There’s a fascinating movie that came out 80 years ago you can find on Disney+ that lifts the curtain on the studio’s operations as much as any behind-the-scenes look at the Mouse House ever has. When “The Reluctant Dragon” came out on June 27, 1941, it wasn’t just an adaptation of the Kenneth Grahame story about a peace-loving firebreather, it was also an extended live-action look at the operations of Walt Disney’s then-new studio in Burbank.
Humorist and actor Robert Benchley (grandfather of “Jaws” author Peter) tries to sell Disney on the idea of adapting the Grahame story, but before he can get to the big man himself he goes on a veritable tour of the studio. What follows is as much an inside-look at filmmaking as anything Hollywood had ever given viewers by the early 1940s. It plays like a DVD “making of” feature nearly 60 years before DVDs were invented, so no wonder, after the towering heights of “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” and “Fantasia,” critics were puzzled by this especially strange theatrical release.
Benchley visits the “color lab” where all the brilliant hues for Disney’s animated features are mixed together with scientific precision (at which point the movie switches from black and white to Technicolor). He meets Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck — and it is a truly magical thing to hear that voice come out of a very ordinary looking man. He sees small statues being made of characters for upcoming movies, including for “Peter Pan” and “The Lady and the Tramp,” which were still more than a decade away from release. He learns how the studio’s famed multiplane camera works. He witnesses an elaborate storyboard-driven pitch session for a new short. And finally after this inside look at the production process for animation in 1941, we get a cartoon version of “The Reluctant Dragon” itself.
Not included in the documentary, as you might imagine, was the grumbling of many of the studio staff. While the top animators, such as the famed “Nine Old Men” of Ward Kimball, Ollie Johnston, et al, made over $300 a week — a movie star’s salary in those days — most of the rest of the staff had to deal with bottom-of-the-barrel wages. A $12-a-week salary was typical for the colorists of the ink-and-paint department — one of whom is seen painting Bambi more than a year before that film hit theaters.
By some time before the release of “The Reluctant Dragon,” much of the studio staff had had enough. Led by Art Babbitt, who had developed Goofy and served as principal animator on the Wicked Queen in “Snow White,” Geppetto in “Pinocchio,” and the Stork in “Dumbo,” 200 out of the 1,200-strong staff went on strike. Their goal was to unionize with the Screen Cartoonists Guild, part of the AF of L. Leon Schlesinger Productions, which made the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons for Warner Bros., had unionized with the guild, so some of its animators joined the Disney picket line.
Schlesinger animator Chuck Jones was among them. He’s one of the black-hooded executioners above helping to carry a guillotine to the picket line. Its blade would fall upon a dummy made to look like Gunther Lessing, Walt Disney’s chief legal counsel. Anger was particularly high against Disney and Lessing following a disastrous all-staff assembly prior to the strike in which Disney gave a speech all but saying that those who were being paid low wages deserved to be paid low wages and simply weren’t as talented as those making the big bucks.
Even at this time, Disney veered to the right in his outlook. The reasons for this are fascinating to consider, especially because his father, Elias Disney, was a socialist, an enthusiastic supporter of Eugene V. Debs. A journeyman laborer, Elias had lived all around the country, and he married Walt’s mother, Flora, while working as a mailman in Kissimmee, FL, near where his son would plan for his “Florida Project,” the principality-size Walt Disney World resort, some 75 years later. Elias made it clear to his son that he felt being an artist and animator was not a real job. It’s entirely possible that Walt became a conservative, and such an aggressive capitalist, in revolt against his father, who had led socialist talks from the family home when Walt was young.
But it was on account of the strike in 1941 that Disney veered further to the right still. Until his death 25 years later, he considered the months-long battle to be the absolute worst period of his life. And he was certain that the strikers were really communist agitators looking to strike down a great captain of industry. The strike set him on the path to ultimately testifying as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee about the communists he believed had infiltrated Hollywood. This was a visceral hatred. During the strike, he once even took off his hat and jacket looking to fight Babbitt mano a mano, until he was restrained.
The fact that the Disney studio was legitimately in grave financial distress certainly contributed to his agitation as well. Though 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was the single biggest U.S. box-office success between the even higher grossing “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and “Gone With the Wind” 24 years later, with a whopping gross of $8 million, Disney went on a spending spree. He invested that money in the construction of a sprawling new studio campus in Burbank, moving all his workers there from their former location on LA’s Hyperion Ave (in a nod to that earlier studio, Hyperion is still the name of Disney’s publishing division). The Burbank sprawl remains the Disney headquarters to this day. And he overextended himself with the costly filmmaking technologies he needed to develop in order to make “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.” Boosting his staff’s salary was not a priority.
Walt’s ultimate response was to leave the country on an extended summer tour of South America as an ambassador on behalf of the Roosevelt administration’s Good Neighbor Policy. The strike was settled in his absence and about half of the 1,200-strong staff was laid off, with a deal struck that both strikers and non-strikers would be eligible for the redundancies. The Disney studio would only get out of its financial hole — the reason why you see those concept statues for “Peter Pan” and “The Lady and the Tramp” years before the movies came out — by taking government contracts to make training films during World War II, America’s involvement in which was just months away.
“The Reluctant Dragon” then stands as a time-capsule of a very unique moment: after the Disney studio’s move to Burbank but before the strike and the resultant downsizing. It looks as impressive as any studio in Hollywood you could imagine in this movie, and yet it was just months away from Bank of America installing one of its executives on the Disney board to dictate production schedules. With Disney as the all-consuming behemoth it is today, it’s easy to forget how fragile the studio has been throughout many points of its history. Watching “The Reluctant Dragon” Disney seems as unstoppable as it is today — but it was fighting for its life just a few months later.
Click to the next page for the archive of new releases to Disney+ from previous months, starting with a review of “The Bad Batch”.