How much of what everyone “knows” about animation history is wrong? For example …
The first TV cartoon was Crusader Rabbit, in 1949. And Crusader always fought the villainous Dudley Nightshade.
That’s what IMDb seems to say, all right. Also TV.com, the TV IV, the Museum of Broadcast Communications, TV Tropes, Skooldays, Inner Toob, and other online sites of “nostalgia” information about the early days of television. Other sites such as Wikipedia, the Archive of American Television, Digital Media FX, WikiFur, and Animation World Media give the correct date of August 1, 1950. Still others such as IMDb list both dates in different parts of their articles, or avoid giving any date at all in their information about Crusader Rabbit.
Thorough researchers, such as myself through the pages of TV Guide for 1949 and 1950, give the correct date as August 1, 1950. Crusader Rabbit started production in early 1949, and producer Jerry Fairbanks promoted it furiously all through 1949 and 1950 in press releases and trade magazine advertisements as being available for TV syndication. But the first actual sale and broadcast was to KNBH in Los Angeles beginning August 1, 1950.
Where did the 1949 date, sometimes even specified as September 1, 1949, come from? Possibly from a dated magazine article or advertisement. Also, Fairbanks’ promotion may have included giving the first one or two finished episodes to TV children’s programs during 1949, to let them be seen. Crusader Rabbit was certainly in production during 1949. Nevertheless, the contracted first 130 episodes were not finished until the series had definitely been sold, to begin airing on August 1, 1950. The record has always been clear on this. The final 65 episodes were added during 1951.
As to whether Cru’s adversary was always Dudley Nightshade, that was in the color series only. When producer Shull Bonsall took over the 195-episode black-&-white series and decided to make the color sequels in the late 1950s, he got the brainstorm of combining all of Cru’s villains into one. He was openly inspired by Time for Beany’s Dishonest John, since Bonsall claimed that Dudley Nightshade predated Dishonest John and was the first TV cartoon villain! (True only if you quibble that D.J. was a hand puppet at first, not a cartoon. Time for Beany first appeared on Los Angeles local TV on February 28, 1949 and went national the next year.) Cru’s “crusades” each had a different villain at first. The first, Crusader vs. the State of Texas (15 episodes), was technically an adversary, not a villain; Frank Sawbuck, a big game hunter type who had been hired by the Texas government to rid Texas of jackrabbits because they were eating all the carrots that Texas’ sharpshooters needed for their keen vision. Cru persuaded the rabbits to switch from carrots to tastier creampuffs, and everybody was happy.
But the others were genuine villains! Crusade #2, Crusader vs. the Pirates (20 episodes), was against Black Bilge and his pirates. #3, Crusader and the Rajah of Rinsewater (20 episodes), was against Dudley Nightshade, a crooked royal advisor. #4, Crusader and the Schmohawk Indians (15 episodes), pitted Cru and the Indians against Chicago gangster type Babyface Barracuda and his mob. The villain of #5, Crusader and the Great Horse Mystery (20 episodes), was glue magnate Gaston Glub, who was kidnapping all the racehorses in Kentucky to steal their hooves to make Glub’s Glue. #6, Crusader and the Circus (10 episodes), pitted Cru and Rags against a crooked circus ringmaster, Whetstone Whiplash, and his henchman, the dishonest circus strongman, Bilious Greene. #7, Crusader in the Tenth Century (30 episodes), was a time-travel adventure with Cru and Rags going back a thousand years to confront the medieval Blaggard brothers; Blackheart, Brimstone, and Bigot, and their two-headed dragon, Arson and Sterno. In #8, Crusader and the Mad Hollywood Scientist (15 episodes), Cru and Rags saved Hollywood from mad scientist Belfrey Q. Batts who aimed to uglify all of the handsome actors, and at one point turned Rags into a flightless vulture.
At that point, Alex Anderson & Jay Ward became concerned that Crusader Rabbit and Rags the Tiger were their only recurring characters. They decided that they should have a larger regular cast. So with Crusade #9, Crusader and the Leprechauns (25 episodes), they gave Cru & Rags a tagalong friend, Garfield Groundhog, and they started recycling their villains. #9 featured Dudley Nightshade who was fleecing the leprechauns of Ireland, and #10, Crusader and the Showboat (25 episodes), had the return of Whetstone Whiplash, who had become a crooked Mississippi riverboat captain with Bilious Greene as his first mate.
