Walt Disney could be a ruthless boss who instilled employee terror or a beloved father-figure to his staff, but he was not a Nazi sympathizer, said panelists this afternoon at PBS’s Television Critics Association press tour for Walt Disney, a four-hour American Experience documentary that airs September 14 and 15.
Though the film doesn’t delve into allegations that Disney was pro-Hitler, the panelists didn’t shy away from the topic as they painted Uncle Walt in just about every shade imaginable but that one.
“It’s not based on any truth,” panelist Sarah Colt, the docu’s producer and director, said of the long-rumored charge of anti-Semitism, “so we saw no reason to bring it up in the film.” Colt said she looked for evidence of Disney’s bigotry, but to no avail, unlike the subject of her previous PBS film Henry Ford, “who was a virulent anti Semite.” In the case of Disney, she said, “it wasn’t relevant to who he was, so it’s not part of the film.”
Others on the panel agreed, at least on that particular subject. “I saw no evidence” of anti-Semitism, said Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. Gabler said his Disney research for both books turned up nothing more “than the casual anti-Semitism” that was common at the time. Said Gabler, “There have been so many such charges against Disney, you could make a four-hour movie on just that.”
Gabler suggested the charges were “primarily made by enemies of Walt Disney who had a political beef with him,” and he did not think it important for the documentary to devote any time to that.
Richard Sherman, the composer (and son of Jewish immigrants) whose credits include Disney’s theme park tune It’s A Small World After All and music for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, repeatedly called the old allegations “preposterous” during the Q&A. Sherman said Disney treated him and his songwriting partner/brother Robert like his own sons.
Though everyone seemed in agreement about Walt’s bigotry (or, rather, lack of it), the TCA panel agreed on little else. Offering their opinions about Walt were Disney producer Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Maleficent), University of Virginia’s Carmenita Higginbotham, who teaches a class on Disney in American popular culture, and the docu’s EP Mark Samels.
Among the viewpoints:
• Walt Disney was a man who would cough to let staffers know he was entering a room, knowing it would make them nervous, and dismiss as “dead wood” anyone whom he felt was no longer useful, including an animator on Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs;
• A warm, embracing corporate patriarch who would ask about employees’ children by name;
• A terrible artist and a lousy writer;
• A brilliant storyteller.