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Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines includes every Disney propaganda film made for public exhibition during World War II. Each film has been beautifully restored and these historic works are completely uncensored and uncut according to Dave Bossert, who oversaw the project. The collection consists of 32 shorts, the feature Victory Through Air Power, excerpts from training films (not made for public exhibition), outtakes and other material. The two-disc set also includes informative interviews with Joe Grant, John Hench and Roy Disney about life and work at the studio during the war years. Leonard Maltin does a fine job introducing the collection.
After screening everything, I asked Bossert why the studio hadnt shown some of these films to the public since the close of the war. He didnt have a simple answer. In the past people suggested Walt didnt want to be seen as a producer of propaganda and anyway; the films were dated as the war was over. Bossert thinks the suppression of these films in recent years was based on false assumptions by people who probably never saw any of them. After the war the films were placed in the studios archive and it became difficult to screen any of them. You need to get signed approvals to get any of them shown.
Bossert assumes the works languished because nobody knew how great they were. Instead, people probably thought they were full of embarrassing racial stereotypes, crude jokes and other offensive moments. Amazingly, the only offensive images are caricatures of Hitler and other enemy leaders and one very brief image of a Japanese soldier (tame compared to WWII caricatures from Warner Bros.). There isnt any rude or crude humor or poor production values that could tarnish the image of a studio known for its high standards.
The DVD set includes everything, from lighthearted works that were shown to improve our countrys morale, to hard-hitting messages that explain who our enemy was and why they must be defeated. If you have seen vicious, nasty propaganda cartoons from other studios, you too might assume these long suppressed Disney works are more of the same. What separates these films from the work of other studios is the degree of sophistication and the constant high regard for production and entertainment values.
The Animated Shorts
The DVD begins with a series of often brilliant general entertainment cartoons that have wartime themes. Only one, Donald in Commando Duck, depicts him in enemy lands. The others depict Donald getting drafted, going AWOL, as a soldier on a super-long hike, manning a home-defense lookout for the enemy and in other situations that are perfect vehicles for his fine comic performances. There are also fine performances in this section by Pluto, Goofy and Donalds nephews. These films must have kept audiences laughing long enough to forget the serious events of the day. They are still wonderful.
The next section contains educational shorts that have important messages imbedded in them. The oldest are four shorts made to promote the sale of war bonds in Canada. The Thrifty Pig (1941) stars the Three Little Pigs as the heroes and The Big Bad Wolf as you know who. The Seven Wise Dwarfs (1941) has Snow Whites co-stars investing in the fight to save democracy. Donalds Decision (1942) is about his decision to invest in the war effort (it recycles footage from two Donald Duck cartoons from 1938, Donalds Better Self and Self Control). The final film made for Canada is All Together (1942), a joyful parade of Disney characters with Mickey, in his only appearance in war propaganda, conducting his orchestra on a moving bandwagon (footage based on The Band Concert, 1935). Other stars in the parade include Dumbo and the Dwarfs from Snow White.
Our countrys first educational war short, The New Spirit (1942), used some of the language of the Canadian films to encourage citizens to pay your taxes on time as a way to defeat our enemies. The sales pitch is further refined in the classic propaganda film The Spirit of 43 with Donald and his uncle. Both films were commissioned by the secretary of the treasury department, written by Disney writers and then sent to Washington DC for their corrections and approval.
Unlike the Canadian shorts, the tone of the films for our treasury department becomes quite serious as the narrator convinces us with hard-hitting rhetoric to pay your taxes on time so Uncle Sam can buy guns, guns, all kinds of guns, to blast the aggressors from the sea. I found it fascinating to hear similar phrases refined from one short to the next, culminating in the powerful message and visuals of The Spirit of 43. The next time you pay your taxes remember, Taxes to bury the Axis, taxes to sink the Axis, taxes will keep Democracy on the march!
This section of the DVD also contains several educational films that are much lighter in tone. Out of the Frying Pan and into the Firing Line? (1942) has Minnie and Pluto learning that used kitchen fats can be saved and recycled into explosives for the war effort. Pluto takes a container of used fat to the butcher who pays him for it with hot dogs. In Food Will Win the War (1942) we learn how important the farmer is to the war effort. The Three Little Pigs make an appearance in this work.
Propaganda for Latin America
In 1943, Disney began production on a series of films aimed at improving our ties with Latin America. Even before the U.S. became directly involved with WWII, our government was concerned that neutral countries south of our boarder might side or cooperate with the Axis. During the Disney strike of 1941, Walt was asked to go on a goodwill tour of South America. The tour was both a public relations move and a way to get Walt out of Hollywood so the strike could be settled (he was refusing to compromise during the negotiations). Now, in 1943, Nelson Rockefeller and the coordinator on inner-American affairs were calling upon Walt to again help improve our image in Latin America.
