Walt Goes to War: Part Twoby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Continuing my salute to America's involvement in World War II, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in December 2016, here is some more information on Disney's involvement with the historic conflict. (Click here for part one)
In addition to dozens and dozens of training and technical films for the military, the Disney Studios also produced several commercial entertainment shorts, as well as some animated projects for different government agencies.
The Disney cartoons exuded American self-confidence, a sense of hope, and even some appropriate humor. Because of their content, some of these films are never shown today, but here is a short summary of them.
These glimpses into a different time are listed here by year and show Walt Disney's commitment to rallying morale during a very difficult period of American history.
The New Spirit (1/23): Listening intently to the radio for the latest war news, Donald Duck finds himself inspired by a plea to pay his taxes to beat the Axis. Donald quickly fills out his tax form and rushes across country to personally deliver his $13 check. This is followed by animation showing how coins can mount up quickly resulting in the sinking of an enemy warship. Other similar images follow in a montage reinforcing the importance of tax money to defeat the enemy. Produced for the U.S. Treasury, this short had 11,700 bookings in the six weeks prior to Tax Day (which at that time was March 15) with many theaters booking this Donald Duck short for free rather than paying for a regular Disney commercial short.
Donald Gets Drafted (5/1): Donald "Fauntleroy" Duck (the first and only time Donald's middle name is revealed) proceeds to Draft Board No. 13 located on the corner of Soldiers Walk and Generals Drive. He goes through an extensive and humiliating series of physical examinations and then finds himself under the supervision of Sergeant Pete who is irritated by Donald's lack of discipline. Some agonizing ants triggers off Donald while he is standing at attention and results in his firing his rifle at Pete. Donald ends up behind bars surrounded by a huge stack of potatoes to peel.
The Army Mascot (5/22): Pluto finds himself in "Camp Drafty" where he sees the army mascots receiving healthy portions of delicious rations. He inadvertently eats a goat's plug of tobacco and when the goat tries to ram the poor pup, he finds himself embedded in a passing Yankee Clipper. The next day, Pluto is the new mascot of the "Yoo Hoo" Division eagerly awaiting his delivery from a meat truck as he salutes with his ear.
Food Will Win the War (7/2): Created for the Department of Agriculture about the importance of farmers to the war effort, and to give encouragement to the hard-fighting but underfed U.S. Allies that food would soon be coming. It showed the sacrifices being made by American farmers and the dangers in delivering the food to U.S. Allies.
Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire (7/24): A three-minute animated cartoon made for the War Production Board. It features Minnie Mouse and Pluto and explains why it is necessary to save fats, like bacon grease, in order to make glycerin for explosives. Initially, Pluto is upset he won't get a tasty treat but when a montage shows how the waste fat will give "a boy at the front an extra clip of cartridges" and a quick shot of a picture frame with a photo of a uniformed Mickey Mouse, Pluto is inspired to sacrifice. "One pound of grease can make five [cannon] shells." Pluto does get rewarded for taking a can of grease to the local butcher shop with a string of wienies.
The Vanishing Private (9/25): Sergeant Pete is unhappy with Private Duck using polka dot paint to camouflage a large cannon. Donald finds some experimental "invisible paint" and uses it instead. Pete returns and believes the gun to have been stolen since he can't see it. Donald pokes his head out of the invisible barrel and in the ensuing melee is covered with the paint. Pete chases after the invisible duck with grenades. They run into a general and the invisible duck has some fun. The final shot is a visible Donald marching past a padded cell where Pete is being held for acting crazy.
Sky Trooper (11/6): Private Donald Duck is peeling potatoes at the Mallard Field Air Training Base, but longs to take to the skies. Sergeant Pete gives him a parachute and tells him to board a nearby plane. Once in the air, Donald chickens out from bailing out like the rest of the soldiers. He scrambles with Pete in the plane and they both find themselves falling out of the plane holding onto a bomb. They try to get away from it but it makes a direct hit on the general's headquarters. Both of them sport extensive bandages from their injuries and then peel stacks of potatoes as a punishment.
