The Disney Strike of 1941: How It Changed Animation & Comics

Tom Sito revisits the Civil War of Animation and tells how the Great Walt Disney Cartoonists Strike of 1941 changed the course of animation and comics.

The Great Walt Disney Cartoonists Strike of 1941 was a defining moment for many careers. Courtesy of Tom Sito. © The Animation Guild 839, IATSE.

As Walt Disney turned his fashionable Packard roadster onto Buena Vista Blvd. he found the entrance to his studio ringed with a mob of 300 picketers and reporters. The protesters were his own cartoonists. Every couple of feet one stood on a soapbox and made angry speeches to passing picketers. Under the clear blue skies colorfully handpainted signs bobbed: DISNEY UNFAIR!, ONE GENIUS vs. 600 GUINEA PIGS, WE HAD NO SCABS AT SCHLESINGERS, LEONARDO, MICHELANGELO and TITIAN WERE UNION MEN, and a picture of Pluto with the title, ID RATHER BE A DOG THAN A SCAB!

No single incident had a greater impact upon the history of Hollywood animation than the Great Walt Disney Cartoonists Strike of 1941. The Disney Strike spawned new studios, new creative styles, new characters and changed animation forever. To the people who were there, it was a defining moment in their careers. New friendships were cemented and old ones broken. Many carried their anger for the rest of their lives.

It was the Civil War of Animation.

Consider this, if the strike had never happened, the UPA studio and its influence upon world animation would not have occurred, since the company was formed primarily by ex-Disney unionists. Chuck Jones Roadrunner, Coyote and Whats Opera Doc shorts would not have had their unique design style, because their art director, Maurice Noble, was a Disney art director who quit because of the strike. John Hubley never would have gone to New York, met Faith Elliot and did his award-winning independent films. Bill Melendez, the director of A Charlie Brown Christmas, was then a Disney assistant. Frank Tashlin, the Looney Tunes director and future creator of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis live-action comedies was in the Disney story department. A union vp, he joined the Mouse House to help unionize the cartoonists there.

But the Disney Strike also had an impact upon the world of comic strips as well. The events of the summer of 1941 gave birth to as many as four major comic strips. Artists who later became important figures in the comic art field: Walt Kelly, Hank Ketcham, George Baker, Sam Cobein, Don Tobin, Phil Eastman and Claude Smith, were all artists caught up in this epic confrontation.

After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs resounding success, Pinnochios box office take seemed less impressive. Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

How did this happen? To the outside eye, The Walt Disney Studio seemed a magical place where the finest animated cartoons in the world was made. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy were loved by everyone from Shirley Temple to Mussolini. Walt Disneys first feature length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, earned four times more than any movie in 1938. It won a special Oscar and famed Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein called it the greatest motion picture ever made.

Behind the pr, the Walt Disney Studio had grown from a few friends in a storefront to an industrial plant where 1293 employees labored six days a week. Disney plowed the profits back into new studio facilities and bolder experiments in animation and stereophonic sound. But wages remained low across the board and bonuses or raises were given irregularly at the whim of management. No screen credit was allowed other than Walts. The next films Pinocchio and Fantasia failed to generate the same success as Snow White.

Be it mid-life disillusion, the death of his mother or the impending World War that was drying up overseas box office, but, by 1941, Uncle Walt the folksy cartoonist became Mr. Disney, the worry-racked capitalist. Walt may still have thought of himself as just one of the guys, but to many he was the boss. He grew isolated from his artists. Those who managed to spot him were those who worked nights or weekends. Then he could be seen walking around the empty tables looking to see what they were doing.

American animation had evolved not as ateliers of artists, but on an industrial plant model. It was obvious that by the 1930s animation workers would want to unionize. Throughout the 1930s they watched other Hollywood workers writers, actors, editors, directors and stagehands form unions. Animation artists had talked of such a body as early as 1926. In 1932 Ub Iwerks animators, including Grim Natwick, Shamus Culhane and Al Eugster, had formed an animation union but called it a club to keep under cover. People risked getting fired to attend. For the next several years animators met in secret.

Martha Sigall recalled when she first started painting cels at Leon Schlesinger, her supervisor Art Gobel immediately invited her to attend a union meeting. Their brothers and sisters in New York had struck the Max Fleischer Studio in 1937. Finally the Screen Cartoonists Guild (SCG) Local #852 Hollywood came out in the open in 1938 and began an aggressive campaign of organizing animation workers. MGM, Walter Lantz and George Pal quickly recognized the Guild. After a six-day lockout Leon Schlesingers Looney Tunes Studio signed a union contract. Leon signed the contract, looked up and chuckled, Now, what about Disneys?

