Thursday, February 19, 2015


Two months ago, Comics Beat's Heidi Macdonald wrote a post where she perpetuated a claim that's now been mostly debunked that famous animator Walt Disney was a racist/sexist/antisemite, which Canadian writer Jeet Heer repeated as well. While there are some terribly dumb things Disney said in his time, however, the claims of sexism are at least half exaggerated, and film historian Neal Gabler was able to do research largely refuting claims Disney was even an antisemite/racist:
Hollywood historian Neal Gabler examined the anti-Semitism charge in his 2006 biography of Disney. “Of the Jews who worked [with Disney], it was hard to find any who thought Walt was an anti-Semite,” Gabler reported. “Joe Grant, who had been an artist, the head of the model department, and the storyman responsible for Dumbo... declared emphatically that Walt was not an anti-Semite. ‘Some of the most influential people at the studio were Jewish,’ Grant recalled, thinking no doubt of himself, production manager Harry Tytle, and Kay Kamen [head of Disney’s merchandising arm], who once quipped that Disney's New York office had more Jews than the Book of Leviticus. Maurice Rapf concurred that Walt was not anti-Semitic; he was just a ‘very conservative guy.’” [...]

Gabler also revealed that Disney “frequently” made unpublicized donations to a variety of Jewish charities, including a Jewish orphanage, a Jewish old age home, Yeshiva College (precursor to Yeshiva University), and the American League for a Free Palestine [Israel]. The League, better known as the Bergson Group, publicly supported the armed revolt against the British in Palestine by Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi. Disney was embracing not just Zionism, but its most militant wing.
That kind of info is bound to have a lot of real racists wanting to desecrate Disney's grave, I'm sure. But admittedly, it doesn't mean he was an entirely responsible person, and following next is the reason why the rumors he was an anti-semite spread around:
How, then, did the rumors of Disney's alleged anti-Semitism spread so far and wide?

That’s where Meryl Streep comes in. The “anti-Semitic industry lobbying group” with which Disney was associated was the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The group’s statement of principles said nothing about Jews; its declared purpose was to prevent “Communist, Fascist, and other totalitarian-minded groups” from gaining a foothold in Hollywood. Among its members were politically conservative actors such as John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Ginger Rogers. But some of its other members were accused of being privately anti-Semitic, and in general it had a reputation as being reactionary.

Gabler believes that “the most plausible explanation” for the rumors about Disney were a kind of guilt by association: “Walt, in joining forces with the MPA and its band of professional reactionaries and red-baiters, also got tarred with their anti-Semitism. Walt Disney certainly was aware of the MPA’s purported anti-Semitism, but he chose to ignore it…. The price he paid was that he would always be lumped not only with anti-Communists but also with anti-Semites.”

The irony is that while Meryl Streep was condemning Walt Disney for associating with extremists, she herself was doing the very same thing. The actress to whom she gave that award when she made her anti-Disney speech, her close friend Emma Thompson, is active in the anti-Israel boycott movement.
So while he may not have been as awful as some in the past may have thought, he did make a serious error hooking up with a bunch that may have taken a bad route. He also made a grave mistake speaking to Leni Riefenstahl in the late 1930s, even if he rejected any requests she made for lending a hand with her propaganda. It's regrettable that he handed his detractors a shovel with which to bury his reputation, but from what I'd read about him in the past year or so, it does seem he was trying to compensate for his mistakes as time went by. Also, according to this earlier report:
The actual evidence shows that Disney was no more racist than what was characteristic of the time; he was amused by a watermelon-eating black centaur girl in Fantasia but also asked NAACP officials and other black leaders to view the action/animated film Song of the South and warn him what would be considered racist. Some phrases and words like “darkie” were removed.
And about his views on women:
But one animation expert said that there were no women anywhere in Hollywood at the time [preparing the cartoons for screen]; they were relegated to inking and painting. He explained, “That was an industry-wide practice. There were, however, a number of women working at [Disney] in a creative capacity during that time, mostly in story development.”

