Disney Strike of 1941

On May 28, 1941, the Screen Cartoonists Guild, Local 852, affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Painters, Paperhangers, and Decorators of America (a branch of the AFL) struck at the Disney Studio.[1] On May 29,…a picket line appeared at the studio,[2]…[with] some five hundred picketers.[3] The strike was bitter and acrimonious, shattering the benign image the Disney Studio had presented the world.[4] Cries of 'fink,' 'scab,' and other epithets were hurled against nonstrikers, who retaliated by calling strikers 'Commies.' It was a mess . . . Long friendships between 'ins' and 'outs' were destroyed. The hostility was brutal. Strikers let air out of tires or took screwdrivers and scratched the cars as they drove through the gate. There were fights — even some shots were fired [Johnston interview; Jack Hannah, interview by David R. Smith, 8 July 1975, note to p. 29; and Jack Kinney, Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters: An Unauthorized Account of the Early Years at Disney's (New York: Harmony Books, 1988), pp. 137-138].[5] A nonstriker reportedly poured a circle off gasoline around a group of strikers and threatened to drop a lighted cigarette on it.[6]

A photograph showed striking cartoonists carrying placards ranging from the purely informative — "Disney Studio On Strike" — to the more creative — "1 Genius against 1200 Guinea Pigs."[7] Former Disney animator, story writer, and director Jack Kinney has written that "Gunther Lessing…was hung in effigy."[8] A group of shirtless, hooded male strikers paraded with a guillotine and a dummy made up to resemble Gunther Lessing, Disney's hated studio attorney. In a parody of the French Revolution, according to one observer, the gleeful dissidents "kept cutting Gunther Lessing's head off over and over."[9] There was a mass exodus of talent.[10]

Disney was shocked. He decided that Communists had infiltrated his studio and were attempting to take over the industry.[11] He took photos of those who marched in the picket line…and turned the photos over to the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee.[12] (He subsequently appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and denounced [the Cartoonists Guild representative Herb] Sorrell and layout artist Dave Hilberman.[13])

Disney wasn't above intimidating the union bosses and their rank and file animators.… In response to the strike, Walt offered a twenty-six page reply, saying in part:

This business is ready to go ahead. Don't forget this — it's the law of the universe that the strong shall survive and the weak must fall by the way; and I don’t give a [expletive deleted] what idealistic plan is cooked up, nothing can change that [Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley, The Disney Studio Story (New York: Crown Publ., 1988), pp. 43-44].[14]

According to the leader of the strikers, Walt hired about fifty private police to stand guard at the studio gate and rough up anyone who harassed strike-breakers. After several shoving incidents, the Burbank police ordered this force inside the studio fence to avoid further violence.[15]

Disney's animators…sa[id] that Walt Disney was authoritarian and played favorites.… He allegedly called a press conference and publicly auditioned his loyal band of ever-faithful females who worked for the studio. In one of the most bizarre moments of his career, Disney encouraged his girls to show up in skimpy bathing suits for his personal perusal. On that day dozens of the studio's hopeful "Hollywood honeys" displayed their charms to their leering boss and equally leering press [Marc Eliot, Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince (New York: Carol Publ., 1993), p. 139].[16]

On June 20,…Disney's The Reluctant Dragon,[17]…a collection of shorts strung together to make a feature,[18]…premiered at the Pantages Theater. The strikers, angered by the film's depiction of life at the studio as one big happy family, turned out en masse to picket the opening, carrying derisive signs and posters. The strike had caused Walt's chronic nervous condition to erupt once again, reducing him to a walking collection of tics and phobias. His hand-washing alone became so obsessive he sometimes visited his private studio bathroom as often as 30 times an hour. His temper grew shorter, and his willingness to reason with the strikers evaporated. Spontaneous outbursts continued to punctuate his meetings. At home, screaming matches with [his wife] Lillian could be heard by passersby and neighbors.[19]

Jack Kinney, who remained at the Burbank studio to work on Dumbo, has written that "during the strike negotiations, the studio decided that it would be best to get Walt out of town" [Kinney, Assorted Other Characters, p. 139].[20] Frustrated and angry and unwilling to compromise, Walt accepted the U.S. government's invitation for a goodwill tour of South America,[21]…hop[ing] it would offset some bad PR Walt had been getting.[22] He took along animators and story men, and the trip resulted in two lively features, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.…

When Walt Disney came back from South America, the strike had been settled by government conciliation which made the studio a union shop.[23] He became…furious.[24] Bitterness remained on both sides, and the intimacy and trust Walt had shared with his animators was gone forever.[25]

[1] Shale, Richard, Donald Duck Joins Up: The Walt Disney Studio During World War II (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1976, 1982), p. 20.

[2] Bob Thomas, Disney's Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules (New York: Hyperion, 1992, 1997), p. 94.

[3] Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Revised ed. (New York: Plume, 1980, 1987), p. 64.

[4] Thomas, Disney's Animation, p. 94.

[5] Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997), p. 210.

[6] Charles Solomon, Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, Revised ed. (New York: Wings Books, 1989, 1994), p. 71.

[7] Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era (Oxford: Roundhouse Publ., 1993), p. 123.

[8] Ibidem, p. 121.

[9] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 209.

[10] Perucci Ferraiuolo, Disney and the Bible: A Scriptural Critique of the Magic Kingdom (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon Books, 1996), p. 5.

[11] Jack Mingo, The Juicy Parts: Things Your History Teacher Never Told You About the 20th Century's Most Famous People (New York: Perigee, 1996), p. 104.

[12] Ibidem, p. 105.

[13] Solomon, Enchanted Drawings, p. 71.

[14] Ferraiuolo, Disney and the Bible, p. 5.

[15] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 210.

[16] Ferraiuolo, Disney and the Bible, pp. 5-6.

[17] Marc Eliot, "The dark side of Uncle Walt: Walt Disney," Los Angeles Magazine, May 1993, 38(5), p. 48(8); based on Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince.

[18] Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture, p. 121.

[19] Eliot, "Uncle Walt."

[20] Smoodin, Animating Culture, p. 131.

[21] Thomas, Disney's Animation, pp. 94-95.

[22] Eliot, "Uncle Walt."

[23] Thomas, Disney's Animation, p. 95.

[24] Eliot, "Uncle Walt."

[25] Thomas, Disney's Animation, p. 95.

See also

Brainwashed at the Mouse House
Walt's Youth
Disney War Propaganda
Disney and the FBI
Disney Sweatshops
Disney Pedophiles
Disney, Hoover and Reno
Why We Hate Disney news group
misc. keywords: