Hollywood Flashback: In 1941, an Animation Strike Put Disney in Peril

LOS ANGELES TIMES PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVE/REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA/UCLA LIBRARY
Disney employees picketed outside the Burbank studio in 1941.

"It was the defining crisis for the studio and not in a good way," says an animation historian about the five-week labor strike, during which Walt Disney Productions' cartoonists picketed for salary adjustments and proper credit in films.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In the history of film animation, the 1941 Disney strike was the equivalent of what the Civil War was to American history — it changed everything and the wounds still haven't completely healed. To compress the issues: Walt Disney Productions animation workers believed they were underpaid and not receiving the credit they deserved. On the other hand, Walt Disney, then 40, was under enormous financial pressures. Though Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been 1937's biggest hit, his next two films, Pinocchio and Fantasia, were less successful. And World War II, which cut off overseas markets, was bound to mean a 40 percent smaller audience for other features in development, including Dumbo and Bambi. There was heated disagreement within the ranks over whether the strike should happen at all. "It was the defining crisis for the Disney studio and not in a good way," says animation historian J.B. Kaufman. "The passions that fueled the strike ran so deep that for some people they never went away. There were rifts among the staff that were permanent."

When the strike began, The Hollywood Reporter deemed the news important enough for a page-one banner headline — with an exclamation point (though THR also found room nearby for an update on Orson Welles' draft status). The strike lasted five weeks, during which the animators earned the public's support. If there was one thing the action demonstrated, it's that cartoonists make the best picket signs: One had Mickey Mouse holding a placard that said, "Are we mice or men?" In the end, federal mediation led to the strikers getting most of their demands. But Disney made their lives miserable when they came back to their jobs in Burbank. "Before the strike, there was a family feeling about the studio that was never recaptured afterward," says Kaufman. "I think some of the joy went out of their work."

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