The Mouse on Strike: A Labor War Behind the Silver Screen
By Chris Mullen
Part 2 of 2
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Animation historian Tom Sito, in writing about the history of animation unions, contended that the artists were grateful that Walt Disney “plow[ed] profits back into upgrading the studio’s working conditions and paying for drawing teachers […] to show them how to polish their skills” as well as rarely laying off workers when the standard in animation was seasonal or from project-to-project. Sito also notes that while animation was largely “made to feel inferior to fine artists”, Disney’s care of his employees in making the studios a worker’s paradise brought a new respect to the form. However, this was not enough to stem the discontent with how the studio was being run, with the growing disillusion that Walt Disney cared more about the sanctity of the product rather than the welfare of his employees, those of whom that made such endeavors possible. Walt Disney would be blindsided by this realization, as he (at least appeared to) believe that the dedication to the product and was what would prove his dedication to his employees. The effect of the Great Depression on morale in the workplace was a clear undercurrent.
While the Screen Actors Guild fought for the rights of film and television performers in the early thirties, to that point there had been little to no success on the animation front for its hundreds of overworked and under-compensated artists. This sentiment came to a head when hundreds of animators, represented by the newly formed Screen Cartoonists Guild, walked off of Disney property in 1941 to strike. The consensus among animation historians and Disney biographers is that the Disney strike marked a turning point in the industry, in which many of the most talented animators jumped ship and established new studios or revitalized ones that had fallen behind. Walt’s own political leanings were pushed far to the right, away from his father’s socialist affiliations, demonstrated when he vented to a newspaper columnist: “I am convinced that this entire mess was Communistically inspired and led”. A recovery goodwill tour of South America, suggested by Nelson Rockefeller as an extension of the Good Neighbor Policy, led to the production of two well-received films: Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1945) that put Disney back on its feet until the studios were commandeered by the United States armed forces following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
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For a biography meant to focus more on Walt, one of the strongest points of Bob Thomas’ An American Original is its attention to detail in contextualizing the stories he tells. With this in mind, Thomas sets up the historical context for the strike particularly well: name-dropping the Great Depression, FDR, the New Deal, and the National Labor Relations Board in trying to paint a fuller picture that is not present in other accounts. Thomas also continues by pointing to the move from the “cramped and chaotic” Hyperion studio to the roomier Burbank studio as a metaphor for “magnify[ing] the stratification between job functions” and the discontent “exploited” by new workers from the bigger East Coast animation companies who rejected his paternalistic type of leadership. Probably the most public display of this ignorant paternalism is the desperate meeting with his workers before the strike, mentioned earlier as the anecdote used to introduce Michael Barrier’s book, where Walt paints the enemy to progress as the aggressive expansion made necessary by their early success as well as the collapse of the foreign market with the outbreak of WWII, but notably absent is his own contradictory running of the studio’s operations. Thomas paints the resolution of the strike by a federal mediator negatively: Disney’s conditions of settling the strike without slowing down production or dismissing too many workers were both neglected, however Sito criticizes this view of the strike as “studio-approved”.
Where Thomas’ biography falls short is a perspective from the studio’s history, which is not entirely his fault because with such a young art medium that was not taken seriously until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) hit the scene, animation historians were scarce. This condition is not limited to Thomas alone, as although plenty of Walt Disney biographies have been attempted—from chastising and praising the man to everything in between—few take the opportunity to delve deeper into the evolution of the animation medium itself, pioneered by Disney.
One of the best to tackle the subject is Michael Barrier, who prior to working on a Walt Disney biography had a wealth of research at his disposal, using corporate and government archives, court cases, libraries, oral histories, personal papers, current newspapers and magazines, and interviews, from writing a history of West Coast animation called Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. His strictly Disney work, The Animated Man, benefits greatly from this prior work and establishes his credibility in the field. In attempting a studio-heavy biography, Barrier utilized the story of the strike, and most importantly, Disney’s last-ditch effort to make an emotional plea to his workers to call the strike off, as an introduction. While his speech has been widely panned as a bad move, it highlighted just how important the strike was to the future of not only the studio, but to the medium as a whole. Barrier highlights what he sees as the real issue at stake in the strike, which was “artistic control, and whether Disney was willing to surrender any of it, now that the company had grown too large for him to supervise everything himself” which, in effect, hindered any growth made artistically in the product released under his name, “locking in place a limited, and limiting, conception of what character animation was capable of”. The strike, and its accompanying disillusionment, forced Disney to readjust his paternalistic way of managing the studio, from coordinating close-knit friends challenging each other in their efforts to propel animation to an art form, to supervising an impersonal, highly stratified work environment focused more on production efficiency than innovation. In this way, Barrier’s account can be compared to others’ in the field that also look at the strike’s impact on the trajectory of the Disney Company and the animation medium.