Der Fuehrer's Face (1/1): This cartoon won an Academy Award for Best Cartoon of 1942, even though it was officially released in 1943. The song, written by Disney's Oliver Wallace, had been recorded and released by musician Spike Jones and became a huge hit. Donald Duck dreams he lives in a surrealistic Nazi Germany. The original title for the film was Donald Duck in Axis Land and later Donald Duck in Nutziland but, with the huge success of the song, Walt thought it was better to capitalize on the publicity and use it as the title. Donald works in a munitions factory where he tightens the fuse caps on shells while constantly being forced to heil (salute). The strain of it all drives him berserk but he awakes in his bed to find it was all just a nightmare and is comforted by his nearby model of the Statue of Liberty.
The Grain That Built a Hemisphere (1/4/43): Not released through commercial distribution channels to movie theaters and sponsored by the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA). The film is the story of corn and how it has spread and influenced the culture and economic structure of the world. The film helps explain the importance of corn for feeding livestock, providing starches, alcohol, plastics and explosives.
Education for Death (1/15): Based on the Gregor Ziemer book Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi, the film shows how the youth of Germany is indoctrinated into becoming good Nazis who burn books, sack churches, and despise culture through a representative young boy named Hans. He does not belong to his parents but to the state. He finally marches along with other young soldiers with them dissolving into markers in a cemetery.
The Winged Scourge (1/15): Not released through commercial distribution channels to movie theaters and sponsored by CIAA. The famous Seven Dwarfs from Snow White demonstrate the precautions needed to safeguard homes from mosquitoes and prevent the spread of malaria.
The Spirit of '43 (1/7): Donald Duck is a factory worker who, on payday, is torn between two desires for the money he has earned as personified by a thrifty Scottish duck and a zoot-suited spendthrift duck who urges Donald to spend it on drinks and a couple of dates at the sleazy Idle Hours Club. Donald realizes that what he needs to do is rush to the IRS to make an advance payment on his taxes. The rest of the film repeats footage from the previous year's The New Spirit. The film was distributed theatrically by the Treasury Department.
Fall Out, Fall In (4/23): Donald Duck is just another G.I. marching with his platoon through all sorts of threatening weather from snow and ice to desert heat. It takes him almost all night to struggle to set up his uncooperative pup tent and, when he finally falls asleep, the dawn has come again and he must fall in and march some more.
Private Pluto (4/2): Pluto is warned to beware of saboteurs when he is on guard duty of a turreted coastal gun emplacement. Pluto runs into two chipmunks who are using the cannon barrel to store and crack nuts. Pluto tries to evict them but they continue to outsmart him throughout the entire cartoon. Although they are drawn fairly generically, the chipmunks are obviously prototypes for the later Chip 'n' Dale.
Water, Friend or Enemy (5/1): Not released through commercial distribution channels to movie theaters and sponsored by CIAA. A narrator explains how to prevent the pollution of drinking water and its contamination by diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery. Clever use of animation effects were employed including sliding cels, dissolves and wash-offs.
Victory Vehicles (7/30): Using Goofy, the cartoon illustrates some wildly imaginative alternative methods of transportation since cars, gas and tires were in short supply because of war time needs.
Defense Against Invasion (8/5): Not released through commercial distribution channels to movie theaters and sponsored by CIAA. A mixture of animation and live-action footage. Four young boys in a doctor's office are worried about being vaccinated. The doctor calms their fears by showing them that their bodies are like a city that could be overrun by invading germs but that vaccinations are the ammunition needed to repel the invaders. "V for Vaccination and Victory. Victory over Invasion."
Victory Through Air Power (8/13): The history of aviation is briefly shown in a humorous animated segment and then the career of Major Alexander de Seversky is summarized. DeSeversky then appears in live action explaining the importance of using aircraft for victory especially strategic aerial long range bombing. It is a fairly straight feature length documentary-type film based on DeSeversky's book of the same name and produced completely by the Disney Studio with no support from the military. In fact, Walt was risking future government contracts because some branches including the Navy, Disney's biggest Armed Forces client, tried to talk Walt out of making the film because they disagreed with the premise. The Navy felt that battleships would win the war. Besides the opening history of aviation, there is also striking use of animation in the live action section including the memorable image of a Japanese octopus expanding its influence and being attacked by an American eagle to relinquish its territory from its tentacled grip.
There had been some initial discussion in the planning stages to use Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck but they did appear in advertising and promotional material for the film. The film lost $436,000 but Walt was convinced it was a film that needed to be made. Roy Disney stated, "We did it as a patriotic gesture." Prime Minister Winston Churchill was so impressed with the film that he had a copy brought by fighter jet to the Quebec Conference in August 1943 to show President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After seeing it, Roosevelt ordered the film to be shown to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and it undoubtedly help influence American air strategy in the rest of the war.
