Debunking Meryl Streep: Part Oneby Jim Korkis, staff writer
Meryl Streep is an actress.
She has been honored with some awards for her acting. In her latest film August: Osage County, Streep plays an old, hateful, contentious woman who is a bully addicted to narcotics and inappropriately lashes out verbally at others.
She is not a historian. She is not a Disney expert.
On January 7, 2014, Streep set off controversy during her National Board of Review presentation of a Best Actress award to Emma Thompson for her portrayal of P.L. Travers in the film Saving Mr. Banks.
Strangely, Streep decided to make comments that were insensitive and inaccurate about Walt Disney.
Streep walked onstage wearing a "Prize Winner" trucker's cap, a table favor resembling a prop from Bruce Dern's film Nebraska. She pretended not to notice it was on her head, and when someone pointed it out, she acted surprised and asked, "I'm not the Prize Winner?" Then she paused for a second and said with a grin, "That's so weird!"
For the next 10 minutes, Streep did not just honor Thompson and her performance but veered off into a rant about Walt Disney.
Streep stated, "Disney, who brought joy arguably to billions of people was, perhaps, or had some racist proclivities. He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group and he was certainly, on the evidence of his company's policies, a gender bigot."
In support of her defamation of Walt's character, Streep read from a standard 1938 form letter from the Disney Studio sent to Mary Ford who was inquiring about a job as an artist:
"Dear Miss Ford, your letter of recent date has been received in the inking and painting department for reply. Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school. The only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink, and then, filling in the tracing on the reverse side with paint according to directions."
Streep finished by saying "When I saw the film (Saving Mr. Banks), I could just imagine Walt Disney's chagrin at having to cultivate P.L. Travers' favor for the 20 years that it took to secure the rights to her work. It must have killed him to encounter in a woman an equally disdainful and superior creature, a person dismissive of his own considerable gifts and prodigious output and imagination.
"Some of his associates reported that Walt Disney didn't really like women. Ward Kimball, who was one of his chief animators, one of the original 'Nine Old Men', creator of the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, Jiminy Cricket, said of Disney, 'He didn't trust women, or cats.' There is a piece of received wisdom that says that the most creative people are often odd or irritating, eccentric, damaged, difficult; that along with enormous creativity comes certain deficits in humanity or decency."
Certainly that last sentence could also apply to certain award-winning actresses.
If Streep had presented these slurs as simply her opinions, I would be bothered but the fact that she presents them as undisputed fact is inexcusable, especially when so many legitimate sources exist to discredit these comments.
I was disappointed that The Disney Company did not offer a response. The Disney Family Museum offered an invitation to Streep to come and visit and learn the truth about Walt. The Hollywood community has remained silent perhaps because they are fearful of offending Streep or simply have disinterest in the character assassination of a man who died nearly 50 years ago.
There has been speculation that Streep may have been in high spirits at the event and not able to use her best judgment. There is even speculation that she was trying purposely to sabotage Saving Mr. Banks for a variety of reasons, including the fact that she and her film are in competition in similar categories at other award ceremonies.
That last assumption is based on the fact that someone seems to have provided her with material after cursory research that is not considered general knowledge. It was too specific and obviously carefully chosen with all contradictory material ignored.
In addition, Streep must have known that these inflammatory comments about a man she never met would overshadow any compliments she had for Emma Thompson's performance. These were not just thoughtless, casual outbursts like the rants of actors, like Mel Gibson, but something that was studiously prepared in advance with a pre-set agenda.
These slanders (which were never made while Walt was alive) have been discounted a great number of times, but I felt this time, maybe I should do a bullet point essay so that people could have the factual information easily accessible that they need to defend Walt in the future from such ignorant attacks.
Please keep in mind that the material I am providing is only the tip of the iceberg. Only 10 percent of an iceberg is immediately visible, the rest remains under the water. I am merely listing the most obvious examples that refute Streep's false assumptions. Much more supporting material exists.
Walt Disney was NOT anti-Semitic
Anti-Semitism means a strong prejudice and hatred of people of Jewish heritage resulting in discrimination against them. It is a form of racism and has been going on for centuries.
Walt Disney was a strongly religious man who had a great respect for all religions including Judaism. Walt was NOT anti-Semitic.
"He [Walt] was a very religious man," said his youngest daughter Sharon, "but he did not believe you had to go to church to be religious.... He respected every religion. There wasn't any that he ever criticized. He wouldn't even tell religious jokes."
"Walt was very religious but he never went to church himself. He loved every religion and respected them, although he got upset with overly pious ministers," recalled his wife Lillian.
Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, recalled when I interviewed her:
"Dad drove us to Sunday School every Sunday for some years. I attended a small Christian Science school up through third grade, and then went to (Catholic) Immaculate Heart, which I loved. I think that dad thought that I might want to become a nun. He always remained accessible to the sisters there, though, just as he was to the sisters of St Joseph's across the street from the studio.
"I do know that he had great respect for all faiths. Rabbi Edgar Magnin [rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai B'rith/Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and considered the "Rabbi to the Stars") refers to him as 'my friend Walt Disney' in his book titled 365 Vitamins For the Mind, or something like that.
"He was the B'nai B'rith Man of the Year for the Beverly Hills Chapter in 1955. My sister dated a Jewish boy for awhile with no objections from either of my parents. One time, Dad said innocently but proudly, 'Sharon, I think it's wonderful how these Jewish families have accepted you.'…and it was a very sincere comment. And she was accepted. She knew about lox and bagels way before I was aware of them, went to several bar mitzvahs, etc.
"Jules and Doris Styne [who were both Jewish] were good friends. Dad had so many very good Jewish friends, going back to his childhood. Many of dad's strongest supporters in his career in Hollywood were Jewish, weren't they? I have to conclude that dad was not guilty of any kind of anti-Semitism."
For the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955, the Reverend Glenn Puder, Walt's nephew-in-law, delivered the invocation. He stood alongside representatives of the major American religions at that time: Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish (represented by Rabbi Edgar Magnin).
In addition, Walt had invitations sent to editors from eight different religious newspapers (Catholic, Jewish and Protestant), as well as invitees from nearby churches in the Anaheim area - plus a Jewish Synagogue.
Did Walt's animated cartoons feature Jewish caricatures?
Animation is based on comic exaggeration. Jewish stereotypical characters were common and prominent in comic strips and animated cartoons as well as live action film and stage performances long before Walt Disney started making animated shorts.
Unflattering caricatures of every race and nationality were common place in animated cartoons for a quick laugh of recognition from the audience.
Every animation studio before Disney was located in New York and employed Jewish animators. So, in cartoons like Fleischer's Minnie the Moocher (1932), Betty Boop's father wears a yarmulke and speaks with a thick Yiddish accent.
In general, Disney cartoons avoided Jewish images, although a few moments did appear in a handful of cartoons made between the years 1929-1932 as a passing gag, not the basis for an entire cartoon like some of the New York animation studios.
Primarily, these were very short sequences where the characters wearing Orthodox Jewish headgear danced the Kozachok, a Russian Cossack dance with a fast tempo featuring a step in which a squatting dancer kicks out each leg alternately to the front. These brief sequences can be seen in the cartoons The Opry House (1929), Pioneer Days (1930) and a toy in Santa's Workshop (1932).
The one and only blatant Jewish caricature appears in the award-winning short, the Three Little Pigs (1933). As one of his disguises to gain entry to the house and capture the pigs, the Big Bad Wolf briefly presents himself as a Jewish peddler selling brushes.
From a story perspective this was done because, at the time, it was a common image to have a Jewish peddler going door-to-door selling things. In addition, the pigs would feel safe to open the door because a Jewish peddler would never eat pork and so was harmless.
In 1948 for the shorts' rerelease, Walt funded having the wolf in the scene r-animated as a Fuller Brush salesman, another familiar image to audiences. Walt was under no pressure to do so. He realized that the change would not add one additional penny to the money received from the cartoon. In addition, there was no budget for this change.
Walt made sure that money was located to fund the change and assigned the work to director Jack Hannah's unit.
Walt made the change because he felt it just wasn't funny a decade after it was made and was potentially hurtful. There were no big meetings, lengthy discussions or outside agitation. Walt made the decision himself and it was not a big deal at the Disney Studio Hannah told me in an interview.
The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, founded in 1913, and who monitored Jewish images in Hollywood films never voiced any objections about any of the Disney cartoon shorts.
Throughout his career, Walt purposely avoided any film material dealing with religion, reasoning that portions of the audience would be displeased by the depiction of a particular sect
Walt Disney hired many Jewish people at the Disney Studio. His head of merchandising for over a decade, Kay Kamen (who happened to be Jewish) once quipped that the Disney company "had more Jews in it than the Book of Leviticus."
"As far as I'm concerned, there was no evidence of anti-Semitism," said legendary storyman and concept artist Joe Grant, who was Jewish and saw Walt's interaction with staff who were of the Jewish faith. "I think the whole idea should be put to rest and buried deep. He was not anti-Semitic. Some of the most influential people at the Studio were Jewish. It's much ado about nothing. I never once had a problem with him in that way. That myth should be laid to rest."
Walt regularly donated (without any publicity just like his other charitable contributions) to a number of Jewish charities, like the Yeshiva College and the Jewish Home for the Aged.
Streep's contention that Walt was anti-Semitic seems to come from her statement: "He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group."
