Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Beginnings: Disney and the F.B.I.

The Beginnings: Disney and the F.B.I.

"Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood." Walt Disney.

The F.B.I. files on Walt Disney begin from 1936 and continue until his death in 1966. The Disney file reveals a complex relationship between these two Cold War actors but is also informative of the process of cultural production taking place during the Cold War and how content becomes a plane upon which a struggle between competing visions of purpose is enacted.

The first reference hinting to Disney's relationship with the Bureau is in a memo dated December 16th, 1954 sent from the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) in the Los Angeles division to Director Hoover. The memo gives a brief summary of Disney's career and notes that Disney had volunteered the use of his studios to representatives of the Bureau. The memo goes on to conclude that Disney would be a valuable asset for the Bureau given his prominence within the entertainment industry and should be accepted as an official SAC Contact. All previous relations between Disney and the Bureau are blacked out in the memo, a pattern that is repeated throughout the Disney file.

Some have speculated that in fact Disney had been an informant for the F.B.I. during the war and that he had received a promotion in 1954 allowing him to operate his own network of informants. While it is difficult to prove such accusations given the current state of the evidence, it remains a probability that Disney had been an informant during the war, given the previous intersecting relationships between the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (of which Disney played a role in), the Bureau and HUAC. Disney's official status as SAC-Contact was granted January 12, 1955.

Notwithstanding the granting of Contact status to Disney, the relationship with the Bureau in this early period was difficult. On January 20, 1956, a representative of Disney dropped by the Bureau office to discuss shooting a video about the F.B.I. for the ABC network. Despite approval by the local Los Angeles SAC, Hoover refused.
On February 6th, it was Disney's turn to decline a request from the Bureau: “Walt Disney [sentence blacked out] declined to furnish signed statements or appear before a security hearing board. On March 7th, SAC Malone visited Disney (his assigned contact in Los Angeles) at the latter's request. Disney again asked for cooperation from the Bureau on a special science exhibition at the Disneyland Amusement Park as well as shooting a video for the Mickey Mouse Club on the ABC network. One week later, Hoover again refused Disney's request in a letter, citing a busy schedule. On March 21st, a request was made, possibly by Hoover, for a background check on Disney. Arguably, this was the beginning of a change of heart on the part of the Bureau in their dealings with Disney.

The summary describes the Night of the Americas Gala, in which Disney was a guest, and that was hosted in 1943. The summary goes on to hint at a potential connection between Disney and Communism when the former helped sponsor a tribute to Cartoonist Art Young, an evening that also happened to be sponsored by the New Masses, a magazine that HUAC claimed was a Communist weekly.

The following year in 1957, an SAC met with Disney and proposed to the latter an idea for a show that would commemorate the twenty fifth anniversary of the FBI crime laboratory. Disney agreed. According to the March 4th memo, an aid to Disney described the motivations behind his acceptance of the project as largely altruistic: “Mr. Disney likes to do films of this type occasionally as a public service.” But this also came as welcomed news for Disney given that two months earlier, the Studios had signed a two year, nine million dollar contract with ABC Television for the production of three new series of programs. Despite a note subsequently written on the March 4th memo admonishing the SAC for going beyond his authority in initially approaching Disney, the Bureau reluctantly accepted to follow through on the project, “on condition that we had the chance to review the film before it is used.” The F.B.I. took great pains in ensuring their image was controlled; in 1954, at the urging of Hoover, Congress passed Public Law 670 giving the Bureau the ability to protect its name from unwarranted commercial exploitation.

Collaborating for America

Filming for the Mickey Mouse Club segments took place in April at the Bureau's Virginia office in Quantico and was done by Hugo Johnson of Walt Disney Productions. The storyline involved the young actor Dick Mertzger narrating a tour of the Bureau's Laboratory operations and even at one point meeting Hoover himself. This scenario was common to viewers of the Mickey Mouse Club, which regularly featured programs outlining professions for the impressionable audience. And for Disney, what could be more honorable than for young people to follow in Uncle Walt's footsteps and become an employee of the F.B.I.?

