Saturday, 19 January 2019

Cartoon Commies

Was Walt Disney being a public spirited citizen trying to preserve American freedom, or was he getting revenge because of the bitter strike at his studio in 1941?

Disney appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, testifying about/against Herb Sorrell, the Hollywood labour organiser who helped lead the strike. Reams have been written about the strike and its aftermath, but I came across a blistering editorial criticising Disney’s testimony I’d like to share.

Before that, let’s go back and read what Disney said. This story is from the Associated Press wire service. A portion not relevant to Disney has been omitted and replaced with an ellipsis.
Women Voters' League Red, Walt Disney Says
WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (AP)—Walt Disney told congressional investigators today that Hollywood Labor Leader Herbert K. Sorrell, whom he "believes" to be a Communist, had boasted of using the national labor relations board "as it suited him."
The daddy of "Donald Duck" and "Mickey Mouse" movies testified at hearings on Communism in Hollywood by the house committee on un-American activities. Disney sent a gasp through the audience when he included the League of Women Voters among Communist front organizations.
Oliver Carlson, who said he was once was a Communist and now teaches in the University of California Extension Division, testified [...] Sorrell is on the board of directors of the Communist school and has been "in long and close association" with Reds.
Sorrell, head of the Conference of Studio Unions, has denied being a Communist.
Disney said he considered Sorrell one at the time of a strike which he said was Red-instigated and which resulted, he testified, in the Communists taking over his artists. He didn't say, and wasn't asked, when the strike was pulled. But he said he still "believes'' Sorrell is a Red.
The man who makes world-famous animated cartoons said he suggested to Sorrell that a collective bargaining election be held under terms of the Wagner labor relations law. He said Sorrell objected and claimed "he used the labor board as it suited him."
Disney said Sorrell threatened to "smear" him and "make a dust bowl" of his studio if he did not give in to union demands.
There was no way to fight back, the producer said, when Sorrell called a strike and, he continued, Communists and Communist groups began a smear campaign. The attackers, he said, included the League of Women Voters and what he called "PM magazine".
The only real grievance, Disney said, was between Sorrell and his employes over an election to determine who should represent the workers in collective bargaining.
Sorrell once asked him, Disney said:
"So you think I'm a Communist?"
He said the labor leader laughed and went on to say: "I used their money to finance my strike in 1937."
There was no further explanation of that point.
Tagging the Communist Party an "un-American thing," Disney said it ought to be "smoked out and shown for what it is." Then, he said, "real liberal groups" can operate free of suspicion.
The only one of his productions that has been shown in Russia, Disney said, is "The Three Little Pigs." Asked why his cartoons are shown all over the world but not in the Soviet Union, the witness said:
"You can't do business with them."
Wait a minute, Uncle Walt. The League of Women Voters a “Communist group”? The League yelped at Disney’s mischaractisation. Walt backtracked. And not very well.

This prompted the Kingsport Times to publish an editorial on November 13, 1947, under the headline “Cartoon Commies.” It spanked Disney in print, and then turned its eye on the Committee and its grandstanding politicians.
The great Investigation of Hollywood produced so much marvelously dizzy testimony that it gave color to the theory that the artistic temperament is allergic to logic, and the mental processes of an artist travel strange paths. The beautiful way these gentlemen felt the inner conviction that so-and-so was a Communist, without bothering with such trifles as evidence, and the calm assumption that their word would be taken for it when they made unsupported statements; this was wonderful to see.
But the dizziest of all was offered by that master of the fantastic—Mr. Walt Disney. Mr. Disney is a genius, and we take off our hats to him. He has made the new art—the animated cartoon—and his work ranges from the childish to the incredibly beautiful. But we must limit our admiration for Mr. Disney to his status of artist. He should stick to the world of fantasy and not descend to the common place level of facts.
In his testimony, Mr. Disney characterized the League of Women Voters as a "Communist front" organization. That was really news, and naturally made good copy. But shortly after he was out of the witness chair, Mr. Disney was asked for the details that made it possible for him to make such a charge. (Somehow or other, the committee didn't think it necessary to get that question in while he was on the stand.) Then it seemed that Mr. Disney was thinking of something a couple of ladies who claimed to be members of the League had said to him back in 1941, and explained that he had no intention of criticizing the League of Women Voters "as of now." Then, after some further thought on the subject, Mr. Disney searched his files, and comes forth with the following explanation, written to the committee: "Since returning to my office, I have reviewed my files, and can now definitely state that while testifying "I was confused by a similarity of names. I intended to refer to the League of Women Shoppers."
There was more language by way of apology, but the end of it is to leave Mr. Disney a laughing stock. We don't know whether he has heard the last of this or not. We do not know anything about the League of Women Shoppers at all, but we have a hunch that the creator of fantasy may be hearing further from that outfit. It may be a Red outfit, but we would want the word of somebody more reliable than Mr. Disney before we would say so. It may be that he is making another little mistake. It may turn out to be the League of Women Flag Pole Sitters he meant.
Unfortunately, Mr. Disney has done more than make himself ridiculous. He has made it clear that it was possible for a committee of the United States Congress engaged in the serious business of investigating subversive political activity to allow irresponsible people to make statements charging others with evil actions, without being required to give one iota of factual evidence to support the charges. We see a picture of this committee of Congress, calmly accepting statements that would destroy the good name of individuals or organizations, knowing full well that the statements would be broadcast to the world. How can sober citizens put any value in the work of such a committee?
Some of those whose names were used may be Reds. But how can we tell what is fact and what is fancy? How can we sift the sheep from the goats, when it is possible for a man or a woman to denounce people without providing evidence? The Committee on Un-American Activities was set up for a good purpose. We believe it would be fine if as a result of its work we can see who is working against the democratic way of life and how they are doing it. But all we have had is confusion worse confounded. The net result of the committee hearings is suspicion and distrust, some of which may be entirely unfair and undeserved and have nothing behind it but the personal grudge of temperamental people of the theatre.
Something needs to be done about the Committee on Un-American Activities. Something needs to be done to put it in the hands of men who have calm judgment and who will keep its work from being a theatrical performance. It doesn't have to be what it has been, and it is handicapped in its real work by being operated as it is.
Unfortunately, the Committee carried on into the 1950s, ruining lives. Walt Disney carried on as well, enriching lives with some enjoyable feature cartoons. And, no doubt, still nursing a grudge against those responsible for pulling his employees onto a picket line.

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