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Star Wars Episode XIII: Walt Disney by Karina Longworth

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As the creator of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the inventor of the sophisticated feature-length animated film feature, Walt Disney changed Hollywood and brought millions of children and adults boundless joy. And yet, Disney’s legacy is marred by the common perception that he was also a racist, misogynist and anti-semite. In this episode, we will attempt to reconcile the Walt Disney who turned his studio over to the US government and military during World War II for the creation of training films and anti-Nazi propaganda, with the Walt Disney who repeatedly associated himself with anti-Semites and their causes, and whose prolonged battle with unions left him embittered and determined to rid Hollywood of what he perceived of as the scourge of communism.

Show notes:

Special thanks to our special guest, Mark Olsen, who played Walt Disney.

The starting point for this episode was the speech given by Meryl Streep at the National Board of Review awards dinner in January 2014, in which she detoured from a tribute to Saving Mister Banks star Emma Thompson to call out WaltDisney for being a “gender bigot” who “had some racist proclivities.” While some stepped up to defend Disney against these allegations (see particularly this post by Amid Amidi on Cartoon Brew), it felt as though the general reaction online ranged from unquestioning enthusiasm (Vanity Fair put the phrase "best speech ever" in the URL of their article) to unquestioning shrugs, as though Streep was merely saying out loud a truism that a lot of people thought was old news. At the same time, I knew that whatever he felt personally, Disney’s animation studio had been active in using their characters to drum up support for World War II and, particularly, distaste for Hitler and the Nazis. Then, shortly after Streep’s speech, in researching Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here for an essay I wrote for the film’s recent UK DVD release, I came across some information about Walt’s 1941 visit to South America in indirect support of what would soon be known as the Allied cause. Then, a couple of months ago, I came across a new book called Disney During World War II. Written by John Baxter and commissioned/published by Disney themselves, this book isn’t pure puff piece — it’s particularly critical of Walt’s interest in Victory Through Air Power — but it doesn’t go near the allegations articulated by Streep. I figured these different versions of who WaltDisney was and what he believed would be fertile territory for exploration.

This episode includes audio clips from Der Fuehrer's FaceThe New Spirit and The Three Caballeros.

Other sources:

WaltDisney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

In Defense of Walt: WaltDisney and Anti-Semitism

WaltDisney’s grandniece backs up Meryl Streep’s racism claims: ‘Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!!!

The full text of Ayn Rand's Screen Guide for Americans

Discography:

Life Round Here by James Blake

Air Hockey Saloon by Chris Zabriskie

I Want to Fall in Love on Snapchat by Chris Zabriskie

The Sorcerer's Apprentice, by Paul Dukas, performed by Leopold Stowkowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra

Intelligent Galaxy by The Insider

Private Hurricane by Josh Woodward

Readers! Do You Read? by Chris Zabriskie

Rite of Passage by Kevin MacLeod

Divider by Chris Zabriskie

Gymnopedie No. 3 by Eric Satie, performed by Kevin MacLeod

Money by Jahzzar

Undercover Vampire Policeman by Chris Zabriskie

Snow Drop by Kevin MacLeod

Passing Fields by Quantum Jazz

All of My Tears by Spiritualized

Something Against You by The Pixies

Star Wars Episode XI: Charlie Chaplin by Karina Longworth

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The most successful film of Charlie Chaplin’s career was also the most controversial: in The Great Dictator, Chaplin viciously satirized Hitler before the US entered World War II, and the comedy helped rally a previously war-shy American public. We’ll explore the connections between Chaplin and Adolf Hitler, and explain why most of Hollywood tried to stop The Great Dictator from being made. Then we’ll switch gears to discuss how Chapin’s wartime activism and his troubled personal life collided to benefit J. Edgar Hoover, who spent thirty years trying to prove that Chaplin was dangerously un-American. 

