Introducing Chris Mullen
Chris Mullen is a student of History at California State University East Bay. Professionally, he makes his time in the Guest Services department of the Walt Disney Family Museum, and he will soon be moving on as a Cast Member at Walt Disney World. He is a passionate admirer of Walt Disney’s work, and hopes to further flex his muscles as a historian. His writing is erudite and engaging, with a deep underlying admiration for the subject matter.
The Great Disney Studio Strike of 1941 is a watershed moment in the chronology of Disney history. Nearly every aspect of the studio was affected as a result. Hopefully, it will come further into the light of study as time goes on, for certainly there is much more to learn and discover about this tumultuous time. Chris Mullen’s piece, featured below, acts as both a report of current studies, and a call to action for further writing. The discussed sources are fantastic places to begin on the journey of understanding the Great Disney Studio Strike. Enjoy!
-Lucas O. Seastrom, Blog Founder
The Mouse on Strike: A Labor War Behind the Silver Screen
By Chris Mullen
Part 1 of 2
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“Disney Studio On Strike.” “Are We Mice Or Men?” “Snow White & 700 Dwarfs.” “1 Genius Against 1200 Guinea Pigs.” These are a few of the picket signs that lit up 500 Buena Vista Avenue in Burbank on May 29th, 1941 as roughly three hundred Disney Studio employees stunned the world by defying one of the most beloved and romanticized entertainment companies of all time. Right in the middle of the strike, Disney fired back by releasing The Reluctant Dragon (1941), a live-action and animated tour of the new Disney Studios. This served as a public relations piece of how familial and collaborative of a place the studios were, in sharp contrast to the events actually unfolding on studio property.
Disney was not done, however. In the finished product of Dumbo, released later that year in 1941, there is a scene in which a number of the strikers are caricatured as clowns who break into song to “hit the big boss for a raise.” A place where the rules and limitations of the outside world did not seem to apply was facing the sobering disillusionment of employee discontent and the proliferation of unionization, signifying that no industry was safe from the insecurity brought about by the Great Depression. But it still remained to be seen how an industry built on such wholesome entertainment and goodwill could have come to such a standstill, creating what one author called “the Civil War of animation” that “splintered the unity of the […] community and affected hundreds of careers”. Why would purveyors of the most optimistic and family-friendly fare in the entertainment industry suddenly strike and defect in such large numbers? The answer to this question, according to the general consensus, is the combination of rapid expansion and stubbornness from one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic and influential entrepreneurs, Walt Disney.
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To understand this oft-overlooked event in entertainment labor history, we must analyze the context of the event in Disney Studio history, through the combined perspectives of biographers and animation historians. Bob Thomas’ Walt Disney: An American Original, and Michael Barrier’s The Animated Man give us two focused looks at Disney’s life and career that shed more than a few revelations on how this strike came to be—Thomas’ is seen as more of a general biography, while Barrier’s is more studio-centric. Providing some necessary depth and context are two related histories on the subject—Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic, about the history of American animated cartoons, and Tom Sito’s Drawing the Line, about the history of American animation unions. These sources contend that the highlights to understanding the 1941 Disney animator’s strike are: the unforeseeable success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the studio’s relocation from the Hyperion Studio (a shoebox of a location) to the expansive Burbank studio, World War II’s blockade of European markets all but ensuring box-office losses for the studio’s next two features leading up to the strike (Pinocchio  & Fantasia ), a desperate emotional plea from Walt to his workers before a meeting of the Screen Cartoonists Guild to consider the future of the studio, and the South American goodwill tour that the federal government sent Walt Disney on to shoot for projects which would later become Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1945) while the Department of Labor could step in and settle the strike.
There is no shortage of biographies on Walt Disney that address the strike in varying perspectives, and Bob Thomas’ An American Original is widely considered one of the best on the subject. Part of his success can be traced from being given complete access to the archives records as well as studio personnel, interviewing anyone and everyone involved in the production process, as well as family, friends, and coworkers that could share any insight into the man himself. Biographies, of which Thomas’ is no exception, highlighting the intense work ethic of Walt Disney consistently offer the same popular stories of Walt as a child working tirelessly to deliver newspapers for his father while going to school. If Thomas ever approaches painting an impossibly aggrandizing, larger-than-life idol of Walt Disney in An American Original, it would be his picturesque description of modest Walt Disney leaving the Midwest for Los Angeles: “He had $40 in cash, and his imitation-leather suitcase contained only a shirt, two undershorts, two pairs of socks and some drawing materials. But when he paid his fare for the trip to California, he bought a first class ticket”.
Following staggering short-film success, exemplified by The Three Little Pigs (1933) being so popular that it “ran for weeks at some theaters, through one change of feature after another”, Walt Disney was captivated by the allure of creating feature-length cartoon films, a move that was unprecedented and almost unanimously ridiculed by the entirety of the film industry, and whose soaring budget all but ensured its fate as “Disney’s Folly”.
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Fate would have it that on the backs of 23¢ adult tickets and 10¢ children’s tickets, Snow White made $8 million globally by the end of its original theatrical run and catapulted Walt and the Disney brand to historic heights. The glittering success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs brought about a gilded age for the company. The Disney Studio was finally able to move out of the cramped yet intimate Hyperion Avenue studio into the expansive Burbank studio property, noted for its “factory proportions,” still in use today. Disney was able to hire hundreds of more artists, committed to releasing a feature film at least once a year throughout the rest of the decade (save for 1944).
However, the team that worked nights and weekends without any kind of overtime compensation to finish Snow White was starting to feel the pinch. According to animation historian Leonard Maltin, “[Walt] Disney felt the personal glow of success and thought his co-workers would share that feeling. […] They merely felt neglected and underpaid”. The fact of the matter was that Disney still ran operations as if the studio was a big family, whereas hundreds of new employees trying to contribute felt shut out. Maltin even draws the connection between employees having less access to Walt Disney with their subsequent lack for “particular compassion for his dedication to the cartoon medium,” a bleak harbinger for a devastating reality check on the horizon.
The gilded age of the studio following Snow White’s triumph lasted about two years, until the effects of World War II on Disney’s global market were unavoidable: “Forty-five percent of the company’s income flowed from overseas; now such important markets as Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia were closed to the Disney product, and income from England and France was frozen”. Walt’s crusade to reinvest heavily in the newest technologies (“You can lick ‘em with product”) left the studios hard up for profit margins, which, thanks in large part to the war, did not come by way of international returns on Pinocchio, Fantasia, or Bambi (1942).
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Stay Tuned for Part 2!
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.