In 1941, Disney defended women to the men working on Dumbo, stating, “If a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man. The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could.”

Disney hired his first female animator, Retta Scott, in 1942 for Bambi, and Mary Blair was the art supervisor and color stylist for Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. By 1959, Disney was writing, “Women are the best judges of anything we turn out. Their taste is very important. They are the theatergoers, they are the ones who drag the men in. If the women like it, to heck with the men.”
So as far as employing female contributors goes, he was far from hostile to hiring them for certain jobs, and if it was an industry-wide practice not to hire women for a certain task, why do they get a pass while Disney doesn't? If Universal, Paramount and Columbia were limiting some of the jobs, why don't they and their executives get cited? Take animator Max Fleischer as one example. If he's got any crummy steps of his own backstage, shouldn't he also be held accountable?

I'd head the rumors more than 2 decades before about Disney supposedly being antisemitic, sexist and racist, and it made me mad. But having found out the clearer picture later, I'd decided that for the most part, he was off the hook, although his cinematic output still has some cruddy moments: where I find fault with Walt on how he dealt with women is not in his employment policies, but rather, in a couple of cartoons and live action films his studio produced. For example, a cartoon based on Hansel & Gretel called Babes in the Woods, which I consider one of the worst Brothers Grimm fairy tales around, what with its depiction of a wicked witch as the antagonist. Seriously, I can't stand that kind of cartoon! It makes me sick based on what it drew from. His adaptation of Cinderella is also pretty appalling, since it may owe more to the Grimm version than the original tale by Charles Perrault, which was far more decent. Film critic Carrie Rickey once described Disney's take in the early 80s as making an unpleasant depiction of Cindy's stepmother and two stepsisters, who were basically nasty, selfish caricatures, and their estate was like "a shadowstruck fortress". And what about 101 Dalmatians? That too depicts a woman as the prime adversary, Cruella deVil, who wants to sacrifice the puppies on the alter of evil, all so she can make a fur coat out of their hides. I didn't like The Parent Trap's depiction of the father's fioncee as a gold-digger either: she only cares about daddy, and wants to send the daughter to boarding school, rather than take her under her wing as a protege and stepkid? Even that was wretched if you view it under a microscope, and not one of the best books Erich Kastner ever wrote.

So while Disney may not have been sexist in the truest sense of the word, he still unfortunately has some film productions in his archives that IMO are in poor taste, and I've never understood how he was able to get away with some of those, in contrast to any script draft with a risk of anti-semitism/racism attached. I suppose the simple answer is that some women sadly weren't as conscious of sexism in showbiz as they could've been at the time. Otherwise, 7 Brides for 7 Brothers from 1954 might have met more criticism than it actually got at the time. Point: sexism in fiction can be just as poor an influence as sexism in real life, and it's certainly not healthy to espouse it there any more than racism. Today, a lot of women do view the examples I cited with more disappointment than before.

But Disney wasn't the only Hollywood executive who ever turned out anything in questionable taste, and if Warner Brothers and Paramount were doing anything similar, they should by all means be held to the same standards. If there's something they all have in common, it's that they all have several cartoons that aren't widely seen today because of surreal slapstick, like Elmer Fudd chasing after Daffy Duck with a hatchet or Sylvester the Cat getting his back sliced by a guillotine. I saw some of these cartoons in my youth, right down to the ones where a shotgun blast would only make the "victim" look messy with soot, and while they might've been funny back then, I understand why today they make people worried about what bad influence they might have. And this is coming from somebody who happens to like Bugs Bunny and the Loony Tunes cast. Yet the WB products don't seem to register on MacDonald's radar, while Disney's do? I don't get it. Some of the commentors offered defenses and refutals to her argument. For example:
I don’t think that the Vulture article that you linked actually shows that Disney was racist. The Gabler biography cited by Vulture is quite good and fair. If you want to pick on Disney for his views, it really should be for his thoughts on labor.
Yeah, I think she did overlook the notes on Gabler. Then another one says:
Find some articles of men who didn’t think that way in the 1930’s and then you’ll have an article.
There's also a comment towards the end by an author named Jim Korkis, formerly known as Wade Sampson, who says:
In my latest book, The Vault of Walt Volume 3, I have an entire chapter entitled “Walt Disney: Early Feminist”. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was a common assumption that women were either taking a job to find a husband or as a “second income” and that preference should be given to men who were the main breadwinners especially during the Depression. We now know that was not always the case.

