment: Roger is famous for lurid monster movies, not wholesome family fare. And Disney’s artistic perfectionism would not suit a man who could happily grind out 20 low-budget quickies in a single year. Still, Roger as producer is very much like Disney in his prime, a superb storyteller who may not have been hands-on in the daily running of his company, but whose “sensibilities governed everything the studio produced.” A point that former Disney staffers sometimes made – “he’s a genius at using someone else’s genius” – is one that fits Roger as well. And the comment of one Disney underling that “you’d do anything for a smile, even though the next day you might be fired” certainly applies.
Gabler also emphasizes Walt Disney’s fundamental loneliness. Even when among members of his own family, “he was so self-absorbed, so fully within his own mind and ideas, that he emerged only to share them and to have them executed.” That’s Roger Corman to a T. One big difference, though. Walt Disney, especially in the early years, could be a spendthrift. That’s why he needed his older brother to keep him on the fiscal straight and narrow. But Roger, divided soul that he is, functions as both Walt and Roy, the dreamer and the tight-fisted money guy.
I’ll be interviewing Neal Gabler on the subject of his Walt Disney and Walter Winchell biographies at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, April 24-26 in New York City. The public is cordially welcome to many terrific sessions.