ClandesTime 076 — Walt Disney and the FBI
Disney are one of the world’s largest movie studios and producers of entertainment. They have enjoyed this status for decades, recently acquiring both the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, among the most profitable in the cinema industry. The relationship between the corporation and government agencies has been almost continuous for more than half a century. In this episode we look in particular at the relationship between Disney and the FBI, including Walt Disney’s role as an FBI informant and how the FBI shaped Disney propaganda about the Bureau.
Almost everyone who has seen films has seen Disney films. Their status as the premier producers of children’s and fantasy entertainment is not in doubt. Their role in shaping young people’s perceptions of everything from romance to parenthood to extraterrestrials is quite well documented. Today I want to focus in on Walt Disney’s FBI file and what that tells us about the relationship between the entertainment industry and the state, and how state-sponsored entertainment propaganda really works. I think this is a really good case study and the feedback from the Clancy two-parter has been really good so I thought I’d continue in this vein.
First, a note on the source material. You can find a version of the Disney FBI file on various websites including the FBI’s own FOIA vault and on MuckRock. However, this is not the complete version previously released in the early 1990s and the subject of some media reporting and at least one book. That file is over 570 pages long, whereas the version on the FBI’s site and that they are currently releasing to requesters is missing over a hundred pages from that file.
Why the FBI are choosing to release a shorter version than they have previously released is anyone’s guess. I will say that the FBI claim to have lost a number of files that they have previously released including George Orwell’s. Maybe the Bureau really is that bad at administration, it’s always possible. However, I went looking and found quite quickly another version of the Disney FBI file which is the full version and has even been OCR scanned so it is easily searchable. That is the version we will be working from today so if you do want to download the document and play along at home then please do.
Walt Disney’s Career as an FBI informant
Disney himself first came into contact with the FBI in 1936. For some reason Disney gave his fingerprints to the FBI at the DeMolay Convention in Kansas City in July of that year. What is the DeMolay Convention? According to Wikipedia:
DeMolay International (also known as the ‘Order of DeMolay), founded in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1919, is an international fraternal organization for young men ages 12 to 21. It was named for Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. DeMolay was incorporated in the 1990s and is classified by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization.
So the DeMolay Convention must be a convention of the Order of DeMolay, some sort of secret society or masonic-type fraternity for adolescents and young men. What the then 35 year old Walt Disney was doing hanging around with FBI agents at a fraternal organisation for 12–21 year olds is anyone’s guess. It may be significant that to this day there is a private part of Disneyland known as Club 33. Disney’s fingerprints were sent to the FBI and a week or so later J Edgar Hoover wrote a personal telegram to Disney saying:
Dear Mr Disney
I have just received the card bearing your fingerprints which were taken during the course of the national conference of the Order of DeMolay and wish to advise you that they have been classified and are now on file at the Civil Identification Unit of this Bureau.
I am indeed pleased that we can be of service to you in affording you a means of absolute identity throughout your lifetime.
I can think of no plausible reason why this happened but it is an extremely weird opening chapter in this relationship between Disney and Hoover, and Disney and the FBI. Four years later, in 1940, Disney gave in to the FBI’s advances and became their informant. For the next 26 years, right up until his death, they maintained a relationship whereby he reported on possible subversives and otherwise fed information to Hoover’s men.
Disney and Anti-Communism
In 1941 during a strike by the animators at the Disney studio, Walt accused them of ‘Communist agitation’. While Disney helped make animations for the government in support of the war effort, in 1944 Walt joined as the first vice-president the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. This was an anti-communist, and briefly anti-fascist, organisation designed to protect Hollywood, and thus American society, against infiltration by the enemy. Prominent members included Gary Cooper, Cecil B DeMille, John Wayne, Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan.
In 1947 the FBI began showing a concerted interest in ComPic — Communist Motion Pictures. It had been investigating possible Communist infiltration of the film industry for a while, but in ’47 there was a memo from headquarters out to the Los Angeles office asking for specific information on this. 1947 is also the year that the FBI start compiling lists of so-called Communist movies, and the year they recruited Ronald Reagan as informant T-10. It is also the year that HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities started seriously going after Hollywood. Thus it is also the year that the Hollywood Ten refused to answer questions when called in front of the Committee, and thus is also the year that the first incarnation of the Hollywood Blacklist was implemented.
