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Walt Disney -- prince or toad?

ESSAY

The studio pioneer's detractors insist that he was racist and mean. A deeper look shows that the truth about the man is far more complicated.

November 22, 2009|By Neal Gabler
  • 'PRINCESS AND THE FROG': It features Disney's first animated black heroine.
'PRINCESS AND THE FROG': It features Disney's first animated… (Disney Enterprises )

Even before it opens later this week, Disney's new animated feature, "The Princess and the Frog," is already considered something of a cultural and animation landmark. After centering cartoons on a Middle Easterner ("Aladdin"), a Native American (" Pocahontas"), an Asian ("Mulan"), and a Hawaiian ("Lilo & Stitch"), Disney animation has entered the post-racial era. The new film features a black protagonist alongside the green one.

It has been a long time coming, but it is an event that, if you believe Disney detractors, would have old Walt spinning in his grave (or his cryogenic chamber).

That's because there is a long-standing belief among those detractors that Walt Disney was anything but the amiable, avuncular, kind-hearted figure he appeared to be on his television program and in his promotions. The real Disney, so this version goes, was a rabid reactionary who was intemperate, crabbed and mean -- racially and ethnically insensitive at best, a racist and anti-Semite at worst. Under his supervision, the Disney studio was inhospitable to minorities, few of whomwere said to have workedthere and they were virtually verboten on the screen, except to be ridiculed. Disney's was a white, Protestant, middle-class studio and fantasy. Minorities need not apply.

How much of this portrait was the product of a smear campaign by Walt's enemies and how much a product of Walt's own unenlightened attitudes is difficult to determine. What one can say is that the truth about Walt Disney seems much more complicated and nuanced than either his enemies or supporters would have you believe.

Labor fight

Disney came by those enemies honestly when his animators staged a strike in 1941 complaining of paternalism and low wages and Walt responded by hustling the supposed union ringleaders off the lot and firing other union members to quash their organizing. Even after the four-month-long strike was settled -- under duress by the federal government -- the wounds did not heal. Disney would feel betrayed for the rest of his life by what he saw as ungrateful employees. The aggrieved employees got their own measure of revenge by portraying Walt thereafter in the least flattering light. Most of what we hear about Disney as a racist or anti-Semite was circulated by animators who had struck in 1941. I know, because several of them made the same charges to me when I was working on my biography of Disney.

Unquestionably, especially after the strike, Disney was a political conservative by way of anti-communism. He was certain that the strike was instigated by communist agents in the Screen Cartoonists Guild who were determined to sully the Disney brand -- this after Disney had been extolled by the left for years for his collaborative enterprise and exemplary working conditions.

Though Walt was something of a political naïf -- he had no interest in politics before the strike and little after it -- he was an easy recruit for the most reactionary elements in Hollywood. They enlisted him to join an organization called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals that was really dedicated less to preserving American ideals than to ridding the film industry of leftists. This was Walt's war too. Still, the organization was so toxic to much of Hollywood -- many of its members were known anti-Semites -- that even such staunch anti-communists as Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner declined to join.

And yet even if Walt were guilty by association -- and he was -- it would be unfair to label him an anti-Semite himself. There is no evidence whatsoever in the extensive Disney Archives of any anti-Semitic remarks or actions by Walt -- only a few casual slurs by his brother Roy. Moreover, Joe Grant, the one-time head of the Disney Model Department and an esteemed story man, was Jewish, as was Harry Tytle, a longtime production executive, and the head of the Disney merchandise arm was a Jewish entrepreneur named Herman "Kay" Kamen, with whom Walt was especially close. Though the studio, as one of the only ones in Hollywood not operated by Jews, had the reputation of being less than minor- ity friendly, prompting Tytle to confess to Walt that he was half-Jewish. Tytle told me that Walt responded by quip- ping that he'd be better if he were all Jewish.

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