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For more background about how the Disney Company’s experience is compared to other major studios, Leonard Maltin tries his hand at writing the history of American animated cartoons in Of Mice and Magic. He does well particularly with how he lays out the timeline of events that led to the 1940s downturn for the Disney studios, in which the strike was the third and final blow. The first blow was WWII, cutting off Disney’s “highly profitable foreign market” at a crucial point. The second blow was Fantasia (1940), a movie containing animated short subjects set to classical music, flopping at the box office. He agrees with Thomas about how their set-up at the Hyperion and its quality of “ramshackle hominess” benefited those who wanted more direct access to the boss—a boss with a need for complete creative control. As frustration mounted towards these inherent contradictions, a clash was clearly on the horizon and the strike proved to be that clash. Maltin tries to play both sides of the fence on the argument of whose fault the strike might have been, a view that makes sense considering that his work is not as much focused on taking definitive stances as it is in simply laying out the important events. As was the pattern in the history of the studio, many of the animators that left during the strike reinvigorated Disney’s competition in cartoon production or created some of their own, working for Warner Brothers, MGM, and United Productions of America (UPA), among others. “One thing is clear: it seriously changed the atmosphere of the studio and affected the work produced there in years to come”.
Delving deeper into animation history is where we meet Tom Sito, who, with his work, Drawing the Line, chose to write a history of collective bargaining in the animation industry. In reference to the anecdote about Walt’s desperate speech to his animators, (retrospectively seen as a “disaster” even by the staunchest of Walt apologists), Sito clarifies that it was actually to beat a planned mass meeting of the artists and the Screen Cartoonists Guild to the punch. Walt’s South American tour utilizing the country’s Good Neighbor Policy is labeled by Sito as a “face-saving tactic […] concocted to get Walt out of town so a deal could be struck” by the Department of Labor, a point that is discussed by other sources only in reference to the movies that were made because of it. Another claim made by Sito that isn’t recognized by the other sources is that the strike ended “the experimental period of Disney animation”, looking to the stark differences between the first five animated features done by the Walt Disney Studios. Sito goes further into the personal animosity that persisted between Walt and Art Babbitt, the animator who led the strike efforts, through the rest of their lives: “Walt Disney had one final way to get back at his old enemy: oblivion. […] The full resources of the studio’s publicity machine were employed in an Orwellian effort to erase any contributions Babbitt ever made to the Walt Disney story (though Babbit’s name can be found today at the Walt Disney Family Museum). He even covers a subject that is slightly outside the purview of the Thomas and Barrier biographies but is strangely underrepresented in Maltin’s account, which is the effect of the Hollywood blacklist in animation, tied at least in part to Walt Disney’s testimony that the strike was Communistically led. What was gained by the strike, Sito contends, is mass unionization laying the foundation for the highest standard of living seen in the industry, and respect.
Biographers and animation historians came together to answer the question: why did the strike happen? A combination of factors put the Disney Studio on a path to crash head first into the labor struggles of the Great Depression. The effect of moving into a bigger studio, where artists had much less access to Walt Disney coupled with higher production costs and a European blockade, inspired artists—fearful about the studio’s future—to seek representation, which took immediate action with the strike to change the course of the future of animation.
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1. Maltin, Leonard. Of mice and magic: a history of American animated cartoons. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.
2. Barrier, J. Michael. The animated man a life of Walt Disney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
3. Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: an American original. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
4. Sito, Tom. Drawing the line the untold story of the animation unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.