Ink & Paint: In-Betweener #2: The Disney Strike and The Reluctant Dragon | SWITCH.
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Ink & Paint is a podcast journey through the Disney animated classics! Each week, host Daniel Lammin and a special guest will look at each film in the official Disney animated canon, and talk about their artistic, historical and social context. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss an episode! Have comments or questions for Ink & Paint? Record a message for Daniel right from your phone, and we'll try to use it in our next episode!

In-Betweener #2: The Disney Strike and The Reluctant Dragon
Daniel tells the history of the union strike at Walt Disney Productions in May 1941, one of the most important events in the history of the company, and the unusual feature film released in the middle of it, the pseudo-documentary ‘The Reluctant Dragon’.

Daniel Lammin

Producer/Editor ∷ Alex Amster
Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis

Show Notes
On the 20th of June 1941, RKO Pictures released 'The Reluctant Dragon', a new feature film from Walt Disney Productions. Mostly forgotten today except by Disney enthusiasts, it was essentially a tour through the many departments of the new studios at Burbank, interspersed with original animated sequences. It presented a picture of the Disney studios as a kind of animation utopia, with professional facilities and smiling staff engaged in rigorous and thrilling artistic enterprises. Like the fully-animated features though, The Reluctant Dragon was a fantasy. In truth, Walt Disney Productions was in a state of chaos, engaged in a very public and increasingly ugly union dispute that would permanently alter the structure and atmosphere of the revered animation studio, and pray on the worst tendencies of its beloved creator.

When the staff moved from the Hyperion studios to the new facility at Burbank, Walt Disney thought it a necessary move for the company. The design of the campus had been supervised by Walt himself, making sure that every detail met his very specific demands. Changes to the facilities at Hyperion had occurred when necessary, and had outgrown the site, extending to apartment buildings all over the neighbourhood. The Burbank studio centralised operations, with state-of-the-art buildings for each department designed specifically to their needs. This included new camera facilities, sound stages and special rooms for the animators with purpose-built animation desks. Walt had even gone as far as having grass planted all over the studio to catch as much dust from the air as possible. Recreational areas were also taken into consideration, including a cafeteria and a gymnasium.

Walt Disney at the new Burbank studio, 1940 © Disney

Walt wanted his staff to want for nothing, but also wanted to streamline the filmmaking process as much as possible. The new facilities meant a restructure of the various departments. Rather than artists being able to supervise work between departments, they now worked in units, supervised by a control desk that monitored the movement of work between departments. The studio now employed well over 1,000 staff, and this necessitated a clearer company structure and hierarchy.

The new Burbank studio was a kind of case study in "Be Careful What You Ask For". It was so nice that it was almost sterile. It was all rationalised, it was all organised, and something, a quality of the creative experience, was almost designed out of the operation.
Steven Watts, historian

Almost as soon as the move to Burbank was completed, the staff began expressing concern. The new studio did not facilitate the camaraderie or the easy freedom and expression of ideas that Hyperion had; in fact, many felt that the restructuring hindered it. They felt isolated from each other and from Walt himself. Where the boss had once been a constant presence, he now spent large portions of his day in his office, with a private bathroom, bedroom and team of secretaries.

After 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', Walt made sure that his staff shared in the financial success. They were given healthy bonuses and paid vacations, and the offer of low-interest loans from the studio. The failures of 'Pinocchio' and 'Fantasia' put the company back under financial pressure. By the beginning of 1941, stock prices had dropped from $25 to as low as $4, and rumours started to spread that Walt was planning to lay off staff, and promote cheaper and less-experienced animators, including women, to higher-ranking animation jobs. The company going public in April 1940 also meant that Walt’s salary was made public, revealing that he was paid five times more a week than some of the senior creative staff, and one hundred times more than the women in Ink & Paint.

There was also a strong hierarchy to the privileges Walt had so proudly bestowed on his staff. Most of them were reserved for the top animators, including access to nicer facilities and work spaces, and there was talk of Walt’s favouritism. Most employees did not even earn enough to be able to afford the food in the cafeteria. In one incident, a woman in the Ink & Paint department fainted from malnutrition. Her husband had left her during the Depression, and she was skipping lunch on a regular basis to save her $6 a week salary to feed her children.

