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Inquiring Mind
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Disney's WW2 Propaganda Cartoons Released on DVD
    #2786791 - 06/12/04 02:04 AM (16 years, 2 months ago)

The Bombingest Place on Earth
What Disney?s 60-year-old propaganda cartoons can teach us about war

by Gustavo Arellano

It remains one of my favorite college lectures: during a film-history course at Orange Coast College during the late 1990s, professor Steven Valley shared his Kafka-esque ordeal in trying to view propaganda films the Walt Disney Studios produced during World War II. Phone calls to various Disney historians went unanswered, Valley recounted; written requests never reached their destination; visits by Valley to Disney?s Burbank archives resulted in trips from one office to another, all to no avail. After months of fruitless inquiry, Disney brass finally relented. They shoved Valley into an unlit basement room, carted in a TV/VCR set, popped in a videocassette containing the desired cartoons, and left him for about three hours. No notes were allowed. No recorders. No questions. Upon the tape?s completion, security guards escorted Valley out and told him never to ask for a second screening since it wouldn?t happen.

"They were," Valley said, "the greatest things I?d ever seen in my life"?well-animated, hilarious and highly effective in their brainwashing efforts. But Valley also understood why Disney shrouded them in secrecy. Like all Hollywood studios during World War II, Disney turned over its facilities to the Pentagon and produced pro-war films preaching sacrifice and Jap-bashing. But Walt Disney devoted his company to the cause with an intensity unmatched by any other mogul. Unlike the animation departments at Warner Bros. and MGM, Disney?s cartoons openly called for annihilation rather than mere light-hearted mayhem, placed its characters on the front lines instead of metaphorical battlegrounds, and accomplished it in a way so beloved by the Armed Forces that, according to Thomas Doherty?s 1993 book, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II, "Sandbags and anti-aircraft guns surrounded the only Hollywood studio designated as a ?key war-production plant? and ?essential industry.?"

After the war?s conclusion, Disney pulled his animated arsenal from circulation, trying to erase their ruthlessness from the historical memory. The films quickly became cult classics, discussed in hushed, aching tones on the scale of the Holy Grail or the Amber Room. Access to them was so limited that even a group of animation scholars was barred from using stills from Disney?s 1943 Oscar-winning short Der Fuehrer?s Face when they placed it at No. 21 on The 50 Greatest Cartoons, a 1994 collection of essays. Disney?s reason, according to the book? "Donald [Duck] appears in a Nazi uniform."

Last month, however, Disney quietly released its World War II library in Walt Disney on the Front Lines: The War Years, a superb two-disc collection of cartoons, educational shorts and interviews with artists. Valley was right: the films in the collection are fantastic, witty, racist and frightening, some of the finest cartoons released by Disney, if not by any studio, ever.

What prompted their release? And what lessons can modern-day Americans discern from 60-year-old propaganda cartoons as the country once again finds itself asked by the government to sacrifice and buckle down in the face of terror?

Most purchasers will understandably focus on the more verboten aspects of the 29 shorts that constitute the first disc, those films that employ gross caricatures of Germans and Japanese. None do so more viciously than the aforementioned Der Fuehrer?s Face (which imagines Donald Duck as a swastika-bedecked Nazi manufacturing munitions while heiling Hitler about every other second) and the somber Education for Death (the biography of a blond German boy who devolves from wide-eyed innocent to Hitler Youth to a graveyard). In both films, Japanese are portrayed as green-skinned fops and Germans function as little better than human bulldogs. As offensive as those images are, excellent production quality ultimately redeems them from being mere artifacts?in particular, you?ll be humming the Der Fuehrer?s Face theme song for the rest of the afternoon.

These films demonized the enemy in a way that would?ve made Hitler jealous. But even more telling about Disney?s ideological intentions was a six-segment series starring Donald Duck produced between 1943 and 1944 and included in On the Front Lines. In the inaugural Donald Gets Drafted, the quacker marches to the draft office, notice in hand, and ready for duty. Subsequent episodes involve Donald AWOL, unable to set up a pup tent, and painting a supergun invisible, much to the consternation of his commanding officer, Peg Leg Pete.

And Disney didn?t try to idealize military life in his Donald Duck series. "All we do is march and march and march!" Donald quacks at one point. But if a duck could join the army, Disney argued in these movies, then so can you. And that incessant marching can ultimately lead to heroism. In Commando Duck (1944), the series? final installment, Donald receives orders to destroy a Japanese airfield. Although still a bumbling conscript (he can?t even jump out of a plane properly), Donald does succeed in his mission. This being Donald, it?s done in a wholly coincidental manner?the raft he used to sail down a river fills with so much water that its subsequent rupture causes a massive tsunami. The wave?s aftermath is horrendous: Japanese planes hang from trees and telephone poles in a scene that eerily recalls a lynching. Instead of solemn silence, though, the wah-wah of a trumpet blurts, and Donald chuckles over a job well-done. "Enemy Washed Out," Donald writes in his log as he dangles from a tree.

Compare this fowl approach with Warner Bros.? own enlisted mallard. In Scrap Happy Daffy (1943), Daffy Duck protects his iron scrap heap from the Germans mainly by hooting, while Daffy?The Commando (1943) concludes with Daffy smashing Hitler with a hammer. And in Draftee Daffy (1945), released just months before the bombing of Hiroshima, Daffy tries to evade the draft, going as far as trying to murder a draft officer. It?s as if the Warners eventually tired of pushing such pro-war fare; Disney, on the other hand, wanted nothing less than full-scale eradication of the Axis menace, damn the yuks.

