Walt Disney: An American Original
By: Bob Thomas
Release Date: 1976
Walt Disney is an American hero–the creator of Mickey Mouse, and a man who changed the face of American culture. After years of research, with the full cooperation of the Disney family and access to private papers and letters, Bob Thomas produced the definitive biography of the man behind the legend–the unschooled cartoonist from Kansas City who went bankrupt on his first movie venture but became the genius who produced unmatched works of animation. Complete with a rare collection of photographs, Bob Thomas’ biography is a fascinating and inspirational work that captures the spirit of Walt Disney.
Although I’ve always considered myself a Disney fan, I’ve never really had more than a general knowledge of the man behind it all. Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas changed that.
Walter Elias Disney was a man unlike any other. His love for animation and entertainment began young, and it never faltered. Growing up, Walt didn’t always have much, but he always had a positive attitude and the determination to get things done. This book provides an excellent look at the good, the bad, and the hard times in Walt’s life, cheering his achievements and never glossing over the bumps in the road.
It begins with a look at Walt’s early life, focusing on his strong bond with his brother, Roy, and discussing his service in World War I and the struggles of establishing himself as a cartoonist. Walt would flit from job to job, always searching for new ways to advance his animation skills or for opportunities to do his own work. Although they were able to establish their own little studio, Walt and Roy were constantly in debt, often unable to pay their employees, and Walt himself even slept in the office and subsisted on cans of chili to cut costs. Walt was willing to make the sacrifices, though, as long as it meant he got to do what he loved, a theme that came up often as he worked his way to the top.
Unfortunately, Walt had as many downs as ups over his first few years as an animator. His first successful character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was technically owned by Universal, and Walt ended up losing the plucky little rabbit, along with many of his animators. Soon after, Ub Iwerks, one of Walt’s closest friends and his main animator, left the studio as well, leaving Walt and Roy to struggle once again to make ends meet. But Walt couldn’t be kept down for long—he knew what he wanted to do, and he did what he needed to get it. He worked harder, played smarter, and relied on Roy to help them succeed, and eventually his restless pursuit paid off in the form of everyone’s favorite mouse.
The creation of Mickey Mouse drastically changed the outlook of Walt and Roy’s little company, and although things weren’t always smooth sailing after that, they were certainly moving upwards. The success of Mickey allowed Walt to get more creative with his work. He began to experiment with sound, then color, then mixing live action with cartoons. If a technique or the equipment wasn’t available, Walt invented it, proving his creativity worked in many ways. He was also innovative in terms of education; Walt was interested to teaching new artists and giving them opportunities to work in their field when the economy likely wouldn’t have supported them elsewhere. This helped make his own studio better and also improved animation overall: as workers moved to other studios, their education in animation helped those studios produce better films, which in turn boosted the field of animation overall and helped bring in more viewers to all animated films. It was a brilliant plan that helped animation at every level, and it made Walt happy to foster new talent as best he could.
Walt certainly had an eye for talent, and although his techniques for getting that talent to show itself weren’t always the nicest, he knew what he was doing. Somehow Walt could sense what people were capable of, and he’d push his workers to achieve their best. He frequently grew disappointed in people when they delivered less than their best, and he’d send them off to do it again. Even when his workers did give their best, Walt’s response was lukewarm at best, but that was due to Walt’s general dislike of giving direct praise. He showed his approval through paycheck bonuses or by telling someone else what a great job so-and-so had done, knowing that office gossip would spread his words to the intended recipient. It may have been an odd way to do things, but it worked for Walt, and it worked for his employees, so that was that.
This book also does a fantastic job of showing Walt at work, giving us a look at his daily habits, his interactions with his workers, and even his eccentricities in dealing with bankers, the government, and other studios. The addition of meeting transcripts where Walt would present his ideas for various projects really added to the narrative, and it was fun to see just how Walt’s brain worked. The picture that develops is one of a man who knew his strengths and his weaknesses and who knew handle both. Walt had to have the final word, and he hated to be contradicted, but he knew when his ideas grew too fanciful and didn’t push something that even he realized would be impossible. He tried to know all his employees by name, and he encouraged breaks and fun as long as the work got done by the deadline.
Walt was also well aware that he was the creativity behind Disney, and switching mediums from short cartoons to longer documentaries to feature films and television shows allowed him to stretch that creativity and to tell more stories to a wider audience. These changes, though, wreaked havoc on the company checkbook, and while he was a creative genius, Walt knew he was worthless as a moneyman. Luckily he knew how to delegate financial issues, as well as many other issues that he wasn’t prepared or trained to handle. Walt gave those tasks to people who were better suited to deal with them, and this technique allowed other people, particularly Roy, to have a little control over Walt. It also kept everyone busy, it kept Walt from losing his temper, and it kept things moving forward, which was best for everyone.
