The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War of Animation’s Golden Age

By Jake S Friedman
322 pages
2022 Chicago Review Press

Jake Friedman deserves a rousing hurrah! for writing “The Disney Revolt, the Great Labor War
of Animation’s Golden Age.” This is an eye-opening book full of many stories, and even readers
who are familiar with the history of animation, or the growth of entertainment industry unions
will discover something new in its pages. Leonard Maltin, one of the world’s most
knowledgeable writers about Hollywood and the author of “Of Mice and Magic: A History of
American Animated Cartoons” reviewed it by writing, “ I learned many things I didn’t know
from this treatise, which allows the reader to make up his or her mind about the still-simmering
divisions caused by the dispute.” Maltin is correct in calling this a treatise, but it is an absorbing
The history of the 1941 Disney animators’ strike, as laid out by Friedman is dramatic and filled
with enough twists to make the book a page-turner. He structures the narrative around the
backgrounds, personalities, and the career intersection of two central figures, animators Art
Babbitt and Walt Disney. Walter, born 1901 and Arthur born 1903 shared more than
midwestern childhoods: Chicago, a family farm in the small town of Marceline, Missouri and
Kansas City for Walt; Omaha, Sioux City, and then New York City for Art. They both also had
early exposure to labor organizing and social injustices. Friedman describes each man’s
formative years amid the social background of the time: labor unrest, Eastern European
immigration, and WWI. He draws on their early experiences with family, work, responsibility

and organized labor to help explain why decades later they became first colleagues then
Walt’s father Elias Disney was a supporter of socialist politician Eugene Debs, one of the
founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or The Wobblies) and was active in the
populist/socialist movements that roiled American politics at the turn of that century. Solomon
Babitsky, Art’s father was an immigrant from Eastern Europe, a Jewish scholar who had no skills
that were marketable in the US. Neither man provided financial stability, and both boys had to
work to help support their families, eventually rebelling against their ineffectual fathers. The
artistic talents that Walt and Art displayed while young were encouraged by the women in their
lives, Walt’s aunt Maggie and Art’s mother Zelda. Solomon Babitsky was disabled in a work
accident in 1923, and the family moved to New York, forced to be increasingly dependent on
Zelda’s family. Art rejected his father’s strict religious doctrines, and by fiercely standing up for
his rights as an employee, found success as an advertising artist. Walt felt that his father,
known as a “churchy” man, was a gullible pacifist, misused by a disreputable socialist farmers’
cooperative. At age 16, when a bomb attributed to the IWW exploded close to him in the
Chicago Federal Building, Walt decisively turned against Elias and joined the WWI effort as an
ambulance driver.
These facts and a great deal of other information presented in the first five chapters of “The
Disney Revolt” may make it appear that psychological analysis will dominate the book, but this
is not the case. While Friedman does refer to the possible emotional states of some of those
involved in the strike and sets their careers within the context of their personal lives, he
fortunately does not wander into fanciful supposition. The book avoids specious speculation, an

approach that creates trust in its authenticity. Still, readers but would have benefitted from a
pictorial timeline that clarified the complicated events.
A simplified explanation of the strike is that the close-knit family atmosphere that characterized
the earliest days of Disney cartoons morphed into a kindly paternalistic organization as Mickey
Mouse and his pals rose to fame. Then as the studio moved from Hyperion Avenue in
Hollywood to grand new facilities in Burbank and was riding high on the success of Hollywood’s
first animated feature film, “Snow White,” the hiring of hundreds of workers, mounting debt,
grueling production schedules, broken promises, low pay and hard-nosed bureaucracy drove
star animators like Babbitt to feel increasingly sidelined and underappreciated. Babbitt was
held in high esteem by the creative community for animating classic characters like Goofy, the
evil stepmother in ”Snow White,” the Chinese Dance in ”Fantasia,” and Geppetto in “Pinocchio”
. He developed a technique with his personal camera for filming “action analysis” in which the
actual movements of people were transferred to cartoon characters, giving them unique
dimension and personality.
Although Babbit was the studio’s highest paid animator, he was passionate about getting decent money
and working conditions for the lowest paid employees. The studio’s pay scale was erratic; the highest-
ranking animators made as much as $300 a week, while many lower-ranking film workers earned as
little as $12. A mysteriously arbitrary bonus system added to the confusion. Babbitt refused to join an
exclusive club on the Disney lot because it would not admit anyone who earned less than $100 a week.
While working at Disney Studios was considered the prime artistic opportunity in the 1930s animation,
employees there were the lowest paid in Hollywood. Many of the crafts, including The Society of Film
Editors, were already unionized, and the large national unions, the American Federation of Labor

