More than a decade has passed since Meryl Streep caused an uproar in Hollywood when she attacked Walt Disney as a man who “had some racist proclivities and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group and was a gender bigot.” She made these remarks during a National Board of Review awards ceremony while giving an award to Emma Thompson for her portrayal of author P.L. Travers in the movie Saving Mr. Banks. Clearly Ms. Streep would never agree that Walt Disney was an honorable “national symbol.”
Economic Times writer Swapan Dagupta claimed, “the assault on national symbols has become an epidemic all over the Western World.” Since the Internet continues to give voice to misinformed people who discredit Walt Disney and other national symbols, Walt’s legacy as a beloved animator, producer, director, screenwriter and voice actor must be defended.
I have spent decades teaching and coaching leaders how to adopt the values that Walt instilled in his company, none of which are “racist, anti-Semitic or gender bigot.” These values have guided the Disney organization until 2020 when new leadership began openly embracing the Woke culture. I wrote about this change in Disney’s direction in my blog dated June, 2022: “Has Disney Lost the Magic?”
Here are a few of the most prominent untruths about the man who created “The Happiest Place on Earth”:
Disney was Anti-Semitic
Douglas Brode, author of Multiculturism and the Mouse, stated, “There is zero evidence that Walt ever wrote or said anything anti-Semitic in public or private.” When Walt criticized Charles Mintz for stealing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from the Disney Brother’s Studio in the 1920’s, it had nothing to do with the fact that Mintz was Jewish. This is the story of a relationship that was doomed to fail, one that taught Walt a valuable lesson about choosing the right partners. As I wrote in The Disney Way, “Walt originally signed a contract with a New York distributor, Margaret Winkler. Trouble began when she married and her husband, Charles Mintz, took over her business. In a 1926 distribution deal involving Universal Pictures, Mintz persuaded the Disney brothers – whom he always referred to as “the bumpkins” – to create a new cartoon to compete with the very popular Felix the Cat. The result was the imaginative and successful Oswald series.
Mintz, however, was determined to acquire the Disney studio. When the distribution contract expired, he cut the studio’s payments by nearly a third and threated to take over the operation. After all, according to the contract, he owned Oswald. Walt was devastated, but he had no choice other than to comply with the contract.
The entire Oswald contract fiasco proved to be a serendipitous turn of events because the failed partnership led to the birth of one of the most famous cultural icons of all time – Mickey Mouse.”
Put yourself in Walt’s position. You produce a very successful product and someone disregards your contribution and tries to profit from it without you! You would not speak very kindly about those individuals who you believed were shysters. The fact that they were Jewish was of no significance. Walt would have felt the same if they were of any race, religion or ethnicity.
In 1932, Herman “Kay” Karmen, who was of Russian Jewish origin, partnered with Disney to build the largest and most successful in- house studio merchandising organization in the world. Karmen stood against Disney’s anti-Semitic attackers claiming, “Disney’s New York office has more Jews than the Book of Leviticus.”
There was also a claim that Walt was a Nazi sympathizer because in 1938 he hosted a studio tour for filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Leni was well known for her film Olympia that included footage of African American Jesse Owens winning “gold” and the US flag flying over the Nazi flag while playing the US national anthem. Walt did not know that she was a member of the Nazi Party. But even if he did know she was a Nazi, this was at a time in history when Great Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to Hitler’s European aggression.
During World War II, Walt produced the highly popular cartoon, “Der Furhrer’s Face.” He had a follow-up cartoon planned – “The Square World.” The Mighty-Highty-Tighty was a square shaped character patterned after Hitler; everything had to be square – houses, people, smokestacks, and even wheels. If you weren’t “square” you were put into a machine to become “square.” Nothing worked well, demonstrating that diversity wins out in end. The war ended before the film could be completed.
Walt, as a founding member of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers, was inclusive evidenced by his association with members Charlie Chaplin, Samuel Goldwyn, Alexander Korda, Mary Pickford, David Selznick, Walter Wagner and Orsen Wells who were a diverse group of legends in the industry. Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, suggested that the charges against Disney for anti-Semitism were “primarily made by enemies of Walt Disney who had a political beef with him.”
Walt was a Gender Bigot
Ms. Streep cited a quote from Animator Ward Kimball who supposedly said, “Walt didn’t trust women or cats.” Amid Amidi, Kimball’s biographer who after reading thousands of pages of Kimball’s writings and diaries reported, “I can say unequivocally that Ward never thought that Walt didn’t like women. If he said that, it was out of context.”
Ms. Streep also quoted a 1938 communique from Walt Disney informing a female applicant, “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen…the only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink and then filling in the tracing on the reverse side with paint…” What Ms. Streep failed to communicate was that women were not employed as animators or creative types ALL OVER Hollywood in the 1930s and were confined to inking and painting. Despite this general practice, Hazel Sewell was an art director on the 1937 production of Snow White.
Three years later, Walt announced that women would be included in his animator training program and said, “(women) have theright to expect the same chances as for advancement as men, and I honestly believe they may eventually contribute something to the business that men never would or could.” Mary Blair (It’s a Small World), Harriet Burns (1st Imagineer), Ethel Kulsar (Nutcracker Suite), Sylvia Holland (Nutcracker Suite), Retta Scott (Bambi), Alice Davis (costume designer), Phyllis Hurrell (production head) and many, many more professional creative women worked with Walt Disney. In 1959 Walt wrote, “Women are the best judges of anything we turn out…if the women like it, to heck with the men.”
Walt was a Racist
One Disney attacker claimed that The Jungle Book was racist because at one point in the animated feature film, Mowgli’s animal friends tell him to go live among “your own people.” They were referring to HUMAN KIND! Floyd Norman, one of the writers of The Jungle Book who happened to be an African American, said he never noticed a hint of racism from Walt. Norman left Disney after Walt’s death in 1966 and returned to the studios many years later to work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. He said that in his more than 50 years of studio experience, Walt was “hands down the best boss he ever had.”
The racism in Song of the South is fueled by the fact that Disney has not released the film in the past 28 years. In one of the scenes, Uncle Remus submissively apologizes to little Johnny’s mother. The film takes place shortly after the Civil War and this behavior was considered authentic. Author James Baldwin commented, “this unwarranted deference was still common in New York in the 1950s.” There may be a few other parts of the film that some may interpret as racist, but the overall mood of the film is anything but racist. The star, Uncle Remus, is wise and his tales are African stories about how the “little guy” outsmarted the oppressors.
Walt hired Maurice Rapf, an alleged “radical leftist”, to work on the script. Rapf said to Walt that he was worried about how the film may be taken. Walt said, “That’s why I hired you.” Walt sent copies of the script to a singer, an actress and an activist – Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel, and NAAPC Secretary Walter White respectively – because he sought their input. Walt even invited White to the studio to work on revisions with him. White begged off saying he was too busy. However, White was not too busy to complain after the film’s release that black-white relations were a distortion of facts. Walt did everything he could to get input from the African American community. Despite the criticism, Walt successfully fought to have James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus, be awarded an honorary Oscar.
Was Walt the perfect human being? Of course not. Were there parts of his films that may have offended some groups? Sure. But from the countless pages of research many including myself have unearthed on Walt Disney, coupled with the scores of individuals I have listened to who worked for Walt, certainly his overriding mission was to provide the “finest in family entertainment” and he never purposely demeaned anyone. Pure and simple: Walt sought out TALENT… and talent could emerge from any race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
No matter how many times I witness Walt’s attackers spewing their false allegations about his character and legacy, I remain a champion of one of the greatest National Symbols in my lifetime.