Disney Not in This Much Trouble Since 1941

Many of the activist cartoonists later fell victim to Hollywood’s notorious blacklist era, writes Thomas Doherty.

Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee claiming that communists once “took over” his studio. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

By Thomas Doherty 
Brandeis University

The family-friendly, controversy-averse Walt Disney Co. has walked into the buzz saw of the American culture wars, version 2022.

In April, officials at Disney objected to a Florida law prohibiting instruction in sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responded by signing a bill revoking Disney’s self-governing status, a unique arrangement in which the company operated like an independent fiefdom within the state.

Traditionally, the custodians of one of Hollywood’s most reliable cash machines have been careful to sidestep political minefields that might remind customers of a realm outside the Magic Kingdom. Better to wallow with Scrooge McDuck in the Money Bin than be caught in the crosshairs of Fox News chyrons.

Only once before has the Disney brand gotten so entangled in a public relations briar patch – in 1941, when the original iteration of the company was confronted by an internal revolt that pitted the founding visionary against his pen-and-ink scriveners.

The characters in the showdown were as colorful as any drawn on the studio’s animation cels: union activists, gangsters, communists and anti-communists, and, not least, Walt Disney himself, who, dropping his avuncular persona, played a long game of political hardball and slow-burn payback.

Workers Grumble as Disney’s Star Soars

Even then, Walt Disney inspired a special kind of awe around Hollywood.

Billy Wilkerson, editor of The Hollywood Reporter, declared Disney “the only real genius in this business” in the Dec. 17, 1937, issue of the periodical.

Disney was hailed as the father of the first sound cartoon, “Steamboat Willie” (1928); the first Technicolor cartoon, “Flowers and Trees” (1932); and the first feature-length cartoon, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937).

“Snow White” marked the beginning of the extraordinary creative streak – “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” in 1940, “Dumbo” the following year and 1942’s “Bambi” – on which the Disney mythos would be built forever.

In 1940, Disney plowed the profits from “Snow White” into a state-of-the-art animation studio in Burbank, California, where the comfort of his workers, so he said, was a high priority.

“One of Walt Disney’s greatest wishes has always been that his employees could work in ideal surroundings,” read an advertisement in the Oct. 10, 1940, issue of The Hollywood Reporter. “The dean of animated cartoons realizes that a happy personnel turns out the best work.”

But even by the standards of exploitative Hollywood shop floors, Disney animators were overworked and underpaid. Forced to hunch over a drawing board for 10 hours a day, they had no desire to whistle while they worked. Instead, they wanted a strong union to negotiate on their behalf. Disney didn’t want any of it.

Woman holds cartoon drawing.

A Disney animator works on cells from the film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” (Earl Theisen/Getty Images)

The animators opted to be represented by the confrontational Screen Cartoonists Guild rather than the pro-management “company union,” the American Society of Screen Cartoonists.

“Disney cartoonists make less than house painters,” charged the guild. “The girls are the lowest paid in the entire cartoon field. They earn from $16 to $20 a week, with very few earning as high as $22.50.” The guild demanded a 40-hour, five-day work week, severance pay, paid vacation and a minimum wage scale ranging from $18 a week for apprentices to $250 for cartoon directors.

To go nose-to-nose with Disney in the negotiations, the Screen Cartoonists Guild chose Herbert Sorrell of the Motion Picture Painters, Local 644, a longtime thorn in the side of studio management.

Sorrell was a broad-shouldered union man of the old-school variety. A former heavyweight prize fighter, he was not afraid to mix it up on the picket line with cops and strikebreakers.

Sorrell’s footwork in the boxing ring – not to mention the brass knuckles he carried – came in handy. In the 1930s, labor organizing in Hollywood could be more hazardous than stunt work. Many studio heads had already cut sweetheart deals with the mobbed-up trade unions, notably the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, run by a Chicago-schooled gangster named Willie Bioff.

Animators Put Down Their Pens

On May 28, 1941, the Screen Cartoonists Guild called a strike, and hundreds of animators walked out on Disney.