Streep is referring to the Motion Picture Alliance for Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) formed in 1944 when Walt was its first vice-president for one year. Walt was not active in the organization after 1947.
The MPA was an organization of conservative members of the Hollywood industry and its stated purpose was to prevent Communistic influence in Hollywood films.
Its members included Gary Cooper, Cecil B. DeMille, Irene Dunne, Victor Fleming, Clark Gable, Hedda Hopper, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, King Vidor, John Ford, John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.
Some liberal detractors tried to smear the group by labeling it an anti-Semitic organization. Looking at the membership roster, many of those members, like director John Ford, would have left instantly if that was the true intention of the MPA.
Walt was a member because he hated Communism and felt that Communist agitators had instigated a strike at his studio in 1941.
Who else was a major member of this organization when it began? Morrie Ryskind.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Morrie Ryskind was the Jewish screenwriter of classic movies. He was nominated for an Oscar for My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937).
He was a close friend of comedian Groucho Marx and wrote numerous Marx Brothers films, including Animal Crackers (1930) and A Night at the Opera (1935). He also wrote plays with George S. Kaufman, as well as musicals with the Gershwins and Irving Berlin.
Using Streep's logic, Morrie Ryskind, despite his parents being Jewish, must be anti-Semitic, especially since he was much more active in the MPA than Walt Disney ever was. Ryskind must have hated faking friendship for decades when he collaborated with so many major Jewish talents over and over and over again.
So where did Streep get this obscure reference about the MPA to falsely attack Walt?
My guess is from a much too quick skimming of Neal Gabler's biography of Disney: Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (2006) whose scholarship on some things has been challenged since its publication.
"That's one of the questions everybody asks me," author Neal Gabler said in a November 2006 interview promoting his book on CBS, " 'Was he an anti-Semite?' That's out there. My answer to that is, not in the conventional sense that we think of someone as being an anti-Semite. But he got the reputation because, in the 1940s, he got himself allied with a group called The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which was an anti-Communist and anti-Semitic organization.
"And though Walt himself, in my estimation, was not anti-Semitic, nevertheless, he willingly allied himself with people who were anti-Semitic, and that reputation stuck. He was never really able to expunge it throughout his life."
While Walt was not anti-Semitic and the policy of the Disney Studio was not anti-Semitic, some of the people Walt employed were blatantly anti-Semitic. In an April 1996 interview done by animation historian Karl Cohen with animator Sam Singer who worked at the Disney Studio in the 1930s, Singer stated that he left because of the interactions with some of the people he worked with who were strongly anti-Semitic, but he never saw any prejudice on the part of Walt Disney.
Was Walt Disney Anti-Semitic? No!
Here are a few quick factual bullet points to refute that accusation:
The B'nai B'rith Beverly Hills Chapter in 1955 awarded Walt Disney its prestigious Man of the Year Award. The B'nai B'rith organization originated in the 19th century to combat anti-Semitism. They investigated Walt thoroughly and determined to the satisfaction of its leadership that Walt had no anti-Semitic tendencies.
Walt regularly donated (without any publicity just as he did with his other charitable donations) to a number of Jewish charities, like the Yeshiva College and the Jewish Home for the Aged.
Walt employed many people of the Jewish faith at the Disney Studio in positions of authority. For instance, the Sherman Brothers who wrote so many memorable songs for Walt were Jewish as was legendary storyman and concept artist Joe Grant and many others.
The MPA was not an anti-Semitic organization but an anti-Communism one composed of many prominent conservative politcal members of the Hollywood entertainment community. Walt was only briefly a member because of his hatred of Communism. The organization included Jewish members.
A small handful of early Disney animated shorts featured brief Jewish images but they were never as prominent as from other animation studios of the time. These stereotypical depictions stopped after 1933 as Walt became more sensitive to the fact that they were unnecessary and could be offensive.
Walt Disney had his studio re-animate a scene in his award winning Three Little Pigs (1933) of the Big Bad Wolf disguising himself as a Jewish peddler despite the fact no budget existed to do so.
Walt had many Jewish friends in his personal life including Rabbi Edgar Magnin who he invited to help bless and dedicate Disneyland on opening day and Jules Stein who founded MCA that later purchased Universal Pictures.
Walt was highly supportive of his youngest daughter dating a Jewish man and indicated he would be supportive if they chose to get married.
Next Time: I continue to debunk Meryl Streep's hateful statements about Walt by pointing out with factual documentation that he was not a racist nor did he hate women. Once again, I will supply bullet points for people wanting to defend Walt. Walt was not a saint, but neither was he a devil.
He was a human being who lived during a time period where the culture and standards were different than they are today.
Yet, he tried to grow beyond those cultural restrictions and demonstrated it with his actions.