The Disney Company produced many animated films that received wide distribution and were shown to huge audiences for decades but have received little attention and documentation. These educational films like VD Attack Plan are often surrounded by misinformation and myth when they are discussed at all.
I’ve written about Disney educational and training films before including a lengthy discussion of the fabled The Story of Menstruation (link).
You might notice that many of my paragraphs from that article have been “borrowed” without attribution at several sites. Imagine my shock to see a comment on a blog where the writer had taken an entire paragraph I had written, including the fact that I hadn’t seen later editions of the accompanying booklet so couldn’t confirm Disney artwork in them, and passed it off as his own.
That’s why I want to make sure to give credit to Skip Elsheimer who first wrote about Disney’s VD Attack Plan and many others have linked to his fine essay on the film here. You might want to read that essay before you read today’s column that fills in the rest of the story behind the film.
I enjoyed Elsheimer’s writing, but since he is not a Disney historian, he missed some additional insights that I thought I might share with the readers of MousePlanet to add to their understanding and enjoyment of the film—including the fact that three decades before the release of this film, Disney was already battling venereal disease.
In a multipanel full color comic book story in the April 4, 1944 edition of LOOK magazine, Mickey Mouse fights gonorrhea as part of his exploration of “The Sulfa Drugs.” As one panel points out, “Before sulfa, fewer that three out of five gonorrhea patients were ‘cured’ in two months. Now, 85 percent of patients recover much sooner.”
You can see a copy of this unique comic, including Mickey taking some homemade Sulfa Drugs himself at this link.
In 1944, the Disney Studios completed a training film for the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps titled A Few Quick Facts No. 7—Venereal Disease. Unfortunately many of the training films made by the Disney Studios at that time no longer exist in any form and, for security reasons, even the Disney Studio itself was not allowed to keep copies of films made for the military. This is one of those many “missing” films. Judging from the other films released at that time, I would guess that it had limited animation, humor and was effective in communicating the information.
By the way, A Few Quick Facts No. 6 also released in 1944 was about soldiers voting overseas.
During World War II, the Disney Studios did a lot of health oriented films for the U.S. Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) including The Unseen Enemy, about the problems of using untreated waste water, and The Winged Scourge with the Seven Dwarfs battling the Malaria Mosquito. By 1945, the CIAA was doing 8,000 showings each month of these Disney-produced films—like Hookworm, Cleanliness Brings Health and How Disease Travels—and drawing in an audience of almost 4 million people.
The experience of producing those films led the Disney Studios after the war to produce educational films for a variety of companies. Those titles included: The ABC of Hand Tools (General Motors), Bathing Time for Baby (Johnson and Johnson), How to Catch a Cold (Kleenex) and, of course, The Story of Menstruation (International Cellucotton Co).
With the creation of an official educational film division at the Disney Company, Disney produced some original films including VD Attack Plan that was released in 1973, roughly seven years after Walt had died and barely two years after Roy O. Disney died.
As has been pointed out by others, the same approach to the war military training films seem to have helped inspire the approach to the story in the “VD Attack Plan”.
Basically, the story re-creates the stereotypical moment in war movies where an impassioned military leader stirs up his troops before the big battle. In this case, the military leader is a blob-like germ and his troops are syphilis and gonorrhea and their mission is to attack the human body. ”Maim ’em for life!" yells the sergeant.
The narration at the very beginning of the film sets the tone: “This is a war story. It could be anywhere in the world. It could involve anyone. It could only take place within the human body.”
Using simple graphics and amusing characters, the film clearly shows the symptoms and effects of syphilis and gonorrhea (including a montage of real photos of actual sores), and the importance of prevention and professional treatment while avoiding homemade cures.
What really separates this film from others of the same time period is that some amazingly risky information for the time was shared including the fact that venereal disease could be spread by same sex contact, the need for the use of condoms (although it is a pretty ancient looking version of a condom in the film), and the fact that it OK for women to use birth control pills (“Some women take birth control pills if they don't want to get pregnant, and that's all right”) but that those pills won’t prevent the spread of STDs as the Sergeant demonstrates by gleefully chomping on a birth control pill as if it were a round piece of Sweet Tart candy.
One of the few things that dates the film is that it was made before AIDS became known as a major threat so it does not address that danger.
The Sergeant is an amorphous brown blob with yellow eyes and green eyelids with two small black nostrils for a nose. Black straight hair spikes out from the top of his head as if it was pressed outward from under a small red cap with a red arrow on top pointing upward that others have suggested resembles the German Kaiser helmet from World War I. The blob constantly shimmies like gelatin and often expands to fill the entire frame of film with its few sharply pointed snaggleteeth. The character immediately appears brutish and unkempt.