Brazenly violating Disney’s copyright, the strikers repurposed Disney characters into pro-union spokesmen and paraded outside theaters playing Disney films.

Disney preferred to negotiate with Willie Bioff, a mob-connected union leader who was cozy with management. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

There are no strings on me!” exclaimed Pinocchio in one placard. The slogans were as clever as the visuals: “Snow White and 700 Dwarfs,” “3 Years College, 2 Years Art School, 5 Years Animation Equals 1 Hamburger Stand” and “Are We Mice or Men?

Disney was enraged. He claimed that Sorrell had threatened to turn the Burbank studio into a “dust bowl” unless he caved to the strikers’ demands.

Behind the scenes, Disney offered the SCG a deal brokered by the gangster Willie Bioff.

Disney then placed ads in the trade press saying he had made generous offers to “your leaders” – that would be Bioff – and had acceded to most of the strikers’ demands.

“I am positively convinced that Communistic agitation, leadership and activities have brought about this strike, and has persuaded you to reject this fair and equitable settlement,” Disney said.

“Dear Walt,” Sorrell retorted, “Willie Bioff is not our leader. Present your terms to OUR elected leaders, so that they may be presented to us and there should be no difficulty in quickly settling our differences.”

Eventually, the feds, in the person of the National Labor Relations Board, intervened. On July 29, after 62 days of rage on both sides, Disney settled – through clenched teeth. Disney and the Screen Cartoonists Guild squabbled intermittently until the end of the year, but Sorrell had won on the big points: better wages, job security and a “closed shop,” which requires union membership as a condition for employment.

Disney’s Revenge

To Disney, though, this wasn’t just a dispute between management and labor. It was oedipal rebellion against the father in his own house.

In October 1947, Disney got his chance for revenge when he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was investigating Hollywood for alleged communist subversion in motion picture content and within the ranks of organized labor.Disney was called as a friendly witness, and friendly he was: While waiting to testify, he good-naturedly sketched pictures of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse for the children of the committee members.

While waiting to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Walt Disney draws for the daughter of the chief counsel for the committee and the son of a committee investigator. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

At the witness table, Disney emphasized that while today “everyone in my studio is 100% American,” the percentage had not always been so high. He named the name that had stuck in his craw since 1941. “A delegation of my boys, my artists, came to me and told me that Mr. Herbert Sorrell … was trying to take them over,” Disney said. Sorrell and his cohorts, charged Disney, “are communists,” though admittedly, “no one has any way of proving those things.”

Proven or not, Disney’s allegations were career-killers. Many of the activist cartoonists of 1941 fell victim to Hollywood’s notorious blacklist era, when hundreds of workers on both sides of the screen were rendered persona non grata at the studios for their political affinities.

As a result, the Screen Cartoonists Guild softened its tone. In 1952, it voted to become affiliated with the firmly anti-communist International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees – Bioff’s former outfit. As for Sorrell, he was hounded by charges of communist sympathies and ultimately barred from a leadership position in his own union.

Disney, you know about. After venting before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he navigated the company back to the 50-yard line of America’s culture wars. There the entertainment conglomerate stayed – until recently, when it wandered off Disney World into the swampland of Florida politics.The Conversation

Thomas Doherty is professor of American studies, Brandeis University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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20 comments for “Disney Not in This Much Trouble Since 1941

  1. Melissa D.
    May 18, 2022 at 23:54

    My trip to Disneyland for my 5th Birthday was the day I found out the White Rabbit’s “house” was just a door painted on the side of a wall. The other kids enjoyed the rides and the cotton candy, but I couldn’t get over how there was suspicious continuous paint along where the door’s opening was supposed to be. I didn’t understand the term “corporate power behind the faux magic” but I felt something was wrong. I believed I had been tricked. Where did the rabbit sleep at night? He was expected to perform daily in the parade, and Walt couldn’t be bothered to carve out a tiny house from a large block of concrete? The only way the day could’ve been worse is if I had been given a picture of a Birthday cake and a fork.

