The photograph above from 1931 shows young Dick Marion proudly posing with a Mickey Mouse ornament attached to the radiator of his car. He was a transplanted New Yorker in Los Angeles, having landed a job as an assistant to Jack King at Disney despite receiving cautionary advice from no less than Winsor McCay: don’t get into animation! Yet who wouldn’t find Marion’s position enviable? The Disney studio was still a small California ‘start-up’ with tremendous upside. Mickey Mouse was surging in popularity and the best years for Disney were still to come. Dick Marion had gotten in on the ground floor during an historic moment of opportunity.
All he had to do was keep his head down and work hard, right? Who knows what might have come of it? It turns out that, despite being smitten enough to keep The Mouse on the grill of his car, Marion did not view his Disney experience with the singular reverence that one might imagine. In fact, he was keeping his options open while employed there, looking around for other work. When this was found out, Walt Disney fired him for not being dedicated enough. Eventually his ambitions to receive more pay worked out for him, as he moved around the industry and then landed a stint at Lantz Productions in the late Thirties.
A reason that it was so easy to be found out was that studios called each other when someone inquired about a job, and Marion was likely too naïve to know this. Producers might use the information gleaned from such disclosures to set an example for others, and it was no different for Disney, especially with the loss of his Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series and nearly his entire 1928 staff such a recent memory.
Disney needed good assistants for his animators, but not everyone could be accommodated with a promotion in the short term. The rewards of waiting paid off for an assistant animator like Fred Moore, who did become a Disney animator and then even something of a legend to his peers. However, for others who toiled at this same position, the way up the ladder was to eventually move on from Disney. George Grandpre, Cecil Surry, Chuck Couch, Frank Tipper, and Roy Williams all later took better paying positions working for “the other Walt” at Universal during this decade.
From this vantage point of 1931—framed by the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the rise of a thriving Los Angeles cartoon industry—this illustrates the mobility and relative empowerment of animators at that time. However, it is well documented that studio management was not going to be easily gamed by their employees and so there was a gentlemen’s agreement among bosses. After crisscrossing Manhattan in 1929 to secure the best animators in New York, both Walter Lantz and Walt Disney met for drinks.
They understood the repercussions that a constant competition for this limited pool of talent would have on their bottom line, so surely they were motivated to keep their lines of communication open. And, apparently Disney expressed his best wishes to Lantz on producing the Oswald series after his Mintz treachery. To Walter’s relief, there were no hard feelings. Except for personal ties to New York—Lantz had lived and worked there from the Teens to the Twenties—it was really Disney who held the upper hand and it was his prerogative to be the gracious one.
To be sure, the salaries of California animators were very generous by Depression-era standards. There was a reason so many New York artists crossed the continent to resettle in L.A. and fortunately there was enough of a good thing to go around in the years ahead. However, a framework was set that had huge implications for management vs. labor as the decade rolled on. The scholarly writing of both Tom Sito and Harvey Deneroff is a good place for anyone to find out more details on this.
In looking more narrowly at the two Walts, it was Disney who continued to strive for greater accomplishments and figuratively left Lantz in a cloud of dust, with Oswald serving as a very real symbol of living in the past. For every year that went on, it came more into focus that the Disney Studio would not be reliant on just the trending glimmer of one star character. This place was leading an industry revolution and Disney was both its muse and its taskmaster. He was an early Steve Jobs, a moody genius who lifted a technology into being an art form.
Therefore Lantz can be seen as the larger beneficiary of the gentleman’s agreement. As Disney developed in-house training for animators—not just to avoid poaching from his peers, but because he eventually realized a lot of the shared talent pool was tainted with dated New York “rubber-hose” stylists—he was actually creating a premiere workforce and a luxury brand. The Universal animators knew they were working on second-tier entertainment with Oswald. They were jealous and many of them angled for a way to get over to Disney. Some of them succeeded, such as Pinto Colvig and Gerry Geronomi, but Lantz worked behind the scenes to keep these defections to a minimum.
