Judge Mike Pinsky was shocked to find Donald Duck associated with propaganda. He always thought a propaganda was a male goose.
"Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!"—Donald Duck, awakening from a dream
It was a time before irony, a time when you could be gung-ho about practically anything. How about corn? Watch "The Grain That Build a Hemisphere," an utterly sincere short animation about the history of corn, from the Maya to bourbon, and how this agricultural wonder unites North and South America. Feel inspired?
Okay, I understand. Just a few years ago, when the horrors of 9/11 occurred, many people said it marked the death of irony. But those reports were, as Mark Twain quipped so long ago, rather premature. Still, we assume that war is a time without irony. We designate the good guys and the bad guys, and we rally ourselves through simple objectifications that help us understand what needs doing—and whom it needs doing to. This is a rhetorical trick known as "demonizing the other": the enemy must become faceless, inhuman, and quickly identifiable. Our tasks must be clearly outlined.
Humor is obviously a problem here. Comedy questions, cuts down authority, and spreads chaos. War is already chaotic, so the impulse is to maintain order and take things seriously. So when a war comes along, and the powers-that-be enlist artists to create propaganda to simplify the war, there is invariably a tension between the solemn purpose of war and the artistic need to question.
Walt Disney had a sense of humor. But Walt Disney was also patriotic. So in December 1941, when the U.S. government moved into the Disney Studios lot, intent on using Walt's facilities to produce wartime propaganda, Walt tried to have it both ways. If there is any consistent theme to the strange collection of films included in On the Front Lines, one of this year's wave of Walt Disney Treasures two-disc tin box sets, it is that, well, there is no consistent theme. Thus, series editor Leonard Maltin must group these films—all united only by the short time frame of their release (the four years America fought World War II)—by purpose. And within each group, Disney fans will find Disney's approach to the war years quite varied.
For example, Donald Duck and Pluto were enlisted to boost morale. In a series of animated shorts Maltin lists as "Propaganda and Entertainment," these Disney stars get to romp around military bases without much in the way of explicitly ideological statements about the war. In "Donald Gets Drafted," "The Vanishing Private," "Sky Trooper," and several other shorts, the sailor-suited duck ends up in the army, where he battles perennial Disney villain Pete as a sadistic drill sergeant. These are often far from reverent. Indeed, in "The Old Army Game," the plot revolves around Donald's attempt to sneak onto the base after being AWOL. Not really role-model behavior here.
Actually, most of the shorts in this group are typical Disney cartoon situations, merely transplanted to military bases. In "The Army Mascot," Pluto tries to trick another dog into giving up his spot so that Pluto can live a pampered life. It looks like a typical Pluto romp, only with olive green décor. Goofy shows up in a couple of his characteristic mock documentaries, like "Victory Vehicles" (about gas-saving alternative transportation) and "How to Be a Sailor." Only by "Commando Duck" does Donald enter combat against cruelly caricatured Japanese troops.
Because these wartime cartoons have been out of circulation for so long, Disney fans have long wondered how far the studio went in its propaganda. Rumors spread about rampant racism and violence in these cartoons. Surprisingly, the films we see in On the Front Lines are not as vicious as, say, some Warner Bros. shorts of the same period. Still, Maltin turns up quite a bit on these discs, trying to explain all this stuff to today's audience. He chooses to separate the most controversial Disney shorts of this period into a section entitled "From the Vault." These are the films Disney fans never thought the studio would release on DVD, and word of this On the Front Lines collection caused such anticipation that Disney had to delay the set from its original holiday 2003 release in order to keep up with pre-orders.
The most eagerly awaited short here is probably "Der Fuehrer's Face." Spike Jones got a hit record from its theme song, but the cartoon itself is actually pretty funny, more for Donald's antics than the demeaning portraits of foreigners. Studio stalwart Joe Grant calls the film "wild and irresponsible." In contrast, "Education for Death" is a grim portrait of ideological programming done in a sharply expressionistic style. Watch how Disney dances around the issue of anti-Semitism, only vaguely alluding to it through a list of "inappropriate names" on a Nazi official's wall.