Only Dudley Nightshade and Whetstone Whiplash really looked alike. Both were caricatures of the stereotyped 19th century melodrama villain; tall and lean, dressed all in black with a cape that he flourished, and a thin, black moustache that he twirled. But Bonsall took advantage of the fact that by 1959 when he released the color series, nobody remembered the old 1949-51 episodes. Even though he offered both series for sale, TV stations wanted only the color episodes with better animation. So the public bought his story that Cru’s nemesis was always Dudley Nightshade in different disguises. And in the color episodes, he was.
Actually, Bonsall used the character design of Whetstone Whiplash with Dudley’s name, because Whetstone looked meaner. The original Dudley might hesitate to steal candy from a baby. There was no doubt that Whetstone would not hesitate.
Out of public sight, the real Walt Disney was a bitter, foul-mouthed bigot who refused to hire Jews or African-Americans.
This is a myth that just should not exist. Even if it did not pop up until after Disney was dead and no longer around to deny it, there are plenty of veteran Disney employees who knew Walt personally, and can not only deny the myth, they have! Often! But it continues to be perpetuated, just like the one that Walt has had his body frozen in cryogenic suspension, to be thawed out when medical science catches up with the cancer that killed him. (Walt Disney died of a heart attack just after an operation for an incurable cancer, probably post-operative stress. His body was cremated, and the ashes buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.)
Walt did use the swear words that almost any adult male frequently uses, and he may have used some of the racially prejudicial terms like “n—–“ and “to jew down” that were common before about the 1950s. But Floyd Norman, an African-American active in anti-prejudice organizations, was hired by the Disney studio in the 1950s and often saw and worked directly with Disney before his death. Norman has said emphatically that Disney showed no sign of being racist or having any objection to hiring Black employees. As for Jews, one of Disney’s earliest animators was Isadore “Friz” Freleng. Freleng went to work for Disney in Kansas City, and when Walt moved to Hollywood he asked Freleng to join him. Freleng worked with Disney on the “Alice” comedies and “Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit” until 1927 when Charles Mintz notoriously hired away all of Disney’s animators except Ub Iwerks. Freleng animated for Mintz for a year until Universal took the “Oswald” cartoons away from him. Most of Mintz’s animators ended up working for Leon Schlesinger making Warner Bros. cartoons. There is a story that when Bob Clampett made the 1944 Russian Rhapsody short with caricatures of all the Schlesinger staff as the gremlins who are wrecking Adolf Hitler’s airplane in mid-air, WB got a complaint about a gross drawing of a Jew, looking just like a Nazi caricature of a big-nosed Jew among the other self-caricatures. That was “Friz” Freleng, who really did look like an exaggerated parody of a Jew. He was just as obviously Jewish when he was working directly under Disney. Another prominent Jew at Disney was Art Babbitt, who defined the look of Goofy in the 1930s short cartoons. Disney came to personally hate Babbitt, but not because he was Jewish; because he was a leader of the anti-Disney studio strike in 1941. Disney later publicly accused Babbitt of “probably” being a Communist, but made no complaints about his Jewishness. During the 1950s, Disney was openly friendly with producer Samuel Goldwyn, who made no secret of the fact that he was a Polish Jew named Schmuel Gelbfisz when he came to America.
But not only do the rumors of Disney’s poisonous anti-Semitism persist, they grow more widespread and more blatant. There are the three biographies filled with anti-Disney hate that has been disproven, but they are cited again and again as proof: Disney’s World: A Biography (Stein & Day, 1983) and The Real Walt Disney (HarperCollins, April 1986), both by Leonard Mosley; and Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, by Marc Eliot (Birch Lane Press, July 1993). There are the anti-Disney jokes on Family Guy (“Are the Jews gone yet?”), Robot Chicken, and Saturday Night Live (Walt Disney is asked how he thawed out early. “Science says global warming, but I can’t help thinking it has something to do with Jews!”)
In June 1934 Disney announced to the public his decision to make a feature-length film; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The workaholic Disney was showing signs of another nervous breakdown by early 1935 (he had already had one in 1931), and his brother Roy persuaded him to get away from the pressure by taking a family working vacation to Europe that summer. It lasted from mid-June to mid-August. Walt, wife Lillian, brother Roy, and Roy’s wife Edna landed in the Normandie in Plymouth on June 12, went to London where they discussed the booking of Disney films with British cinema executives, then to Paris in early July where Walt was presented with the Legion d‘Honneur. They rented a car and drove to Münich where Disney films were playing at a theater, and Roy signed a contract with Baveria Filmkunst Gmbh. to take over the distribution of Disney films in Germany. Their itinerary shows that they were in Münich from July 7 to 9. They next drove to Milan and Venice where the 3rd International Film Festival was showing. Disney’s The Band Concert received an award. Then to Rome, where the Disneys were wined & dined by the Minister of Propaganda, Count Galeazzo Ciano. Walt had a private meeting with Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, and was interviewed on a weekly newsreel. A gala evening was held for Disney at the Italian premiere of an American movie. After a couple of similar publicity events, the Disneys went on to Naples and Capri, then returned to America in the Italian ocean liner Rex in mid-August.