Disney kept his promise and sent the Bureau a copy of the unfinished film along with the completed script as envisioned by the producers. But in an October memo, despite positive reviews of the film, recommendations for changing a portion of the script were made: “It is recommended that a blind memorandum be sent to SAC [Malone] in Los Angeles” listing the suggested changes. The changes were relatively minor, given the Bureau's conclusion that the film was complimentary of its image, but nonetheless revealing. The Bureau, for example, explained that one purpose of the film was to get “across to youngsters the safe handling of guns.” But the Bureau also felt that the film should not be encouraging young children of Dirk's age to be handling loaded guns - “it is not considered appropriate” - and therefore demanded the deletion of the associated scene. It was a moot point given the film's repeated and deliberate references to the necessity of guns and indeed their glorification: in the first episode, with the young Dirk acting as Narrator, we are told that every agent learns to “shoot fast and straight” and later, the virtues of the Thompson submachine gun are explained.

The film, it must be noted, was very sucesssful in portraying the image of the F.B.I. in a positive light and its subject matter was well-trodden territory within the American cultural landscape; the romanticizing of the G-Men, especially as portrayed to children, went back to World war II. Children saw the FBI as a “grown-up kids gang” and started Junior G-Men Clubs across the country in reverence of them. One youngster wrote a letter to Hoover for help in starting a club: “We need guns, bombs, and other things to surprise the crooks,” he wrote.

The changes were accepted by Disney and the four completed film segments aired on the ABC network as part of the Mickey Mouse Club program in late January, 1958. While the F.B.I. did briefly threaten to cut off cooperation with the Disney Studios because they had not received a completed copy of the updated film on time - “Did we have a definite understanding to see the film before clearance?” - the relationship with Disney was quickly consummated and the project was a success. It seemed that Disney was Hoover's greatest triumph and the most admiring of all his children!
The FBI activity in regards to Disney is reduced in subsequent years. In 1959, the White House asks the FBI for a rush check on Disney in lieu of his proposed appointment to the Advisory Committee on the Arts. And in 1960, Hoover sends Disney an autographed copy of his book Masters of Deceit, to which Disney replied in a letter by thanking Hoover for “defending our way of life.”

In 1961, the Bureau's activity on Disney increased substantially. The Bureau had learned from a Daily Variety newspaper article that Disney recently hired a certain actor to play the role of an FBI agent in an upcoming movie “Moon Pilot,” a live-action comedy about the first American man shot into space; “Discreet inquiries” had been made to secure a copy of the script. A March 1st memo shows that Disney supposedly tried to contact the FBI to inform them of the new film project, sensing that their may be anxiety about the depiction of the G-man in his movie, but no meeting ever took place. Hoover himself was incensed about the way the G-man was portrayed in “Moon Pilot” after he read the script and demanded that the SAC meet with Disney to personally transmit the directors opposition to such representations; “Handle diplomatically,” Hoover reminded the Agent. While Disney did suggest that he was willing to replace the FBI character with one from another agency, he felt it would be inaccurate and unrealistic to do so given the storyline and urged Hoover to wait for a revised script. But Disney relented and replaced the G-man with a generic representation of a security officer. Hoover later questioned Disney's initial representations of the F.B.I. in Moon Pilot – “I am amazed Disney would do this” - and rationalized that Disney “had probably been infiltrated.”

The movie Moon Pilot was released in 1962. While Disney did make the changes requested by the Bureau, probably out of personal devotion to Hoover, the movie in hindsight has come to represent the difficulties inherent when the politics of government intersects with art. In examining a critics review of Moon Pilot at the time of its release, we get a picture of the Cold War dynamic between individual entertainers and government agencies, and more specifically, Disney's relationship to American culture at the time. One reviewer argues that the movie had political motives in that it represented “the bitter struggle between what obviously is the F.B.I. and the NASA security bureau...this is fairly broad comment on sacred cows.66” Disney, in his own mind, saw himself as the one man who had to act and critique the security lapses that were occurring during his time, always mindful of his own role (as he conceptualized it) in the larger Cold War conflict that was taking place. Disney never abandoned that great sense of patriotic duty that he felt towards others. “In fact,” the reviewer continues, “were the sources other than Disney's studio, howls from patriotic organizations would hardly be unexpected.”

Disney's position as mediator and authority figure in American culture had long since been established and this allowed him to play an expanded role in the politics of the time.

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