Walt Disney built a billion-dollar company by acting like everyone’s grandpa. And, just like your grandpa, he was reportedly intolerant against people who weren’t exactly like him.
In the 1940s, Disney aligned himself with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a long winded-way of saying, “Get the Jews and Commies out of Hollywood,” and promoted a movie from German filmmaker and noted Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
Famed Disney animator Art Babbitt also once claimed:
In the immediate years before we entered the war, there was a small, but fiercely loyal, I suppose legal, following of the Nazi party… There were open meetings. Anybody could attend, and I wanted to see what was going on myself. On more than one occasion, I observed Walt Disney and [lawyer] Gunther Lessing there, along with a lot of prominent Nazi-afflicted Hollywood personalities. Disney was going to meetings all the time. (Via)
Unlike Der Fuehrer’s Face, the Donald Duck short that ends with tomatoes thrown into Hitler’s face, this scene, from 1933’s Three Little Pigs, doesn’t help Walt’s didn’t-distrust-Jews cause.
Even Meryl Streep (everyone loves Meryl Streep!) is Team Walt Was An Anti-Semite (and a Gender Bigot), saying, “He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group.”
But, to play Chernabog’s advocate, in Neal Gabler’s 2006 biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, the author noted that not only did Disney donate to a number of Jewish charities and universities, he was adored by most of the Chosen People he worked with.
“Of the Jews who worked [with Disney], it was hard to find any who thought Walt was an anti-Semite,” Gabler reported. “Joe Grant, who had been an artist, the head of the model department, and the storyman responsible for Dumbo… declared emphatically that Walt was not an anti-Semite. ‘Some of the most influential people at the studio were Jewish,’ Grant recalled, thinking no doubt of himself, production manager Harry Tytle, and Kay Kamen [head of Disney’s merchandising arm], who once quipped that Disney’s New York office had more Jews than the Book of Leviticus. Maurice Rapf concurred that Walt was not anti-Semitic; he was just a ‘very conservative guy.’” (Via)
If Walt was still alive and had to explain himself, he’d use the “… which was the style of the time” defense. What was normal and commonplace then is hateful and intolerant now. That doesn’t excuse his actions, not at all, but they need to be placed in the proper context of the era, when Jewish paranoia ran rampant due largely to mass migration to America.
He might have very little to apologize for, though. In Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment, author Douglas Brode writes, “There is zero hard evidence that Disney ever wrote or said anything anti-Semitic in private or public,” a claim that an upcoming documentary from PBS’ American Experience doubles down on.
Speaking at the Television Critics’ Association panel Sunday about PBS’ American Experience documentary on Disney, producer and director Sarah Colt said allegations he was an anti-Semite are unfounded.
“That’s just not based on any truths, so there’s no reason to bring it up in the film,” she said. “It wasn’t relevant. There isn’t any evidence.” (Via)
Composer Richard M. Sherman, who was also on the panel, added, “He was a great soul. He really was. And he had his flaws, of course… But the main thing is he was driven to do good things.”
And inspire Family Guy parodies. That’s a bad thing.