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When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, one of my favorite things to do was watch old Mickey Mouse cartoons-- I loved seeing Mickey interact with Pluto and Goofy, and could probably have watched hours of these cartoons, if you let me. But one character especially stood out for me, and quickly became my favorite-- I loved the scrappy and grumpy Donald Duck. I still do. And while some of my best-loved episodes revolved around Donald’s skirmishes with Chip and Dale, or around the exploits of his nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, I still remember seeing numerous cartoons featuring Donald as a soldier during World War Two. Looking back on my childhood, it seems funny and bizarre to me now that I was exposed to American World War Two propaganda. But it’s true-- and it happened with somewhat regularity for someone like me, who had consistent access to the Disney Channel. Of course, as a child, I didn’t really think much of it- it just seemed like yet another Donald Duck cartoon to me. But now, I look back and find myself really curious. How did the Walt Disney and his team, especially a blustery cartoon duck, get involved so specifically in wartime propaganda?
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. And today, we’re talking about big-names who got in on the action of creating significant war propaganda during the Second World War: Walt Disney, and his plucky creation, Donald Duck. Welcome to the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
The backstory of how Donald became an icon for the American war effort in World War Two is a really interesting one. For three years-- from 1942 and through the end of the war in 1945, Walt Disney Productions, headquartered at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, produced both propaganda cartoons and educational films in conjunction with the U.S. government. But it seems like Walt Disney himself wasn't necessarily the most obvious choice to helm these jobs-- at least he didn’t immediately think so. At the beginning of the 1940s, Walt Disney was dealing with a Human Resources crisis in his studio. Inspired by labor reform in the post-depression years, studio employees-- from the top animators all the way down to the so-called pen-and-ink girls-- rallied and rioted for better pay and unionization. But Walt Disney wasn’t thrilled with this development-- and the perceived betrayal he felt at the hands of his employees--whom he felt were like an extension of his family-- was more than disheartening. It was shattering. In a special Time-Life publication from 2016 featuring Disney’s wartime biography, author James Kaplan reported that Walt wrote, quote, “I have a case of the D.D.s—disillusionment and discouragement.” After a rejuvenating vacation to South America in late 1941, Walt returned to find that a few things had changed in his absence. Most directly for him, he discovered that his brother, Roy, had resolved the labor dispute and had met the vast majority of the striking studio employees’ demands, essentially giving them a significant amount of power within the Studio. But the bigger change, for the country as a whole, was that Pearl Harbor had been attacked on December 7, launching the nation-- and Disney Studios along with it-- into World War Two.
Prior to this moment, it appears that Walt Disney was… a little distracted when it came to his knowledge of the war. According to James Kaplan, Walt had once been asked how the war might affect the studio, and Walt replied, point-blank, quote, “What war?” Now, I don’t blame Walt Disney as anything other than probably really busy and trying desperately to build and or save his struggling empire during a difficult period in his own personal history. But at the same time, it was ridiculous that someone of his magnitude would have been so unaware of the worldwide crisis. After Pearl Harbor, though, he really had no choice but to face it head-on, and that was due to multiple motivating factors. First, just like in many other businesses in the U.S., men from the studio enlisted left and right to support the war effort, and Disney found himself with only so much manpower left over. This hit even harder when half the studio was physically requisitioned as a base for troops who were acting to protect a nearby airplane factory from the possibility of air raids. Walt Disney Studios could literally no longer function at its same capacity, and thus, in order to keep from shutting down completely, the other half of Walt Disney studios had to surrender to the government-backed requests that came their way.
From reports, it looks like the Navy were the first to come calling to Walt Disney, but the Army, the Airforce, and even the Departments of Agriculture and the Treasury followed in quick succession because of the studio’s unique position to create propaganda that would straddle the line between subtlety and directness, to do so with creativity and humor when necessary, and with internationally recognizable and hugely likeable characters. Though other organizations and studios, like Warner Brothers, for example, were also intimately involved in these propaganda efforts, no one had quite the same reach and scale as Disney. And as we heard in the last episode of the ArtCurious Podcast, episode #24, one of the keys to Allied success in the War effort was to reach the whole family-- not just the soldiers, but the families they left at home, including children. And for this purpose, Disney was really the end-all, be-all of family propaganda producers.
