Sunday, September 05, 2010

What the Biz Rep Has Learned #7

Blacklisting is real, and it happens.

But you'll never know it for certain sure. You'll only hear about it third or fourth-hand ....

We read about blacklisting in animation, the most famous example being Art Babbitt and Walt Disney Productions after the 1941 strike. But there are other examples.

The one that I recall (and witnessed) is the Disney animator who insulted a high Disney executive on the picket line during the long strike of 1982. The exec was so insulted by an offensive picket sign drawn by the animator that, after the strike was over, the animator never worked at Disney Feature Animation again ...

... until three years later, when the highly-placed executive departed and his replacements -- neither of whom knew or cared about the insult -- hired the animator back.

Which brings us to the next factoid:

Blacklisting isn't forever.

Studio chief Jack Warner, who's famous for the quote "Never let that bastard back in here ever again ... unless we need him" was an enthusiastic participant in the Hollywood blacklist of the 1940s and 1950s, when hundreds of lefty actors, writers and directors were blocked from studio jobs.

Lefty character actor Howard Da Silva was prominent among them, and never, ever made another Hollywood movie ... until 1971, when Jack Warner turned the Broadway musical "1776" into a wide-screen extravaganza. J.L. swallowed his considerable bile and cast Mr. Da Silva, one of the musical's stars, as Benjamin Franklin*. And whattayaknow? Howard started getting lots more work in Hollywood movies.

They hire you win they need you.


Most of the time, when you suspect you're being blacklisted, you're not.

You're being kept from a job because somebody in a position to ding you considers you a pain in the ass. Or likes some other candidate better. (Sometimes it's a combination of the two.)

I know the above to be true because over the years I've heard from producers and directors: His work's all right, but he fights with everybody. And argues with me. I don't need that ..."

(I suppose this could be considered a form of blacklisting, but I think of it as your work history coming back to bite you in the backside.)

* This ties into another lesson Your Servant has learned: "There is no fair or unfair. What you end up getting is what you have the leverage to get."


Anonymous said...

Art Babbitt was his own worst enemy. It's one thing to march in a picket line; it's another to yell insults at your boss and provoke him into a near-fistfight. Babbitt, shall we say, got a little carried away with workers-rights fervor; it led him to overlook the fact that Disney Studios was a relative workers' paradise in those Hyperion days. For that reason, Walt didn't deserve to be called a slave-driver and be accused of running a sweatshop. Read the details in Bob Thomas' excellent book on Disney of what the Mouse House was like back then. I bet not many of today's animators enjoy cafeterias where the food is sold below the company's cost, or have waiters on-call to bring them food and drink.

Beyond all that, you're right, Steve; it always, ALWAYS pays to play nicely with others.

Anonymous said...

Not EVERY Disney artist had access to the waitress-delivered food & drink, not did everyone have the salary to enjoy cafeteria fare that was "below cost". Art Babbitt DID, since he was one of the top men at the studio before the strike. He knew all too well, however, that many many other Disney employees didn't--and likely never would-qualify for those perks he rated. He was a hellraiser on the picket lines not for himself, but for other artists and workers less favored than himself--like the fact that his asistant's pay was in stark contrast to his own, although they worked very closely together as a team. He felt the disparity went over the line into simple unfairness.

Whether you agree or disagree with Art's politics, answer this: how many people have the cojones to go to battle over the OTHER guy or girl's issues?
Babbitt did, knowing full well it wouldn't win him any popularity contests with a famously touchy and globally popular boss.

I wouldn't recommend Bob Thomas as an impartial source of information on the Disney strike situation at all. His book was a studio-commissioned and vetted undertaking.

Anonymous said...

"it led him to overlook the fact that Disney Studios was a relative workers' paradise in those Hyperion days."


The strike didn't happen during the Hyperion days. This is my first clue you don't really have a grasp on the history.

The studio had already moved to the ultra modern Burbank campus, so physically, yes , one could say it was a "relative worker's paradise" in some ways, but I don't recall Babbitt saying Walt Disney was a "slave driver" . At issue was fair compensation for a fair day's work. Babbitt himself was one of the most highly paid animators at the studio. He wasn't complaining about his own wages. I would have to look it up , but if memory serves I believe Babbitt was making something in the neighborhood of a $250 a week base salary (using an inflation calculator that would be equivalent to $3,827 in today's dollars) ; actually with bonuses I think Babbitt was making quite a bit more than that at one point. (Although Babbitt was one of those who had been promised a large bonus for Snow White which never was paid out) Compare that to what his assistant animator , Bill Hurtz, was making: about $18 dollars a week. At one point Babbitt requested a $2.50 a week raise for Hurtz so Hurtz could take care of his family better and was told to keep his nose out of the company's business. The disparity in wages between the top "star" animators such as Babbitt and the assistants (and the even lower-paid ink and painter crew) struck principled people such as Babbitt as an unfair situation and certainly not a "worker's paradise".

