A silent film featuring Walt Disney’s early creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has been found at the BFI after being thought lost for decades. The rabbit was one of the first animated characters that Disney came up with, though he lost control of it when Universal gained the rights. Following this, he tweaked the concept slightly and came up with Mortimer Mouse, the original name of the iconic mouse that is the face of the Disney empire.
The Walt Disney Company is one of the largest mass media and entertainment conglomerates in the world, emerging from humble beginnings at the hands of the Disney brothers Walt and Roy in 1923. There is absolutely no doubting or taking away from the fact that Disney have been responsible for bringing joy to hundreds of thousands of childhoods all over the world, including my own, but no company can be around for such a long time without having a few skeletons in its closet, and Disney is not different.
Without further ado, here are 5 things Disney would probably rather you forgot about…
5 – RACISM:
One of the main pillars of Disney is its existence as the provider of wholesome family entertainment. It is so dedicated to this cause, in fact, that it releases most of its more adult orientated material under different names as not to taint the squeaky clean Disney brand. There is no doubt that the company would therefore probably prefer you to forget its worrying history with racism.
Unfortunately it is far from a one off blemish on the company record, with a range of depictions over various films ranging from the questionable to the outright offensive. Perhaps the most famous example is that of the crows in Dumbo (1941), who are now generally accepted to be racist stereotypes of African-Americans, exhibiting a range of negative stereotypes from the time period. The leader of the group (or murder, if we’re getting technical) is also called Jim Crow, which was also the name of segregationist laws in the USA. Not cool, Disney.
Another hugely controversial subject was Disney’s 1946 live action/animation hybrid Song of the South. You may not have heard of it, but you are sure to know it’s most famous song, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ (yeah, you might want to stop humming that from now on…). The film features a former slave speaking about his life on the plantation, and has proved so controversial over the years that it has never been fully released on home video, which is why there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of it.
Disney were also forced to remove a part of the original Fantasia (1940) due to its depiction of a small, dark centaur acting as a servant to larger, pale counterparts. Whilst it can be argued that these examples are a reflection of the mindset at the time, and at least Disney have removed them for the circulation (for the most part), it’s still enough to make you feel a bit uneasy, and accusations have also been lobbied at modern Disney including Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas (1995).
Furthermore, Walt Disney’s grand-niece Abigail has actually publicly called the company founder a racist, posting on Facebook:
“Racist? C’mon, he made a film (Jungle Book) about how you should ‘stay with your own kind’ at the height of the fight over segregation!”
This idea suggests that the company was at the height of its racism when its founder was alive, which brings me neatly onto my next point…
4 – …WALT DISNEY WAS A DUBIOUS CHARACTER:
Racism is not the only accusation that has been lobbied at the man that started it all over the years, with antisemitism being another common area of discontent. It can be difficult to distinguish the fact from the conspiracy theory (its pretty much guaranteed that he wasn’t cryogenically frozen), but the accusations are far from baseless.
The question of Disney’s character was brought to the forefront again a couple of years ago with the release of Saving Mr Banks (2013), which starred Tom Hanks as Mr Disney. The film was released by Disney, which led to many accusations that the film was attempting to gloss over the less desirable aspects of Walt’s character.
Following the films release Meryl Streep spoke out at a speech at the National Board of Review, blasting Disney for being sexist and antisemitic. Abigail Disney went on to agree with Streep with the comment from the last point, where she argued that in spite of her grand-uncle bringing joy to millions he was far from a saint.
For instance, Disney appears to have links to Nazi propaganda film-maker Leni Riefenstahl (most famous for Birth of A Nation), who he showed around the Disney studios in spite of it being in the wake of the Kristallnacht attacks.
It is also worth noting that Walt Disney was also a very notable FBI informant in the McCarthy Era, one of the darkest periods in recent American history. Disney was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance For the Preservation of American Ideals and testified to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that the Screen Cartoonists Guide was a communist organisation. The FBI went so far as to designate Disney as a special agent against the soviet threat.
It’s hard to believe that this is all talking about the same guy that invented Mickey Mouse and countless other cute characters, and the fact that Disney glossed over it with Saving Mr Banks suggests the company would rather you didn’t focus on their founders more dubious attributes.
3 – BLACK SUNDAY:
July 17th 1955 was meant to be the best day of Walt Disney’s life, the day all his dreams and aspirations came to fruition with the opening of Disneyland. With the magic kingdom now being such an integral part of the Disney experience, it will perhaps be surprising to find out the the original parks opening day was actually nothing short of a disaster.
When the gates opened, staff were still racing around planting trees and much of the paint was still wet, as was the asphalt on the Main Street, which saw women’s high heels sinking into it. A plumbers strike also meant that Walt Disney had to make a choice between water fountains and running toilets on the day – he opted for the toilets, but temperatures ran high leaving visitors thirsty.
This was not all that went wrong. A counterfeit ticket problem meant that over twice the intended number of guests showed up, leading to overcrowding and a lack of refreshments. Several rides also broke down and faced problems. Needless to say, the media had a field day, predicting that the park would be a short-lived phenomenon. Of course that wasn’t the case, but the workers did dub the day Black Sunday, and it is probably something Disney want to erase from collective memory.
2 – SUBLIMINAL MESSAGING?:
There are quite a lot of people out there on the internet who are convinced that Disney films exist solely to sexualise and pollute the minds of children and young people.
It’s hard to know how much of it is ‘real’, but there is one particular example that straight up can’t be denied. In January 1999 Disney recalled millions of VHS copies of The Rescuers (1977) after it emerged that that there was a topless woman visible in the background of several frames.
This was a huge scandal for the company – a naked woman in a kids film? It was a direct tarnish on the wholesome image the company work so tirelessly to maintain, and whilst the recall of VHS copies was an attempt at damage control, the material had been in circulation for over 20 years at that point.
Accusations have been lobbied at other films, with another notable example being Aladdin (1992), where there is argument over a dubious sounding piece of audio. Whilst it sounds as though there could be a line saying “good teenagers take off your clothes” in the background of a scene, the company has steadfastly denied this being the case and argue that it is an improvised line about a tiger. The jury is very much out on that one, but there is no denying that the company lost some credibility on the issue following The Rescuers incident.
1 – SUING THREE CARE HOMES:
This one is more of a grey area in that Disney were not technically in the wrong, but it is still accepted that it was still a bit of a dick move on the part of the company, as well as providing them with a PR disaster.
In 1989 Disney began legal proceedings against three Florida care homes for having murals which featured the characters Mickey and Minnie Mouse, as well as Goofy the Dog. This was due to the characters being trademarked and belonging to the company, who claimed that the care homes were reproducing them without permission. They went so far as to threaten to take the care homes to court, and the murals were subsequently covered up.
Whilst Disney were perfectly within their rights from a business perspective, the media immediately picked up on the ‘David and Goliath’ type story and it brought the company lots of bad publicity. The situation was worsened when rivals Universal spied an opportunity and gave the care homes the right to use their characters in new murals. Whilst the publicity did eventually die down, there is no doubt this was an incident Disney would rather keep buried.