Show Notes:

The impetus for this episode was a documentary produced and aired by TCM, which I first saw about a year ago, called The Tramp and the Dictator. The film was co-directed by Michael Kloft and the great silent film historian Kevin Brownlow (if you haven't seen his series Hollywood, on the silent era, find it and watch it post haste), and it tells the story of how and why Chaplin made The Great Dictator, using previously unseen material shot on the set of the film. I thought it would be interesting to contrast this aspect of Chaplin's war experience with the section of City of Nets in which Otto Friedrich describes Chaplin's personal life and the scandals it caused during the war years as a kind of prelude to the legal issues that would get him thrown out of the US a few years later. 

 

Additional Bibliography:

Chaplin's War Trilogy: An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947 by Wes D. Gehring

Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics  By Steven J. Ross

CharlieChaplin: Jewish or Goyish?

Audio excerpts from The Tramp and The Dictator and The Great Dictator via YouTube

Discography:

Preludes for Piano #2 by George Gershwin

Wonder Cycle by Chris Zabriskie

Benbient by Canton

Exlibris by Kosta T

Gagool by Kevin MacLeod

Devastation and Revenge by Kevin MacLeod

I Need to Start Writing Things Down by Chris Zabriskie

Out of the Skies, Under the Earth by Chris Zabriskie

Ghost Dance by Kevin MacLeod

I Know a Guy by Kevin MacLeod

Robocop by Kanye West

Star Wars Episode VI: Marlene Dietrich at War (YMRT #32) by Karina Longworth

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German actress/singer Marlene Dietrich — famous for her revolutionarily ambiguous, highly glamorous sexual libertine persona, as displayed on-screen during the 1930s in films like Morocco and Shanghai Express — was embedded with the Allies during World War II as a performer, propagandist, and de facto intelligence agent. We’ll explore how and why this happened, why the experience left Dietrich depressed and financially destitute, and how Billy Wilder convinced Marlene to play a Nazi sympathizer in the filmmaker’s attempt to make a post-war Hollywood propaganda film, A Foreign Affair. Also: a few of Dietrich’s many affairs with co-stars such as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, her plot to kill Hitler, and the FBI investigation that tried (and failed) to prove that Dietrich was a German spy.

Show Notes:

A Foreign Affair, which I discuss in the episode and highly recommend, is not on DVD. I first saw it in a rep house in Paris two years ago, and then found a copy on VHS while I was working on this episode. The short clip I included in this episode comes from the radio version of the film, which is on YouTube.

To keep things interesting, this week two of my sources, though very different books, both have the same title. Dietrich’s own autobiography Marlene, first published in 1989, claims to set the record straight on all of the previous books written about her, which she insists are rubbish. She’s so persuasive on this matter that I ignored all other books published while she was alive, and focused on Marlene: A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler, who spent some time with Dietrich in the 1970s and also interviewed many of her friends and lovers, but held back publishing her book until 2011, long after Dietrich’s death. 

In looking for information on the making of A Foreign Affair, I discovered two books new to me: Charles Brackett’s diary of working with Wilder, It’s the Pictures That Got Small; and A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films by Gerd Gemunden. I found the former to be almost too bitchy, and the latter to be a little academic but very useful in its detailing of Wilder’s wartime and post-war experience.

Two other sources worth mentioning, both of which I read years ago but did not consult directly this week: Josef von Sternberg’s memoir Fun in a Chinese Laundry, and Gaylyn Studlar’s book on Sternberg and Dietrich’s collaborations, In the Realm of Pleasure.

The bit about Dietrich’s FBI file comes from this Guardian story, and details on Operation Muzak and other aspects of Dietrich’s war experience come from this article on the CIA’s own website.

Discography:

You Go to My Head performed by Marlene Dietrich

Rite of Passage by Kevin MacLeod

Give Me The Man performed by Marlene Dietrich

Assez performed by Marlene Dietrich

Au coin de la rue by Marco Raaphorst

Benbient by Canton

Lili Marlene performed by Marlene Dietrich

Prelude No. 21 by Chris Zabriskie

Look Me Over Closely performed by Marlene Dietrich

Black Market performed by Marlene Dietrich

Gymnopedie No.3 by Eric Satie

Illusions performed by Marlene Dietrich