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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.
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.
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