Gunther R. Lessing - SIMPP Chairman
Vice-president of Walt Disney Productions
Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen
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 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
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
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.
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.
Death of John Flinn: Mary Pickford to Courtney A. Flinn, 1946,
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.
Lessing and Pancho Villa: Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By,
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