Honestly, the first rounds of war propaganda that Walt Disney and his animators were asked to produce were really quite dry. These were educational and training films meant to assist servicemen on various topics ranging from navigational tactics to aircraft maintenance, and the quote-unquote “Disney” element of these films was really nothing more, in most cases, than animated graphic design to explicate the usage of control panels, or parachutes, or so forth. Disney also paired up with director Frank Capra, himself a colonel in the U.S. Army, to create promotional videos for the Army, which were at least more popular than the bare-bones educational videos and were subsequently released to the general public, where they gained a modicum of interest. Seeing the reception to these war videos really struck a chord for both Disney Studios and the Office of War Information’s Motion Picture Unit, and a metaphorical lightbulb went off. Why not make propaganda films for public consumption-- ones that entertained as much as educated? And if these propaganda films could be styled like normal animation shorts, traditionally added to the start of most feature motion pictures, then there would already be a built-in audience. All of a sudden, it seemed like a win-win.
Why and how Donald Duck became a literal poster-child for Walt Disney Studios during World War Two is an interesting subject in and of itself. Donald Duck was introduced in the mid-1930s to an American audience who had fallen deeply in love with Mickey Mouse quickly upon his debut in Steamboat Willie in 1928. Mickey would always be the top star-- famous for his positivity and a sweetness that seemed to pervade every inch of his animated cel, even in the midst of derring-do or mischief. But that same sense of kindness, of essential goodness, that Mickey embodied meant that he could possibly be limited in the activities or scenes in which he could be involved. He was too clean, too pristine-- too perfect, somehow. Someone spunkier, even a bit more unhinged, was needed to act as his foil. And hence, the short-tempered, ever-so-tenacious Donald was born. And his signature determination and bravado meant that he was an ideal stand-in for both soldier and civilian alike. Who wasn’t about to give in to the enemy? Donald Duck. Who would jump in and work his very best for the good of all Americans? Donald Duck. Mickey Mouse would never be defined as someone with a real fighting spirit. But fighting is what Donald Duck usually did best.
Donald’s Wartime debut was in a nearly nine-minute short titled Donald Gets Drafted, from 1942. It follows what you’d mostly expect from the title, meaning that we watch Donald move from enlistment through basic training, procuring his shiny, pressed uniform, and physical exams that confirm his health and well-being. All of this is done to a happy tune that chimes, quote, “The Army’s not the Army anymore-- it’s better than it’s ever been before!” There is nothing in this propaganda piece that would hint at the darkness of war or even the goings-on in Europe, the South Pacific, and beyond. As such, it’s the perfect compliment to the smiling families that were epitomized in many propaganda posters across the U.S. during the same time period: everyone is cheery, helpful, and undertaking even the biggest of challenges and changes with a whistle and a smile. People already loved Donald, almost as much as they did Mickey Mouse, so they were apt to already be inclined to identify with, or to be moved by, this character. And if an anti-war protester couldn’t be swayed by a high-spirited duck, then no one could change his mind.
