June 22, 2014


REVIEW ESSAY: Tinkering (Mark Greif, 6/07/07, London Review of Books)

At an early point in his career, probably no later than 1930, Walt Disney lost the ability to draw what he wanted his cartoon characters to look like or his animations to do. So he began to act his cartoons out. In story meetings with his growing staff of animators - some of whom he had trained in Los Angeles at his studio on Hyperion Avenue, others whom he'd poached from the great New York studios - Disney would get up, according to Neal Gabler's new biography,

enter his trance, and suddenly transform himself uninhibitedly into Mickey or Donald or an owl or an old hunting dog . . . 'He would imitate the expressions of the dog, and look from one side to the other, and raise first one brow and then the other' . . . 'You'd have the feeling of the whole thing,' Dick Huemer noted. 'You'd know exactly what he wanted.'

Mickey Mouse's gestures 'were copied from Walt's when he performed Mickey at story meetings'; until 1946 Disney also voiced him, in falsetto. In another new Life, Michael Barrier's The Animated Man, the studio head is seen by animators acting out 'how a Chinese turtle should dance', or doing 'any of the people in the pictures, valets, anything - he all of a sudden was a valet.'

One such episode was burned in Disney animators' memories from three years before the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first ever feature-length animation and Walt's personal masterpiece. (Biographies of Disney chart a long decline after this peak, despite endless new achievements.) Disney was 33 years old, and the studio still an animators' utopia offering steady work during the Depression and an atmosphere halfway between a college campus and a kids' clubhouse. One night, Disney told his animators to get their dinner and then come back to the soundstage. In Gabler's retelling,

none had any idea of what Walt had in mind. When they arrived, about fifty of them, at roughly 7.30, and took their seats on wooden tiers at the back of the room, Walt was standing at the front lit by a single spotlight in the otherwise dark space. Announcing that he was going to launch an animated feature, he told the story of Snow White, not just telling it but acting it out, assuming the characters' mannerisms, putting on their voices, letting his audience visualise exactly what they would be seeing on the screen. He became Snow White and the wicked queen and the prince and each of the dwarfs . . . The performance took over three hours . . . 'That one performance lasted us three years,' one animator claimed. 'Whenever we'd get stuck, we'd remember how Walt did it on that night.' [...]

He was an old-fashioned craft-oriented artist who dropped or went beyond his handicraft but could never quite acknowledge that he had. There are plenty of photographs and films of him drawing Mickey Mouse, very late into his life, for publicity purposes, but in fact he had hardly ever drawn Mickey professionally since making the drawings in which he first invented the character. The nature of the artistry in Disney's art has left a confusion in all biographies, all records, all reminiscences of the man. Barrier says outright that Disney's 1931 nervous breakdown was a result of his managerial turn after 'years of animating and then directing . . . years of other kinds of jobs that required working with his hands, and before that, years of manual labour'. From another vantage point, the tension between handicraft and out-of-thin-air theatrical invention can also be said to have been the genesis of many of Disney's greatest creative successes, down to the invention of Disneyland.

Posted by at June 22, 2014 7:35 AM

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