For some of the talk, he is near a simple music stand podium while others times he is by a screen with stylized outlines of faceless human beings although it is still easy to tell the taller male from the shorter female wearing a short dress. The film does not show any nudity.
The troops he is addressing wear black berets labeled with either a “G” for gonorrhea or and “S” for syphilis. The gonorrhea germs are a dark green and are on the left side of the screen while the syphilis germs are a dark red and are on the right side of the screen.
The troops, while a wonderful opportunity to save money by just duplicating the same shape, are actually quite individualized and have slightly different eyes and mouths and even a slight difference in body shapes. At the end when they jump in the air for joy and in silhouette they look like jumping beans. If you listen closely, you can tell that their vocal reactions are a sound clip borrowed from Maleficient’s goons from Sleeping Beauty.
The film tells its story through the point of view of these animated germs and since it is animated, there is no danger that audiences would overlook the message by being distracted by the hair styles or fashion of live actors or the often stilted acting of live performers in these types of films.
Like most of the Disney educational and training films, VD Attack Plan is not only entertaining and informative but shows sensitivity to its topic. The Sergeant also introduces the VD attack plan's covert team: Shame, Ignorance and Fear.
The director of the film was Disney Legend and Nine Old Man Les Clark who was employed by Disney from February 23, 1927 (where he did a little incidental animation on Steamboat Willie) to September 30, 1975. He died from cancer in 1979 and was made a Disney Legend a decade later in 1989. Born in 1907, he was in his 60s when he directed VD Attack Plan.
After serving as sequence director for Sleeping Beauty (1959) Clark was asked by Walt to direct television specials and educational films. Walt had tried many times to get Clark into directing, but this time Clark saw that the animation division was going to be severely downsized after Sleeping Beauty and that he should consider this new career option.
Clark directed such educational films as the Jiminy Cricket "You Are A Human Animal/I’m No Fool " series for the Mickey Mouse Club, Donald in Mathmagic Land, Freeway Phobia, and Man, Monsters and Mysteries (which was released in 1973 as well as VD Attack Plan).
While I have seen some internet sites credit Les Clark as the writer of the film, even the credits on the film itself clearly state that the script is the work of William “Bill” Bosche.
Bosche knew from the age of 13 that he wanted to be a Disney animator. During World War II, Bosche was assigned as an animator to the Army Air Corps First Motion Picture Unit where there were many Disney animators in uniform like Frank Thomas working on instructional and training films.
In 1951, Bosche worked as a layout, background and story sketch artist on training and informational films for the Air Force and Atomic Energy Commission, even traveling to witness atomic bomb testing.
In February 1953, Bosche started at the Disney Studios as an assistant in layout on Lady and the Tramp. A year later, he transferred to the Story Department to write on the Ward Kimball “Man in Space” trilogy series. He did many special projects for the studio including writing scripts for Disneyland attractions.
However, Bosche claimed he got his greatest satisfaction working on the educational films like Freeway Phobia (with Goofy), Donald’s Fire Survival Plan, Steel and America, The Restless Sea, Eyes in Outer Space and, of course, VD Attack Plan.
Bosche also wrote the narration for promotional films like Project Florida (1971) and The Magic of Walt Disney World (1972), as well as writing and directing the O Canada! film for the Canadian pavilion at Epcot. He retired from the Disney Studio in 1983.
The only animator officially credited on the film was Charlie Downs. Downs had a rich career in animation, working for several years at DePatie-Freleng Productions on the Pink Panther before coming to the Disney Studios to animate on such projects as Scrooge McDuck and Money. Downs would leave the Disney Studios shortly after VD Attack Plan to work with Ralph Bakshi on the animated feature, Coonskin and then later for a variety of other animation companies including Hanna-Barbera.
Downs’ assistant at Disney was Bob Youngquist so it is safe to assume Youngquist’s work is also in this film.
The art styling for the film was by Ken O’Connor. In 1935, O’Connor joined the Walt Disney Studios, where he worked as either art director or layout man on 13 features and nearly 100 shorts. According to the Disney Legends Web site: “Among the most memorable images Ken created for the screen are the magical coach in Cinderella, the marching cards in Alice in Wonderland, and the dancing hippos in Fantasia. During World War II, O’Connor worked on training and educational films that Disney produced for the U.S. government, including Food Will Win the War.”
O’Connor had also worked on the Disney educational films “Freeway Phobia” and “Donald’s Fire Survival Plan”. He retired in 1978.