Both Disney and Reagan were instrumental in this process. They were both anti-communist FBI informants, shopping anyone they liked to Hoover and his thugs. They both testified as expert witnesses before HUAC, though in Disney’s case he accidentally accused the League of Women Voters of being a communist front, when he meant the League of Women Shoppers.
They both continued being FBI informants for years afterwards — in Disney’s case in 1954 he was promoted to a Special Agent in Charge Contact. In each FBI field office, Washington, Los Angeles, wherever, you have a Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of that office. A ‘contact’ reports directly to that SAC and is granted a higher trust status. In Hoover’s words from the file, this means ‘persons who, because of their positions, can and do render extraordinary service, or provide unusual and highly valuable assistance to the FBI upon request of the SAC.’
For one thing it meant that Disney could relay reports to the FBI from other informants — they trusted him enough to let him gather raw information and they would take it seriously even if it was second hand. This also means that Disney was not just a spy, but a spy handler. There’s nothing in the file to directly suggest he was actually running a network of informants in the formal sense, but for over a decade he was gathering intelligence via his contacts in Hollywood.
Before moving on, we should quickly note that there was quite a controversy when all this started to come out in the early 1990s, when the first version of the FBI files on Disney were released. Mark Eliot wrote a book, Dark Prince, which alleges all sorts of things including that Disney flirted with Nazism but also that he was spying on his colleagues in Hollywood on behalf of J Edgar Hoover.
In the post-Cold War liberal Hollywood this was quite an accusation, and the Disney family denied a lot of these claims and published unredacted versions of some of these documents to try to prove their case. This led to a lot of shouting but not much of significance, there was no lawsuit, so I guess we can make of Mark Eliot’s claims whatever we like.
Mickey Mouse Club
In return for his service to the Bureau, Disney was quite persistent in trying to get them involved, or let him involve them, in his productions. In some instances he offered them total control over the finished production and as we will see when they took him up on the offer they exerted a lot of control.
Our story begins in 1954 when Walt Disney offered the FBI’s LA office free access to Disneyland California ‘for use in connection with official matters and for recreational purposes’. This offer was made in the middle of the decision to promote Disney an SAC contact, and possibly represents an attempt by Disney to flatter and charm the FBI into giving him that promotion. It also indicates a furthering of their relationship beyond Walt spying on his industry colleagues and snitching on anyone he thought was a Commie. The decision to actually promote Disney was made very early in 1955, not long after this offer of free access to Disneyland was made.
A year later in January 1956 a representative for Disney approached the FBI about shooting some footage at Bureau properties for episodes of the Mickey Mouse Club. The memo notes that the show went out between 5 and 6 pm and had an audience of some 20 million kids. The suggested scenes would show an FBI marksmen showing his skill at the shooting range and also showing fingerprints being taken. The FBI’s memo states, ‘he does not want to emphasise the criminal side of fingerprints but would merely like to point out how many fingerprints we have and show how they serve a humanitarian purpose.’
The FBI Crime Lab
This request was denied but it broke the ice and negotiations continued through the following months and years. In March 1957 Disney again approached the Bureau talking about filming at the FBI crime lab to produce a piece to coincide with the crime lab’s 25th anniversary (it was established in 1932). This is ironic given the enormous scandals to have hit the FBI crime lab in more recent times, particularly in the wake of bombings at Lockerbie, the World Trade Center in 1993 and in Okalahoma City in 1995.
The proposal from Disney suggested doing five films to be broadcast throughout the week, and the memo says ‘a program format showing a 14 year old boy something about FBI qualifications, training, facilities and careers could be effectively produced and would have tremendous audience appeal’. They are talking about the now standard of format of a central character who is inducted into the institution being used as a vehicle to induct the audience.