By the mid-Thirties, George Drake was in charge of Disney’s training program and he handled recruitment efforts. When Lantz or another producer called with a complaint, the gentlemen’s agreement—really it was a formal blacklist—grew as a pernicious tool of Hollywood studio management. Any call from Walter Lantz was taken seriously, even though it showed the increasing gulf between the studios, of a small fish calling out a big fish, because the pull of gravity and prestige was sucking talent toward Disney.
Drake had the responsibility of bringing up a new class of character animators who would fulfill the visionary ambitions that Disney was conjuring for all the world to see with his new animated features. Guests whom Drake helped bring to the studio for lectures included Frank Lloyd Wright, Faber Birren, Jean Charlot, and Alexander Woolcott, among others. Disney animators were being provided a world of ideas, not unlike going to university. And yet Leo Salkin once told Joe Adamson, “if you displayed too much erudition, Walt got uncomfortable and you would be out.”That is a fascinating comment, one that I have long wondered about. Considering that Disney was bringing in erudite lecturers, even the ostentatious Prof. Boris Morkovin from USC, to engage the animators and artists with any number of worldly ideas, how could this be true? If it was, then maybe Disney disdained employees who were showy or boastful with their own knowledge. He may have enjoyed the frisson of meeting intellectual giants, such as when the great Sergei Eisenstein visited in 1930, but maybe not so much from one of his own animators.
Leo Salkin was ready to leave Lantz Productions and switch to Disney when “[Lantz] kind of screwed me.” Walter had assured Leo that leaving his studio would be ok, but secretly he called Disney’s legal staff and put the kibosh on the move. George Drake called Leo Salkin on the same Friday that was scheduled to be his last day at Lantz with a surprise announcement. The offer at Disney was suddenly off. Salkin was furious and he confronted Lantz, then left Universal City for good anyway. After a bit more negotiating and a period where he held no job, Drake finally indicated the deal was back on and Salkin made his move over to Disney.
Even Manuel Moreno had a similar experience, which kept him from going to Disney at Gerry Geronimi’s entreaties, although he enjoyed the creative authority that Lantz had provided him at Universal. “I didn’t want to go to Disney’s, but [Lantz] thought I had already arranged for a job there or somewhere else, which wasn’t true, so I kept him guessing. He did try to blacklist me at the other studios. That was very common at the time.”
That showed the ease with which a producer could call off a hire and the onus it put on an artist to prove his case. As Lantz struggled to keep his studio afloat as the Depression years wore on, he made use of this shared blacklist to keep his employees in place. Moreno even disclosed that “Disney did it as well as others, to keep needed men from going elsewhere.” The expression of “slipping a Mickey” was already well known as a knockout drop, but maybe the term had some additional local currency among jilted animators.
As for Dick Marion, he eventually got out of animation and worked for Dell Publishing from 1947-56, heeding that advice from Winsor McCay. He even changed his name to Dick Hall, under which he enjoyed a decade of drawing classic comic books: Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, Mickey Mouse, and Goofy. And yes, he also drew Oswald, in one of the rabbit’s last midcentury appearances. It is interesting to look back at that 1931 photo of young Dick Marion so boyishly disheveled in front of his car, so proudly standing next to a little metal Mickey, and yet to know what was about to slip.
Harvey’s Deneroff’s Golden Awards video interview with Dick Hall is my source for the Winsor McCay warning: “Fellow, don’t get into that business.” Joe Adamson’s Leo Salkin interview was recorded in Hollywood, June 1981. The Manuel Moreno interview by Milton Gray, transcription by Michael Barrier, is from January 1978. The photographic proof of Walt Disney and Walter Lantz was taken at an event celebrating Lantz’s 25 years with Universal Pictures in 1953. Many other luminaries were in attendance, including Stephen Bosustow and George Pal.