Prof. Jake Friedman and the Mouse Animators Who Roared: The Great Disney Strike of 1941

There’s a technical and conceptual revolution – in fact, multiple revolutions – taking place in the animation industry today. In an age that has fostered unique national styles, content ranging from shorts and feature-length narratives to games, animation almost indistinguishable from reality and reality overlaid with computer-generated effects, the industry’s creative workers would do well to understand animation’s history.

“The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War of Animation’s Golden Age,” by Jake S. Friedman (Chicago Review Press)

No, it didn’t quite begin with a mouse named Mickey. But Mickey and his friends powered animation’s early revolution. And Mickey’s “father,” Walter Elias Disney, born 1901, played an outsized role. So did a groundbreaking Disney animator, Art Babbitt, who took the, well, “art” form to new heights and helped assure that creative animators would receive credit and some of the money they helped create.

It took unionization and a 1941 strike at Disney’s studios to set the stage. Prof. Jake Friedman, who has taught animation history at FIT, has a new book, “The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War of Animation’s Golden Age.” It, along with two earlier books, shines light on how the business side of the current industry began to evolve. He’s also provided archival research for a PBS documentary on Walt Disney.

Disney strikers 1941

“How do we stand on the shoulders of giants if we don’t know the giants?” says Friedman. “I try to bring the history part of it into the Now, so we can connect to the creative choices of the filmmakers and, I hope, be inspired.”

He also says he wants to present the time and culture in which the animations were made, not as a time capsule, but as a reminder that everything we do reflects our own time and culture.

Friedman’s course History of Animation CG 344 may be the only animation course where students are graded on their essays. “I ask the students first to write about a few of their favorite animations from the first three decades of animation history,” he says. “Gradually, we hit all the decades, from the 1900s through 2010s.”

History of Animation professor and author Jake S. Friedman

Friedman says he wants his students to decide for themselves what they personally find valuable. “Art is subjective,” he says. “What matters to me won’t necessarily matter to you, and vice versa.”

He says he was inspired to write the book by “the late, great John Culhane, who taught History of Animation here at FIT and passed the mantle on to me.”

Friedman says Prof. Culhane told him 14 years ago “that I would write this book…he knew I was on the task.”

Animation historian John Culhane serving as model reference for Mr. Snoops in Disney’s “The Rescuers” (1977)
“Having worked at several non-union studios in New York I had always heard about the legendary Disney labor struggles…and the long defunct NYC animation union.  As employees at Titmouse studio in NYC and Vancouver just organized the first Animation Guild local outside LA this year it’s especially important to understand the history of unions in the animation industry.” – Dan Shefelman, Chair, Illustration & Interactive Media

Among the book’s insights are descriptions of what life was like for a young artist at Disney in the Golden Age, and how the strike changed the industry but nearly broke the studio. Walt Disney’s most innovative artist, Babbitt, became his most bitter rival.

All of this is told with the culture of Hollywood, and of the Disney studio at the time, as a backdrop. There was even involvement of a Capone gangster. The book includes a personal peek at real conversations and concerns both sides had.

Walt Disney, 1935 (publicity)

Ironically, Walt Disney’s father was a socialist and supporter of Eugene V. Debs, who famously opposed American involvement in WW1. Walt’s father would collect his sons’ earnings (Walt’s brother Roy was the financial powerhouse behind Disney) when they were young.

Says Friedman: “I suspect Walt was raging against his dad when he refused to back down against the growing labor movement in Hollywood. And at the same time, he empathized with his dad and saw how his dad was taken advantage of by others due to his gullibility. This included a pyramid scheme cloaked as a farmer’s union.

Young Walt practiced his drawing skills by copying “The New Adventures of Henry Dubb,” a comic strip by Ryan Walker, who was a communist.

from “The New Adventures of Henry Dubb”

Friedman quotes Walt as saying “I got so I could draw…the big, fat capitalist with the money, maybe with his foot on the neck of the laboring man.”

“Thus it is ironic that Walt started drawing by copying a pro-union comic strip,” says Friedman, “and the character of Henry Dubb was a gullible loser who refused to join a union and trusted his employers to take care of him – always to his detriment.”

Friedman credits Walt as the power behind the studio’s raising animation as an art form, but that after Walt, “Babbitt did more to raise the standards of Disney animation, and thereby animation as an art form” in those times.

Art Babbitt animating at Disney, circa 1932

Babbitt was also a generous mentor. His advice: “Caricature must be the expression of an artist…” and ”try to make yourself feel the way that character would feel under the same circumstances…try to think as he would think,” still holds.

Says Friedman: “Babbitt was the first to get into the mind of an animated character. He wrote a character analysis on Goofy and that changed everything. He was a superb teacher of animation. He talked about studying life, and caricaturing the world by adding your own spice to it, and using all influences as inspiration, from fine art to music to world travel. I can’t think of better creative advice than that.”

Like many managers, Walt Disney regarded unions as communist fronts, converting capitalist profits into bigger paychecks. Yet unionization appears to be increasing now due to labor shortages and inflation.

Friedman warns that the industry’s greatest change has been in digital effects, “which somehow fall between animation and live action, and so have no union representation.”

Art Babbitt (left) surrounded by fellow Disney strikers, 1941

“The Disney Revolt” was written to describe not only how animation was made, but also how a successful union was made.

Strike poster

Friedman does admit, however, that Babbitt, the animator-turned-union leader, “made some poor choices about leading that we can look at now with criticism.”

The book describes the role of Willie Bioff. “He was a bona fide Chicago gangster, who ended up controlling the largest labor organization in Hollywood, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Fighting him was the Disney artists’ original reason to organize. But during the strike he aligned with Walt Disney.”

Organized crime figure William Morris Bioff

Friedman says the country’s shock at this helped get Washington’s attention and force the new National Labor Relations Board to step in to end the strike.

“The Disney Revolt” will be available in the Gladys Marcus Library or can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Chicago Review Press.

To learn more about animation at FIT go to: Animation, Interactive Media, & Game Design.

Photos courtesy of Jake S. Friedman

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