    If you were one of the kids who watched the parade and forgot about seeing the idiosyncrasies of the White Rabbit’s house, it’s an easy transition into adulthood and overpaying for America’s wars while maintaining the illusion of America as a benevolent Democracy.

  2. robert e williamson jr
    May 17, 2022 at 15:38

    When is the last time anyone commenting here visited the so called “Magic Kingdom”. I wonder. The Kingdom where money talks and bullshit walks. Nothing magic about having lots of dough!

    You got those ungodly priced high-end tickets, you are escorted very discreetly to the head of the line around the have-nots who likely have sacrificed to get there in the first place and end up standing in line for hours. Shameful American exceptionality at it’s most.

    Self-governing status, just google Disney self government status in Florida. Water supply, waste water treatment, access to utilities. Just the tip of the iceberg. This is the type of corporate mentality that reins today, no unions low wages bare bones benefits and the promise that “Don’t worry we take care of our employees” bs!

    I’m old enough to know quite a lot about this corporations bottom line behavior, $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

    Maybe Uncle Walt wasn’t so pure, hiring a mobster to represent his dream, which f0r me is a living nightmare of exploitation of the classes.

    Thanks CN

    • robert e williamson jr
      May 18, 2022 at 13:28

      I left a comment at Five Reasons for Washington’s Was Addiction, and made a reference to imply that it did not take a Rhodes Scholar to truly understand the problem of Washington’s War Addiction.

      *** SPOILER ALERT ***

      At the time I ended with “I’ll see you in the funny papers”. I was close but alas no cigar, we met again here with Uncle Walt and his cartoons.

      I intended to post this with my comments at the “Five Reasons . . . ” article but comments were closed.

      I’m here again with a twist on my previous comments. “I doesn’t take a college Prof or a Rhodes Scholar to figure out the Disney Corporations motivations, which have nothing to do with magic but much more about the corporate power behind the faux magic, $$$$$$$$$$$ billions and Billions.

      *** SEGUE ***

      David Foster Wallace, 1997 during an interview on the Charlie Rose show. It’s on the utube BTW.

      During the wide ranging interview Mr. Wallace made this comment which stuck me so that I wrote it down.

      Mr. Wallace said, ” . . . . professors teach three or or four years and Their learning drops off the chart . . . .”

      I posit that in the coming years Disney will go broke at the “Magic Kingdoms”, the poor being the prevailing class of the masses who used to flock to those “Magic” kingdoms, will no longer be able to afford the indignity of having to stand for hours in line while the “HAVES” proudly sport their wealth by going around long lines behind the scenes.

      So be it.

      My commons sense tells me that we have far too many highly educated “experts in DC”, who have sold out to the MICCIMAT so they won’t find themselves standing inline at the Faux Magic Kingdom” and instead will never stand for anything of real value in their FAUX careers. Walking in place, shuffling folderol and doing damned little else of any worth to society because of their commitment to the MICCI MOUSE horrors of death and destruction produced by those who promise security but deliver the horrors of war instead!

      In closing one last thought. “You can tune a piano but you cannot tune a fish”, thanks to late Frank Zappa. See you in the funny papers.

      Now for the sake of Dog will you evil doers free Julian. Come on POTUS Joe show us you are human!

      Thanks CN

      • M.C. Fields
        May 18, 2022 at 23:40

        I remember the last time I *didn’t* go to Disneyland. A generous client wanted to give me premium tickets to thank me for my work and I declined. Had I known they were the latest and greatest, most ‘exceptional’ Disneyland tickets, I would’ve sold them on Ebay to Malcolm Nance for $50.

        At the time I thought…how do you simplify the expression:
        1/Disneyland + 1/Kardashians + 1/MSM ?

        You have to find the lowest common denominator. But how do you choose among them?

        Having lived most of my life in my own bubble, I know so little of history, foreign languages, government, corporations and current events that I can’t tell whether (Disneyland * Kardashians * MSM) has any common factors, and so it might not be the ‘least’ common denominator. Better to be uninformed than misinformed!

