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“Walt” Episode 3 – “Wartime Walt”

Episode 3 of our serial looking at the life and legacy of Walt Disney.

“The War”. Anyone in their 80s or 90s will tell you that that phrase defined their formative years. Baby boomers, Generation Xers, and Millenials know it as World War II. For those who lived through it, it’s just “the war”. Our cultural landscape has been forever shaped by what happened to our world between 1939 and 1945. It remains the deadliest war in human history, and the wartime and postwar years had a profound influence on the life and career of Walt Disney, as well as the company he founded. That influence is still felt today, so let’s take an in-depth look at that story.

At the dawn of the 1940s, most Americans wanted nothing to do with the war. For them, the European war was a foreign problem. It didn’t affect their lives, in fact, prosperity was finally starting to return after a decade of economic turmoil. Hollywood was in the middle of its “Golden Age”, releasing legendary films like “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz”, and of course, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. It’s safe to say that for Pinocchio, Walt’s second animated feature, expectations couldn’t have been any higher.

After his mother’s death, Walt dug deep into his heartbreak and his frayed emotions. In the late 30s, he formulated what would become the trademark characteristics of the Disney hero. Outsiders struggling for acceptance. Temptation. Loss. Redemption. Survival. These themes would provide the emotional tempo of Pinocchio; he struggles with what it means to be truly human. His quest to become a real boy instills in us a powerful message. We all enter life as gullible, fallible puppets. We are tempted and challenged. And we can become real people…but only if we earn it.

But even this project couldn’t keep Walt occupied. On the other side of the Hyperion studio, he was working on a piece that was unlike anything the world had ever seen before. At first, he called it “The Concert Feature”. Later, it became “Fantasia”. He would craft abstract animated segments scored to classical music, expanding his “Silly Symphonies” concept to be the size of an epic two hour feature. With no dialogue and very little narration, it was a complete shift in the paradigm of the animation genre.

Fantasia and Pinocchio were being produced simultaneously, along with a third feature, Bambi. The number of full time employees at the studio nearly doubled. It quickly became clear that Walt’s crew had outgrown the old Hyperion Avenue studio. Instead, Walt set his sights on a 51 acre plot in Burbank, north of the Hollywood Hills. He set to work creating his dream studio; he was a kid in an empty sandbox. He had always said he wanted to create his own world, filled with his own people. He finally had his chance.

The Burbank studio was practically its own city. It had wide, landscaped walking paths throughout the campus, with its own restaurant, theater, and even gas station. It had its own gymnasium, with a former member of the Swedish olympic team on the company payroll as a personal trainer. Each animator had his own office, complete with plush furnishings. If Walt’s goal was to create his own animated world, this was precisely the place to do it.

Pinocchio premiered in New York City in Feb 1940. It had become an even bigger and more ambitious picture than Snow White, with nearly double the budget. Groundbreaking special effects, such as the ethereal glow of the Blue Fairy and the underwater scenes with the terrifying Monstro, were unlike anything the world had ever seen before. Pinocchio’s quest to become a real boy tugged at the heartstrings of audiences and critics alike. The New York Times film critic stated “It will be said that no generation which produced a Snow White and a Pinocchio could have been altogether bad.”

But Walt’s insistence on even more groundbreaking technological innovation meant that Pinocchio was bound to lose money. Ticket sales were slow in United States, and nearly non-existent in war-torn Europe. The studio had burned through nearly $2 million of its Snow White profits to create their new slate of animated features, while borrowing heavily from Bank of America to build the Burbank property. Walt was in serious financial trouble.

Roy had a plan; they would sell stock in the company. Walt wasn’t happy. He didn’t like the idea of shareholders sticking their noses in his business. But he saw no alternative. The company went public in April of 1940, and the sale of stock netted them $4 million.

With cash in his pocket, Walt premiered Fantasia in New York City two weeks before Thanksgiving 1940. No one was quite sure what to make of it. Some critics thought it was brilliant, others thought that Walt had crossed the line from creative genius to pretentious art and music scholar. Making matters even more difficult was the fact that Fantasia came with its own sound system, which theaters had to lease from Walt in order to properly showcase the grandiose soundtrack. It quickly became clear that, like Pinocchio, Fantasia would not earn back its financial investment.

Meanwhile, back at the Burbank studio, frustration and dissent was beginning to stir. Walt’s sprawling new state-of-the-art animation paradise had come at a cost. The expanded infrastructure meant more separation of duties, which in turn meant that a hierarchy was beginning to form. Not only were the top animators making far more money than the ink and paint crew, they had better perks, too. Reserved parking spaces. Membership in an exclusive penthouse club. The lower tier staff was beginning to grumble. Now that the company had gone public, everyone knew that the boss was making nearly two hundred times as much as his rank-and-file employees.
But they had a glimmer of hope: the ability, at least in theory, to join a union. New labor laws had allowed for collective bargaining by lower level employees working in Hollywood, and the workers who had been toiling away behind the scenes now had the power to organize and demand better working conditions and better wages. Walt employed nearly 80% of the animators working in the field. The Screen Cartoonists Guild knew that, if they were going to have any power whatsoever, they would need to recruit the men behind the mouse.