There were also consequences for breaking rank. When animator Don Luske began helping lower-ranking animators by taking on extra clean-up and in-betweener work, he was stripped of his office furnishings, left only with his animation desk and chair.

Walt Disney didn’t believe though that anything was wrong. He had purpose built the studio for his staff, and in his mind, the spirit of invention and inspiration at Hyperion had carried over. He was about to discover just how wrong he was.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 secured the rights for workers in the U.S. to unionise, and very quickly, workers in Hollywood began to organise themselves into guilds. Most of the studio bosses fought against their establishment, but the movement had grown so strong that they had no choice but to comply. By the beginning of 1941, animators had rallied around two union organisations - the independent Federation of Screen Cartoonists and the more robust Screen Cartoonist Guild. Under the leadership of labor tactician Herbert Sorrell, the Guild had effectively unionised all of the animation studios except for Walt Disney Productions. These other companies only equated to around 150 members, while Disney represented more than half of the animators working in the United States. For the Guild to survive, they needed the Disney staff.

Art Babbitt (centre) with Fred Moore (left) and their assistant, Larry Clemmons (right), taken by Art Babbitt, 1932

Amongst the more vocal supporters of unionism at the studio was legendary animator Art Babbitt. He had joined the studio in the 1930s, and had become one of the most powerful creative forces in the animation department. He was also outspoken and was constantly in opposition with Walt. Babbitt expressed concern that, while he was being paid $300 a week, his assistants were being paid only $50 a week. He was one of the first high-ranking Disney employees to join the Guild.

Sorrell approached Walt and tried to convince him to sign with the Guild, claiming that most of the animators at the studio already had. Walt didn’t believe him, and wanted it put to a ballot through the National Labor Relations Board. Sorrell refused, having recently lost such a ballot. There had been some unionism at the studio, with Walt operating close shop agreements with staff such as musicians and electricians, but he couldn’t see why the rest of the staff should want to unionise. He wasn’t like the other studio bosses, had happily given them everything they wanted.

Walt decided that the best course of action would be to address the staff himself. In February 1940, he gathered the 1,200 employees in the largest auditorium and spoke to them from a 26 page pre-prepared statement, which was recorded and transcribed. In it he talked about the successes and challenges at the studio, and explained the reasoning behind many of his decisions. He spoke from the heart, just as he had always done, convinced it would settle all problems and bring the studio back to harmony.

"In the 20 years I've spent in this business I've weathered many storms. It's been far from easy sailing. It required a great deal of work, struggle, determination, competence, faith, and above all unselfishness. Some people think we have a class distinction in the place. They wonder why some people get better seats in the theatre than others. They wonder why some men get spaces in the parking lot and others don't. I have always felt, and always will feel that the men that contribute most to the organisation should, out of respect alone, enjoy some privileges. My first recommendation to the lot of you is this: put your own house in order, you can't accomplish a damn thing by sitting around and waiting to be told everything. If you're not progressing as you should, instead of grumbling and growling, do something about it...

“This business is ready to go ahead. If you want to go ahead with it… you’ve got to be ready for some hard work… If the business is to survive the many storms that are ahead of it, it must be made strong; and that strength comes from the individual strength of employees.

“Don’t forget this - it’s the law of the universe that the strong shall survive and the weak must fall by the way; and I don’t give a damn what idealistic plan is cooked up, nothing can change that.”

The response from the staff was far from positive. Many left even more frustrated by the situation, and one left-wing magazine claimed that Walt’s speech had done more to recruit Disney animators to the Guild than a year of campaigning. Rather than calming the situation, his speech further fanned the flames.

'The Reluctant Dragon' was built as a vehicle for American humourist and film personality Robert Benchley, who had won an Oscar for his comic series of How To shorts. In the film, Benchley is pressured by his wife (Nana Bryant) into visiting the Burbank studio and pitching Walt Disney the idea of adapting Kenneth Graham’s 1898 short story 'The Reluctant Dragon'. The film begins in black and white, with Benchley avoiding an overzealous errand boy by exploring the many departments of the studio, including the art classes, recording studio and sound effects department. When he finds the camera department and the multiplane camera, the film transitions into Technicolor, and he continues his journey through the character model department, Ink & Paint and animation, collecting souvenirs along the way, before finding Disney in a screening room. Walt invites him to watch their latest short, which turns out to be 'The Reluctant Dragon'.