Music was by George Bruns who used oboes, bongos and strings to create a creepy militaristic tone. Bruns would retire in 1975, two years after the release of VD Attack Plan, but his musical mark on Disney history was well set by his work on Yo Ho A Pirate’s Life For Me (with lyrics by Xavier Atencio) and The Ballad of Davy Crockett (co-written with Tom Blackburn), as well as many musical contributions to both Disney animated and live-action features.
While some Internet sites describe a general giving a pep talk to his troops, officially the character is called “Contagion Corps Sergeant” with a voice supplied by Keenan Wynn, who also did the narration.
Wynn, son of the famous comedian Ed Wynn who appeared in Disney films Babes in Toyland and Mary Poppins, found renewed career attention in the 1960s and 1970s by portraying the blustering villain Alonso Hawk in Disney films like The Absent Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, The Love Bug and Herbie Rides Again (that was released the year after VD Attack Plan).
During World War II, Carl Nater was the production coordinator of military educational films at Disney. Apparently, he was challenged by the U.S. Government auditors for including overhead on his bills which they called “Mickey Mouse bookkeeping”.
Nater remained in charge of the 16mm film division (later Walt Disney Educational Media) for more than two decades beginning in 1945. Schools could rent Disney features to show in the classroom or as fundraisers. He assured the theatrical film venues that Disney would not even permit schools or PTAs to schedule renting Disney 16mm films on Saturdays since it was considered in direct conflict with motion picture theaters.
In addition, shortened versions of Disney films were packaged for release for school use. Reportedly, Nater tried unsuccessfully to suppress Ward Kimball's Mars and Beyond being released to schools because he felt it “promoted evolution.” Interestingly, the division had released the Rite of Spring dinosaur segment from Fantasia on 16mm with a narration and titled “A World Is Born” that also spurred criticisms about promoting evolution.
Around 1968, the Disney 16mm film rental division became the Walt Disney Educational Media Company with Nater as the president operating out of an office in Glendale. The company was making close to $1 million a year renting and selling films and filmstrips to schools but they were looking to expand production. WDEMCO was an independent subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions and around the same time Charles Grizzle was brought on as a department head and his first accomplishment was the creation of a Bambi filmstrip with sound track.
By 1973, WDEMCO was grossing more than $10 million annually thanks to its expanded catalog but there was a push by management to explore even more product ideas including topics such as Personal Hygiene, Worldwide Communications, Ecology, The Conquest of Mexico, The Machinery of Justice, American Legendary Characters, Animals of the Primeval World and Native American History.
As Charles Grizzle remembered it in 1999, “Then our conservative education director, Donna George, who earned her doctorate while working at Disney, dragged us all into new territory by proposing that Disney produce an animated short subject on venereal disease. This growing problem plagued high schools and health education teachers nationwide were desperately seeking audio visual materials that would make an impact. Donna felt Disney could do that. Of course, she was right.”
However, the project did not receive much support at the Disney Studios, especially from the older veterans who wondered openly if Disney should be dealing with sexual topics. Even Ron Miller, Donn Tatum and Card Walker expressed concern about how the public would respond to Disney being involved with such a topic and whether it might effect attendance of audiences at regular theatrical Disney film screenings and how the press would react to the subject.
Supposedly, George answered these concerns by saying, “We’re not dealing with sex. We’re dealing with health, a very serious health issue.”
Still, Walker ordered the Disney employees working on the project not to talk to anyone other than teachers about the new project. In fact, Walker made two phone calls to Grizzle to affirm that he wanted silence on the subject but by that time the Associated Press had already learned of the film and wanted more information. When it was not forthcoming, wire services and those who reported on news on radio relied on half-truths and rumors about the Disney Studios new “Donald Duck sex film”.
“We were attempting to address a pandemic crisis threatening the lives of teenagers, yet here came the happy boys of the media making funny. They cut short the conversations [with me] when I tried to set them straight,” Grizzle stated. “It’s called VD Attack Plan. Produced in both 35mm and 16mm format for screening anywhere. We feel it’s a good weapon in the war against shame, fear and ignorance. Those are the three main characters.”
When the film was released, it was received enthusiastically by educators who continued to use the film for years, but still the Disney Studio remained silent about it to the general public. However, the front page of the WDEMCO promotional brochure for that year announces; “Yes, it’s true. Walt Disney Productions has made a significant contribution to the war against VD. VD ATTACK PLAN – A fully animated Walt Disney 16mm motion picture.”
These links are both the 16-minute version. There was also a 14-minute version released to public high schools that omitted the reference to condom usage as a form of prevention. Back then, the primary message to high school students was abstinence.