"Reason and Emotion" begins as a fairly serious educational short, but soon it plants itself firmly in propaganda territory by showing how Hitler uses emotional battering to sway his victims. Maltin reserves a strangely stern warning for "Chicken Little," a rather dark tale about rumormongering and psychological manipulation that would give Noam Chomsky a thrill.
These are the kinds of short films I expected to see when I unwrapped On the Front Lines: Disney trying to balance humor and horror—and succeeding in a fashion that revealed an artistic team at the top of its game during these years. An added treat, however, is the collection of educational shorts produced during this period.
For the National Film Board of Canada, Walt recycled animation of the Three Little Pigs, the Seven Dwarfs, and Donald Duck to produce several cut-rate shorts to sell Canadian war bonds. In "Food Will Win the War" and "Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Firing Line," we learn how tomato sauce and cooking fat will defeat the Axis. Actually, these are pretty stirring (no culinary pun intended), and I wonder why we could not deploy these sorts of productions in the service of stopping world hunger today.
On the other hand, I feel a little less inspired by the catch phrase, "Taxes to bury the Axis!" In "The New Spirit" and "The Spirit of '43," we learn all about that Yankee Doodle spirit, and the privilege Donald is given to help the war effort. Unfortunately, that "privilege" is to pay your income tax on time. For the record, Donald only earned $2501 in 1942, which suggests Walt was a cheapskate.
Disease and malnutrition turn out to be the big enemies in a series of health-related shorts made for South American peasants, who apparently owned no shoes, judging from the way Disney animators draw them in these cartoons. The Seven Dwarfs fight malaria in "The Winged Scourge," while a fat kid, cruelly called Tubby by the narrator, learns about vaccination (with lots of war metaphors) in "Defense Against Invasion." There is a group of shorts about cleanliness and nutrition here, and the aforementioned paean to corn. But if these were all made for Latin American audiences, why do none of these shorts have Spanish soundtracks?
Disc Two of On the Front Lines is devoted almost entirely to Disney's wartime feature film, Victory Through Air Power, along with a handful of clips from recently declassified training films with sexy titles like "Four Methods of Flush Riveting." You can get great pick-up lines using phrases like "double dimpling" and "bucking bar." Just remember to drive your dimpled rivet straight. The second disc also contains the bulk of the set's supplements, including interviews with studio veterans John Hench, Joe Grant, and Roy Disney (sadly, the last project Roy might do for the studio, given the current climate), and discarded material from a planned cartoon based on Roald Dahl's The Gremlins.
Victory Through Air Power dominates this disc, however. This curious 1943 production, unique in the Disney vaults, was designed primarily to sell the strategic advantage of long-range bombing. Think of this as a sort of animated documentary, with live-action sequences directed by H.C. Potter (who also helmed Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House). Major Alexander P. de Seversky hosts this adaptation of his best-selling book, which leads from a humorous history of aviation to a realistic and solemn appraisal of bombing strategies. Major de Seversky's credentials are impressive, and his argument quite logical. In reality, there are serious questions as to whether strategic bombing during the war was as effective as its defenders claimed. John Keegan tallies the costs in his crucial book, The Second World War, noting that the losses in both civilian population and air combatants were "tragically high" (432).
In the film, de Seversky advocates extreme long-range bombing in order to destroy enemy war production, but he neglects to mention how these long-range bombers would protect themselves without equally long-range fighter escorts (which did turn out to be a real problem). Even the film's own trailer (included in the supplements section) has an endorsement from Time that says that the film "overlooks qualifying facts!" Wow, who admits that in a trailer?
But as compelling as other parts of his argument were—and they were enough to convince Roosevelt to step up bomber development late in the war—the strategy ended up being ignored in the Pacific theater anyway, where MacArthur opted for an island-hopping approach. Ironically, de Seversky's long-range bombers would be built for the Cold War, with his native Russia as their target. As to Victory Through Air Power, when the war was over, Disney put it away in a vault, afraid to face the consequences of so much civilian loss. As John Keegan remarks, "Strategic bombing, which may not even have been a sound strategy, was certainly not fair play. Over its course and outcome its most consistent practitioners drew a veil" (433).
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Scales of Justice
• Interviews with Disney Veterans John Hench, Joe Grant, and Roy Disney
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