“They're always open to new ideas. Get your things on, and stop shilly-shallying.”
Mrs Benchley, 'The Reluctant Dragon' (1941)

The film was budgeted at $600,000, intended to turn an easy profit. Walt was banking on his own personal popularity, as well as continued requests from the public to know how an animated film was made. Live action was significantly cheaper than animation, but apart from the title short, the film also featured a Goofy cartoon and an ingenious sequence outlining a short called 'Baby Weems' told entirely in enhanced storyboards. Benchley’s tour also revealed behind-the-scenes progress on 'Dumbo' in the sound department, and 'Bambi' in the Ink & Paint department, and introduced him to a number of prominent Disney legends including Retta Scott, Frank Churchill and Fred Moore. A number of professional actors were also brought on to play Disney staff, including a young Alan Ladd.

‘The Reluctant Dragon’ rough animation, 1941 © Disney

While the title short is easily the most famous aspect of 'The Reluctant Dragon', released separately theatrically and on VHS and DVD, the film itself is a surprisingly fascinating and thorough look at the animation process. It has the benefit of a clear objective and following it, so that the film never tries to be more than what it is. There are some terrific moments, such as a duet between voice artists Clarence Nash and Florence Gill as Donald Duck and Clara Cluck respectively, and a strong demonstration of the multiplane camera process.

‘The Reluctant Dragon’ Theatrical Poster, 1941 © Disney

Today the film is mostly forgotten by the general public, appealing mostly to Disney and animation enthusiasts, but at the time Walt hoped the film would turn a tidy profit. In a way, it depicts the fantasy version of the studio that Walt wanted to promote, full of calm and smiling faces, none expressing concern or exhaustion. In reality, the whole studio was about to collapse.

Art Babbitt’s vocal criticism of Walt Disney intensified following the February speech, and Walt felt personally betrayed by Babbitt joining the Guild. On the 28th May 1941, Walt dismissed Babbitt and 16 other employees who were also Guild members. Herbert Sorrell called for a strike, and that night, the Guild members voted 315 to 15 in favour.

Staff on strike outside of Walt Disney Productions, 1941

At 6am on the 29th of May, 293 employees of Walt Disney Productions formed a picket line outside the studio gates. When Walt arrived, he was met by angry employees holding signs with slogans such as “Are We Mice or Men?” and “I’ve Got A Bone To Pick With Walt”. One multipart placard even depicted Walt as a dragon with the word “UNFAIR” painted on him and the accompanying sign, “The Reluctant Disney”. Babbitt led the charge with the support of Sorrell, and a number of prominent staff, including Bill Tytla, joined the picket line out of solidarity for their colleagues.

The problem was, the studio was still finishing work on 'Dumbo' and about to ramp up work on 'Bambi'. 60 percent of employees crossed the picket line, and it now rested on them to complete the films. The afternoon before the strike, Walt spoke personally to the women in Ink & Paint, asking for their support. Most of them continued to work, taking on the enormous task of inking and painting 'Dumbo' in record time.

Art Babbitt leading the strikers picketing the premiere of ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, June 20, 1941

By the end of June, Walt was still refusing to acknowledge the Guild or negotiate with Sorrell, who intensified his public attacks on Disney and even organised a secondary strike from workers at Technicolor. When 'The Reluctant Dragon' opened on the 20th of June, strikers picketed the premiere and many theatres where the film was shown. Tensions began to intensify on both sides, with constant verbal abuse and threats of violence. Employees who crossed the picket line spoke of their cars being damaged and friendships breaking down, and in one incident, someone circled the picketers with a ring of gasoline and threatened to set them alight. One morning, when Babbitt saw Walt driving into the studio, he grabbed a bullhorn and began hurling abuse at him. Walt stopped the car and leapt at Babbitt, the studio guards having to hold the two men back from attacking one another.