The Office of War Information requested that Disney studios formulate particular videos for specific purposes-- very specific, indeed. The best examples of this occurred in both 1942 and 1943, after the success of Donald Gets Drafted. In those years, there was a massive overhaul in income tax legislation so that over 15 million Americans were suddenly eligible to pay a tax that was previously not requested of them. The problem was that this overhaul happened during these lean war years, when times were already tight-- asking civilians to pay income tax and support the war effort down the line would possibly be too much to ask. So, Donald Duck to the rescue, with two very similar videos-- first came The New Spirit in 1942, which was remade in a slightly flashier, much more obvious way in 1973’s The Spirit of ‘43. Here, we see Donald under the influence of the proverbial angel-and-devil-on-the-shoulder, attempting to convince him of parting with his hard-earned cash. Of course the kindly version of our hero saves his money for income taxes. But the devil Donald’s connection to the war is made very explicit here, with the words “Spend for the Axis, or save for taxes” highlighted as Donald considers whiling away at a bar called “The Idle Hour Club” whose logo is, naturally, a swastika. Of course the wily Donald makes the right decision, and this victorious choice ended up being seen by over 25 million Americans in the year that it was released. And though I haven’t been able to dig up any specific data about how much The Spirit of ‘43 really affected tax habits, a survey of those who viewed the short noted that a full one-third of spectators were so moved to begin saving in earnest simply by Donald Duck’s actions. Even the New York Times admitted to being swayed by Donald’s delivery, writing in an early review that the show was indeed a, quote, “thoroughly agreeable inducement to a tough task.” As author Marcia Blitz noted in her seminal text on him, quote, “Donald Duck could make a painful process, such as paying taxes, as fun as possible.”
Coming up after the break, Donald Duck becomes a Nazi. Really. Stay with us.
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Donald Duck’s biggest outing-- and certainly the war cartoon for which he is most remembered for today-- is one in which he is surrounded by the nightmares of Hitler’s regime in 1943’s cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face. Another eight-minute wartime cartoon, Der Fuehrer’s Face, which was originally titled Donald Duck in Nutziland, takes Donald through one full day under the thumb of Hitler and his minions. The farce begins straightaway with a unforgiving 4 AM wake-up call by a German polka band fronted by rough (and racist) caricatures of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, and Benito Mussolini, singing a song with the same title as the cartoon itself. The first words, for example, declare:
When der Fuehrer says we is de master race
We heil, heil, right in der Fuehrer's face
As viewers, we are treated to a brief glimpse of the outside world in Nutziland, only to see that its own propaganda has spread to nearly every element-- even the fences, bushes, and one lowly windmill are shaped like swastikas. Not that Donald really notices-- because he’s indoctrinated, too, and salutes Hitler’s photo on his swastika-papered wall before getting a barely palatable breakfast and heading off to work in a munitions factory under extreme duress where, according to the accompanying song, he works for quote “48 hours a day.” He’s threatened constantly with knives and bayonets, unable to keep up with the workload and the constant requirement to salute each and every image of the Fuhrer’s Face that passes him on his conveyor belt, until, at the very end, a frantic Donald awakes from his terrifying dream, dressed in stars-and-stripes pajamas and the shadow of the Statue of Liberty--not Hitler’s upheld hand-- projected on his wall. It was all a dream… thank goodness, it was only a dream. And it turned out to be a big dream for Disney Studios, too, who scored an Academy Award for best animated short subject film for Der Fuehrer’s Face-- to date, the only Oscar that Donald Duck has ever won. Part of its popularity-- and one of enduring interest to scholars-- is that it straddled that delicate line between light and dark that many of the best cases of propaganda were known to do. It has a happy ending, of course, but the majority of the cartoon is dark comedy at best, and just plain dark at worst. As noted in the book Learning from Mickey, Donald and Walt: Essays on Disney’s Edutainment Films, quote, “Donald’s audience would have been familiar with rationing and overtime at defense plants from their own experience. Der Fuehrer's Face demonstrated humorously how much worse the situation was in Germany. Donald’s dream self is obviously motivated solely by fear rather than any sort of allegiance to Hitler, and any slight sign of resistance, such as grumbling on the assembly line, is met with instant threats of violence. Though the tone is light... the film nonetheless brings home its points about forced labor, shortages, and fear among those under Hitler’s rule and the corollary that Americans are (or should be) happy to work for their country’s war industries.” Unquote.