        So Disney is its own country like the Vatican? Corporations have become people who have more rights and privileges than their human counterparts.

        My great-aunt was almost recruited as an artist for Walt Disney Co. in the 1960s. She didn’t think working conditions were good, and they offered less pay if you were female.

  3. R. Billie
    May 15, 2022 at 16:09

    One of my uncles worked as an animator for Disney on the film “Bambi”. I was told he created and drew all the parts for the character “Thumper” the rabbit. He was a very soft spoken man, the very definition of a gentleman, but he once described Walt as “a bit of a jerk” to work for.

  4. Walter
    May 14, 2022 at 13:47

    I well remember hearing of the character of Disney… Quite blunt language from a fella who had worked for “Walt” and knew. He called the avuncular fella a “nazi” and a “fascist”, and then added some improbable sexual qualities. My take was that esteemed Mr D was a union-bustin’ scab-luvin’ nazi-luvin yellowdog blacklist-luving racistratfink…but I was just a kid, no doubt Dear Uncle Walt was a saint and my black-listed informant simply a lyin’ commie Red. I still see the name of my old friend in the cartoon credits, but not on the Disney ones.

    • Curmudgeon
      May 17, 2022 at 14:49

      IF Walt were a “nazi-luvin yellowdog…” there wouldn’t have been a union capable of organizing his shop. Most people spout off about “Nazis” and “Fascists” while ignoring the fact that they legislated and ENFORCED the highest employment standards in the world. They required employers form worker councils and address workers concerns. Failure to do so would result in government intervention. Mussolini implemented the world’s first universal health care plan in 1921. Any honest look at the movements would see that they are actually movements of the “left”. They are only “right” if you are a communist. That’s not to say the movements were without flaws, which is true for any political or economic philosophy. It was always obvious that Disney was anti-coomunist, even denying Khrushchev access to Disneyland. I visited Southern California in the late 60s. My then partner wanted us to go to Disneyland. I refused because I thought Disney was an a-hole, even though a lot of his productions were good. Not mentioned in the article was Disney’s longstanding battle with the Hollywood Zionists and their mob connections. There is no knowing how that may have played into the equation.

    • john
      May 18, 2022 at 13:35

      He also owned child sized torture devices. He was one sick puppy.
      Pretending McCarthy wasn’t basically correct about Hollywood only obscures reality.

  5. May 14, 2022 at 10:59

    Here is an article about the homeless disney worker: hxxps://www.ocregister.com/2018/03/30/the-homeless-disney-worker-who-died-alone-in-her-car-became-the-face-of-a-public-debate-but-all-she-wanted-was-privacy/

  6. May 14, 2022 at 10:57

    Just recently, a Disney employee (friendly, capable, unfailingly enthusiastic about her job) died–whereupon it was discovered she was homeless and living out of her car. I’ll try to get details, but it seems to me that fair treatment of their workers matters much more than taking a lead in culture wars.

    • Curmudgeon
      May 17, 2022 at 15:08

      While it is unfortunate, putting it down to Disney alone is not fair. The globalist mindset, which afflicted Disney and most US corporations decades ago is best expressed by the Commerce Degree mindset – Human Resources. People are not humans, they are resources, like an open pit mine to be stripped of value then discarded. In addition globalists require an endless chain of cheap labour to suppress wages and working conditions while increasing profits. Much of that comes from turning post secondary education into a commodity – like bottled water, where you pay bags of money for a piece of paper that a thousand of others have to compete for less than 100 jobs. It’s not just a Disney phenomenon.
      As for being homeless, I have a friend who moved to Vancouver, Canada almost 50 years ago. She had a very good paying job, but always rented, because she spent a lot of time at her cottage. For the past 10 years, despite having a retirement income as much as many people earn in decent paying jobs she has been forced to move further and further out of Vancouver where you are going to pay $1M for a condo the size of a broom closet. Why? Mass immigration has created an affordable housing shortage.
      As bad as Walt may have been, the scum that have taken over his gig are infinitely worse.

  7. Altruist
    May 14, 2022 at 03:11

    Informative, interesting article.