This delegation wouldn’t have been possible, though, if Walt hadn’t had such wonderful people supporting him. Thomas is very thorough in showing the relationships between Walt and those closest to him. I really liked the way the push and pull relationship between Walt and Roy was portrayed; they balanced each other out, and while they had their fights, they always made up. In a time when so many sibling partnerships went down in flames, Walt and Roy knew neither of them could succeed without the other, and they worked hard to support each other and to keep each other in line. I also loved the look into Walt’s home life. Lillian seemed like she was the perfect counterpart to Walt, and I loved that she supported his work but also shared her opinion about it. She wasn’t afraid to tell Walt when he was being ridiculous, and I liked that they worked to find compromises instead of continuously fighting over things that one or the other wasn’t willing to budge on. I also appreciated their approach to parenting and how it was very different from that of other big-name Hollywood people of the time. Walt and Lilly raised their two girls themselves rather than hiring nannies and the like to do it, and that showed how much they loved their daughters and how they wanted to have strong relationships with them as they grew into wonderful women.
Ironically, Walt was quite uncomfortable with his relationship with the public. He disliked being seen as a celebrity and would occasionally lie and pretend to be someone else if he was recognized. He also didn’t care to sign autographs in public, but if someone wrote to the studio and requested his autograph that way, he was more than happy to oblige. In public, Walt reasoned, the problem was that everyone would want his autograph, and he didn’t have the time or the desire to deal with all the attention. He also refused to use the celebrity of the Disney name to get by on less-than-perfect cartoons, and he didn’t concern himself with getting special treatment at restaurants and such. Walt saw his celebrity as a rather inconvenient byproduct of his work, and he worked the way he did because he loved what he did, not because he wanted the fame. It was a very different mindset for celebrities, both then and now, and it goes to show yet again how different Walt was from the typical Hollywood star.
The last bit of the book focused on Walt’s final years. Plans for Disney World began, the studio continued to produce feature films, and Walt’s health began to decline. It was so sad to see Walt become less and less able to get around, and although he was still full of brilliant ideas, his attitude had become less jovial and more melancholic. There were a handful of times where he seemed to know that his time was short, but he kept working as long as he could and put on a brave face for his friends, family, and employees.
The scene of Walt’s death brought me to tears, and just reading of the outpouring of grief and sorrow from all across the world broke my heart. It was truly a testament to Walt’s greatness that so many were affected by his passing and also that so many others stepped up to finish his work. Roy’s bravery and dedication really stood out to me; he’d just lost his brother, his partner of almost 50 years, and he chose to forego retirement and time to grieve in order to push forward and finish Disney World, which he had officially name Walt Disney World so that everyone would know who had had the dream of making the park a reality. Walt was able to inspire such loyalty and dedication even after his death, and if that doesn’t show what kind of many he truly was, I don’t know what would.
Walter Elias Disney was a brilliant gag-man, a tireless worker, and a dedicated family man. But more than that, Walt was a visionary, and he had a way of making other people see it. He could create characters and innovations and places no one else could’ve imagined and bring them to life with nothing more than passion. That passion infected others and eventually helped bring Walt’s grand ideas to the world. Walt knew how to tweak old tales and design characters in ways that would touch the hearts of both the young and the old and make them believe in something better. There was truly a bit of magic in Walt’s work, and even more in the man himself, and combined with his spark of imagination, Walt’s big ideas have led to countless memories of joy and laughter and hope for generations of people across the world.
Walt Disney: An American Original gave me an even deeper love for all things Disney, but it also gave me a better understanding and a greater appreciation for the man who was the heart and soul behind the name. Walt Disney was truly one-of-a-kind, and his desire to bring joy to all has ensured that he will never be forgotten.
Stray Thoughts and Observations:
- Knowing Mickey was essentially Walt in cartoon form makes him that much more special.
- Disney’s animators invented the storyboard.
- I had no idea that the army commandeered Disney Studios during World War II.
- Disney’s Victory Through Air Power was a major factor in the decision to give the D-Day invasion sufficient air power.
- Disneyland was designed as much for adults as for children, so don’t judge me for wanting to go there so badly!
- “When does a person stop being a child? Can you say that a child is ever entirely
eliminated from an adult? I believe that the right kind of entertainment can appeal to all persons, young or old.”
- “Well, Hazel, let’s face it—love is like everything else; if you don’t have it, you can’t give it.”
- “You can’t put a price tag on creativity.”
- “You know better than to kill an idea without giving it a chance to live. We set our sights high. That’s why we accomplish so many things.”
- “The magic of Walt Disney was larger than life, and the treasures he left will endure to entertain and enlighten worlds to come.”
- But what Walt Disney seemed to know was that while there is very little grown-up in a child, there is a lot of child in every grown-up.