“Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
– Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, November 9, 2016
“Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
– Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, November 9, 2016
This week marks the 75th birthday of one of my favorite films of all time, Dumbo (1941). Amazing, right? Watch it today and it feels as timeless as ever. And not faux “timeless,” but actual, bonafide timeless. This film could have been made this year (ok, minus a couple details).
Although Art Babbitt worked at Disney between his military discharge in 1945 and his resignation in January 1947, it was his 1941 work on Dumbo that was his real Disney swan song. He was the lead animator on Mr. Stork, the Western-Union-style singing delivery boy. His final assignment was the clowns silhouetted against the circus tent, talking about hitting the big boss for a raise.
A couple years ago I was visiting the Disney animation building, and an animator came in praising Babbitt, but calling his work on Mr. Stork less skillful. As a matter of fact, Babbitt was going through an “Animator’s Block” at the time. He would say later that he was lacking confidence, and was becoming increasingly reliant on live-action reference. There was less caricature in some of his animation. It looks more stiff. You can see it it Baggage Buster.
Most significantly, Dumbo was also concurrent with labor unrest at Disney. Babbitt was singled out at the studio as the instigator (“Not unrightfully” – Roy E. Disney), and the studio fought back. Usually, when Babbitt finished a scene, there would be more assignments waiting for him. In March 1941, he found himself with none. According to Babbitt, he called Walt’s office from his desk. Walt said, “The trouble with you is that you’re so hard to get along with, none of the directors want to work with you.” Babbitt didn’t buy it. So he approached each director – Wilfred Jackson, Dick Lundy, Norm Wright, Perce Pearce, Gerry Geronimi – and asked them if they had any trouble working with him. They all said no. Over lunch, production supervisor Ben Sharpsteen told Babbitt, “We argue about what is going into the scenes, but you turn in a good result, and that is what I’m concerned with.”
BUT WHY WASN’T THE STORK SCENE DELIVERED?
Animation casting director Hal Adelquist was in charge of handing scenes from directors to animators. He and Babbitt had been friends – Hal spoke at Babbitt’s wedding to Marge Belcher – but they had quibbled over union matters. The Stork sequence that Adelquist gave Babbitt wasn’t being completed, and he approached Babbitt. He knew Babbitt was involved in other “projects” – namely, recruiting for the Screen Cartoonists Guild, the independent union. Babbitt argued that his delivery on the Mr. Stork assignment had nothing to do with his union activity. Adelquist was skeptical – too many other artists complained to him about Babbitt talking to them about union matters on company time. There was a six-week backlog of work from Bill Roberts waiting for Babbitt to pick up. Here’s part of a conversation March 12, 1941:
…complaints have come to me that you personally have been going into the rooms and talking to the boys during working hours.
Yes, I’ve done that. I don’t deny it. But when I go into a room… like Bill Tytla… I see him every day… I never stay more than five minutes. Same with Les Clark…
You understand what I mean…
Both [attorney] Bodle and [field examiner] Yager in the Labor Board have cautioned me, so I have been extremely careful.
If the boys do drop into your room during company time, I would appreciate your telling them to make it after business hours. We are in such a condition right now that the thing we need is production. We need it so badly that if we don’t get it, there won’t be any unions.
That month, Babbitt finally received a new sequence – but one that would normally be given to “lesser animators.” They were NOT of main characters, and they lacked subtle acting nuances. It was “Sequence 16,” the Clown Silhouette scene in which they decide to hit the big boss for a raise.
The sequence had originally been given to animator Berny Wolf, who animated the first scene of the Clown Silhouettes as they disrobe and begin pouring their bottle (Sequence 14). By contrast, the sequence of the Ringleader in silhouette getting ready for bed was animated by Walt Kelly. Just scroll up and look at where Wolf and Kelly sit in the opening credits — nowhere near “Animation Director” Art Babbitt!
BUT WHY WAS THIS SCENE GIVEN TO BABBITT?
In mid-March, Ben Sharpsteen had a conversation with sequence director Bill Roberts, telling him that it was hard getting work for Babbitt. There were not enough scenes available. Roberts decided to assign the entire Clown Silhouette sequence – Sequence 14 and 16 – to Babbitt, but Babbitt did not pick it up. Babbitt told Roberts’s secretary that he had to go back and fix a previous assignment. It was another few weeks before Babbitt could start on Sequence 16. In that time, Berny Wolf tackled Sequence 14.