    I regret this article doesn’t delve into the current showdown between Disney and DeSantis.

    This epic battle is worth analyzing and thinking about – where a company formerly beloved by traditionalists for its insipid “family values” has adopted the “woke ideology” now de rigueur for conformist corporations and as a result has become a lightning rod for exactly these same traditionalists.

    Here we have the situation where the corporate management – who undoubtedly don’t even want to hear about these culture war issues – are caught between their employees, most of whom are “woke” California Democrats, and their conservative customers. Would make a great HBS case study. The matter is not without its humorous aspects, but has serious implications. Also for the conformist companies lining up “in support of Ukraine” and withdrawing from Russia, even though this “virtue signalling” is bad for business and for their Russian customers and employees and has no impact on the outcome of the Ukraine war.

    • Mike
      May 15, 2022 at 13:19

      That’s an excellent summary of the current situation. I see the “Disney Wokeness” as sort of a final straw for a large group of Middle America. I’d describe these people as once culturally against gays and marginally tolerant toward non-whites having largely moved into acceptance of those groups. The problem they have now is they see the cultural goalposts constantly moving away from them. For example after their acceptance of gay marriage it became about accepting transexuals. Then it was about trans bathrooms. Then it was about transexuals being allowed the same changing rooms as their wives and daughters. Now it’s about teaching (some say grooming) transexual behavior to grade school students. Today Disney is fighting for the right to teach trans issues to Kindergartners and 3rd graders. You have to see some of the LibsOfTikTok videos to see how nutty things have become. It’s not just trans and gay issues. A pro life clinic is firebombed and the media describes the incident as a “fire breaking out” and a “molotov cocktail found”. It’s about whites who were once dominant in America are now running scared of crossing racial taboos that every other ethnic group is never called out for crossing. Yesterday some white crazy murdered blacks in Buffalo and we will likely hear far more about that crime than we heard about the black crazy that purposely ran down dozens of grannies and kids in Wisconsin last Christmas. I also agree about your Ukraine observation. Unfortunately the line between government and corporations these days is pretty much no line. As far as ordinary people go, television is too powerful of a medium for most of us to resist so I doubt people are going to wake up until they see some connection to the decline in their standard of living.

      Thank you for your interesting observation.

      • Altruist
        May 16, 2022 at 16:16

        You’re most welcome – and you really describe perfectly how crazy and out of hand the whole situation is becoming.

  8. May 13, 2022 at 16:25

    I don’t think this is going to hurt Disney. Disney is magnitudes more popular than DeSaint and all of the Florida General Assembly members put together. This attack on Disney will most likely result in a backlash against the republicans.

  9. RebeccaGrrl
    May 13, 2022 at 15:30

    Disney fought the Union within his own company. I don’t think that’s the same as Disney’s Executive Suite of higher ups going after political stances in the state that have NOTHING to do with how they run their company. This suggestion by the article is a poor comparison of current vs past. The history of course is accurate.

  10. CaliDan
    May 13, 2022 at 13:48

    I already knew that working conditions at Disney were poor at best; but I’d really appreciate a deep dive into what was described above as an “independent fiefdom.” My gosh. Are there other such arrangements elsewhere? How did it work? Exactly how much autonomy did Disney have? Did they abuse their autonomy? If so, how? I have so many questions.

    I’d appreciate good references to this, if available.

    • RebeccaGrrl
      May 13, 2022 at 15:27

      You can easily research sources online and find them.

    • JonT
      May 13, 2022 at 15:29

      Yes, I was wondering about this ‘self governing status… ” Would be interesting to see more about this.

  11. Stierlitz
    May 13, 2022 at 12:58

    One of the top animators and instigators of the strike was Art Babbitt. According to him, the strike broke out when one of the girls collapsed at work. Soon it was revealed that she didn’t have the money to eat … welcome to Walt’s magic kingdom Bioff of course came to a violent end in little pieces: his friends in the mob had had enough of him and tied him up in a closed sedan with five sticks of dynamite sizzling. That was the end of Willie.

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