An American icon
Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince
By Marc Elliot
Andre Deutsch, 2003
305 pages, $30 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
"Who's afraid of the Big Bad Walt?", read the placards of striking Disney cartoonists in 1941, mocking the popular lyric from Walt Disney's Three Little Pigs. They were on to something, because Disney, whose name is synonymous with "wholesome family entertainment", had a dark side every bit as bad as his cartoon wolf.
Disney spied for the FBI for a quarter of a century, red-baited and wrecked Hollywood careers and lives, and teamed up with organised crime to deny his workers a union. He was a virulent anti-Semite strongly sympathetic to fascism.
Disney, whose films were praised by the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover as "dedicated to the highest standards of moral values", had a self-serving understanding of good and evil. Marc Elliott's new muckraking biography demonstrates that Disney was as capable of black deeds as the next reactionary capitalist.
Terrifying paternal violence had left its mark on the young Disney, who was to bully and intimidate his employees, particularly the restive ones, throughout his career.
Born in 1901, Disney broke through to animation success in 1928 with Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (Disney did Mickey's screen voice for seven years). The non-sexual, apolitical, harmless mouse made Disney a favourite of a conservative film industry. His Silly Symphonies set to classical music, and his "golden age" (1937-42) of animated features (Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia) consolidated Disney's reputation as a major, and politically safe, animator. Wealth and Oscars were his reward.
How Disney made his fame and riches, however, is the ugly underbelly to his celebrated cartoons. In a labour-intensive industry (it took 14,000 drawings to make a 10-minute cartoon), Disney was obsessed with keeping wages low and unions out, thus generating chronic grievances in his workforce of more than 1000.
While Disney was pocketing US$2000 a week in 1941, his highest paid artists got only $300, inkers and painters (the lowest paid of the creative staff) only $18, and apprentices a less-than-subsistence US$6. Favourites were unfairly rewarded, hours were long and overtime unpaid.
Wages were docked for minor breaks from work, all employees having to punch a Bundy time machine every time they left their drawing board for whatever reason — getting a drink, going to the toilet or sharpening a pencil. There was arbitrary dismissal for "immorality" whenever Disney's puritanical "house rules" were breached. Disney took all public credit for the creative process, the lack of screen credits for his animators resulting in non-recognition and poor career prospects in the industry.
Disney's workers were ripe for organising. The Screen Cartoonists' Guild (SCG) had become a local of the Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers union in 1941 and secured good contracts at Warner Brothers and MGM. Disney had formed a "company union" to ward off the SCG, but 400 of Disney's workers rejected it and signed SCG pledge cards. Disney's illegal sacking of 20 leaders of the organising drive and his refusal to recognise the SCG, drove Disney workers to strike in May 1941.
Half the workforce struck and picketed, for nine weeks. Solidarity actions upped the pressure — the Screen Actors' Guild donated to the strike fund, printers forced the withdrawal of the Mickey Mouse comic strip from the dailies, Disney film processing was banned by technicians at the Technicolour and Pathe labs. Theatres were picketed and his films boycotted.
Nervously stressed, Disney's facial tics, obsessive hand-washing and juvenile stubbornness to negotiate, forced his brother, Roy, to send him out of the country and settle the crippling strike. The SCG was recognised, all sacked activists rehired, wages increased and paid vacations granted.
Disney, however, was an anti-communist zealot who saw the strike as a Jewish-Marxist plot to destroy him. He sought vengeance. The day after the strike ended, he sacked a leading activist (for the fifth time), Art Babbitt (creator of Goofy and the best bits of Fantasia — like the dancing mushrooms piece). Babbitt, a brilliant animator, was described by Disney as "head sewer rat" of the Cartoonists' Guild. Other top animators and activists were sacked or fled to studios with better working conditions, higher pay, on-screen credits and a chance to use their creative skills free from the cloying sentimentality of the Disney-cute style.
Propaganda films for the US military during World War II, heavily subsidised by the government, made Disney tidy wartime profits, though the "anti-fascism" of an anti-Semite who had attended American Nazi Party rallies and was entertained by Mussolini at his private villa, stopped short of supporting Hitler's Jewish and socialist victims.
Disney rejected a request to make an animation film on Christian/Jewish unity in the face of the Nazi nightmare and the proposal to have cartoon farmyard animals stamping out "weasel words of hate" against Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds was seen by Disney as "promoting communism" because a Rhode Island Red could only be a symbolic communist!
Disney, who believed the war should really have targeted the Soviet Union, took his anti-communist crusade into the heart of Hollywood. With Disney's eager assent, he was made an FBI informer in 1940. He filed dozens of reports on Hollywood "subversives".
As a founder member and vice-president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (a rabid anti-communist organisation of right-wing Hollywood celebrities funded by the major studio heads), Disney was instrumental in getting the government red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate Hollywood. HUAC destroyed the careers, and sometimes the lives, of hundreds of Hollywood radicals and liberals.
Disney, who appeared at the hearings as a "friendly witness", falsely named Herb Sorrell (1941 strike leader from the Painters' Union) as a communist with the intention, successfully achieved, of destroying Sorrell's progressive Conference of Studio Unions, which had succeeded the painters' union, and allowing the gangster-run International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) to take control in the industry.
Sorrell never recovered, dying from a heart attack soon after. He was only in his 30s. The career of former Disney animator and strike leader, Dave Hilberman, was destroyed, too, after Disney named him to HUAC.
Disney actively supported the Hollywood blacklist which was insidiously effective — the merest whisper of a name was enough to do irreparable career damage. Depression, premature death and suicide could, and did, follow. Others were forced into exile — like Charlie Chaplin ('the little Commie', snarled a gloating Disney).
Disney continued to clean his own turf of all those not sharing his reactionary politics. The writer, Aldous Huxley, was working for Disney on Alice in Wonderland but was sacked after he protested the bloody beating of his picketing son by IATSE underworld goons.
When Disney died in 1966, Walt Disney Productions had become one of the wealthiest studios in the world and it continues to rake in the profits. Disney's anti-worker and anti-union spirit lives on — strict dress and grooming codes (from fingernails to 'fancy underwear') — are enforced at Disney's theme parks around the globe and when Disneyland staff in California threatened a strike in 1991 over a facial hair ban, their strike leader was sacked.
Walt Disney's carefully cultivated image is that of a creative, and highly moral, genius. He did have a genius of a sort — a genius for making profits, for breaking unions, for exploiting workers, for glory-hogging, for spying and informing, and for red-baiting and ruining the lives of anyone who threatened to interrupt the flow of wealth to Disney. He is truly an "American icon" — an icon of capitalist USA.
From Green Left Weekly, March 31, 2004.
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