The ‘Princess’ and Walt Disney

Neal Gabler, Chicago Tribune, December 7, 2009

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{snip} [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 whom were said to have worked there, and they were virtually verboten on the screen, except to be ridiculed.

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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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.

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Walt also seemed to subscribe to many of the ethnic stereotypes of his time. He could refer to Italians and blacks with unmistakable slurs of the day, according to materials at the Walt Disney Archives–though there didn’t seem to be any malice in these words, just obtuseness. {snip} At home he always preached racial, religious and ethnic tolerance to his two daughters.

The main evidence for Walt’s racial insensitivity, however, is “Song of the South,” his 1946 combination of live action and animation based on the Southern folk tales of Joel Chandler Harris, known as Uncle Remus, which, though set in the Reconstruction era, makes the black former slaves seem dependent upon and excessively grateful to their former owners. From any modern racial perspective, the film is cringe-inducing and it isn’t much mitigated by the fact that Remus, played by James Baskett, is the most dignified and sympathetic figure in the movie. (Its reputation is such that to this day it is not available on DVD in this country.) Indeed, “Song of the South” seems to give credence to the idea that Walt was clueless when it came to race.

But the fact is that Walt anticipated these criticisms and went to great lengths to make the film as racially sensitive as he could. He hired a Jewish left-wing screenwriter, Maurice Rapf, to do a draft of the script because, as he told Rapf, “You’re against Uncle Tomism and you’re a radical.” Before signing Baskett, he approached the black actor, singer and leftist activist Paul Robeson to play the role of Remus and asked him to review the script. And he sent the script to a number of black notables for comment, including the actress Hattie McDaniel.

Yet Walt was more politically obtuse than he was racially obtuse. When the film opened, he was stunned by the firestorm of protest from African-Americans who thought it was condescending and demeaning. Former admirers, such as the producer Billy Rose, condemned Walt as well. One group, the Theatre Chapter of the National Negro Congress, picketed theaters where the film was shown.

But remarkably for a man who took everything personally, this disappointment did not sour Walt on race relations the way the strike had soured him on unions. He successfully fought to get Baskett an honorary Oscar when Baskett fell seriously ill shortly after the film’s release, and he was especially solicitous to Baskett’s family.

More, his later live-action films typically promoted racial tolerance, and he was much more sympathetic to Native Americans than most of his contemporaries. {snip}

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