Once Babbitt began on Sequence 16, his delivery was slow. Roberts sent his assistant down to Babbitt’s room to find out why. Babbitt told Roberts’s assistant that his mind was elsewhere. He speedily completed the second half of the sequence – but one must wonder, what was going on in Babbitt’s mind at this time? Getting a lesser sequence, did he feel that his days were numbered? Did the unionism cause his “Animator’s Block” with its distractions? Or did his “Animator’s Block” provoke his unionism, as a means of job security?
According to Roberts, there was no ulterior motive in giving Babbitt that sequence. They had a pressing schedule, and the sequence had to get done. There was a studio-wide grading system for each assignment. The grade effected salaries and bonuses. Roberts gave Babbitt an “A-” rating for this scene. As Roberts said, “An ‘A’ is progressive; the animator adds something to what is being animated. An ‘A-‘ is when the animation is what you normally expect.” Babbitt had earned an “A” rating on all his previous animation.
AH, BUT HITTING THE BIG BOSS FOR A RAISE – WAS THAT STRIKE-TALK?
John Canemaker asked Babbitt that very question in July, 1975. In March 1941, Babbitt was indeed a union rep for the Screen Cartoonists Guild, and he was given this scene in which the characters are solely motivated to get a wage increase. Babbitt’s response:
“People attached political significance to what happened there. You know, ‘Let’s go on strike’ and so on. We weren’t thinking strike at the time. In fact, there never would have been a strike if it hadn’t been forced on us.”
Babbitt himself never asked for a raise in his salary. Every raise he earned at Disney was bestowed voluntarily by the studio. It was the following month, in April 1941, that he had an altercation with Walt and asked for a $2 raise for his assistant. The Screen Cartoonists Guild’s main demand was merely representation at the studio. When the strike hit on May 28, it was as a result of sudden terminations and the studio’s refusal to discuss it. As the strike wore on during the summer, it became about other causes, including wage increases for all. But at the time of the Dumbo’s Sequence 16, “hitting the big boss for a raise” was just not a thing.
For the nine weeks of the Strike, while the 300+ artists picketed, inside the studio gate the loyalists were completing Dumbo for Walt. I absolutely love the characters in that film – Dumbo, Timothy, Mrs. Jumbo, Mr. Stork, even the crows – and there’s something almost poetic in that Dumbo and all of his friends were only finished under duress of the Strike.
There was a man named Willie Bioff. He was a member of Al Capone’s gang, as was his partner, George Browne. They were both top men of the Hollywood stagehands’ union, the IATSE (International Alliance for Theatrical Stage Employees). Browne, a tall Irishman, was the national head; Bioff, a stocky Russian man, was the head of the southern California branch. In the 1930’s, Bioff’s name became synonymous with Hollywood labor corruption. In the eyes of the Disney company, this man had the potential of being both villain and hero.
Born in Odessa around 1900, young Willie Bioff moved with his family to the outskirts of Chicago. In 1922, he was charged with pandering – i.e. running a speakeasy/brothel – for mobster Jack Zuta, but he never served his jail time. In early 1933 he was arranging to limit the poultry market in Chicago (i.e. making sure some chicken vendors didn’t sell their wares, and getting a cut of those who did). Then he met George Browne. In 1933 Browne was a card-carrying member of the IATSE. They figured out if they could get enough projectionists from a local movie theater chain to threaten a strike, the owner would pay them off. To their reasoning, it would cost the theater more to endure a strike than to grease their palms. A lot more. Tens of thousands more.
One of Al Capone’s top wiseguys, Frank Rio, got wind of this and enlisted them to the gang, kinda by force: It was either join Capone and get protection and a percentage, or drop it all together and get squat. So Bioff and Browne stayed on. In 1934, Rio helped Browne get elected as the national head of IATSE, and Browne hired Bioff as his West Coast representative.
Now Bioff and Browne did what they were doing before – threatening strikes for stagehands and projectionists unless theater owners and studio heads paid up – except on a much grander scale. In 1935, RKO and Leow’s paid Bioff and Browne $150k. In 1936, Bioff moved to Los Angeles, where he ran a Studio Basic Agreement meeting. It was there that representatives from every movie studio committed to paying him a total of $500k over two years. In 1937 RKO and Leow’s paid him $100k. By the end of 1937, IATSE local 37, the Hollywood branch of IATSE run by Bioff, had spent two years taking $200k from mere members in dues alone.
