Walt Disney on American Experience

John Hubley Disney strike film color outtakes Walt Disney American Experience

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.)

Interview with Nancy Massie

I’ve recently been digitizing interviews I’ve done over the years, especially those I did relating to my PhD dissertation, “Popeye the Union Man,” which dealt with the Fleischer strike and attempts to organize the Van Buren studio in the 1930s. . While I was at it, I also did a good number of interviews with people involved with organizing other studios, including Disney, Schlesinger and Terrytoons.  One of these was with former Disney inker Nancy Massie on June 4, 1981 (two months before she passed away); she was later hired by Richard Williams to teach the secrets of Disney inking to his staff. Unfortunately, only the last part of the interview seems to have survived my several moves since I left Los Angeles eight years ago.

Anyway, during my visit last week to L.A. last week, I dropped off a copy to Nancy’s son, Jeff, the Animation Guild’s Recording Secretary, who posted it on the Guild’s blog here  as part of TAG’s ongoing series of interviews with animation veterans. A list of TAG’s interviews, which I highly recommend, can be found here (they are also available through iTunes).

“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.