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Paul F. Anderson shares the untold history of the war years at Walt Disney Studios

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Paul F. Anderson shares the untold history of the war years at Walt Disney Studios

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For a lot of Americans, the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 signaled the start of four long years of hardship, sacrifice and struggle. As the United States suddenly found itself plunged in World War II.

For Walt Disney, the sacrifices began on December 8, 1941. When he got word that - in order to protect the nearby Lockheed planet (which was located right nearby at the Burbank Airport) - the War Department had ordered that 500 troops be billeted at Disney Studios.

Thus began a little known but hugely important era in Walt Disney Company history. One that Walt Disney Family Museum consulting historian and author Paul F. Anderson will be exploring this Saturday at 3 p.m.When Anderson presents "World War II: Fighting the War with Ink and Paint" in the WDFM Theater.

Steven Vagnini and Paul F. Anderson (far right) looked back on the history of Epcot as
 part of their "Walt Disney's Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" presentation at D23's
Destination D: Walt Disney World 40th event. Photo by Jim Hill

Inbetween his very popular "Weird Disney" and "Walt Disney's Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" presentations at this past weekend's Destination D: Walt Disney World 40th event, Anderson and I got the chance to chat to about some of the stories that Paul will be sharing this week during his WWII talks at the WDFM.

"There's kind of a misconception out there that World War II really got in the way of Walt's plans for the Burbank Studios. Which is why so many of the full-length animated features that Disney was looking to produce & release in the early 1940s wound up getting pushed off 'til the latter part of that decade and even the early 1950s," Anderson explained. "But truth be told, those government contracts that Walt & Roy landed to produce training films during the war years actually wound up saving the Studio."

Anderson actually discovered this story while researching World War II's impact on Walt Disney Studios. Which was when  - thanks to his close ties with the Walt Disney Family Foundation - he got access to some rarely seen material.

The above is one of 250 or so rarely-seen images
from Paul F. Anderson's personal collection
which will be featured in Saturday's
presentation at the WDFM.

"I actually got to go through all of Walt's war era correspondence from 1939 to 1946. His personal mail, his inter-office communication as well as his business correspondence. Probably over 10,000 different documents," Paul stated. "And - in the process - I came across this amazing set of letters from Roy to Walt informing him that the Bank of America, early in 1942, was in essence was calling in the loan and preparing to set aside all assets for the gradual liquidation of the loan." 

Now think about that for a moment. The history of the Walt Disney Company effectively ending in 1942.  That means no Disneyland. No "Mickey Mouse Club." Instead of the 50 animated full-length animated features that we know today, only "Snow White," Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Dumbo" and "Bambi" would have been completed.

"But thanks to those government contracts, Roy was then able to go to the Bank of America and show them that the Studio once again had a guaranteed revenue stream. Which could then potentially make up for all of the monies that had been lost when the European markets for Disney's films had been cut off by the start of the war," Anderson continued. "Once the Bank of America executives saw that, they backed off. Which gave Walt & Roy the financial breathing room that they needed at that moment, gave them a chance to regroup."

Artists from Walt Disney Studios created insignias for all sorts of military units during
World War II ...

This isn't to say that all those government contracts to produce WWII training films were easy money. The terms of the contracts that Disney had signed actually prevented the Studio from making a profit on any of these productions. They all had to be produced at cost. What's more, given all of the commitments that Disney had made to various divisions of the War Department, the Studio really had to ramp up its annual output. Which - between 1942 - 1943 - went to 209,000 feet of animation. Which was over 5 times the Studio's usual annual output.

"And then when you figure that Disney was doing all this at a time when nearly one third of the Studio's personnel was being called away for military services, it's just extraordinary," Paul said. "Mind you, Walt was regularly appealing to Southern California draft boards. Trying to explain that what Disney's artists & animators were doing was crucial to the War effort. But not everyone was willing to listen to what Walt was saying."

Now you might think - given the tremendous financial pressures that Walt was under at this time, plus the huge workload that Disney Studios was shouldering during the war years - that Walt would have become angry, bitter, closed off. But again - based on what Anderson learned while burrowing those thousands of pieces of personal correspondence - that assumption would prove to be wrong.

... Take -- for example -- the medical insignia featured in the above photograph.
Which features Donald Duck giving a caricatured Japanese solider a shot.

"During that time, Walt was constantly being asked to help out with the war effort. Whether it was people asking him if he could appear at bond rallies or make appearances on radio shows for morale purposes or donate items that could then be auctioned off. And whenever he could, Walt did in fact help out." Anderson said. "But no one's ever talked about any of this stuff before because this era in Disney history tends to get stepped over. It's thought not to be as fun or exciting as the creation of the first feature-length cartoon or the world's first theme park."

But to Paul's way of thinking, so much of what came after for Walt was shaped by his experiences during the war years. Which is why Anderson has devoted a good portion of his life to studying what went on at Walt Disney Studios between 1939 and 1945. Which is his long-in-the-writing book on Disney and World War II is one of the more eagerly anticipated tomes in film & animation history circles.

Of course, if you'd like a little taste of what that book will be like, might I suggest that you make your way to the Walt Disney Family Museum this weekend? Where - on Saturday - you can catch Paul F. Anderson's "World War II: Fighting the War with Ink and Paint" presentation. And then - on Sunday - you can come back for a screening of 1944's "Victory Through Air Power." Which will be proceeded by Paul's talk on how Walt Disney Studios made this particular animated feature. More importantly, the enormous impact that "Victory" had on the Allied war strategy.

Concept art for "Victory Through Air Power." Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

These are two presentations that no serious film historians and/or WWII buffs should miss. So - if you get the chance this weekend - be sure and make your way to the Walt Disney Family Museum and catch Paul F. Anderson's Walt and World War II talks.

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  • Paul is quoted as saying "no one'e ever talked about any of this stuff before because this era in Disney history tends to get stepped over." I agree with the latter part of his statement. The war years have always received little attention, but I think that is due in part, to the sensitivities of The Walt Disney Company. As for the first part of his statement, I self-published a book that examined the Studio's role in the war back in 2000, and have maintained a blog on the topic since August 2006. On my blog I post rare Disney war-related items from my own collection, and talk about some of the contributions Walt Disney and his staff made to various home front and military campaigns. Cheers, David

  • David's book Service With Character is an excellent source of information about what went on at the Studio during the War Years. Having done extensive secondary research for my book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success, I think these years have been mostly ignored because they didn't produce any blockbuster animation films, which is typically what people want to read about. My book deals with the business of Walt Disney rather than the art of Walt Disney and the studio, so Walt and Roy's strategy and change in business model to keep the studio alive, as Paul F. Anderson indicates, is very important and a great story in itself. I look forward to seeing Paul's book published given his access to so much unseen material.

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