I was rather pleased with Sarah Colt’s two-part documentary Walt Disney shown the past two nights on PBS, as part of its American Experience series. Part of it, I suppose, is that it devoted so much time to the 1941 Disney strike—one of my specialties, after all, is animation labor history. It really did not tell all the story (Colt simply didn’t have the time), but its recognition of the centrality of the event is important; one only has to compare the strike’s treatment here with that of Theodore Thomas’ Walt & El Grupo (2008), the Disney Studio’s official look at Walt’s goodwill tour of South America, which he went on so he would not have to deal with the strike’s coda. Aside from John Hubley’s official Screen Cartoon Guild strike film (which Colt heavily used along with color outtakes [see image above]), the only other film I know which tried to deal forthrightly with the event was Imogen Sutton’s Animating Art (1988), made for Britain’s Channel 4, whose American distribution was initially restricted.
I was especially pleased that the film acknowledged (in images if not words) the 1937 Fleischer strike (several of the photos used were from those saved by my father Joe, who worked at Fleischer, and which I had variously loaned to The Animation Guild and the Museum of the Moving Image. (I also had some part in getting Art Babbitt to donate his copy of the Hubley strike film to the UCLA Film Archive; I later helped expedite the donation of the film’s color outtakes via Faith Hubley.)
In terms of omissions and elusions, the film fails to follow through on what happened to Ub Iwerks, who seems to disappear from the narrative without a trace. Iwerks famously left Disney in 1930 to set up his own studio, which was big news at the time; however, Iwerks soon after gave up animating and directing in favor of “tinkering” (e.g., building the first multiplane camera used in an animated cartoon), which has led some historians to feel that he was a tinkerer at heart. I bring this up because Colt clearly shows Disney similarly withdrawing from close creative involvement with his films to build model trains. Disney seems to have then channeled his puttering into creating Disneyland, though Iwerks’ tinkering did not have such epic results. (My wife, Vickie, and I speculated on the reasons Ub Iwerks gave up animating and directing in “The Independent Animator Model in Early Animation: The Case of Ub Iwerks,” a paper presented at last year’s Society for Animation Studies conference.)