Whether this was blackmail (Bioff did this against studios’ wishes) or bribery (Bioff cooperated with studios to disenfranchise union members) is still a debate. In either case, Bioff had built up a reputation around Hollywood as the leader of both the absolute largest, and most corrupt, Hollywood union.
The way Babbitt tells it in 1942 is like this: It was in November 1937. His friend and colleague (and fellow liberal) Dave Hilberman showed him an article in Time magazine about Bioff increasing his hold on Hollywood unions. At the time Hilberman was an animation assistant under Babbitt’s best friend, Bill Tytla. Babbitt wanted to stop Bioff and the IATSE from signing up anyone in the Disney studio. At the behest of Bill Garity, the production control manager, Babbitt went to the top of the top: the business head and Walt’s brother, Roy O. Disney.
Roy pointed Babbitt to Gunther Lessing, the studio’s head legal council, board member, and future vice president of the company. Together Lessing and Babbitt formed a group called the FEDERATION OF SCREEN CARTOONISTS. For Lessing, this was an attempt for an informal social organization just to block the Bioff. For Babbitt, this was a chance to create a union to represent the Disney employees.
Blocking Bioff seemed like a great idea: renown columnist Westbrook Pegler published an exposé on Bioff in November 1939 that solidified his villainy in the public eye. This exposé, in part, led to Bioff’s and Browne’s federal indictment on May 23rd, 1941.
For Disney unionists, things went to shit in 1941.
The FEDERATION’s true position – keeping the management’s best interests at heart – became abundantly clear by early 1941. And a bona fide independent union, the SCREEN CARTOONISTS GUILD demanded union representation for the Disney employees.
And then the Disney strike hit on Wednesday, May 28, 1941.
According to many strikers, the energy of the first month of the strike was light. There were hopes for a quick outcome, and there was trust in the company. After a month, though, there was a serious shift.
Bioff was granted a delay of his trial in Washington, as well as permission to return to Los Angeles temporarily. Why?
In a twist befitting a scripted soap opera, the GUILD went into a negotiation meeting the evening of July 1 with Roy Disney, Gunther Lessing, and sitting between them was… Willie Bioff. Roy and Bioff had drafted a settlement deal at Bioff’s ranch earlier that day (some report the previous day), with hope that the strikers would sign.
Babbitt remembered, probably on June 30, being “asked” to get in a car and being driven to Bioff’s ranch. There was Roy, Lessing, Bill Garity, and Bioff himself. Bioff made him a generous offer individually: a hefty payout to just disappear – to take a permanent camping trip, and continue to receive paychecks. Babbitt refused. “I already have more money than I know what to do with,” he said.
Besides Babbitt, the Guild negotiation committee included Dave Hilberman and Herb Sorrell. Sorrell was the business representative of the Guild’s parent union, the Moving Picture Painters Local 644, as well as the Disney Strike’s business manager.
The meeting began with discussions about back pay, and re-hire discrimination, although there were “many inquiries as to why Bioff was in the picture.” Bioff attempted to dictate the terms of the final contract, and also demanded that Hilberman leave the negotiating committee. The Guild left the meeting understanding that an agreement would be further negotiated in the Roosevelt Hotel, a frequent meeting spot for the Strike. Then the company reps returned to advise the Guild that the meeting would not continue in the hotel – but at Bioff’s ranch.
The next day an ad appeared in the daily industry trade paper, Variety:
Arbitrators arrived at the Disney lot. The final agreement between Walt Disney Productions and the Disney Strikers was signed on July 30, 1941, with no help from Bioff. On September 16, work at the Disney company resumed.
So yes, the Walt Disney company briefly had dealings with an indicted felon – the very felon they were trying to defend against. Bioff and Browne were convicted for extortion on November 6 and sentenced to ten and eight years behind bars, respectively.
The Disney studio was able to eventually bounce back, as did Bioff, for a time. In 1942 he agreed to cooperate with federal investigators to lessen his sentence, and he was released in 1944. He joined the witness protection program, and moved with his wife to Phoenix under the surname “Wilson.”
Then on the morning of November 4, 1955 Bioff turned the ignition of his car in the driveway and blew up. The mob had finally caught up with him.
[For more on Bioff, check out Shadow of the Racketeer by David Witwer.]
On June 2nd at 8am, my friend Willis Pyle died of a heart attack in his New York City apartment. Willie was 101 years old, but was sharp and witty to the end. I was told that he was doing fine up to 2 minutes before his last breath.