Hollywoods cartoonists found courage to unionize after New Yorks artists struck the Max Fleischer Studio in 1937 (above). Courtesy of Tom Sito. © Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union Local 839.

How about Disneys indeed. All the Guild successes up to that point brought their number to just 115 members. There were more than 800 Disney artists. The entire cartoon industry understood that the real decision of whether animation artists could ever function as a union labor force would have to be decided at Disneys.

When they had collected enough representation cards from the employees AFL organizer Herb Sorrell with Disney animator Art Babbitt and SCG President Bill Littlejohn met Walt Disney and his attorneys to ask for recognition. In an angry exchange Disney refused to negotiate and insisted his people were represented by the Federation of Screen Cartoonists. This was a sham union set up by the company that had been declared illegal by the National Board of Labor Relations. After the meeting broke down Disney responded by firing Babbitt and 16 other pro-union artists, a violation of Federal Labor law.

So the next day Walt Disneys Packard moved slowly through that sea of angry pickets.

While Walt fretted about how to handle this, the employees approaching the Buena Vista gates that morning had to make a choice they would remember the rest of their lives. Regardless of personal politics, this had all become the real thing. Should you go out and picket, risking unemployment and blacklisting during the Depression? Or cross the picket line, go in to work and earn the lasting hatred of your friends?

Walt Disney (right) was urged by Federal mediators, nationwide boycotts, the Bank of America and his brother Roy (left) to give in and recognize the Guild. © Disney Enterprises Inc.

The more artists who refused to work, the better the unions chances of shutting down production. But the more people who went in to work, the greater the chances that the studio would hold out until you and your family starved. Then with your bank account empty you would slink back and beg for your job back. This was the choice every Disney worker was now confronted with. There was no middle ground; you were either for Walt or the Guild. Imagine walking through a shoving, seething mob that was yelling, Scab! Commie! Dont Go In! Join the Line, Brother! Traitor! Fink!

The strike lasted for nine weeks until Disney was at last compelled by Federal mediators, nationwide boycotts, his financiers the Bank of America and his brother Roy to give in and recognize the Guild. On Sept 21, 1941, everyone went back to work. Salaries doubled overnight for a 40-hour workweek and screen credits were established. The Screen Cartoonist Guild now represented 90% of Hollywood animation workers.

But after such a long, bitter strike no one at Disney wanted to forgive or forget. Even when the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II knocked all personal considerations aside, artists nursed their grudges. The studio spirit seemed spoiled. Joe Grant said that Walt was left so personally hurt that he even looked with suspicion at his loyal artists.

Joe Grant (above) said that after the strike settlement, Walt Disney was left so personally hurt that he was even suspicious of his loyal artists. The studio spirit had been broken. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

Slowly, the pro-union artists were made to feel unwanted and drifted away from the studio. Whenever there was a staff cutback, the union supporters were always the first to go, and, when the Federally mandated 90-day arbitration period ended, Disneys fired even more. Those who tried to stay got the silent treatment. In a close working space where tempers and tensions exist, its difficult to concentrate, and the stress level can be unbearable. Art director Noble told me no one wanted to speak to him, even in the mens room.

So one by one they left: Bill Tytla, Art Babbitt, Jules Engel, Frank Tashlin, Ade Woolery, Margaret Selby, Chris Ishi, John Hubley, Harry Reeves, Zack Schwartz, Bill Scott, Bill Hurtz, Phil Klein, Dave Hilberman, Steve Bosustow, Aurelius Battaglia, Hicks Lokey, Ed Forcher. Some went into the service, some rallied at Screen Gems under former union vp Frank Tashlin, some formed the new company United Productions of America, called UPA.

But a certain number took the opportunity to leave animation altogether and finally explore their dream of making it in comics.

Assistant animator Hank Ketcham was a striker. He said, Although I was young, single and with no heavy commitments it was obvious that the Kansas City Mouseketeer had to loosen his purse strings or perish.Meanwhile his roommate, Dick Kinney, was for Walt because Kinneys brother, Jack, was a supervising director. Driving his old Mercury convertible, Kinney would drop Hank off a block from the studio and proceed through the jeering strikers line while Hank would check in with the organizers and shoulder his picket sign.

