A Brief Biography of Cartoonist Walt Disney
“It's a Matter of Principle with Me.” Disney testifying before Congress.
Walt Disney, born in 1901 to a Canadian father and German mother, learned the importance of hard work at a very young age. During the Great War, driven by a strong sense of duty, the result of his father's traditional Victorian values as well as an intense jealousy of his older brother's service in the navy, Disney devised a plot to enlist in the war effort by crossing into Canada and signing up there, a necessity in order to circumvent American age restrictions.9 Disney's first experiences in animation and business would go a long way in explaining his anti-communist zeal and willingness to testify before HUAC in later years.
In 1929, Disney was dealt a formative experience when a majority of his employees deserted him and took up employment with a competitor. Again, in 1931, Disney's close friend and lead animator, Ub Iwerks, abandoned him to start his own company. Indeed, Disney very early on concluded that the animation production industry was an “out-and-out cutthroat business” where one would be “putting a knife in your back and he'll be laughing and having a drink with you.”
Disney's later role as a willing anti-communist soldier can also be explained by his keen awareness of and subsequent adaptation to the changing American culture of any given time. As his biographer Steven Watts puts it, Disney “had a visceral instinct for the rhythms and emotions of mass culture.” For example, the animated cartoon The Whoopee Party (1932), as cited by Watts, was representative of the new emerging mass culture in America by its conscious mix of a fast-paced, upbeat musical score along with the portrayal of Mickey Mouse as a hyper-prominent figure, which worked well in the new cultural landscape that saw the rise of the celebrity culture.
Disney's work also included patriotic themes as he enlisted for the war effort during World War II. In 1941, the Lockheed Aircraft Company began a four year collaboration with Disney making instructional films for the war. The Canadian National Film Board enlisted Disney for a series of four animated shorts dealing with, among other things, troop training. The American army was also involved, subsequently taking over Walt Disney studios in California in order to support the war effort; at a certain point, a Navy commander would occupy Disney's personal office for two months, but Disney never did find the courage to say much.
One of the animated shorts that was produced by Disney for the American war effort was Education for Death: the making of a Nazi, based on a previous book by Gregor Ziemer of the same name. The short opens with the narrator asking “What makes a Nazi? How does he get that way?” Later, we see a mock scene from the Sleeping Beauty story with Hitler portrayed as the hero reawakening a slumbering Mother Germany. The short goes on to detail how the Nazis educate their young from an early age to become ruthless killers. According to Disney's view, as represented in the short, Nazis are ruthless enemies much akin to animals who are bred to hate and that such qualities were of a permanent, unchanging nature. This extreme and dehumanizing view of the Nazis demonstrates Disney's tendency to moral absolutism, a behavior that he would exhibit in the future as well.
Disney had also inherited from his father, who was a firm liberal, a politics of egalitarianism and populism. In 1948, Disney signed a letter urging Congress to pass a $300 million education bill which had the support of labor unions and was being stalled by a conservative congress. But he also was a believer in the traditional values of hierarchy and stability in the home, what could today be referred to as “family values.” This resulted in a pervading sense of moralism throughout his cartoons and movies, a point missed by some critics who tend to focus almost entirely on the technical aspects of Disney's cartoons and movies. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney's first full-length animated feature, we are presented with a version of the idealized woman. In the opening scenes of the movie, we see Snow White happily tending to her garden, cleaning and singing, wishing for her prince to come save her. A little further in the movie, we see the seven dwarfs arriving at the cottage only to notice that it has been cleaned. When they finally meet Snow White in the upstairs room, she quickly besieges them to wash up before dinner, as the inside of the cottage sparkles from the workings of an over-enthusiastic but duty bound woman.
Disney's moralizing has indeed left a lasting legacy on the publics imagination until modern times. When the issue of building a Disney historical theme park in Virginia arose in 1995, one critic drew an editorial cartoon of Goofy running along side a Vietnamese girl that had just been struck with napalm, with the caption “I loved hearing Mickey read the emancipation proclamation in his funny little voice.”
In sum, Disney's early business experiences, including the strike of 1941, in addition to his traditional sense of personal duty and morality along with his keen ability to discern the cultural trends of his time, would position him to play a leading role in the institutionalized anti-communism of post-war America. It would also lay the groundwork for Disney's relationship with the F.B.I. as well as his testimony before the HUAC investigations.