The second disc is less entertaining than the first, as it mainly consists of military training films such as Four Methods of Flush Riveting and Stop That Tank. But Disc II also contains the jewel in the collection: Victory Through Air Power, a bizarre 65-minute feature that even disc host Leonard Maltin describes as "the most unusual feature film Walt Disney ever made." Released in 1943, Victory Through Air Power was Disney?s attempt at influencing Pentagon policy by arguing for long-range plane bombing rather than the Allied ground assault being employed at the time.

The film is rather boring?one exhibitor at the time, according to Projections of War author Doherty, grumbled that "People went out saying it was the damndest thing they ever saw, and they didn?t wait until it was over, either." It?s understandable why people walked out: the film inexplicably switches between lighthearted vignettes on the history of aviation and forceful lectures by Alexander P. de Seversky, a former Soviet pilot who wrote a popular book by the same name. He keeps repeating the term "air power" in ways at once reverential and fearful, a Cold War Gollum seeking the ring that would grant the U.S. untold powers against evil.

Nevertheless, Victory Through Air Power remains a must-see harbinger. Seversky comes off as the primordial neo-hawk in his repeated admonitions to wage war?Doherty calls him the first war "expert," whose "calm, knowing voice . . . explains the complexities of modern war and cushions the shock of the new." In Seversky, we see the beginning of punditry, of chicken hawks?we see a screen test for Fox News.

But the question remains: Why release the films now? Maltin doesn?t give any answers, and the studio never provided a clear-cut reason when it announced the set?s release last year. Coming on the heels of current Disney CEO Michael Eisner?s refusal to distribute Michael Moore?s incendiary documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, it?s even arguable that unveiling On the Front Lines is Eisner?s patriotic antithesis to Moore?s strident anti-war propaganda.

But such an interpretation misses the greater, hidden truth behind Walt Disney?s seemingly belligerent message. Most Americans won?t allow 60-year-old cartoons to influence their opinions regarding our current War on Terror, and audiences jaded on a half-century of filmic irony will snicker at the blatant propaganda offered by Disney?s animators.

If anything, On the Front Lines might dissuade people from supporting the war. Disney was an obnoxiously proud American, to be sure?he eagerly cooperated with Joe McCarthy?s commission during the 1950s and was notoriously anti-union. But most of the World War II films have a definitive anti-imperialism undertone that supersedes any specific enemy. Whereas the scheming nations during Disney?s time were the Axis powers?and later, communist Russia?the only country bent on empire-building nowadays is the U.S. Taking this view, Seversky?s words near the conclusion of Victory Through Air Power predicting the end of Hirohito?s reign ultimately serve as a powerful lesson against such endeavors:

Gorging on this new lifeblood, [Japan?s] war industries, the heart and vitals of the beast, out of reach and unmolested, swell in size and power, forge more bullets, boats, bombs, planes, to strengthen his defenses, mass weapons of death and destruction, to expand his sphere of domination.

Rumsfeld, et al., take note: Japan would lose if it continued this bloated game, Seversky argued?and definitely not because of Donald Duck.

Walt Disney on The Front Lines: The War Years; Walt Disney Treasures. Two-disc set, $32.99. Warning: some cartoons are hilariously racist.

"In the United States anybody can be president. Thats the problem."

"The gray-haired douche bag, Barbara Bush, has a slogan: "Encourage your child to read every day." What she should be is encouraging children to question what they read every day."

- George Carlin

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Re: Disney's WW2 Propaganda Cartoons Released on DVD [Re: SquattingMarmot]
    #2787155 - 06/12/04 08:00 AM (16 years, 2 months ago)

I'd love to see this.


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Re: Disney's WW2 Propaganda Cartoons Released on DVD [Re: Learyfan]
    #2788455 - 06/12/04 09:03 PM (16 years, 2 months ago)

I wouldn't !!!!!

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Re: Disney's WW2 Propaganda Cartoons Released on DVD [Re: Learyfan]
    #2788644 - 06/12/04 10:59 PM (16 years, 2 months ago)

If they are anything like the warner brother ones they get old after a couple minutes.


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Re: Disney's WW2 Propaganda Cartoons Released on DVD [Re: SquattingMarmot]
    #2788671 - 06/12/04 11:15 PM (16 years, 2 months ago)

I've seen the one in the picture. It was Donald Duck working at a Nazi factory, alternating between screwing the ends on missiles and heiling Hitler every other second, then trying to paint Nazi Germany in the worst possible way it could, and then having Donald wake up in a bed surrounded by American flags and saying, "Whew! It was just a dream! Gee whiz am I glad I'm in America!"

I remember I downloaded quite a few out of interest, not only the Nazi propaganda ones but also the racist ones that are now banned. Personally I saw little problem with some of the so-called "racist" ones, and the Nazi ones were just plain boring propaganda.

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Re: Disney's WW2 Propaganda Cartoons Released on DVD [Re: Ravus]
    #2788843 - 06/13/04 12:41 AM (16 years, 2 months ago)

I remember when The Simpsons spoofed these cartoons with Itchy and Scratchy.


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