Reason and Emotion (8/27): The short demonstrates the struggle in the human brain between uncontrolled and irrational primitive emotion and the more intelligent and sophisticated reason. These aspects are personified as a caveman (a caricature of animator Ward Kimball) and a bespectacled very proper gentleman in a suit. The end of the film shows that both need to work together to win the war.
The Old Army Game (11/5): Sergeant Pete discovers his soldiers have snuck out of camp. However, he catches Donald Duck trying to sneak back into the barracks and the usual hijinks ensue including a macabre gag where Donald believes he has been cut in half. He hasn't and when the truth is revealed, Pete chases Donald again, although hampered by a speed limit sign.
Home Defense (11/26): "Front Admiral" Donald Duck and his nephews attired in outrageous military uniforms man their homemade coastal listening post to spot enemy planes. When Donald falls asleep, the nephews trick him into believing there is an enemy attack with paratroops. When Donald realizes he has been fooled, he drums his nephews out of the service, but quickly calls them back when he thinks he hears a real invasion, which turns out to be a buzzing bee caught in his listening device. Thinking he is hearing a plane, Donald orders the nephews to fire the cannon to the coordinates, blowing up the amplifier and Donald.
Chicken Little (12/17): Foxy Loxy can't get into the farmyard because of their defenses, so he reads a book (originally intended to be Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf but was changed to a generic book titled Psychology). The clever fox uses the book's advice to undermine their faith in their leader, Cocky-Locky. He then tricks the yo-yo playing simpleton Chicken Little into thinking he sky is falling and leading the flock into the fox's cave for safety. The last scene is the fox picking his teeth and surrounded by a graveyard full of chicken wish bones. The cartoon with this shocking ending was meant to warn against rumors and enemy propaganda and was made under contract with CIAA.
How to Be a Sailor (1/28): Part of the famous Goofy "How To" series, the first part of the cartoon shows Goofy in different time periods including caveman Goofy, Viking Goofy, Columbus Goofy and pirate Goofy telling the history of nautical navigation. The second part of the short has sailor Goofy aboard a battleship and in his haste to load the torpedo tubes to sink a fleet of Japanese ships, he accidentally fires himself into the ships and sinks them instead.
Commando Duck (7/2): Donald Duck parachutes into the jungle on a remote Pacific Island to wipe out a Japanese airfield. To do so, he must travel down the river in a rubber raft with disguised Japanese snipers on the banks. He mistakes the bullets for mosquitoes. His raft is caught beneath a waterfall and starts inflating. When it explodes, it sends a cascade of water onto the airfield, destroying the entire base.
The Ones Never Made
Several other entertainment oriented films were planned during the war but never completed.
The Gremlins, based on the first book written by author Roald Dahl, was the only feature-length animated project completely shelved by Disney during World War II (rather than simply put on hiatus like Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and other proposed features).
Some of those animated shorts that were developed but never completed included the following: Guerrilla Duck with Donald Duck attempting to intercept a "Jap Troop Train" in Malaya; and The Lone Raider, with Donald matching wits with a Japanese sentry guarding a factory. Madame XX would have had Donald dealing with a seductive ducktress enemy agent who is after secret plans that have been given to Donald.
How to Be a Commando would have featured Goofy in the style of his "How-To" series of cartoons, basically demonstrating all the wrong things to do. A House Divided would have had the Three Little Pigs as defense plant workers. Only Practical Pig uses his salary to buy defense bonds, while the other two pigs are conned by the Big Bad Wolf as a black marketeer into buying useless junk and wasting the money that should have supported the war effort.
Democracy would have followed a man named Jones and his family who escape Germany to come to America and learn about the many freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Square World was meant to be a satire on Nazi conformity where everything had to be made or pressed into a square shape, including people.
Ajax the Stool Pigeon was about a carrier pigeon who suffers from acrophobia, but rises to the occasion to defeat a female avian spy and her minions of Nazi vultures and bats to deliver a vital message.
These films all show the expertise and talents of the Disney staff, even though one-third of the studio was off serving in various branches of the military. Unlike films from other studios, like Warner Brothers, these films were less violent and racist, and meant to provide a smile or some thoughtful reflection.