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Gunther R. Lessing - SIMPP Chairman

Vice-president of Walt Disney Productions

Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen


Walt Disney legal counsel Gunther R. Lessing.

SIMPP executive secretary John Flinn had been put in charge of a newly-expanded Hollywood base of operations. Unfortunately Flinn died unexpectedly in 1946, leaving his duties to be filled by several emerging figures in the Society. Flinn's actual position was occupied by a new secretary Marvin L. Faris. However, many of the executive responsibilities were assumed by representatives of the leading producers-specifically two key delegates: James Mulvey, president of Samuel Goldwyn, Inc., and Gunther Lessing, vice president of Walt Disney Productions.

Gunther R. Lessing

Gunther R. Lessing, one of the most colorful and controversial Disney figures, has usually been overlooked or over-exaggerated by historians. He headed Disney's legal department for many years before the Disney brothers promoted him to vice president and general counsel of Walt Disney Productions. At the Disney studio, known for its laid back atmosphere where everyone was addressed by their first name, it was Gunther Lessing who Walt referred to when he said, "The only Mister we have at the studio is our lawyer, Mr. Lessing."

Lessing earned his law degree from Yale, and spent his early career in Mexico where, most Disney biographies say, he briefly acted as council for Pancho Villa. According to historian Kevin Brownlow, Lessing arranged the strange 1913 deal between Villa and the Mutual Film Corporation to create a silent movie based on the outlaw. He came in contact with the Disney studio during the early Mickey Mouse years, when the Disneys battled with their states-rights distributor Patrick A. Powers-a former partner of Carl Laemmle's and a consummate example of a former two-fisted independent outlaw who graduated to film-baron status only to torment other independents. The Disney brothers hired Gunther Lessing to represent them in late 1929 and early 1930 to protect their rights to their cartoons from the predatory Pat Powers. Lessing stayed at the studio for 35 years.

Lessing's influence on the Disney enterprise has been difficult to determine due to the sinister spin most Disney chroniclers give to his career at the studio. On a positive note, one Disney studio production manager has credited Lessing with the monumental suggestion that Walt Disney turn his own name into a trademark to serve as a brand upon which to build his company. Yet over the years, a great deal of the studio dirty-work fell to Lessing as the Disneys empowered him with many key responsibilities. When Walt and Roy Disney went to Europe on an extended stay in the spring and summer of 1935, the administrative duties of the company fell to Lessing who communicated with the brothers in lengthy memos.

The Disney Studio Strike

In the early 1940s, Lessing became the subject of scorn as the conservative leader of the anti-unionization effort to shield the Disney studio from organized labor. Lessing was also a member of the Short Subjects Committee for the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and arranged to have Walt Disney taken out of the country on a good-will tour of South America in 1941 while Lessing and Roy Disney handled the labor negotiations. Ultimately the infamous strike was settled in Walt Disney's absence and-largely to his disappointment-in favor of the unions, despite Lessing's hardball tactics.

At least one Disney employee later suggested that the disastrous resolution to the strike undermined Lessing's authority at the studio. Subsequent biographers characterized the aging attorney as a sympathy case, kept on at the studio due to the loyalty the Disneys customarily showed to longtime employees who were no longer necessarily of use to the company. However, this characterization of Lessing as a "broken-hearted old man" contrasted with the continued responsibility placed on Gunther Lessing. After he was kicked upstairs to serve as vice president, he remained as spokesperson on most of the studio's important legal matters. He presided at the Disney studio board meetings which Walt Disney, the chairman of the board, infrequently attended, and which Lessing always headed even when Disney's presence was requested. Lessing was also thrust in the firing lines to tackle difficult situations such as the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s where he served as Walt Disney's close advisor. The Disneys were willing to engage their trusted legal counsel in potentially confrontational film activities, and found the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers to be an appropriate match for Lessing.

Both James Mulvey and Gunther Lessing became important leaders of the Society. Mulvey would demonstrate his resourcefulness as a negotiator representing the independent producers in many of the foreign territorial disputes over quotas, while on the legal front, Lessing would stimulate the Society's antitrust agenda. As Mulvey and Lessing's influence grew, it also illustrated the prominence of the two most important SIMPP members, Goldwyn and Disney.


Ron Miller (Walt Disney's son-in-law), Mel Melton, Gunther Lessing, and production manager Harry Tytle (aka Teitel) at one of the retirement parties given for Lessing in 1964.

At SIMPP Until the End

SIMPP's Gunther R. Lessing remained a prominent Disney executive even after SIMPP folded. He retired in 1964, almost exactly 35 years after he joined the Disney brothers' family business. Walt Disney, who almost never attended any retirement parties for his employees, gave high praise to Lessing during his retirement roast in December 1964. Gunther Lessing died at age 80 on September 28, 1965, less than three months before Walt Disney's death.


SOURCES:

Death of John Flinn: Mary Pickford to Courtney A. Flinn, 1946, MPC.
Gunther R. Lessing biographical information: "Gunther Lessing" (obituary), LAT, September 29, 1965; DV, September 29, 1965, p. 11; HR, December 30, 1964.
"The only Mister we": Thomas, Walt Disney, p. 191.
Lessing and Pancho Villa: Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By, p. 18.
Lessing credited with the "Walt Disney" trademark idea: Tytle, One of "Walt's Boys," p. 74.
The Disney Studio Strike of 1941-Lessing on the Short Subjects Committee: Shale, Donald Duck Joins Up, p. 41. Animator Ward Kimball's statement "Lessing died an outcast, of old age, a broken-hearted old man": see R. Fiore and Klaus Strzyz, "The Disney Strike From Inside and Out," The Comics Journal, 120 (March 1988), pp. 74-96. Also see Thomas, Building a Company, pp. 219-220 for Disney loyalty to Lessing in his later years.
Gunther R. Lessing retirement party and obituary: LAT, September 29, 1965; DV, September 29, 1965, p. 11; HR, December 30, 1964.

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