What we also know is that when Walt hired women for the Ink and Paint Department because it required a delicate hand and more patience then men had, he also hired women in positions of prominence at the studio in both artistic and non-artistic positions.

The Disney Studio included female animators like Mildred Rossi and Retta Scott (who gets a screen credit for her work on BAMBI), Sylvia Moberly-Holland did visual development, Bea Selck was an assistant director, Biana Majolie and Sterling Sturtevant worked as story “men”, Lorna Soderstrom, Fini Rudiger did character modeling along with Disney Legend Joe Grant, Thelma Witmer and Ethel Kulsar did background painting, there were dozens of women who were assistant animators and in-betweeners training for assistant animator positions including Elinor Fallberg, Grace Stanzell, Lois Blunquist, Elizabeth Case, Retta Davidson (who went on to actually be a beloved and exceptional animation teacher at Disney), Bea Tomargo and many others.

Yes the percentage of women working in these positions were significantly less then men but they got opportunities they never would have gotten at any other animation studio. Walt hired people who were Black (in fact the first two black animators in Hollywood and personally promoted one to the story department), Asian, Jewish, Catholic, etc. If a person could do the job, age, sex, race, religion or anything else did not matter to him in the least.

In a memo sent out to all the men working as Disney in-betweeners on January 17, 1939: “Department conduct. Attention has been called to the rather gross language that is being used by some members of the department in the presence of some of our female employees. It has always been Walt’s hope that the studio could be a place where girls can be employed without fear of embarrassment or humiliation. Your cooperation is appreciated.”

Yes, Walt stood up against sexual harassment in 1938. He also separated the Ink and Paint Department so that the “girls” wouldn’t be annoyed while they were working. They could fraternize at lunch or after work IF they so chose to do so.

There are many, many more specific examples in my book available at Amazon. And, look, I never even mentioned Mary Blair!

Walt loved and respected women AND their opinions. His wife made him change the name “Mortimer” to “Mickey. He put his sister-in-law in charge of the department that made Disney animated commercials in the 1950s. There is so much more.

Did Walt sometimes make foolish statements in interviews? Yes, many times.
And in his case, I suppose it's fair to say in the end that, like any and every major studio, he had plenty of good and bad examples to offer, even in his cartoons with prominent female stars. If some of the other major animation studios weren't giving their female employees the same benefits as Disney's, then MacDonald's taking a cheap, unbalanced shot at an easy target. Where criticism should be laid is just at the feet of those several cartoons and at least one live action film that bore questionable renditions of the fairer sex. He may not have written the screenplays himself, but he sure wasn't helping by letting some of these examples go by without question whether they do a favor for the other gender.

I guess a really good question now is - if MacDonald and others who take that vision of Walt Disney really consider him such a one-dimensional figure, then how come they buy his company's products? The same question could be pitched if these same people buy products of Henry Ford's company, even though he was a bigoted nazi supporter and had employed thugs for assaulting rivals. Yeah, I know, that was then and this is now, but still, if they really have such a problem with Disney, despite how most of the accusations were debunked, then it doesn't make much sense coming from them that they'd want to buy the products, no matter how leftist the company's MO is today.

Perhaps, following the corrections given by commentors, Korkis included, MacDonald will let the topic go, but it's unlikely she'll pay serious attention to topics and figures who really do matter afterwards.

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