The Bob Thomas book is pretty good as far as it goes , but it was an official studio sanctioned biography and blurs a few things. I suggest you check out a more meticulously researched book such as Michael Barrier's "The Animated Man: a Life of Walt Disney" for some balance. Barrier's book doesn't paint Walt as some sort of horrible tyrant or borderline neurotic like some of the more sensationalized biography's (like Neal Gabler's poorly researched bio of Disney or the earlier Richard Schickel book ) but Barrier doesn't gloss over the fact that Walt Disney's reactionary way of handling the strike probably contributed the most to the ill-feelings against him during and after the strike.

Tim said...

Not to get too picky about semantics, but isn't it really considered Blacklisting when a majority of the employers agree not to hire you?

Just because you make your boss mad and he won't let you back on the lot, doesn't mean you can't get work across town. That's the same whether you are in animation or selling shoes at the mall.
Blacklisting is when no one will hire you, generally for a reason that doesn't affect your qualifications, like political views. It's like the writers in the 50s who may or may not have been communists, and none of the big studios would hire them. (Those studio decisions may have been made from personal convictions, or simply fearing reprisal from the the House of un-American activities).

Walt did accuse a few people of being Communists before Congress. Babbitt wasn't one of them. (He accused Babbitt of being a Commie elsewhere, however.)

A personal grudge is unfortunate and unfair, but it isn't blacklisting. Ruining someone's chances of getting hired anywhere is.

Anonymous said...

Not to get too picky about semantics, but isn't it really considered Blacklisting when a majority of the employers agree not to hire you?

I think this is a good point. I think what you're describing, Steve, would more accurately be called 'blackballing,' where a powerful individual at a single company is blocking your employment at that company. Unfortunately, people are regularly blackballed, and not just because they are difficult to work with.

Now, when that highly placed person spreads their bile to other studios, and puts out the word that you shouldn't be hired, then we're getting into the realm of 'blacklisting.'

Anonymous said...

I think the 'blacklist' as it WAS isn't really in effect anymore.
I mean if you call a director an ass in a meeting, then of course your just making YOURSELF out to be someone who just doesn't work well in a team or under a boss.

BUT...blacklisting on a lower level is very much the norm now.
With ones own colleagues. It's a very catty industry and very much a 'who you know' type of field.
IF you can do the work and do it well then you for the most part- you are immune. But there are alot of mediocre talent out there that know that if you want in in this industry, you just 'play nice'. I guess they fill the void for those with mega talent and mega ego that don't 'play nice'.

Anonymous said...

**I wouldn't recommend Bob Thomas as an impartial source of information on the Disney strike situation at all. His book was a studio-commissioned and vetted undertaking.**

Uh, huh. What Thomas got was unlimited access to Disney archives, friends and family, not pressure to gloss things over. He was told to tell the story his way, and he has claimed that he told the straight story. In his new foreword for the book, he says that the only thing he concealed in his earlier writings was the fact that Disney's daughter Sharon was adopted; this was done because she was sensitive about it. He also concealed the identity of animator Fred Moore when he discussed his descent into alcoholism. But Thomas didn't paint Walt as a total saint. Walt took the strike too personally and reacted badly to it, not because he was some greedy tyrant, but because he felt betrayed and was deeply hurt by it. As for animators' salaries, it's helpful to remember that Walt and Roy would often raise the salaries of their artists before they took raises themselves. Plus finances were often tough because Walt had a habit of putting money back into the cartoons, instead of lining his own pocket. Just the same, Walt took better care of his employees than did other studios such as Warners and Fleischer. My contention is not that the animators should not have joined the union, it's that Walt was smeared unfairly during the process. It's too easy to paint him as a greedy corporate bully, just as he's painted as a bigot and anti-Semite - and none of that is true either.

You wanna talk about biographies being written to gloss over a famous man? Talk to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Powers, who wrote a too-accurate biography of Jim Henson that the Henson family opposed so vigorously that no publisher would touch it. Now a new biography has been commissioned by the family..probably in response to Powers' work and the independent movie script "The Muppet Man" (which the family has also purchased and successfully suppressed)...hmm...wonder how "accurate" *that* biography will be?

Floyd Norman said...

So true. In today's employment market you'd be well advised to play well with others.

Speaking of Art Babbitt, Adrienne and I were lucky enough to become friends with Babbitt's first wife, the wonderful dancer, Marge Champion. Added to that, we were able to meet Art Babbitt's second family at a Disney Legends ceremony on the Disney studio lot. What I found most satisfying was the agreement by both the Disney and Babbitt family to finally "bury the hachet," and put the bitter disagreement between Walt and Art to rest.

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