An enjoyable vacation, and well-documented. Nobody questioned it for over sixty years. Then in the 2000s the anti-Disney rumor mill began to claim that Disney had snuck away while they were in Münich and driven to Berchtesgaden to see Adolf Hitler! Reportedly the two men had congratulated each other on their anti-Semitism. This was even built up into a play, Disney in Deutschland by John J. Powers, which had at least two productions by the Wunderland Theatre Group in San Francisco: at the Next Stage Theatre on June 8-24, 2007, and at the Garage Playhouse beginning January 31, 2008. The first production was reviewed by animation fan Harry McCracken:
“The piece takes place in 1935 at Hitler’s Berchtesgaden mountain home, with a set that sports such authentic decorations as a “gramophone” with an LCD display and a book with a bar code on the jacket. Hitler (John Strain) is there with Leni Riefenstahl (Donna K. Moore)–they can’t keep their hands off each other, which, as far as I know, is an alternate-reality touch in itself–and they’re anticipating Disney’s visit.
They’re quite excited about it: “Disney’s our mensch!,” burbles Adolf. Leni, however, does point out that “his films were banned here for years because some animal–a duck, I think–ridiculed the Kaiser.”
Walt arrives; as played by Brendan Scoggin, he looks and behaves more like Hal “The Great Gildersleeve” Peary than the Disney we know. “Goebbels tells me that you make pictures for children,” comments Hitler by way of conversation.
“Herr Hitler, I don’t know if you know this, but you have quite a following in America,” says Walt genially, mentioning that he’s attended Nazi rallies in Los Angeles. He spews hatred at Hollywood rivals like “that damned Jew at Universal.” And boasts that he manages to avoid interaction with the Jews because “we create, produce, and distribute–we do everything ourselves!” (Apparently, Buena Vista existed in 1935; we just didn’t know it.)
Suddenly inspired to play storyman, Adolf attempts to convince Walt to make a cartoon based on a Brothers Grimm tale called “The Jew and the Thornbush,” but Walt seems skeptical of its potential. Even so, they’re kindred spirits, and Walt recognizes it: “Herr Hitler, we’re doing the same thing, but in different ways.”
And then they really bond when Walt confides in Adolf that he remains tormented by how Elias stripped him naked and beat him as a child; a compassionate Adolf tells Walt that his father loved him even so.
All along, both Walt and Adolf have been admiring a large scale model of Germania, Hitler’s planned renewal project for Berlin. Walt loves it, seeing it as a place with interesting buildings, attractions, and things for families to do together. You almost expect him to start talking about E tickets and churros.
Finally, Walt gets to the point of his visit: He wants Adolf to allow the distribution of Disney cartoons in Germany. Adolf agrees, on one condition: that if anything happens to him, Walt will see to it that Germania is built in some form or fashion. We see an image of Germany’s fairytale-like Neuschwanstein castle, famous for inspiring the Disneyland castle, projected behind them. The performance ends.”
The record has always been clear that Crusader Rabbit did not begin TV syndication until August 1950; and that Walt Disney, before his death in 1966, was never an anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi bigot. But if anything seems certain, it is that it does not matter how often the myths are disproven. Informational sites will continue to state that Crusader Rabbit was released in 1949, and popular “everybody knows” information about Walt Disney will portray him as anti-Black and a Jew-hater. Now it’s even in opera! Philip Glass’ The Perfect American, which debuted in Madrid’s Teatro Real this January, features Disney just before his death, having a surrealistic conversation with the audioanimatronic Abraham Lincoln that he built for Disneyland. Lincoln espouses the liberalism of the Emancipation Proclamation, while Disney responds with questions that strongly hint at a racist bias. “Martin Luther King, Eldridge Cleaver, is that what you wanted? Doesn’t that go too far even for you, Mr. President? The black people’s march in Washington; would you really agree with that?” Like the classic Walt Disney himself, the legends are larger than life and they will continue to grow.