Donald Duck’s inherent likeability, as well as his everyman personality (if a duck could be an everyman, that is…), meant that Der Fuehrer’s Face and similar films were very successful propagandistic tools. Donald had a temper. He had a pessimistic streak, he could be fearful, and was at turns both brave and cowardly. He was, in essence, more human than most cartoon characters of the day-- especially the idealist Mickey Mouse. But there was an added element that contributed greatly to Donald’s success-- and that was a perceived distance from the U.S. government. We talked briefly in our last episode about some of the inherent distrust of propaganda that came from the Office of War Information-- with citizens concerned that the single-sources messages in these pamphlets and posters were coming from a controlling governmental force that would feel more totalitarian than democratic. But a cartoon that featured a beloved figure from one of most beloved cultural behemoths of the previous decade? It was almost a guaranteed success. The irony of the situation is that Walt Disney and his animators were working directly under governmental commissions, and this fact was made blatant in the opening credits for each cartoon. But this was propaganda that was entertainment first, and thus different from any other method previously experienced. American audiences would consume these messages not in storefronts or factories, as they did with most propaganda posters, but in movie houses where they were enjoying a respite from the war. And the relaxing environment and atmosphere in which they absorbed these messages certainly meant that those same messages may have had a better shot at lingering in an otherwise overtaxed mind. Finally, there was the sense of humor evident in these cartoons, dark though it may have been. Most of the propaganda from the Office of War Information had little, if any, humor to them, as an independent survey on methods of messaging had somehow confirmed that humor was one of the least successful ways to ensure audience participation. This played out in many of the especially dark posters we discussed in episode 24. In retrospect, this seems rather short-sighted, especially given the extreme popularity Donald Duck’s military outings. The duck, and his special kind of silliness, could not only be enjoyed by children, but also by their parents, who had been exposed to Donald for over ten years at that point. And let’s not forget the war-weariness of entire sections of society, across all ages. Donald’s hijinks were the perfect salve. His appeal was thus multi-generational, and across all classes, and no one else was better suited to ensure the positivity and participation of millions upon millions of Americans.
It would be remiss of me to stop here and let this seem like a clear exaltation of the Disney and Donald Duck model of propaganda, because it certainly had its drawbacks. The first is that, to our twenty-first century eyes, there are some terribly racist stereotypes and politically-incorrect inclusions here. I’ve briefly touched on the awful caricature of Emperor Hirohito in Der Fuehrer’s Face, suffice to say that it’s even worse in a later Donald Duck outing, titled Commando Duck: Donald Duck Versus the Japanese, released in 1944. It begins innocently enough, with Donald undergoing basic training similar to his travails in Donald Gets Drafted, but he is released into his very first solo mission quite quickly with these simple instructions: destroy a Japanese air base. Oh, no big deal. Just… single-handedly destroy a Japanese air base. Naturally, Donald does indeed achieve this, mostly by accidentally exploding his river raft and causing a flood to wipe out the aircraft. Before all that, though, Donald comes into contact with various examples of the enemy-- and each and every one of them is a caricature of slanted eyes, buck teeth, and pidgin English, with an added element of presumed stupidity and over-politeness. For example, two Japanese snipers attempt to take aim at Donald as he floats down the river, but the snipers get in each other's’ way and obscure any shots. Instead of rectifying their situation and taking aim again, the snipers engage in repeated comedic apologies. The takeaway was then this: the enemy was just not smart enough to focus on what was right in front of them. It’s awful. It’s embarrassing, and it’s wrong. It’s also a sad product of the time in which it was made. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the blatant racism prevalent in most of the U.S. at this time was certainly present in the artworks produced during the War, and sadly, the animation from Disney studios was no different here. There was also an easiness that such stereotyping could bring to animators and producers, who wouldn’t have to reinvent symbols or characters whole-hog, and could instead rely on preconceived notions and stereotypes to bring their points across. It doesn’t excuse matters, but it does at least place it in a bigger context.
Overall, the war years-- especially 1942 and 1943-- became some of the most productive of Walt Disney Studio’s history. In those two years alone, it produced over 200,000 feet of film, which accounted for more than five times its usual cinematic output. And as Disney’s connection to propaganda became stronger and more well-known, its connection to the war did, too. Beginning in mid-1942, Disney artists were requested to produce special insignia and logos for various American troops. According to a report in Der Spiegel magazine, interestingly enough, some animators created all-new characters for some military insignia, such as quote, “ a mosquito riding a torpedo for the Navy's new torpedo boats, a bellicose crow from Dumbo for bombing squadrons, and a turtle with a broom for minesweepers.” Unquote. And as the official artists were at work, so were soldiers, who wholeheartedly adopted already beloved Disney characters as their own personal talismen, decorating their tanks and jets with not only Donald, but also Mickey, Pluto, Goofy, Dumbo, and others. As summarized in Der Spiegel, quote, “These were symbols of the American way of life, of freedom and democracy, of everything that was at stake. "Mickey Mouse" is even said to have been a password used by the Allied forces on D-Day.” Unquote.
Circling away from his creations and back to Walt Disney himself for a moment. Walt didn’t initially love having to surrender both studio space and animators for the purposes of creating war propaganda, but as projects cycled about and the Donald Duck shorts in particular became more and more popular, he grew to accept, and to even greatly appreciate, his own unique role in the war effort. It eventually became a source of pride for Walt, and one that he used to his personal advantage only a few years later, when he was to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October of 1947. In his denunciation of communism, Disney’s voluntary speech provided him with the opportunity to prove not only his essential American-ness, as it may be, but also his credibility and expertise on what propaganda looked like, how governments could use it, and how successful it could be. When asked about the efficacy of his animated shorts by lead HUAC investigator H.A. Smith, Walt pointed to The Spirit of ‘43 in particular and said, quote, “Well, on the one for the Treasury on taxes, it was to let the people know that taxes were important in the war effort. As they explained to me, they had 13,000,000 new taxpayers...” He knew what he was doing, he said. And the American public, and the world, had reaped the benefits with victory, with his help, he insinuated.
For something that had such power in America during the Second World War, it’s funny to see how much of this propaganda was just quickly whisked away after the conflict ended. Like many other forms of propaganda, such as the works by Combat Artists, the general public just didn’t want to be faced with the memories of war-- even if there was an entertainment facet to the propaganda. So Der Fuehrer’s Face, Commando Duck, and others were swept aside into that fabled Disney vault. And Donald himself returned to his typical hijinks, sparring with Chip and Dale, corralling his nephews, grumbling about Pluto, and even paling around with some foreign friends in feature-length films like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. But somewhere along the line, Donald’s military service was forgotten at best-- and ignored at worst. But exactly forty years after the end of World War Two, Donald’s sacrifices were remembered with love and not a little bit of humor, and he was finally given an award for his military valor and service. That year, 1984, the U.S. Army celebrated Donald’s birthday by promoting him to the rank of sergeant, and immediately discharging him honorably from all duties. At last, Donald could be a civilian again.
Next time on the ArtCurious Podcast, it’s back to Europe to uncover one of Hitler’s secret wartime plans: and it was all about the art. That’s in two weeks, subscribe now, and don’t miss it.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Research assistance is by Stephanie Pryor. Our new theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com. Social media help by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.
The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is an interdisciplinary creative space, founded to foster artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition spaces, Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle. please visit anchorlightraleigh.com.
The ArtCurious Podcast is also fiscally sponsored by VAE Raleigh, a 501c3 nonprofit creativity incubator. This means that you can donate to the show and it is fully tax-deductible! Please see our website for further details-- and you can also go there for images, information and links to our previous episodes. That site is artcuriouspodcast.com. And you can contact us via the website, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. And remember to subscribe and review us on iTunes. Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history of the World War Two Era.