(AFL), the Congress of Industrial Workers (CIO), and especially the International Alliance of
Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) were all trying to expand their influence in Hollywood.
Babbitt was the acknowledged head of the 1941 strike, but an enormous number of factors led
to it, and various versions of what happened when and who did what to whom and why have
been written and talked about for decades. Friedman seeks to uncomplicate the baffling
amount of information surrounding his subject by wisely avoiding reliance on previous books
and instead cites recorded interviews, legal documents, contemporary publications (especially
major newspapers and the trade press) letters, and thousands of what must have been mind-
numbing records from the National Labor Relations Board. He is a thorough historian, using
massive numbers of primary sources in research conducted over ten years to explain an
extremely complicated situation.
Through Friedman’s efforts the roles of numerous individuals become clearer. One was Disney’s
Chief Legal Counsel Gunther Lessing, whose most famous client had been Mexican
revolutionary Pancho Villa, for whom he negotiated a $25,000 film contract. In late 1938
Lessing and Babbitt concocted a “fake” in-house union, the Federation of Screen Cartoonists, meant to
block IATSE from gaining control at the studio. Babbitt and others soon realized that this organization
was simply a management tool, and by 1941 Lessing was considered the main obstacle between Walt
and a compromise with the legitimate Screen Cartoonists Guild. The other major player in the saga was
Willie Bioff. Bioff was a convicted Chicago gangster who partnered with IATSE Chicago President George
Brown to bilk theater owners. With the help of Al Capone’ men, Brown became National President of
IATSE and because most theater projectionists were IATSE members, Bioff and Brown were able to

extort huge sums of money from Hollywood studios by threatening projectionist strikes. This technique
played a strategic role in the Disney strike.

“The Disney Revolt” explains the machinations these men engaged in, as well as the shifting
relationships among artists, employees, management, lawyers, the federal government, and friends. It
does so with an easy readability that belies the intensity of Friedman’s work. Photographs and cartoon
drawings are scattered throughout, each of which deserves attention. While book does not dwell on the
repercussions of the successful strike, it does briefly follow up on the lives of each major player. In 1943
the gangsters behind IATSE were indicted for extortion of more than $1 million from the biggest studios
and charged with fraud against the stagehands and projectionists. Friedman does not point a finger at
Walt Disney for his possible antisemitic beliefs, pointing out that Disney worked with many Jews. Nor
does he excoriate Walt for testifying and naming names before the Congressional House Unamerican
Activities Committee in 1947. Three of the men he named were business managers of the Screen
Cartoonists Guild, and the fourth was Dave Hilberman a layout artist at the studio and a strike leader
who was indeed a Communist. Still, within the industry, Walt Disney’s name is tarnished by accusations
of prejudice.

Friedman does not follow up on the long-lasting animosity that existed for decades between strikers and
non-supporters of the union. He presents Babbitt as the stronger, more principled of the two men, and
the vitriol between them is almost glossed over in the final chapter where he notes Babbitt’s 2007
posthumous honor of being designated a Disney Legend, joining the company’s official “hall of fame”.
Art Babbitt died in 1992, living more than 30 years after Walt Disney’s death in 1966. Babbitt ultimately
became a much-revered elder of animation, influencing many artists. Disney became the mythic hero of
both a huge corporation and for a world-wide audience of millions of fans. Each man, in his own way
was forever marked by the strike. It is difficult to know whether either would have liked the Disney

Legend designation. It is even harder to imagine how they might view the March 2022 walkout of some
Disney employees in support of LGBTQ rights.

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