This idea bounced around the upper levels of the FBI for a few weeks, and they eventually agreed on the basis that ‘we could have complete control over this and it would not entail an awful lot of work’. In April 1957 Hugo Johnson, Disney’s representative in Washington, was given a tour of the FBI crime lab to scout it as a shooting location. They decided to use Dirk Metzger, a 13 year old boy who had previously presented Mickey Mouse Club newsreels, and to make four films with the FBI that would part of a series of ten based on Washington DC. These included the shooting range and fingerprinting scenes suggested over a year earlier, and also some classroom scenes showing FBI recruits being taught and trained.
FBI Censorship of Disney
Much of this was suggested by the FBI and when they viewed an early cut of the films they requested quite a number of changes to the script and to the editing. These changes were made, so you could argue that this constitutes a form of government censorship but even more interesting to me is the nature of these changes. This is something we’ve looked at in several recent episodes. The FBI’s memo to Disney includes such gems as:
Scene 5: In conducting the crime scene search it is deemed advisable to eliminate the shot where Dirk actually picks up the gun and ejects the clip… The handling of a supposedly loaded weapon by a boy of Dirk’s age is not considered appropriate.
So he can join a Masonic fraternity but not handle a loaded gun? That would seem to be the implication of the FBI’s sense of morality at this time. There are other notes mostly concerned with the dialogue but one other scene change is worth highlighting.
Scene 8: The scene of the agent firing two revolvers simultaneously and breaking the clay targets does not show the targets themselves breaking. This footage is available and it is felt that, if the scene is used at all, it should show the agent’s bullets breaking the clay targets.
This might sound trivial but it is about appearing effective and thus intimidating. This is very similar to a scene in Clear and Present Danger described by Phil Strub as ‘a Marine helicopter gunship attacking a lightly-defended drug overlord’s residence, with very modest effect’. This was changed at the DOD’s request to make the attack more destructive. This is obviously something that these institutions want to achieve through entertainment — a show of force, a bit of theatre saying ‘don’t fuck with us’. Exactly why the FBI felt it was important to get this message into a children’s TV program, I leave it to you to ponder.
Dirk Metzger himself is quite interesting — the son of a senior officer in the Marine Corps who was stationed in London, Dirk was not a professional actor. Yet he fronted this whole series of Disney films about Washington DC, including meeting the President and Hoover and Eisenhower both wrote to him after the films had broadcast. Dirk went on to join the Marines himself then became a lawyer, and is now the founding advisor of the Renaissance Lawyer Society and the president of Silvermark Consulting. I don’t know whether he’s aware that the FBI did a little check on him and his father as part of this filming process, but perhaps I’ll drop him an email and ask.
Getting back to our story — once the FBI had sent their requested script and editing changes to Disney these changes were made, but for unknown reasons Disney then delayed sending the Bureau a final copy to review and clear for broadcast. There was a bit of an argument over this because Disney kept delaying, for reasons that I cannot fathom. Indeed, it wasn’t until the day of the broadcast itself — January 24th 1958 — that the FBI actually got to see the final cut. In the event they had no problem with it and Hoover himself was very happy with the series of films. However, this strained relationships between the Feds and Disney and Associate Director Clyde Tolson even wrote on one memo ‘no further co-operation’.
A few years later Disney had a conversation with the SAC at the Los Angeles office where they discussed the ‘kidnap rape murder’ of 6 year old Rose Marie Riddle. This was a big case in 1961, as you can probably imagine, and later resulted in the prosecutions of a husband and wife who pleaded guilty. The husband was executed, which seems wholly appropriate, and the wife was sent to prison. Disney and the SAC discussed the idea of making some cartoons featuring Disney animal characters warning about the dangers of child molesters. Not in itself a bad idea, though what a child is supposed to make of a cartoon squirrel warning them about paedophiles I am not at all sure. It seems that nothing came of this conversation and Disney only suggested that the Bureau be involved, he never made an explicit request so they never actually refused.
The same year Disney got a large salary increase, as documented in a news cutting in his FBI file. The Bureau also found out that Disney were going to feature an FBI agent character in their film Moon Pilot, about the first man to be shot around the moon. The character, played by Edmond O’Brien, is a ‘flying saucer fan’ and generally not a very loyal and competent FBI agent.