Walt wasn’t worried. After all, he had built the Shangri-La of animation studios. His staff couldn’t possibly have anything to complain about. One man who didn’t see it that way was was Art Babbitt.

Babbitt had been working for Walt for nearly a decade, and was one of the most talented, respected, and well-paid animators on the team. He had, almost single handedly, created Goofy the Dog, one of Mickey’s best known and most beloved pals. But he made no effort to hide his sympathies for the lower level workers. One of Babbitt’s favorite stories was that of an ink and paint artist, a single mother who was making $16 a week and skipped lunch every day so she could afford to feed her family. One day, she passed out from malnutrition. In Babbitt’s mind, these were the small, voiceless people who needed a union to give them a decent quality of life.

Walt was infuriated by the idea that the Hollywood union wanted to tell him how to run his business. One day in February of 1941, he decided to personally do something about it. He gathered all his employees in the auditorium at the Burbank studio.

He told them that there was no class distinction among his family. The only reason that some employees received better pay and perks was simply a matter of respect for those who were accomplishing the most for the studio. He chided them for their selfishness and lack of dedication to the common cause.

“My advice to the lot of you is this: get your own house in order. You won’t accomplish a damned thing by sitting around and waiting to be told everything. If you’re not progressing as you should, instead of grumbling and growling, do something about it.”

Much of the staff left the auditorium infuriated. More workers signed up for the Screen Cartoonists Guild after Walt’s incendiary speech than had in the whole previous year.  Art Babbitt was one of them. He officially became the highest ranking employee at the Disney studio to openly challenge the boss. Walt saw it as a personal betrayal. In May, Babbitt was fired. The stated reason for dismissal on his pink slip was “union activity”.

Word of his termination spread quickly through the Burbank studio. On May 29, 1941, with only four dissenting votes in a total pool of more than 300, the members of the Disney studio who belonged to the Screen Cartoonists Guild voted to go on strike. Within days, nearly half of the entire payroll had walked out of the building and onto the picket lines. One morning, Art Babbitt loudly heckled and taunted Walt as he drove through the throngs of angry protesters outside the studio. Walt snapped. He jumped out of his car, charged Babbitt, and the two men had to be pried apart before they came to blows.

Walt couldn’t believe that so many of his animators had turned against him. The only way he could rationalize it was to find a scapegoat. He went public with his opinion that Communist agitators had to be responsible for such a crushing blow to his beloved studio. It might sound paranoid or downright crazy to us, but at the time, an explanation like this was par for the course. Most  American industrialists were rabidly anti-Communist, so to his fellow businessmen, this theory made perfect sense. For the first time in his life, Walt was 100% conventional.

Walt’s vision was crushed. The big happy family at the Burbank studio was supposed to be his reward for his two decades of tireless work to become the greatest animator in history. Most of the people who knew him closely will tell you that post-strike Walt was a different person. Colder. Less trusting. But a big opportunity presented itself outside of the contentious walls of the studio, and Walt jumped at the chance to take it.

In the summer of 1941, The United States government had instituted what it called “The Good Neighbor Policy”, intended to improve its relations with Central and South American countries. This was seen as an important part of preventing America from entering the war, because many of these countries had ties to Nazi Germany. But, like every other country in the world, they had even stronger ties to Mickey, Minnie, and all their pals. Roy resolved the strike, and Walt boarded a plane for Rio de Janeiro, arriving on August 17, 1941. Everywhere he and Lillian went, they were greeted like royalty. Walt even commemorated his trip with a short feature called “Saludos Amigos” in 1942, which featured, among other stories, Donald Duck running afoul of ornery llamas in Peru.

Once he was stateside, it was time to get back to work. For his fourth animated feature, Walt had chosen Dumbo, a story about a misfit elephant with huge ears trying to find acceptance and success in his circus community. Even though production had started on Dumbo before the Disney animators went on strike, it posed a daunting challenge. From the outset of the project, producer Ben Sharpsteen had a clear mission: create a quality animated feature on a shoestring budget. One way it achieved this goal was a runtime of just 64 minutes, less than half that of Fantasia.

One noteworthy scene, taking into account that development and animation took place while the strike was still going on, was the late-night congregation of a group of clowns, who came up with the brilliant idea to spruce up Dumbo’s act. Impressed with their ingenuity, they beat a hasty path to the circus director’s office, determined to “hit the big boss for a raise”, a less-than-subtle dig at Walt’s animators on the picket line back in Burbank.

Dumbo did exactly what it was designed to do; turn a profit. Audiences and critics alike loved it, and felt that, though it was in sharp contrast to the lush, artistic look of Pinocchio and Snow White, the simple design added to its charm and emotional clout. The New York Times declared that it was “the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney’s wonder-working artists” It won the Academy Award for best score. Reaction was SO positive that Time Magazine planned to name Dumbo “Mammal of the Year”, with a feature essay that would have undoubtedly created even more buzz, and more theater revenue. But in a sad twist of fate, the war would once again alter the course of the Disney narrative.

