“It’s Not Cricket to Pass a Picket”– The Disney Strike 70 Years Later

Disney Strike Are We Mice or MenMay 28th marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Disney strike by members of the Screen Cartoon Guild (later the Screen Cartoonist Guild). The nine-week walkout, precipitated by the firing of Art Babbitt, the head of the Guild’s Disney’s unit, is a legendary event whose full story has yet to be told. Though I may someday finish my history of the beginnings of the union movement in American animation, I’m obviously not going to do it here. Rather, I thought I would say a few words about the strike’s place in the history of the labor movement within the film industry and a bit about how it affected animation itself.

Disney Unit of Screen Cartoon Guild On the Line cartoon 5 June 1941

The strike was, in a sense, was the closing event of the Hollywood labor wars of the 1930s and seemed to end the Chicago mob’s control over The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the industry’s largest union. Specifically, the Disney strike was the last stand for the mob’s man in Hollywood, Willie Bioff, who tried to prevent being sent to prison by (unsuccessfully) trying to settle the strike on Disney’s behalf.

The unions which supported the strike, under the leadership of Herb Sorrell, the charismatic leader of the studio local of the Painters and Paperhangers Union (under whose aegis the Guild operated) subsequently formed the Conference of Studio Unions. The Conference, after the war, became involved in a series of strikes, including the Battle of Warner Bros. (which I wrote about here), which led to the blacklist, the ouster of the Guild from the major studios and the rise of Ronald Reagan.

disney strike wolf detail

As for animation industry, the strike marked the end of Disney’s Golden Age. And like the Fleischer strike four years earlier, it caused an almost indelible  rift between strikers and nonstrikers. It also led to a heated discussion, especially among strikers and Guild members, about the artistic direction animation was going. This discussion laid the groundwork for the formation of UPA, the studio which changed the face of animation in the 1940s and 1950s.

Images: The drawing on the top is from a mimeographed “Strike Summary” published three weeks into the walkout. The second is from the June 5th issue of On the Line, the daily mimeographed newsletter the Guild’s Disney Unit issued during the strike. Both were copied from originals in the Urban Archives Center of California State University, Northridge’s Oviatt Library. The last image is the last panel of a Guild comic strip version of Three Little Pigs published in a newspaper during the strike which I have seemed to have gotten from a posting at Shaneglines.net.

P.S.: July 7th, 2011.The cartoon from the Disney strike newsletter, On the Line, was probably done by Dan Noonan, a junior animator who did story sketch work on the side; Noonan’s struggles to get by when he first came to Disney helped the Guild’s organizing drive. The newsletter itself was edited by Phil Eastman, best known today as children’s book author P.D. Eastman.

Tangled

Tangled

Despite the unexpected critical admiration Byron Howard and Nathan Greno’s Tangled seems to have gained, I was somewhat neutral in approaching the film. In the end, though, I found much to admire in it, especially its use of lighting.

The film, which is inspired by the Brothers Grimm version of Rapunzel, is not without its problems. The story does not really gain traction until towards the end and its efforts to harken back to earlier Disney films  is a bit too self conscious. (For example, the scene in the boat pictured above seems to rather deliberately evoke a scene from The Little Mermaid.) Similarly, one could sometimes hear quotes from Beauty and the Beast’s music in Alan Menken’s score.

But the boat scene, however corny it may seem, does reflect the filmmakers’ use of lighting to invigorate a sometimes weak story. In the film, Rapunzel is kidnapped by Gothel, an elderly woman who covets the child’s magical hair, which can keep her eternally young (the hair glows when it performs its magic). Each year on Rapunzel’s birthday, the king and queen (and their subjects) send lighted lanterns floating into the sky looking for the lost princess.

In addition to light being central to the film’s narrative, the filmmakers have also used it to strengthen its dramatic and comedic impact; unfortunately, the stills available barely hint at what art director David Goetz and look and lighting director Mohit Kallianpur were trying to do.

Tangled

The use of a spotlight is an old trick that dates back to the early silent films of Cecil B. DeMille and is associated with his use of Lasky/Rembrandt lighting in movies such as The Cheat (1915) and Carmen (1915).  In the shot above,  the “spotlight” highlight’s our hero, Flynn Rider’s comic predicament. Below, similar spots are used to highlight Flynn’s more serious predicament after being arrested.

Tangled

Perhaps more interesting is the scene where Rapunzel discovers Flynn after he has climbed into her tower. Sunlight creates another spotlight which shines on him, but initially she’s in the dark; she then slowly walks into the light, as if to mirror her sense of discovery. Again, this sort of staging and lighting is old hat in live-action films, but I don’t recall other animated film doing anything quite like it.

What is so exciting about Tangled’s use of lighting is the sense of discovery in being able to use digital technology to expand the animation filmmaker’s palette. As such, it is a reminder of the fact that the possibilities of computer animation have barely been touched. Credit must be given David Goetz and especially to Mohit Kallianpur, whose job as and lighting director seems somewhat akin to that of a cinematographer.

Credit, of course, should also go to the film’s directors. It’s interesting to note that in commenting on Bryon Howard’s previous effort, Bolt, which he co-directed with Chris Williams, I praised the film for  its use of 3D stereo “technology to evoke some very credible environments ,” especially its impressive “recreation of the streets of New York and Los Angeles.” The use of stereo in Tangled is also helpful in similar ways, and shows that the folks at Disney seem to understand how to utilize stereo more effectively than their cousins at Pixar.

Max Fleischer Teaching Student Officers to Read Maps

Teaching Student Officers to Read Maps

The above article from the December 1918 issue of Popular Science is about how a training film produced by “the Training Division of the War College, Mr. Max Fleischer, a former member of the Popular Science Monthly staff, devised for the General Staff the system that we illustrate.” During World War I Max Fleischer was assigned by the Bray Studios to make training films for the Army, all of which, as far as I know, were destroyed.

You can check 138 years of PopSci  at the magazine’s “The Complete Popular Science Archive” here, though the same material is also available (in slightly easier to read format) on Google Books.

(The man bending down on the lower right image looks a lot like Max Fleischer?)