But after a while Ketcham was put off by the strike leaders increasingly militant tone. Stories about the violent strikes at General Motors and other industrial debacles. He felt had nothing to do with him as an artist. He crossed the line and went back to work. For this he was labeled by his buddies, The King of Finks.

After the strike Ketcham went into the Navy Reserve and served as a photographic retoucher. In his spare time he started to sell some comic panels. After his discharge he drifted to New York City to try his hand doing spot cartoons for the New Yorker, where his former Disney strikers Sam Cobean and Claude Smith had become top artists. He had a son named Dennis who liked to smear his room with the contents of his loaded diaper. His wife exclaimed to him, Your son is a menace! This gave him an idea. He created the character Dennis the Menace in 1947 and the strip appeared in newspapers in 1951.

After inbetweener George Baker went out on strike he was almost immediately called up in the peacetime draft. His dreaded army experience gave birth to the hapless character Pvt. Sad Sack.

Walt Kelly was an animator and story artist on Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi. He was fired by Disney after the 90-day federal period was over. He went home to Connecticut and found work as a political cartoonist for the New York Sun, which soon went under. He got work for Western Publishing drawing for several comicbooks including some Walt Disney comicbooks.

In 1943 Kelly created Bumbazine and Albert the Alligator, which appeared in issue number one of Animal Comics. Its story, called Albert Takes the Cake, started Once there was a big old alligator named Albert who loved chocolate cake... This was the basis of Pogo. Pogo went mainstream in 1950 and became one of Americas most beloved comics. He married another striker named Margaret Selby Daley who became Selby Kelly.

Animation inbetweener George Baker went out on strike, but as fate would have it, he was called up in the peacetime draft just three weeks later. He didnt like army life and started doing gag cartoons about his experiences. He named his character after a phrase used at him by many drill sergeants, You Sad Sack of Sh*t! Yank magazine started printing his Sad Sack cartoons in May 1942 and they became a weekly feature of the magazine. Pvt. Sad Sack made his comicbook debut in 1949. Baker wrote a movie of Sad Sack starring Jerry Lewis in 1957, and Mel Blanc did the character in a short-lived radio show. Don Tobin left Disneys after the strike and created a regular comic called the Little Woman. He published a book of these comics in 1965.

Phil Eastman was a cartoonist and writer active in the strike who later was part of the Film Motion Picture Unit FMPU doing training films for the army. There he introduced writer Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Suess, to Chuck Jones and the mysteries of animation. There they created Private Snafu. When starting UPA, Eastman asked Geisel for an idea. Geisel gave them a story about a little boy who made noises instead of talking. Gerald McBoing Boing went on to win an Oscar. Phil Eastman continued to work in animation until he was blacklisted by the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings. Then he worked clandestinely in the back rooms of Shamus Culhanes in NY. Ironically he was set to work doing copy for Navy recruiting commercials. Later he wrote and drew the award-winning childrens books, Go Dog Go, The Best Nest, and Are You My Mother?

Sam Cobean was a passionate unionist who helped run publicity for the strikers. After being fired by Walt, he worked in Army Signal Corps unit doing translations. There he met famed New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams. After the war, Addams introduced Cobean to editor Harold Ross. Cobean became one of the New Yorker s top artists and his 1950 collection of cartoons, Sam Cobeans Naked Eye, was a success. Cobean died tragically in an auto accident in 1951. He was only 37.

In 1956, Walt Disney, trying to put a positive spin on those times, said, In the end, the strike was a good thing because it cleaned house over there better than I could have ever done. Ward Kimball, one of the Nine Old Men, said, I was quite liberal, yet I didnt go out on strike. But I knew something had to be done. And I agree to this day that it was a good thing that it happened.

The strike paved the way for Hollywood animators to earn pensions, medical insurance and the highest standard of living in the animation world. And we will always be grateful to men like these great cartoonists for helping us. Although their individual paths wound round in many different ways to success, for a while, they all intersected on that picket line during that angry summer of 1941.

Walt Kellys wife, the late Selby Kelly, recalled that before she knew Walt Kelly she knew his comics. As an animation assistant at MGM she would get together with some old friends from the Walt Disney strike and read the newest Pogo comics. They would say, Look at these. And he was one of us!

Former Disney animator Tom Sito is president emeritus of the Hollywood Animation Guild Local 839, and author of the upcoming book Drawing The Line: The Untold Story of Animation Labor From Silents to CGI.

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