SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine Donald Duck working overtime in an arms factory, wearing a swastika on his military uniform and quacking “Heil Hitler!” over and over. No, this is not a parody hidden away on YouTube to escape copyright claims. Nor is it a sketch developed for Adult Swim’s late-night programming block. It’s an actual film Walt Disney made in 1943. It’s called Der Fuehrer’s Face. It was shown in cinemas around the country and received an Oscar for Best Animated Short.
Walt Disney built his media empire animating fairy tales; he did not start making films set in a Nazi-occupied Europe by choice. In late 1940, the company lost an estimated one million dollars on its second feature, Pinocchio. It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ended up a surprise hit. The Italian dummy’s poor performance was blamed, like most things, on the war, which cut Hollywood’s foreign markets out of business.
A few months after the release of Dumbo (which barely broke even, despite Disney cutting run-time), Japanese fighter pilots destroyed Pearl Harbor, pulling the United States into the Second World War. The subsequent military draft not only robbed Disney of half of the moviegoing public; it also took the majority of its animators. Desperately in need of income, Uncle Walt decided to try his luck on the job market — and Uncle Sam was hiring.
The history of this unique partnership is now chronicled by an exhibition at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The Walt Disney Studios and World War II, installed towards the back of the museum complex, features a sizable selection of the innumerable number of posters, insignias, and instructional films Disney churned out during the 1940s.
Disney fans and history buffs might just find themselves standing at the entrance of a rabbit hole they won’t want to crawl out of. The products Disney made during this period are perfectly preserved time capsules painting a timely picture of what the US was. “The opposite of Nazi Germany,” was the uniform answer, even if — in retrospect — the two had more in common than they thought.
Before introducing visitors to Der Fuehrer’s Face and other propaganda cartoons, the Walt Disney Family Museum reminisces about how the war affected the company’s female and Japanese employees. The Second World War was a watershed moment in the history of feminism, allowing women to temporarily take over jobs belonging to their absent sons and husbands.
Before the war, Disney only hired women to work in their Ink & Paint Department. Within the departmental hierarchy of animation studios at the time, Ink & Paint made up the bottom rung. The department’s job, coloring and shading animation drawings from male animators, was seen as uncreative and mind-numbingly boring. By the time that Disney’s combat-able assistant animators were being shipped across the ocean, the remaining women saw an opportunity to move up the ranks and leave Ink & Paint behind.
In response to the unexpected labor shortage at the start of the war, Disney inker Janet Martin, as stated in the exhibition catalogue, wrote to her coworkers that, “should many more be [drafted into the army], it is not impossible that girls will be trained for jobs now held only by men.” Martin’s warning did not fall on deaf ears; by March 1945, more than 80 women were working at Disney as inbetweeners and assistant animators.
As the celluloid ceiling shattered for one demographic, the red carpet was being pulled out from underneath another. Always open to talent from abroad, Disney Productions had hired a number of Japanese employees before the start of the war. Some, like Gyo Fujikawa, born to Japanese immigrants in California, managed to escape imprisonment by moving to the East Coast. Most of her colleagues, however, were arrested and placed in concentration camps while the US was preparing its retaliation against Imperial Japan.
Rokuro “Bob” Kuwahara, a Tokyo-born writer and animator whom Disney hired back in 1933, was labeled an “enemy alien” despite the fact that he had entered the country long before the war with a perfectly legal work visa. Kuwahara was sent to Santa Anita, a racetrack that had been turned into a makeshift detention facility north of Los Angeles, where he taught weekly art classes to other inmates. During these classes, he was joined by Disney colleague Chris Ishii, who had previously worked as an assistant animator to Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s fabled Nine Old Men.
Instead of giving into resentment, these artists channeled their experience into their artwork and made valuable contributions to the community. Kuwahara, Ishii, and Fujikawa all went on to have prolific careers in art and animation.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Walt Disney showed up to work only to find 500 soldiers from the Anti-Aircraft Battalion standing in his driveway. They had been sent to Burbank to protect a nearby aircraft manufacturer. Disney, who had served in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps as a teenager during the First World War, was said to have welcomed the battalion with open arms, clearing a sizable part of the studio for their operation.
Disney went from creating 30,000 feet of film at the beginning of the war to 300,000 at its end. Most of the footage consisted of instructional videos for various government branches. For the IRS, films reminded citizens to pay their taxes in order to help fund the war effort. For the army, films taught soldiers how to handle their equipment. For the women and children at home, films reminded them of why the United States must help defeat the Axis. The arguments these propaganda films make reveal a lot about how 1940s America thought of itself.