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked US forces at Pearl Harbor, plunging America into the war. Time Magazine quickly scrapped the Dumbo issue and named US President Franklin Roosevelt as its Man of the Year. Not surprisingly, a flying elephant was no longer front page news. Walt knew that making feature films would need to take a hiatus for the duration of the war. There was simply no way they could make money.

Now, this isn’t to say that the war years were completely lacking in Disney magic. In fact, the war gave Walt the chance to return to the art form that made him famous; animated shorts. Probably the best known wartime cartoon to emerge from the Disney studio was “Der Fuehrer’s Face”, released on New Year’s Day 1943. In it, Donald Duck finds himself in war-torn Nazi Germany, and is put to work on a factory floor, cobbling together comically large artillery shells for the Third Reich. He wakes up from his nightmare in a cold sweat, only to have his trademark surliness melt away and proclaim his pride and gratitude in being an American. By reducing the very real threat of Hitler’s Nazi ideology to slapstick absurdity, it allowed audiences to feel good about living in a free country, and continue to support the common cause of total victory in this all consuming war against tyranny. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject.

In early September of 1945, World War II finally came to an end. For six long years, the war had dominated the cultural, political, and financial landscape, and Walt had struggled to keep his studio from going bankrupt. He was thrilled to be able to get back to work.

Before the war, flush with cash from the financial success of Snow White, Walt had purchased the story rights to the Joel Chandler Harris stories about Uncle Remus, a former slave in the post-Civil War Deep South who spun colorful yarns about the mischievous briar patch antics of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox. Song of the South would be a celebration of the folklore of rural America, the perfect feel-good story for a country that had endured more than 15 years of economic depression and war.

The story was simple. The politics were not. The south was a powder keg after World War II. The civil rights movement was on the horizon. Black Americans had fought and died in the war against tyranny and oppression, and the irony wasn’t lost on them that they still faced racism and discrimination at home. They didn’t want to see a story that romanticized and sugar-coated their history of exploitation and abuse.

Walt sought out the counsel of prominent black activists, scholars, and the head of the NAACP. They all told him the same thing; this movie could be a great, unifying force if he did it right. But it couldn’t feature happy, singing, carefree black sharecroppers working in the cotton fields. It was time for that hurtful stereotype to die. Walt listened to them, but in the end, he trusted his own instincts.

Walt chose to hold the premier in Atlanta, at the same theater where the Civil War epic “Gone with the Wind” had premiered 7 years earlier. The actors who portrayed the white characters were all in attendance. But James Baskett, who portrayed Uncle Remus, was barred by Georgia law from stepping foot in the segregated theater. The NAACP boycotted the movie, and many chapters picketed theaters. To this day, Song of the South is nearly impossible to find, and many fans regard it as one of the most shameful chapters in the studio’s history.

Later in 1946, Walt became a founding officer of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Testifying before Congress in 1947 about alleged Communist infiltration in Hollywood, Walt began to name names, many of them being the animators who had betrayed him in 1941 by walking out of his dream studio. His testimony proved what his colleagues already knew all too well; that Walt was capable of holding a grudge for a very, very long time. But Walt wasn’t interested in dwelling on politics. He had said what he wanted to say, and now it was time to return to the studio.

Creatively, Walt was all over the map in the late 1940s. He holed up in a hotel room in New York City for an entire week, watching television to see if he could find his way into relevance in the new medium. He traveled to England and, for the first time in his career, filmed a completely live-action movie, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”. He flew to Alaska, where he and his crews shot a nature documentary about seals. He contrived a narrative with hero seals, villain seals, mother seals, and baby seals in a storybook battle between good and evil. He had combined his love of animals with his newfound distrust of animators. After all, seal actors didn’t need to be paid, they didn’t unionize…and they didn’t go on strike! Seal Island won an Oscar for Best Short Subject film, and gave birth to the acclaimed “True-Life Adventures” series.

But by 1949, he had grown to miss the art form that had made him a global icon: feature-length animation. The postwar baby boom meant that Walt had a massive new generation of fans who were ready to fall in love with his friends, the same way their parents had done 20 years earlier.

The 1940s were a tough, complicated decade for Walt. For one thing, it was the first decade of his life where he was in a worse financial position at the end of the decade than at the beginning. Not only that, his grand utopian vision of a great artistic community at the Burbank studio had been snatched from him. The world around him had changed, and depending upon who you asked, he had found himself either unwilling or unable to keep pace. But he was still Walt Disney. People still knew him as one of the most profound creative geniuses in the history of art and entertainment. And he was ready to once again stake his claim as the world’s greatest ambassador of imagination.

Join us next week as we explore that ways that Walt grabbed the 1950s by the reins and literally created a world with his name all over it.


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