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'The Disney Revolt' details animators' 1941 strike against Disney

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the 1940s, one of Hollywood's most popular leading men had big ears, red shorts and oversized yellow shoes. Mickey Mouse was a star. But the people who drew him for Walt Disney did not enjoy everything about their jobs. And in 1941, artists went on strike. NPR's Barry Gordemer reports on the fight to unionize the Disney studios.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEIGH HO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing, as characters) Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go.

BARRY GORDEMER, BYLINE: In the early days of animation, Disney artists are among Hollywood's happiest workers. They are prolific, cranking out short animated films that wowed audiences and won Oscars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEDAY MY PRINCE WILL COME")

ADRIANA CASELOTTI: (As Snow White, singing) Someday my prince will come.

GORDEMER: Then, in 1937, Disney hits the stratosphere. "Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs" becomes Hollywood's highest-grossing movie to that point in history. It transforms Disney and company from upstart animators to major motion picture studio. But the celebration doesn't last long.

JAKE FRIEDMAN: After "Snow White," the artists feel like Walt has distanced himself from them now that he's a big Hollywood big shot.

GORDEMER: Jake Friedman is an animator and author of the book "The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War Of Animation's Golden Age."

FRIEDMAN: The bonus that he promised the artists and the profit sharing of "Snow White" did not go into their pockets so much as into the new studio in Burbank that he built. So he's saying, I built this new studio for you. And they're saying, I can't feed my family on this new studio, Walt.

GORDEMER: The animators decide to unionize.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARL STALLING AND WARNER BROS STUDIO ORCHESTRA'S "THE GOOD EGG")

GORDEMER: By 1941, all the other animation studios, including Warner Brothers and MGM, have already unionized. Disney is the last holdout.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHORT, "FOUL HUNTING")

PINTO COLVIG: (As Goofy, singing) I'm a-going to hunt some ducks, hunt some ducks, hunt some ducks.

GORDEMER: Leading the fight for the union at Disney is Art Babbitt. He's best known as the creator of Goofy the dog. Babbitt is Disney's most trusted animator.

FRIEDMAN: Walt's sense of loyalty had kind of been shattered when Art Babbitt wants to bring in an independent union into the studio. And Walt Disney does not want to, in his mind, relinquish control.

GORDEMER: Disney doesn't tell Babbitt and the other artists that the company is going broke.

FRIEDMAN: World War II hits Europe, and their European market is cut off. That's about half of their total revenue.

GORDEMER: And the follow-up movies to "Snow White" - "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia" - they're box office bombs.

FRIEDMAN: If he had leveled with them, I have no doubt that he would have won more over. I think he was probably afraid to show weakness.

GORDEMER: The wedge between the artist and Disney grows.

FRIEDMAN: And Disney fires Art Babbitt on May 27, 1941, and the next day is the strike.

GORDEMER: Animators picket outside the Disney studios. And because they're artists, they have the coolest picket signs.

FRIEDMAN: There's Pluto saying, I've got a bone to pick with Walt. There's Goofy saying, even I can see that something's wrong here, and Jiminy Cricket saying, it ain't cricket to pass a picket.

GORDEMER: The strike drags on. It's so contentious, it gets the attention of the White House. President Franklin Roosevelt appoints a federal mediator, but Walt Disney still has to drive past the protesters every day to get to work.

FRIEDMAN: Friday the 13 of July, Art Babbitt yells at Walt Disney, Walt Disney, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. And Walt Disney gets out of his car, and he starts moving towards Babbitt. And Babbitt starts moving towards Walt. People are booing. People are hissing. And the space between them is closing. And you'll have to read the book to find out what happens. See what I did there?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I SEE AN ELEPHANT FLY")

CLIFF EDWARDS: (As Dandy Crow, singing) But I be done seen about everything when I see an elephant fly.

GORDEMER: The strike ends after five weeks. The artists win. They unionize and join the Screen Cartoonist's Guild. But in the movie "Dumbo," you can still see a little piece of the bitterness between the two sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOWN SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Oh, we're going to hit the big boss for a raise.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Yes, we're going to hit the big boss for a raise.

GORDEMER: "Dumbo" was in production around the time of the strike, and there's a short scene where a bunch of circus clowns march off to confront management.

FRIEDMAN: Everyone who has been a member of an animation union has at least some degree of credit owed to these Disney strikers. Hollywood's a union town because of the Disney strike. And the fact that they got everything that they were fighting for says a lot for these strikers and a lot for what they sacrificed.

GORDEMER: In other words, you don't have to be an artist to draw a line between the past and the present.

Barry Gordemer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEIGH HO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Heigh ho, heigh ho. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barry Gordemer is an award-winning producer, editor, and director for NPR's Morning Edition. He's helped produce and direct NPR coverage of two Persian Gulf wars, eight presidential elections, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. He's also produced numerous profiles of actors, musicians, and writers.