In Der Fuehrer’s Face, Donald Duck dreams he is a citizen of Nazi Germany, a society so consumed by war that bread is baked with sawdust in lieu of grain and overtime pay is seen as a great honor. Outside, the trees, windmills, and even clouds are shaped like Swastikas — a seemingly cheap visual gag that points to the insane degree to which totalitarian leaders shape the reality of their subjects. Overwhelmed by his job’s ever-increasing workload, Donald suffers a nervous breakdown before finally waking up in his USA-themed bedroom.
While Der Fuehrer’s Face is Disney’s most well-known propaganda film, the message it delivers is rather straightforward compared to those of other projects. Reason and Emotion (1943) depicts a world where people are controlled by two creatures living inside their head: Reason and Emotion. This short, a possible source of inspiration for the 2015 Pixar movie Inside Out, contrasts the head of an American man — in which Reason sits behind the wheel — with that of a Nazi — in which Emotion has taken over and pushed Reason to the back of the brain.
You’d be surprised by how much the ideas presented in this short film align with those from academic studies. In her seminal work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt reached a similar conclusion when she wrote that, “totalitarian leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given proof of their falsehood, they would take refuse in cynicism; they would protest they had known all along and would admire the leaders for their tactical cleverness.”
“The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into people’s minds,” wrote Elmer Davis, the director of the US Office of War Information, “is to let it go through the medium of a picture when they do not realize they are being propagandized.” The ease with which this quote could be mistakenly attributed to Joseph Goebbels serves as an important reminder that these short films, in spite of their colorful designs and stories full of song and dance, are still propaganda — and, like propaganda, they betray the racial biases of the government funding their production.
Though few of the animated propaganda films produced during the Second World War aged well, some aged worse than others. Infamous is Tokio Jokio (1943), a parody of an Imperial Japanese newsreel. Being a Looney Tunes short, it is not a part of the exhibition. Nonetheless, it provides important context for the films on display at the museum. In Tokyo Jokio, “Nipponews” tries to show off the latest in military tech, only to end up exposing numerous shortcomings of the Japanese army instead: their alarm system is a man being pricked with a needle shouting into a microphone; their “aircraft spotter” paints little polka dots on fighter jets; the Fire Prevention HQ has ironically burned down.
Unlike Der Fuehrer’s Face, which derives its humor from parodying Nazi ideology, Tokio Jokio aimed its attack at Japanese ethnicity and culture. Japanese characters are drawn short, their eyes as small as their teeth are large. But the attack goes deeper than that. The Japanese are not so much depicted as evil but inept. Cartoon historian Martin Goodman has labeled Tokio Jokio “highly denigrating of Japanese society,” adding that “the goal of this cartoon was to engender contempt and hatred.”
Though (to my knowledge) Disney never released any propaganda films that were as insulting as Tokio Jokio, it did create shorts guaranteed to raise modern eyebrows. In an effort to improve their country’s relationship with South American republics, Disney sent animators on a goodwill tour through South America to find inspiration for films set in the region. These include classics like Saludos Amigos (1942) and Three Caballeros (1944), which were intended as celebrations of the local culture and wildlife.
In between the lines, these films also function as anti-Axis propaganda designed to thwart fascist insurgencies south of the Panama Canal. In an essay written for Jacobin, Latin American literature professor Marcela Croce goes over the many subtle ways in which Disney animators tried to assert their dominance over the places they visited, from altering dialogue in the international releases to incorporating an abundance of aerial shots. According to Croce, these films established a precedent “in which the film industry would justify American intervention around the globe.”
Regardless of how they make you feel, Disney’s propaganda films are products of their time that offer a valuable opportunity to look back at this almost increasingly distant historical period through the very eyes of those who lived through it. Given how subjective these vantage points can be, it’s nice to see the Disney Family Museum balancing stories of various Disney employees. At the same time, the exhibition could have delved deeper into the dark side of these propaganda shorts as exhibited by films like Tokyo Jokio, instead of presenting war through the company’s trademark family-friendly worldview. Rather than pushing outdated films out of the spotlight because they might upset contemporary audiences, they should be studied carefully and conscientiously. If they aren’t, the past might well repeat itself one day.
The Walt Disney Studios and World War II continues at the Walt Disney Family Museum (104 Montgomery St, San Francisco) through January 9, 2022.
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