Willie joined Disney in early 1938, after the release of Snow White, but still early enough to be invited to the famed wrap party at the Norconian hotel. Here he is dancing “The Big Apple” with Snow White model and Babbitt love, Marge Belcher.
Willie never had to work his way up from shorts. After being a traffic boy in the Hyperion studio annex, he was picked up by Milt Kahl to assist on Pinocchio. There Willie cleaned-up and added breakdown drawings of Kahl’s extreme poses, including the scene in which Jiminey gets dressed while running late.
On Fantasia Willie drew the cupids. On Bambi he was known within the studio as a deer specialist – though he also drew Flower and Thumper. Willie’s shared a room with Vip Partch, one of many assistant rooms in the unit of Kahl and Ollie Johnston.
Willie ended up at Fort Roach, aka the First Motion Picture Unit, a branch of the U.S. Air Force that produced films for the military. Willie worked beside Warner Bros. animator Norm McCabe, Disney strikers Bill Hurtz and John Hubley, and Disney non-striker Frank Thomas. Frank and Willie would carpool every morning to Fort Roach. There Willie worked on shorts starring “Trigger Joe” and designed the main character for 1944’s “Camouflage.”
Willie’s bio is extensive, and his life was fascinating, but this is where I will choose to leave you. Because more than his accomplishments, the Willie I knew was a dear, dear friend. He never bemoaned his age or anticipated his own end, he just constantly reiterated how lucky he was. It was so easy to be with him.
I genuinely loved the man. Without even trying, he taught me how to move through life with good humor and grace, and for that I’ll forever be grateful. So long, Willie.
Seventy-five years ago today, Art Babbitt was fired from Walt Disney Productions.
It was Tuesday, May 27, 1941. Babbitt was coming in from lunch and the security guard apologetically handed him an envelope containing two letters. “Bad news, Art,” he said. Babbitt cleverly asked for a chance to collect his personal belongings, and so a guard remained with Babbitt as he picked up his car and drove it in front of the animation building. Babbitt deliberately took his time as he carried his things out of the animation building to his car, while onlookers gathered by the hundreds.
Below are copies of those two letters.
In March 1941, the Screen Cartoon Guild (later the Screen Cartoonists Guild) was doing its hardest to attract Disney artists. Other studios were already signed up, like MGM, George Pal, and Screen Gems (Columbia). And Schlesinger (Warner Bros) was already in negotiations. According to a topical article by entertainment writer Martin Quigley Jr., Disney cartoons were the most popular short subject in theaters, animated or not.
The Guild elected Art Babbitt (animation dept) as chairman of the Disney unit, Phyllis Lambertson (ink & paint) as vice chairman, Dave Hilberman (layout) as secretary, and Sam Armstrong (backgrounds) as treasurer.
This flyer was not hanging up at the Disney studio, but rather distributed in the mail to Guild members. The Guild began waving carrots at the animators in the form of cheap figure drawing sessions. For members only, it would be a way to build community among Guild constituents, and entice new ones with the chance to “develop themselves in their craft.” The event on flyer has Babbitt’s touch all over it. It was Babbitt, after all, who organized the first figure drawing sessions for Disney artists back in 1932. It is my guess that he and the Guild president Bill Littlejohn collaborated on forming these sketch sessions.
The tone of both these papers encourage dissemination. And why not? The Disney employees who were still leaning on the Federation of Screen Cartoonists (the bogus company union) would now get a chance to hear, objectively, what unions are about. The speaker, a Samuel Kalish, is not a Guild member; he is a government employee. The labor branch of the U.S. government, both federal and local, was still relatively new. President Roosevelt put a system in place and hard-working Americans were encouraged to learn about it.
When this document reached Babbitt’s mailbox, he began talking about it and events like these to his coworkers. Of course it was against company rules to discuss union matters on company property and on company time, but that did not stop Babbitt.
The Disney artists were filmed for this movie around March 1941, during the height of union discord at the Disney studio. All the artists featured in the film are loyalists, future non-strikers. This includes Ward Kimball, the ad hoc ambassador to the animation department.
Personnel director Hal Adelquist testified in court that this was Reitherman’s animation.
… that is Babbitt’s drawing and Babbitt’s hand. He was asked to put on Kimball’s shirt and sit under the camera drawing his specialized character. He so testified below: