Author Michael Barrier
(Photo courtesy www.michaelbarrier.com)
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with author Michael Barrier about his new book, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. The book is an interesting, if somewhat incomplete, account of Walt's life. Nevertheless, I found Barrier to be a fascinating person to talk with, a man who is not afraid to share his opinions on Walt Disney and his body of work--some of which may not be popular with hardcore Disney fans.
Despite his strong opinions, I found Barrier to be soft-spoken and thoughtful. He chooses his words carefully and makes his points without being argumentative. He was also very generous with his time (we talked on the phone for nearly an hour and a half), for which I am appreciative.
Below are excerpts from the first part of our conversation . . .
On researching The Animated Man and having limited access to the Disney Archives:
On Walt Disney, the person, and writing the "definitive" biography:I spent a lot of time in the Disney Archives from 1990 to 1997. I canít even guess how many months in total, but probably 4 or 5 months all together. I went through a tremendous amount of material and I used a lot of that in Hollywood Cartoons, my earlier book, but I also used it as a resource for this book. Iíve also drawn on a tremendous number of interviews I did for Hollywood Cartoons with people who worked for Disney or knew Disney, going back to Rudy Ising and Hugh Harmon who knew Walt back in (the early 1920s). Thereís a body of material that Iíve drawn upon thatís more extensive and closer to the source than what has been typical of Disney biographies. Bob Thomas, of course, did have access to a lot of Disney primary material that other writers didnít, but I think he was constrained by the need to be writing an ďofficialĒ biography that had to fall within certain boundaries.
By not having access to certain documents at the Disney Archives, some of them family documents, I had the incentive to go out and look for other sources of information. In Marceline, (Missouri, Walt's boyhood hometown) for example, I found a local historian who had a great accumulation of information about the early years of the last century and could provide me with dates (such as) when Elias Disney visited Marceline looking for a farm one night, the exact date when they left and moved to Kansas City, things of this kind that are not in anyone elseís book and I think give a more solid underpinning to the book than a lot of other books have. There are other Marceline related documents I turned up that, as far as I can tell, have not been used by other historians and other biographers and I think give the book a richer texture.
There were a lot of things that I probably would not have pursued as energetically if Iíd had the access to the Disney Archives for this book. I think the Disney Archives can encourage a certain laziness because thereís so much there you can wind up not pursuing other leads that may give you a different perspective and illuminate aspects of Waltís life that simply relying on the Archives canít. Not being able to use the Disney Archives this time did prevent me from having some kinds of details in the book, but it probably resulted in other kinds of details being there. On balance Iím not sure I came out badly.
I have continued to add file drawers full of clippings, full of copies of documents and original documents in some cases. I still add to them. Iím still interested in tracking down every detail I can find about Waltís life. Iím posting little corrections and clarifications on my website (www.michaelbarrier.com) as new information comes up or I discover I have a couple of dates that I was slightly off on in my book for example I posted corrections of that.
On Disneyland:He was a fascinating man. He had so much energy. He was involved in so many things. He was always looking for some new outlet, something to get excited about, something to pursue. My wife was reading the manuscript of the book and at one time she just laughed and put the manuscript down and said, ďI canít believe how many things this guy was doing. He was always charging off in so many different directions.Ē It was true. Up until the very end of his life, he was still trying to find things to get enthusiastic about and pursue. And this means thereís a tremendous paper trail and a trail of personal reminiscences about him that, in some cases, (are) still waiting to be uncovered. Thatís why I write in my book I donít think a definitive biography is probably even possible. I thinks itís not possible to write a definitive biography of anybody who was interesting enough to warrant having a biography written of them. If you have a definitive biography, it means probably the person wasnít worth the trouble in the first place.
I think there is still an inadequate appreciation of the magnitude of Waltís greatest accomplishments and I think that over time there will be a greater appreciation of them and there will be fresh biographical efforts that may cast new light on both phases of his career. I hope that as interest rises and other biographers go to work, there will not be this question of who is allowed to see the most stuff. I think itís a sad thing that Disney has been much much more restrictive in their archives in the last few years than they were when I was doing research in the 90ís. I think ultimately thereís going to have to be some sort of Disney Library, a Disney Archive that is available to qualified researchers whoíll take the full measure of this amazing man and look at him from different angles, give us different biographies that really have more solid footing than most of the books that have been written about him to date. Most of them have been either company authorized books that tend to look at him from a certain awestruck perspective or ridiculously bad books like the Marc Eliot biography (Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince) and the (Leonard) Mosley biography (Disney's World: A Biography), both of which are just dreadful books.
On his frustration with Walt's live action films:Itís a place I have come to like a lot. I saw it initially in 1969ójust two and a half years after Walt died and still very much his park. I remember being surprised that I was dissatisfied with it. Iíve since realized itís because I was measuring it against the films and itís a different kind of undertaking. In many ways, itís not as serious an undertaking, but on its own terms, Iíve finally come to accept that itís highly enjoyable.
Considering that they built this thing in less than a year, itís an amazing piece of work, especially considering the financial constraints they were operating under. I just added a note on my website. The Disney people, the Disney books and Disney sources always say work on the site began in July of '54. Well, itís pretty clear now from whatís turned up since my book was published, work seems to have begun only at the very end of August. So they actually built this thing in a little over ten months which was just an amazing thing.
