This is the first in a planned series of supplemental posts that we’ll write occasionally in between our regular film updates.
Dumbo was released in late fall 1941. Little more than a month afterward, though, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and the United States immediately joined the Second World War. Walt Disney, sometimes at the request of the U.S. government, was prepared to use the considerable force of his studio to help the Allied Forces. The studio’s characters quickly appeared on posters and in films to promote war-related causes and to help spread propaganda, uniting the country against the Nazis and the Japanese.
The above manual created to teach airmen about the perils of high-altitude low-temperature flight was designed to hold their attention while teaching them the basics. The characters later made an appearance in Walt Disney’s video game Epic Mickey.
The most famous of his efforts were a series of seven instructional videos prepared for allied forces, called Why We Fight. (All parts are available on YouTube. The first is embedded below for ease of viewing.)
The title was later borrowed for a well-produced 2005 documentary on the post-war military industrial complex, but in the 1940s the seven forty-minute films pioneered the use of archival and newsreel footage with a strong announcer’s voice to create very convincing propaganda.
Walt, above almost anything else, understood the power of a good story. A good story, he decided, could help win the war. But motivating soldiers was only part of the job. Building up the U.S. war machine engaged millions of workers and doubled American industrial output. From a country that had lagged militarily behind most of its enemies and allies in 1939, it was providing more than 60% of the allied military equipment by 1943:
American industry provided almost two-thirds of all the Allied military equipment produced during the war, 297,000 aircraft, 193,000 artillery pieces, 86,000 tanks, two million army trucks. In four years, American industrial production, already the world’s largest, doubled in size. The output of the machine-tools to make weapons trebled in three years. The balance between the U.S. and her enemies changed almost overnight.
That enormous build-up required enormous capital and a major shifting of priorities, right down to the average citizen. That’s where Disney came in. While the studios busily built films for soldiers (a more complete list of which are available here), Walt also encouraged everyone on the home front to do their duty to their country. The studio’s animators created insignia for the U.S. troop units and emblems too adorn tanks, planes and ships. Animated films were used to train soldiers and the army wanted to transform part of the studio into defensive fortifications. The studio pumped out 62,000 metres of film in 1942 and 1943 alone.
The company had Mickey, Minnie and Pluto talking about the importance of rationing foodstuffs, Mickey had a green thumb to promote “victory gardens” where people were encouraged to grow their own fruits and vegetables, and Snow White even promoted buying war bonds.
More famously, Der Fuehrer’s Face was released in 1943. The film turns out to be Donald’s dream (or nightmare?) of life on the munitions assembly line in Nazi Germany, endlessly working and saluting Hitler. Ultimately, everyone’s favourite duck wakes up in a soft bed wearing Stars and Stripes pyjamas. “Oh boy, am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!” he declares.The film went on to win the Oscar for best animated short.
Other shorts, like The Spirit of ’43, stressed the importance of paying taxes because “taxes will keep democracy on the march” and “every dollar you spend for something you don’t need is a dollar spent to help the Axis.” The film was commissioned by the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury at the time and was reportedly seen by 26 million Americans, some of whom later said that Donald encouraged them to save money.
Others were made to build support for the war by showing how Germany was destroying families. While beautifully animated (perhaps even a bit ahead of its time), Education for Death was clearly a warning that German children were all raised with hate and born solely to one day die on the front lines for their country.
As the war raged on, it became to time to show a more humorous side to the war. Donald was once again ready to step in.
But, of course, the U.S. wasn’t fighting the war alone. This short film, entitled All Together advocated buying war bonds no matter where you are. To prove the point, a parade of Disney’s most memorable characters march on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
All in all, it’s no surprise that the only high-quality classic animated feature to come out of the studio during the war was Bambi. Work began on the beloved film in 1936, intended for release after Snow White, but perfecting the animation of forest animals took its time. Disney’s animated features that followed 1942’s release of Bambi are widely regarded as sometimes silly, but certainly not worthy of the standard the studio had reached until that point. But it’s no wonder it wasn’t until 1950’s Cinderella that the world received another Disney classic — Walt was too busy fighting a war.