Animation teachers and historians are often confronted with young audiences who are convinced that “Walt Disney was a racist.” It’s an oversimplification if not an outright falsehood (and a cheap laugh line endlessly repeated by “Family Guy” writers and other recyclers of dubious pop culture tropes). And yet, under certain conditions, Disney was capable of incredibly antisemitic utterances, even by the standards of his time. One such outburst was the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of “Fantasia”. A Mickey Mouse vehicle, it’s one of the more coherent (and shortest) episodes in a very ambitious, very uneven film.
The tight storyline makes brilliant use of musical cues to build a very engaging story. But first, music critic Deems Taylor, the film’s tuxedoclad narrator, frames the segment for us: “a young apprentice who was bright — maybe too bright.”
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Mickey Mouse was, in many respects, Walt’s onscreen avatar. Mickey was the character who first elevated Walt and his studio to international fame. Like his creator, Mickey is an eagertoplease farmboy who somehow manages to be highly personable without having much of a personality. Walt was inspired by the comedy and onscreen persona of Chaplin, and wished to develop an animated character with the charm of Chaplin’s tramp character, the ‘little fellow’ whose misadventures and scrapes would engage the audience’s empathy.
Mickey Mouse as he appears in Fantasia is at the peak of his popularity. He’s the product of Walt’s and the animation staff’s calculation, hard work, and inspiration, oddly combined with Walt’s utter lack of introspection. It’s a truism that animators are the actors who inhabit their characters, but never do we see any indication that Mickey knows or cares who he is. Other than his general instinct for selfpreservation, none of Mickey’s habits, mannerisms, or desires (does he even have desires?) bear any relation to what we think we know about mice. Nor (and this is a strange deficiency for a cartoon character) does Mickey seem to have any particular awareness of his body, unlike Popeye or Felix the Cat, whose bodily transformations and rearrangements are a source of delight and surprise. What’s most striking about Mickey’s identity is its absence.
To the extent that Mickey represents Walt, “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” functions partly as Walt’s autobiography — or perhaps his selfwritten creation myth — as well as that of the studio that bears his name. (Even today, the narratives of Disney the man and Disney the corporation are difficult to disentangle from each other). Specifically, the story positions Walt / Mickey as the aggrieved little guy, whose only crime was coming up with a better way to make cartoons.
It seems to me that the segment is also an allegory for how Walt saw his relationship to the powerful Jews of Hollywood. As noted above, the Disney studio’s success was largely a product of Walt’s ambition, innovation, and hard work — but he was also in the right place at the right
time. A bit of backstory: 15 years earlier, in 1925, Walt stepped off the train from Kansas City. With the 1920 Fatty Arbuckle rape scandal fresh in public memory, a neoPuritan, antiHollywood backlash was in full swing. In retrospect, we might recognize this procensorship movement, spearheaded by the Catholic League for Decency and conducted via mass media, as an early battle in what we now call the culture war (perhaps even the template for it), with “traditional” heartland values portrayed as under attack by immigrants and urban elites — then as now, codewords for Jews. So the conditions were ripe for Walt and his crew of Midwestern newcomers to find an eager audience for their pastoral cartoons, populated by happily cavorting farm animals in rural settings (contrast these with the unstable, dirty, urban environments invoked by the New Yorkbased, immigrantstaffed Fleischer Studio).
So here’s Walt in 1940, having spent the past 15 years clawing his studio to a level of commercial and artistic success far surpassing what any other animation studio had achieved or even attempted. If Walt detected any ill will toward himself on the part of other studios’ Jewish executives, he’d likely have explained it away (if he thought about it at all) as a case of sour grapes — not their resentment of the career boost which historical circumstance and goyish privilege conferred upon him.
Thus we see the gloomy, glowering Sorcerer, working his mysterious and ancient wonders alone, unwilling to tolerate his apprentice’s eagerness to learn, uninterested in the apprentice’s ideas about innovation and efficiency in the magical workplace. In case the Sorcerer’s character design — long beard, beaked nose, heavy dark eyes — doesn’t signal his ethnicity clearly enough, his climactic splitting of the floodwaters hammers the point home to even the most visually illiterate viewer: when all else fails, the Sorcerer busts a Moses move. (What might that suggest about the sort of behavior Hollywood Jews are capable of when they feel backed into a corner?)
Though it seems an obvious selfcontradiction, in addition to representing the Hollywood Jews whose loss was Walt’s gain during the censorship frenzy, the Sorceror also symbolizes another group of Jews that Walt mistrusted: union activists. Over the course of the 1930’s, Walt’s growing success was largely a result of his efforts (inspired by the philosophies of industrial efficiency guru Frederick Winslow Taylor and noted Jewhater Henry Ford) to scale up animation production from a cottage industry to a manufacturing process. And yet, despite the studio’s unprecedented scale, Walt continued to conflate his own identity with that of the studio, or to think of it as a family of which he was the paterfamilias. When animators started asking for raises and overtime pay, his reaction was one of personal betrayal, and naturally he blamed outside agitators like Screen Cartoonist Guild leader Herb Sorrell (against whom Disney was happy to testify a few years later, at the 1947 HUAC hearings).
Mickey’s motives, of course, are unimpeachable — he’s Everyman, after all — as Walt apparently felt his own motives to be. Mickey is curious, ever on the lookout for a better way of doing things, as relentlessly pragmatic and efficiencyminded as Walt and his farmboy staff. Enchanting a broom to do his bidding is just a bit of workplace automation to get the job done
faster. What could be more American? Mickey resorts to chopping the broom to splinters — which then reanimate (!) themselves into a whole zombie army of undead brooms. It’s a stunningly graphical representation of an industrialist’s fear of his own hypercompetent workforce. Mickey sheepishly hands the broom back to the Sorcerer, who in the final shot uses it to swat Mickey’s ass and send him scampering.
Think about that final shot for a minute. Walt, a filmmaker at the peak of his career, casts himself plainly as the victim. At first glance, it seems to run counter to Disney’s usual triumphalist narrative, so much so that even cinematically literate viewers may find it easier to dismiss this whole interpretation out of hand (“But Mickey’s the protagonist!”). However, whether Walt put all those autobiographical details into the segment by deliberate design or (as seems more likely) by intuition, why be surprised by internal contradictions in a film made by a guy who was full of them?
In fact, it’s a fascinating if scary picture of the internal landscape of a filmmaker standing at the crossroads of a major political realignment, one which certainly mirrored and possibly helped shape the larger realignments taking place in America over the course of the 1940’s. Walt, once the staunch champion of a vaguely defined Everyman, by 1940 found himself identifying more with the boss than with the workingman. Over the course of the 1940’s, Walt’s politics took a hard right turn, but here we see him on the cusp of this transition, grappling with the realization that the Midwestern politeness and optimistic faith in rural American values with which 1930’s Mickey had conducted himself were no longer cutting it. The contradictions which boiled over at the Disney studio in 1941, culminating in the strike with all its bitterness and betrayals, are all present in the internal landscape of Mickey in 1940.
Though Mickey’s asskicking is played for laughs, it’s a dark ending — an appeal to victimhood prefiguring by several decades the “Silent Majority” speech of that other Californiabased antisemite Richard Nixon, and all the other language of backlash that has since become such a sadly familiar feature of American political discourse.
Luke Jaeger grew up in Brooklyn and attended Yale University, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Massachusetts College of Art. He and his family now live in Western Massachusetts. His animated films have been shown in festivals and theaters worldwide. More at http://www.trickfilm.org