Walt became convinced that the only explanation for his staff turning on him was a wider conspiracy. Many of the studio bosses in Hollywood blamed communism for the rise in unionism, and Walt felt no different. On the 2nd of July, he published a full-page advertisement in Variety expressing these concerns, addressed "to the employees on strike". He also had photographs taken of the picket line and studied the faces of the crowd intensely. When he spoke before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he said that he had not recognised half the faces in the crowd, and been told by investigators for HUAAC that many of the men followed Sorrell from strike to strike to bolster the crowds.

To quell Walt’s tempestuous behaviour, Roy took charge of coming to an agreement with the strikers. On July 28, a deal was reached, but to be able to financially meet the demands, Roy announced that there would need to be layoffs. The union protested, so Roy decided that the best course of action would be to shut down production at the studio until a final agreement could be reached.

Early in 1941, the studio had been approached the U.S. government to participate in a cultural exchange with South America as part of Roosavelt’s Good Neighbour Policy, an attempt to counteract the growing relationships between Nazi Germany and many Latin American countries. In August, with Roy’s encouragement, Walt decided to take the opportunity to escape the chaos at home and lead a group of his animators and story staff on a fact-finding tour, with the intention of developing new films on Latin American culture. Roy was left to clean up the mess of the strike. It was during this trip that Elias Disney passed away, but Walt chose not to return for his father’s funeral. Roy was supportive of this, determined to keep his tempestuous brother away until an agreement had been reached.

Staff on strike outside of Walt Disney Productions, 1941

Five weeks after the strike had begun, during which time both 'The Reluctant Dragon' and 'Dumbo' were released, an agreement was finally settled, giving the strikers almost everything they had wanted, and the studio reopened on the 21st of September 1941. Walt was absent for the settlement, wanting to forgo the embarrassment. As a result of the agreement, significant lay-offs were necessary, but part of the deal was that only half could be employees involved in the strike. Nearly half of the staff at Walt Disney Productions were let go, including Tyrus Wong, Retta Scott and Sylvia Holland, and with barely 600 employees left, the company went through a significant restructuring.

The entire situation is a catastrophe. The spirit that had played such an important part in the building of the cartoon medium has been destroyed. I have a case of the DD’s - disillusionment and discouragement.
Walt Disney, in a letter to a friend, 1941

Babbitt and many of the strikers were allowed to return to work at the studio, but the culture had changed. Divisions between friends and colleagues still existed, and Walt became even more distant and untrusting towards his staff. He kept a file with the names of the strikers, saying that one day, they would no longer work at the studio. Within two years, many of them would leave of their own accord, including Art Babbitt and Bill Tytla. Three of them, Stephen Bosustow, David Hilberman and John Hubley, left to found their own animation studio, United Productions of America, which would soon emerge as a major artistic rival for Disney.

Walt Disney emerged from the strike an embittered man. He saw the actions of his staff as a personal attack, and while he encouraged all his staff to join their respective unions so as to avoid future trouble, he had nothing but contempt for unionism. It would be the fuel of his attacks against communism during his testimonies for the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1947.

As for 'The Reluctant Dragon', it has not been the financial saviour Disney had hoped. It was met with warm reviews, especially for the title short, but most critics admitted that it was little more than a commercial for the studio. The film did make a profit, but far from a substantial one, just over $350,000. Audiences had expected a film in the vein of 'Snow White' or 'Pinocchio', and were turned off by its pseudo-documentary style. While the short became popular on its own, the full film remained mostly unseen except for exclusive VHS and DVD releases through the Disney Story and Disney Movie Club. It was released on Blu-ray as an extra on the double feature disc of 'The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad' and 'Fun and Fancy Free' in 2014, and is now available on Disney+.

With the strike now resolved, work could recommence at Walt Disney Productions. 'Dumbo' had offered them a monetary financial respite, but in December 1941, the U.S. entered the Second World War, and the studio Walt Disney had so carefully designed was commandeered as an army base. The downsized staff were now gearing up to produce training and propaganda films for the war effort, as well as finally bringing the gargantuan production of 'Bambi' to completion. For better or worse though, Walt Disney Productions had been fundamentally altered by the strike of May 1941. The fantasy of an animation utopia had come to an end.

Thunder Dreams by Kevin MacLeod

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