There isn’t any shortage of biographies of Walt Disney, or critical examinations of his work. Timothy S. Susanin’s Walt Before Mickey: Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928 wants to be an enlightening book for well-informed devotees, examining in meticulous detail the relatively hazy decade between Disney’s time as a World War I ambulance driver and the emergence of Mickey Mouse. But what Susanin actually offers up is a good deal less interesting.
Essentially, Walt Before Mickey collates every single piece of information about the decade from all the biographies on record, filling out the margins with data gathered from census forms and business paperwork. In the process, Susanin demonstrates an absolute inability to cull out inessential information. The actual story itself takes up a scant 177 pages (a little more than half of the book’s total length), many of them filled out with sentences like “The McConahy Building was at the southwest corner of 31st Street and Forest Avenue (one block east of Troost Avenue and about two and one-half blocks northeast of Peiser’s Restaurant) in one of Kansas City’s main shopping districts, the South Central Business District.” Susanin’s documentation is as meticulous as it is tedious; it’s no surprise to learn he’s a former federal prosecutor.
Between providing the complete family data and job histories of every single person he introduces, Susanin does manage to create a portrait of Disney as an embryonic businessman, one who went from a willingness to tailor his product to his buyers’ demands in the name of financial pragmatism to one who insisted that his animated shorts would be done his way, with gags and a sensibility built from the ground up rather than tailored to what the market currently enjoyed. The most interesting parts of the book quote great chunks from the letters between Disney and Winkler Productions, which distributed his first series, the Alice shorts, as well as the Oswald The Lucky Rabbit series. In excerpts, Disney fights for every dollar he can get while insisting on changing the standard formula for shorts: ditching cute live-action kids bookending each film in favor of all-animated subjects, and insisting story could be dispensed with in favor of nonstop jokes, and that his anthropomorphized protagonists didn’t have to be “neat and trim” to win over audiences.
Still, most of this is raw data. Susanin is so pedantic, he even corrects citations in the biographies he’s basically stapling together. As if the narrative weren’t already devoid of any kind of overall shape or interpretation, Susanin rounds the book out with some 30 pages of epilogue detailing the eventual fate of everyone he’s mentioned, no matter how briefly. This isn’t a biography: It’s a series of meticulously copied notes, with the occasional uncovered nugget.