Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Uncle Walt, Uber Alles?

Okay, so was Walt Disney an anti-Semite?

Today I went Googling for an answer. Many of the sites that came up in my search were other Jewish-American bloggers mentioning it in passing. I had originally heard it from my husband, whose mother had heard from a neighbor who'd been in the movie business back in the '30s ("Disney wouldn't hire Jews.") It's as if the knowledge were handed down as folklore from generation to generation, and I was looking for Kunta Kinte.

A Robert Smigel animation on SNL a couple of months ago alluded to the subject. (NBC may have taken this down.)

I also turned up a few sites that were downright creepily anti-Semitic. And I don't mean the way some right-wing gentiles say you're being anti-Semitic if you criticize Israel. (To quote Josh Marshall, "For some, it seems, Bush-loyalty is the new sign of the covenant.") I mean good old-fashioned honest-to-Eichmann Jew-hating. And no, I'm not linking. Brrrr!

The Straight Dope, which shall now become an official link from my blog, had this:

For the most part Disney doesn't appear to have had strong political views--his politics seemed to turn on whatever it took to keep his studio going. It's likely his interest in the German American Bund sprang from a desire to forge relationships with Germany for possible film distribution there. On the other hand, there was a lot of antisemitic feeling in the Disney studio. While no one can specifically attribute bias to Disney himself, Jewish people were ready fodder for the animators' gags and Disney approved every scene in every short the studio made. In one scene in the original version of "The Three Little Pigs," the Big Bad Wolf comes to the door dressed as a stereotypical Jewish peddler. Disney changed the scene after complaints from Jewish groups. They didn't catch them all, though. In the short "The Opry House" Mickey Mouse is seen dressed and dancing as a Hasidic Jew.

Ethnic gags turned up in movies by many studios back then; outrageous stuff that you could never get away with now. The producers' rationale was that it was what the people wanted. Also, the country was in the process of assimilating a huge influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. It could also have been that the movie-makers were mocking the ethnic stereotypes, but this is crediting them with too much subtlety for the state of the movies back then.

A recent (PBS or Bravo) documentary on the life of Disney thought the assertions were important enough for a response, and featured interviews with Jewish animators and/or their descendants who said that they had indeed worked for Walt Disney Studios back in that era. There was speculation that the "Disney is an anti-Semite" meme was started by rival studio bosses who didn't want the Mouse-Meister muscling in on their racket.

So, no definitive answer. But as I said yesterday, the big deal with me isn't whether or not Mary Poppins was a stand-in for Oswald Mosley. The big deal with me is how I used to automatically agree with anyone who had a shred of cred rather than ask questions. And this wasn't out of stupidity or naivete; it was out of fear of being a troublemaker. I once had a guy I was dating actually say to me, "We had a great relationship and then you came along and ruined it!"

I also heard from somewhere that Disney wouldn't hire women animators over 30 because their hands shook. Someday, I shall put down my coffee and Google this one, as well.

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