It’s easy to look around your library or neighborhood and find something with Walt Disney’s name on it. Walt Disney was born on December 5th, 1901, making this his 115th birthday.
Do you know what Walt Disney was up to during the big historical and social movements of his day?
World War I
Where Was Walt in World War I? He was in France.
The 17-year-old Walt watched his brother go off to fight the war in Europe. He tried to enlist in the navy, but they wouldn’t take him because he was too young. Determined to follow his brother and do his part to help win the war, Disney lied about his age on an application for the Red Cross. He was sent to drive an ambulance in France, and was back in the US in 1919.
The Great Depression
Where was Walt during the Great Depression? He was on the big screen.
Cartoons were a means of escape and entertainment during the Great Depression. The popularity of cartoons and comics soared in this era. Movie screens would show short cartoons before full length feature film. Mickey Mouse and his friends helped people facing hard economic times laugh and forget their worries. In 1937, Disney released the very first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. There were many innovative new techniques used to create the sounds and sights of this film. In the cartoon saturated world of the 30’s, Disney’s peers in the cartoon industry considered him a master. In an interview with Time magazine, they said, “"We're businessmen. Walt Disney's an artist. With us, the idea with shorts is to hit 'em and run. With us, Disney is more of a Rembrandt."*
Where was Walt before World War II? He was on a trip to South America with 16 of his animation artists.
This wasn't a vacation, it was a planned diplomacy trip made at the request of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Concerned about the increasing influence of fascism in South America, Roosevelt asked Disney to make the trip. Some Argentinian newspapers styled Disney as an "insensitive Communist Boss"**, but Disney's popularity drowned out the sound of the fascist demonstrators. You can find out more about Disney's trip to South America in the documentary created by Ted Thomas called Walt & El Grupo. Ted is the son of one of the 16 Disney Animators who went on the trip. The library has several copies of this documentary, so feel free to check it out if you'd like to learn more.
Where was Walt during the Red Scare? He was in Washington, D.C.
In 1947, Walt Disney was one of the 24 friendly witnesses who testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This committee called individuals from Hollywood and the film industry to answer questions about pro-communist activity in the movie world. Spurred on by the rhetoric and political efforts of Joseph McCarthy, the committee was intent on sniffing out and stopping any pro-communist messages from circulating in mainstream American culture. Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper were also considered friendly witnesses. Being an unfriendly witness brought at least 6 months of jail time and a conviction of contempt of Congress.
You can watch a small snippet of Disney’s testimony before congress here...
Getting ready to write a report on someone famous? Need to find biography information?
Check out the Biographies in Context online resource available for free through the library! All the articles used to write this blog post were found using the Biographies in Context resource.
*Mouse & Man. (2004). In C. Rose (Ed.), American Decades Primary Sources (Vol. 4, pp. 38-41). Detroit: Gale. Retrieved from (link to library database)
**What Walt Disney Learned From South America. (2009, September 17). Tell Me More. Retrieved from (link to library database)