The 1940s saw the release of some of the most popular and well-made animated movies in history, all coming from the Disney studio. Pinocchio was believed by many critics to have topped Snow White in story and animation, Bambi was endearingly simple yet highly emotional, and Fantasia was an artistic tour de force that was unlike anything ever seen. Dumbo was deceptively a break from ambitious and experimental filmmaking but it turned out to be one of the most emotional and creative films in Disney history.
However, for all the emotion Disney brought to the screen in this period, there was an equal amount of emotion behind the scenes.
Ever since the Depression, trade unions started becoming the norm. Labor leaders had already targeted other businesses successfully so it was no surprise that they targeted Hollywood next. However, Walt was opposed to unionizing. In the 1930s, Walt had maintained that he was like a father figure and his employees were his kids. Besides, Snow White had revolutionized animation and many people were proud to work at the Disney studio. But in the 1940s, things started looking bleak. Because Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi had all failed to make money due to World War II cutting off the foreign market, Walt’s brother Roy said they had to go public to raise cash. Walt was reluctant about unionizing because he was adamant about maintaining control, but his anti-union views were unpopular with many of his employees.
Art Babbitt, one of Walt’s star animators best known for animating Geppetto, the dancing mushrooms from Fantasia and the evil queen from Snow White, was one of the people who was opposed to Walt’s anti-union views. He defiantly joined the Screen Cartoonists Guild, which lead to his unemployment at Disney, which lead to a strike carried out by 300 Disney employees picketing outside the studio.
Walt may have been naive in his attitude towards unionizing, but he had no way of knowing about the struggles of his employees because there was no communication between boss, employee or executive and Walt was a razor-focused workaholic.
The atmosphere at the studio changed dramatically in the 1940s. Workers quit and went to other studios. Experimentation stopped and feature film projects were shelved. Walt was in such disbelief over the behavior of his own employees that he blamed it on a communist conspiracy – something that was easier to do than face the truth: fighting unionization was a battle that was impossible to win.
Walt considered retiring from the medium that caused him such grief, but an invitation from Inter-American Affairs coordinator Nelson Rockefeller to make animated films for South America (Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros) had kept him busy. Not to mention the war effort. The Disney studio had been hired along with all the other animation studios to create war propaganda. Films like Education for Death, Der Fuhrer‘s Face and the feature-length Victory Through Air Power were the last things Disney would normally choose for subject matter, but they kept the studio busy. Plus, Winston Churchill even convinced Franklin Roosevelt to use long range bombing in the U.S. Air Corps after Churchill told Roosevelt to watch Victory Through Air Power, so it’s not like Disney wasn’t successful in this period.
That decade saw the release of less expensive features like The Reluctant Dragon, Song of the South, Make Mine Music, Fun & Fancy Free, Melody Time, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and So Dear to My Heart. Many of these films were good light entertainment but they were not creatively fulfilling and Walt’s enthusiasm for animation was waning.