I think in terms of physical scale, thereís no question that Disneyland was an amazing project. But, I think in terms of artistic ambition, in terms of scope and lasting impact, I think the best films are unquestionably greater achievements. But Disneyland on its own terms is a wonderful place. The last time I was there was in June 2005. I literally went there on a hot, summer day when it was going to be packed with lots of ordinary people, and I decided I was just going to try to experience the park as closely as possible as the average American does and I had a great time. It was very enjoyable.
Something that I was very aware of then and later is thereís so much of the park that is rooted in the films and uses the films as a sort of a gateway for visitors to come into the park and their acceptance and enjoyment of the park, I think, is facilitated enormously by their awareness of the films and their enjoyment of the films. Some of the rides in Fantasyland, for example, simply donít make any sense unless youíve seen the films and are experiencing the ride as a. . . recollection of what youíve seen on the screen. In some cases, of course, the connections are more tenuous like Adventureland, which originally was going to be True-Life Adventureland, of course, and the True-Life Adventures have certainly faded in significance. A lot of the films, the later films especially, the live action films, have not held up well and are certainly not a major part of audience memories, not a major factor in their enjoyment of Disneyland or other Disney films.
On Disney's poor use of talented writers and actors:Part of it was the way he made them. In animated films, of course, he was very intensively involved in story and during the actual production of the film he was seeing the director very frequentlyóless frequently than he was seeing the animatorsóbut, every stage of the process, he was intensely involved in some of it and he could always step into other phases of it very readily and make his wishes felt. His directorsópeople like Wilfred Jacksonówere very gifted men, but they were devoted to giving Walt what he wanted, to understanding his wishes, to translating those wishes onto film.
He had a different situation with the live action films. He was very involved in the script stage and he was very involved in the end phase of the films, the editing in particular. But, because his experience with animation had given him a limited sense of what a director could bring to a live action film, he liked people that were kind of low profile, efficient. People who would work with him on a script and take the script and give him film that he could assemble as he wished. What this meant as a practical matter was you donít have in the live action films what great directors bring to the best live action films in terms of the shaping of scenes, the staging and the pacing, the nuances of an actorís performance. You donít have the kinds of subtleties and richness that any great live-action director brings. You had people like Robert Stevenson, for example, who were obviously competent, workmanlike directors who would shoot the film, but you wouldnít have any Michael Cimino-type episodes with Disney films. I guess the closest to that would be 20,000 Leagues, but that was a very unusual situation in many respects.
You have a lot of frustrating Disney live action movies. The scripts are, actually, frequently very solid. There are some very good actors in themóI think Hayley Mills in Pollyanna is just a marvel. But itís only rarely that you have a film that has the kind of depth, the exploration of character, a sense of strong characters interacting in interesting ways thatís a given in films like Snow White, for example. The few (live action) movies that I really liked were mostly directed by Ken Annakin, who was a British director who did The Story of Robin Hood and The Sword and the Rose. The best one he did for my money is Third Man on the Mountain, which is just a wonderful movie which Iíve seen several times now and it never fails to enthrall me. What you have in this movie is what you have in the best Disney animated films, which is a really sensitive, deep exploration of character. You have in Annakinís hands, like other Disney films, a good solid script, but you have this awareness of how people interact with each other, how they like and dislike each other. Thereís egos clashing, peoples ambitions, parental concerns, this constant interplay of motivations and emotions that just makes it a very rich film.
Thereís a completely forgotten Disney movie called Savage Sam with Brian Keith. I was looking at this movie and I was just going nuts. You could just see these actors not knowing what to do. And you could see Brian Keith being wasted, this tremendously strong figure. And you had a story that couldíve been as powerful as, say, The Searchers. It has that kind of resonance to it.
It was sort of indicative of the decline in the Disney live action films that you have Old Yeller, a solid piece of work with some good performances and a very good story, and then you come to Savage Sam. (Waltís) own interests were waning, obviously, and he was devoting much more time to Disneyland and other projects. Fred Gipson (author and screenwriter of Old Yeller and Savage Sam) was just anguished over what he thought was this mishandling of his book and he was right. It was so much a wasted opportunity. It couldíve been a much better film.
Brian Keith was, to me, like (Davy Crockett star) Fess Parker. You have these tremendously strong, appealing male figures and they just get thrown away in movies that are not worthy of them. I looked at all the Disney live action features when I was working on the book, looking at them as much as possible chronologically, and itís very frustrating to see wonderful raw material and, in many cases, wonderful actors--Fred MacMurray, another example--and you see them thrown away thanks to this hack direction that Walt obviously preferred.
It was a price he was willing to pay. He wanted to keep control, rather than hire a really talented director to come in and make a film that would inevitably have that directorís stamp on it. Walt preferred that the films be distinctively Disney even if that meant they were diluted and second or third rate Disney as opposed to the kind of great films that he made when he was totally involved (like) he was with Snow White or any of the early features. There was a kind of greatness in those films that you have in films that have been directed by first rate directors. Itís just a great pity that he wasnít able to step back and say, "These films arenít good enough. I want them to have my name on them and I also want them to be really good films, therefore Iím going to cede some of my control and Iím going to hire somebody, one of these exceptional Hollywood directors, and let them do their best."--disneytim--