The FBI reached out to Disney personally, who told them that the script was somewhat different to the serialised version of the story that the FBI were working from. He said that the FBI actually came across very well in the Disney version, and asked that Hoover review the script before making a final decision as to whether the FBI could be mentioned by name.
As it turned out, Disney dropped any mention of the FBI from the script and the agent became a generic ‘government security’ officer. The FBI files note how an agent from their Criminal Research Section saw a preview of the film at the Pentagon. One memo states under the heading ‘Interesting Note’:
The Air Force has a problem. They cooperated in this movie to the extent of furnishing a Technical Director, making some stock footage available, and furnishing air craft for a scene or two. The credits now gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the Air Force and, from the discussion among Air Force officers present at the showing the film, it is apparent that they feel that the public will identify them as having approved of this film. They do not approve, and were discussing a means of getting a change made since the film sent to them is the final print.
This film, Moon Pilot, does not appear on either the Air Force list or the overall DOD list of support projects, but clearly they did support the film during its production even if they later regretted that.
That Darn Cat/Undercover Cat
The final example of the relationship between Disney and the FBI is about the 1965 adaptation of Undercover Cat, from the book written by former FBI agent Gordon Gordon. It is clear that the Bureau hated Gordon and considered his fiction books depicting an FBI agent John ‘Rip’ Ripley to portray them in a bad light. In Undercover Cat the central character is a cat who is an FBI agent (naturally). He forages in rubbish bins at night, which is hardly the image of the Bureau that Tolson and Hoover wanted.
They applied some pressure on Disney, even invoking Public Law 670, a statute preventing the commercial exploitation of the FBI’s name. Disney assured them that there would be no problem and that the FBI would be portrayed positively. Sources within the MPAA said that they had not received a script for review to see if it passed the production code, so the FBI went to another source within Disney. They said that Disney often held back their scripts from the MPAA until the movie was actually produced.
It appears that the FBI never actually got hold of a copy of the script, and the film came out in late 1965 to a very positive reception. Gordon Gordon and his wife founded a new company called Meow Inc. and were nominated for a comedy writing award by the Writers Guild of America. A year later Walt Disney was dead and with it his relationship with the FBI.
Disney and the FBI
There are other secrets to be found in the Walt Disney FBI file but I think that’s enough for one day. This is fundamentally a story of a relationship that went a bit sour. During the 30s and 40s everything was going fine, Walter Elias was happily ratting out anyone he thought might be a Commie, the FBI were loving it. But something happened during the production of the four films for the Mickey Mouse Newsreel that caused some damage to this relationship and it seems that it never truly recovered. This culminated in the FBI being unable to pressure Disney into cow-towing to them over That Darn Cat, and ultimately in that movie being produced without influence from the Bureau.
There is probably also an element of the 60s, the free spirited times causing studios to take a few more risks than they might have in the quite austere 40s and 50s. The production code had been somewhat liberalised too by this stage, and in reality Disney were very unlikely to be prosecuted over refusing the FBI’s requests on a movie that centres around a cat. Something to bear in mind — the more silly the film, the more you can get away with, in terms of rubbing up the government the wrong way, getting lewd jokes past the censors and so on.
A third factor is the age of the people involved. Disney, a lifelong heavy smoker, was coming to the end of his years and so was Hoover. Indeed, by the mid-60s people were looking at Hoover and being amazed he’d lasted so long. So Disney had reasons for not caring so much what Hoover thought about That Darn Cat, which may help explain this trajectory we see through the years.
So, we have an example of a production that the FBI exerted total control over, aimed at children, no less. We have an example of the FBI removing references to themselves from a production because they didn’t like how they were being portrayed, even though the movie was a farce. And we have them attempting but failing to do the same with a third production, which they were not happy about. Thus, this is a great case study in the relationship between Hollywood and the security state, in this case Disney and the FBI but it contains all the usual struggles and compromises inherent in that relationship more broadly.