The Disney Revolt

From The Wall Street Journal:

“My father was a Socialist,” Walt Disney told an interviewer in 1960. By that time Disney had become one of the world’s most visible self-made men. He’d improbably built a powerhouse multimedia empire with the aid of a carefree cartoon mouse, first seen in 1928 whistling ragtime at the helm of a crudely drawn steamboat. He started off a Democrat, and ended up a Republican. He supported private enterprise and free markets. He loathed state control of anything, and when an industry-wide animators’ union took shape in the late 1930s, he vocally opposed that too.

It was his anti-union stance that in 1941 led to a revolt within his Burbank, Calif., animation studio. In the wake of the success of the studio’s first feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”—not to mention its scores upon scores of wildly popular seven-minute shorts—more than 200 Disney staffers, led by star animator Art Babbitt, went on strike demanding better working conditions and pay rates.

“The Disney Revolt,” by animation historian Jake S. Friedman, is a fascinating account of the virulent labor tussle at Disney Studios that pitted the unbending company founder against one of his most valuable and innovative artists. “The strike was a fierce blow for both men, each shocked at the behavior of the other,” the author writes. Following the strike and until Disney’s death in 1966, “books and articles about Disney history glaringly omitted the name Art Babbitt.” Babbitt, for his part, never forgave Disney for tossing him, in Walt’s own words, “out of the front gate.”

Walt’s father, a Missouri fruit farmer, supported perennial Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs and, according to Mr. Friedman, hosted living-room salons “to spread the doctrine of agricultural socialism.” He wasn’t a terribly successful proselytizer: “He couldn’t even convince his own family of the movement’s merits.” He did, however, expose his cartoonist son to the comic strips in left-wing newspapers. “I got so I could draw ‘Capital’ and ‘Labor’ pretty good,” Walt later recalled, “the big, fat capitalist with the money . . . his foot on the neck of the laboring man.”

Art Babbitt, born Arthur Babitzky, wasn’t an agricultural socialist, he was the son of Jewish immigrants in urban Omaha, Neb. His father, a fish peddler, kept the budding artist in discarded newspaper comics. At school he was a star student “but a hell-raiser every spare moment.” He had a keen sense of justice and loved mischief for mischief’s sake. After his father was disabled in a work-related accident, the family lived with relatives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Babbitt apprenticed as an in-betweener at the Terrytoons studio in the Bronx, and set his sights on Disney after thrilling to “The Skeleton Dance” (1929), the first Silly Symphony, in a New York movie theater.

Walt hired Babbitt in 1932. The 24-year-old in-betweener expertly raced through his trial short, “King Neptune,” then outpaced senior animators on the Mickey cartoon “The Klondike Kid,” producing 10 of its 66 scenes. He soon earned a reputation as perhaps the studio’s fastest worker and, more important, its most subtle character animator. His best-known work included the Wicked Queen in “Snow White” (1937), Geppetto in “Pinocchio” (1940) and Goofy in countless Mickey outings. He read Stanislavski and wrote the studio’s treatise on “cartoon-character acting.” He pioneered rotoscoping—using live-action footage as an animation reference—and proposed Disney’s in-house art-education program. In short, Mr. Friedman notes, “Babbitt did more to raise the standards of Disney animation” than anyone but Disney himself.

Labor unrest was rampant in Hollywood in the 1930s. President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to empower unions and union members, protecting their jobs and their right to organize without threats of being blacklisted. Disney’s animators weren’t unionized and, especially on feature films, worked many unpaid hours of overtime. Promised bonuses for work on the blockbuster “Snow White” ended up being a “pittance.” When “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” disappointed Disney at the box office, cost-cutting measures and abrupt layoffs ensued.

Babbitt, one of Walt’s highest-paid animators, became his biggest pro-union thorn.

. . . .

In early 1941, Babbitt and dozens of other Disney animators, having made little progress with their in-house union, joined the Guild. On May 28, Guild members voted 315-4 to support a Disney strike, instantly precipitating megaphones, picket lines and a media circus. Babbitt, the hell-raiser, was fired. Things got hottest on June 13, when Walt held an off-site staff meeting with non-striking employees at a local high school. Babbitt, storming his former boss’s Packard in the school parking lot, shouted: “Walt Disney, you ought to be ashamed!” Disney emerged from the car, approached Babbitt in anger, and the two had to be separated by onlookers. The strike continued for another two weeks until Walt signed the union contract he had dreaded for so long.


Babbitt and Walt never made amends, but as Mr. Friedman’s epilogue attests, their story had a Hollywood happy ending. In 1987, at age 79, Babbitt was invited by Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, to the 50th-anniversary reunion of the “Snow White” animation team. His significance to Disney was at last properly acknowledged, and his name officially restored to the company’s history. And just before his death in 1992, he received from Roy an advance copy of the VHS of “Fantasia,” for which he’d created the memorable dancing mushrooms. Almost inaudibly he remarked to his wife, “It’s so nice to be part of the gang again.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal.