Lost in the Movies: Walt Disney On the Front Lines

Walt Disney On the Front Lines

(Follow the links to see the shorts themselves.)

A few years ago, Disney finally released wartime propaganda cartoons that had been tied up in its vaults for decades. As part of the Walt Disney Treasures series, the "Walt Disney On the Front Lines" DVD collects several entertainment and educational cartoon shorts (some of which have been available) and the largely unseen feature Victory Through Air Power, introduced in maudlin, overlit fashion by a perpetually cheery Leonard Maltin (some of these introductions are, maddeningly, unskippable). The collection fascinates because it represents a studio -and a country- at the crossroads.

Today, entertainment - particularly children's entertainment - generally shies away from too much interaction with "what's going on." When President Bush told the American people to "go shopping," we apparently took him at his word, and so did the movie industry. In the early forties, on the other hand, just as there was an active and involved home front of World War II, there was a "movie" front as well - and Hollywood faced the war head-on, if from an invariably gung-ho perspective. And if you trace the arc of Disney's cartoons over the war years you can see a general shape emerge: a passage from exuberant, creative innocence to something harder, more focused, and ultimately somewhat tired. In this, the Disney studio - which had long ago established an intimate rapport with American audiences, and not just those under 12 - reflected the American population as a whole.

Disney's involvement with the war began before Pearl Harbor, in 1941, when he was engaged to create propaganda shorts for the Canadian government, in order to encourage Canadian citizens to buy war bonds. Burdened at the time by an acrimonious strike, the studio turned out refurbished oldies, classic cartoons with slightly retouched animation: "The Thrifty Pig" refashions "The Three Little Pigs"'s brick house into one made of war bonds, while "7 Wise Dwarfs" has the little guys hi-ho'ing into town to buy bonds. "All Together" takes snippets from a variety of Disney cartoons to show a pro-bond parade marching along, led by Mickey Mouse from the classic Silly Symphony in which he's an orchestra conductor. This is, if the disc is to be believed, Mickey's only involvement in propaganda efforts (in later years, he would not be so politically neutral).

If Disney's involvement was mild before Pearl Harbor, suddenly everything would change. As FDR replaced Dr. New Deal with Dr. War and the American people were roused from anxious hand-wringing to enlist, fight, and otherwise contribute to the war effort, so Walt Disney threw himself and his studio into action. Here is where the arc of our story begins, with richly animated, classically boisterous cartoons like "Donald Gets Drafted" - erroneously titled, since Donald joyfully signs up himself - and "The Army Mascot" (unavailable on YouTube), where Pluto finds his own way into the Army. These shorts have the old Disney spirit, that booming, bouncing joie de vivre and a kind of overpoweringly confident grandeur (those familiar faces exploding towards us against brightly colorful backdrops) which distinguishes it from Looney Tunes' anarchic, salty, down-to-earth sketches. The storyline continues through a series of Donald-in-training shorts which rained down throughout 1942 and 1943.

Meanwhile, Disney tackled an ambitious animated feature, Victory Through Air Power, which was released in mid-1943 and highlighted the tactics of Alexander Seversky. Still fascinating for aviation fanatics, less so for average audiences, Victory represents a turning point in Disney's war output. Around this time, the studio was generally abandoning the free-spirited, soldiers' eye view of troop training (the Donald cartoons, with their requisite fat-cat villain, recast as a hapless sergeant) or home front satire (Goofy in "Victory Vehicles" - available only in Italian) for more serious-minded efforts. The educational mindset took over, initially mixed with some creativity (the germ towns of the pro-vaccination and sadly unavailable "Defense Against Invasion," the dueling personifications of "Reason and Emotion"), but eventually delivered more or less straight-up, as with the "Health for the Americas" series, with its vaguely condescending tone and examples of how unsanitary slothful Latin American living could be: already we're looking forward, past the war, to a boldly progress-oriented world (which would later be encoded in Epcot's "World of Tomorrow").

Early in the war, Disney presented the Oscar-winning "Der Fuhrer's Face" with Donald dreaming he's in Germany, forced to work in a munitions plant. Finally, he wakes up, embracing his miniature Statue of Liberty with relieved patriotism, but eventually the dream conceit would be abandoned as Disney dealt directly with Germany and Japan. The year 1943 brought "Education for Death," a sobering (if, by today's standards, somewhat sanitized) view of a child's education in Nazi Germany. And if 1944 returned to form with a couple entertaining shorts, featuring Donald and Goofy, the context of their new adventures was telling. Donald's previous outings took place within the relatively safe confines of army training, the worst he was forced to endure being a faux-amputation and near-suicide (yes, "The Old Army Game" sees the duck nearly shoot himself in the head), and a false alarm attack with nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie in "Home Defense."

But as the war hits continental Europe and becomes ever-bloodier and more fiercely fought in the Pacific, Donald and Goofy are no longer protected by the rules and regulations of stateside life. "Commando Duck" puts Donald behind enemy lines to destroy a Japanese base, while Goofy (whose films are always the most entertaining Disney cartoons) culminates his historically-minded "How to Be a Sailor" with a modern twist; accidentally shooting through enemy waters like a torpedo, he crashes into the Japanese mainland, crowned by a stereotypically-featured Rising Sun. The Disney stalwarts have been sent into action.

Recently I've been reading Charles M. Schulz's biography, and I've been struck by the chronology with which Schulz experienced the war; it was very bottom-heavy. He spent the first year of World War II living at home, working various post-high school jobs, was drafted in '42, spent several years training as he got promoted and passed his knowledge onto new recruits, and was shipped out in '45, making his way, incrementally, towards the heart of combat as the war raced to a finish, first through long-conquered France, than through barely-conquered Germany, finally into battle in the last few weeks and days before V-E Day. He expected to be shipped out to the Pacific, but the atomic bomb blasts ended his service in August of '45 and soon after he was discharged. Yet his experiences left him a changed man, and marked him ever afterwards.

My point is that though we think of the war unfolding between '41 and '45 it actually escalated and many people found themselves exponentially more involved as the war drew closer and closer to an ending (mass involvement in the sixties counterculture and political upheaval follows a similar pattern). True, the output of the Disney studios is top-heavy, with most of the shorts in this collection appearing in the first few years of the war. But it definitely intensifies in commitment as World War II takes over more and more of the national psyche. And just as the American populace, jubilant but exhausted, regarded the postwar world with weariness and apprehension, so Disney's wartime commitment (much of this work was commissioned various governmental departments, and by the U.S. military, which virtually took over the studio lot) wore its creativity and enthusiasm down.

There's a hard-bitten focus to Victory Through Air Power and the later propaganda shorts, but some of the earlier magic is missing. By changing its mentality and footing to a wartime sensibility, Disney - like the Americans, abroad and at home, who turned all their attentions to the overarching global crisis - lost a certain wondrous innocence maintained even through the Depression. It would take years for the studio to reclaim its fairy-tale heritage, with Cinderella in the 50s, and even then the new classics were not quite as lush or free-spirited as the earlier works like Snow White or Pinocchio. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers captured the postwar mood better, tapping into the cynicism and restless impatience of returning G.I.s (its sensibility always appealed to adults as much as kids) and creating a new, wisecracking cartoon vernacular, winning Oscars (which Disney once held a lock on) in the process.

So this collection ultimately offers not just a look at Disney's wartime output, but a process of maturation and consequent decline. It's the transition of Disney from an titan of animation to a somewhat formulaic rehasher (turning out a series of anthology films in the late 40s), and also the transition of America from the booming, big-band milieu of the New Deal to a more hesitant, sketchier postwar world, economically and globally expansive but somehow less so in spirit.

As Disney goes, so goes the nation, I suppose.


T.S. said...

Great topic to address. I think you're absolutely correct that the post-war period brought an unfortunate lull for Disney and his studio. The golden age of Disney animation was cut off by the war (Bambi being released in 1942), and it's interesting to wonder how the feature-length films would have continued if the war had never occurred; there's already so much of a sensory difference between those golden age films and the silver age, beginning with Cinderella.

How do you feel about the overall effectiveness of the propaganda? I know it's impossible to answer the question now through the lens of history, but I think really good propaganda can be felt even sixty years on – Der Fuhrer's Face, for example. I know the Disney Co. went to great lengths to keep it out of general circulation until recently because it's easy to look at it and just cringe at the notion of "Donald Duck is a Nazi!" (the YouTube video has something to that effect in its description). But I also think the short is surprisingly effective as pure propaganda, particularly in how it ridicules the characters of the Axis at the same time it presents a rather hellish view of totalitarianism. (I'm thinking the ominous red clouds surrounding the munitions factory.)

Joel Bocko said...

The propagandistic element is interesting in these shorts. Sometimes it's more subtextual - in the Donald-in-training shorts there's even an villanious sergeant and hijinks are the point, but there's still a sense that this is the sort of situation a normal American male should be in - even a diminutive duck's giving it a go!

The more explicit propaganda, like Der Fuhrer's Face and even Education for Death, actually seems more toned-down than it could be, knowing what we know today. The extent of the Holocaust was not clear at the time, and the brutalities of Nazism are presented in broad tones as an assault on liberty and an over-regimentation of the human spirit (after all, Donald's experience in the German munitions camp could apply to the American war industry too, couldn't it?).

But yes, this effect they paint is still overbearing - and where I think it still succeeds is in painting the psychological impact of totalitarianism - something it does better than probably any live-action film at the time. Sometimes it seems like animation, with its freer form is actually more in touch with the spirit of any given zeitgeist than live action (especially back in the 30s and early 40s, when studio-bound filmmaking was so physically limited).

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