Although Walts goodwill films do not appear to be political propaganda, records indicate that they were produced for that purpose. In 1943, the studio made The Grain that Built a Hemisphere, The Winged Scourge and Defense Against Invasion. The first builds pride by telling how Indians cultivated corn and how corn has become a major agricultural product. The Winged Scourge has the Seven Dwarfs fighting the spread of malaria by draining pools of stagnant water, spraying areas with DDT and using other methods to rid the world of mosquitoes. The third film tells people unfamiliar with vaccinations that the process is nothing to fear and that they protect us from evil germs.
In 1945, Disney produced Cleanliness Brings Health. It contrasts the habits of a Clean Family with the deplorable health habits of an unhappy Careless Family. It shows how to build an outhouse, tells why one shouldnt go to the bathroom in the cornfield and tells other things a family can do to improve the quality of their lives.
The same year, they released What is Disease, a film that gives tips on how to protect oneself from germs. The following year they produced the last film in the series. Planning for Good Health teaches Careless Charlie the importance of the three food groups and explains why one shouldnt just live on a diet of beans.
Shorts From the Vault
The most impressive shorts are saved for the section called From the Vault. Disney has distributed none of the four films in this section in recent decades, yet each is an exceptional work. It is with great pleasure that Bossert has been given the chance to share with us four of the studios finest accomplishments from the war years.
Donald Duck won a much-deserved Oscar for his performance in Der Feuhrers Face (1943) as an overworked Nazi worker going crazy. The only other sequence in Disney films as wild and free as this depiction of Donalds going bezerk is the Pink Elephants on Parade section in Dumbo. Der Feuhrers Face is full of other memorable images that ridicule Nazi Germany. Donalds breakfast is a powerful hint at the deplorable conditions in Germany for some people. By using outrageous humor to get the point across you are likely to remember the situation for many years.
Another important element of this film is the music. Grant says on the DVD that the song was written for the film. By the time the film was released a version of the song by Spike Jones and his City Slickers had become a hit on the pop music charts.
When I met Grant in 1993 he pointed out that the lyrics in the film were censored, but they were clearly heard on the radio. Instead of our hearing, it will blow him straight to hell, we see Donald about to collide with a large shell casing so the offensive word is replaced with a bong as Donald bounces off the giant metal shell.
Grant also talked about the film having a razzberry sound at the end when somebody tosses a tomato at the face of Hitler. The censors demanded that it be removed, but the studio argued it was appropriate considering we were at war with Germany. The Hayes office reluctantly allowed them to use the sound. Grant adds that the sound could never have gotten past the censors if the film had been made during a time of peace. Ironically, when you hear the soundtrack the noise in question is a somewhat vague sounding noise rather than an obviously rude one. I suspect the Hayes office may have asked for the cut after reading a description of the soundtrack in the script rather than their asking for the cut after seeing the completed film.
An even more remarkable work is Education for Death (1943). It is a chilling depiction of how Germanys schools were brainwashing children into believing Hitlers propaganda. It shows a child being educated to be a good Nazi soldier and it suggests he is being educated to die for Germany. The film touches on several gruesome realities including that chronically sick people in German may vanish without a trace and that the state publicly humiliates people who do not conform to their way of thinking. The film shows Hans growing up to be a goose-stepping soldier wearing blinders over his eyes (similar to blinders worn by horses).
The final shot of the film shows a large number of German soldiers in parade formation and then as the narrator tells us Hans education for death is now complete we see the field of soldiers dissolving into a field covered with grave markers. Education for Death must have been a somber and very sobering film experience for a public going out to the movies expecting to see an entertaining evening of films.
Two other films from deep within the vault also contain surprising footage. Disneys Chicken Little (1943) contains an unexpected grim ending. Before the film is shown on the DVD, Leonard Maltin warns parents to screen the film without their kids present. They may decide not to show it to them. The film is a retelling of the familiar sky is falling story with a disturbing WWII twist to it.
Reason and Emotion (1943, nominated for an Oscar) is the final work in this section. The first half is a humorous discourse on how we are both rational and emotional creatures. That part of the film has been shown on TV, but for obvious reasons the rest of the film remained in Disneys vault until now. After the humorous examples of how we are controlled by both common sense and our emotions, the film shows how Hitler has gained control of people through fear, hatred, false pride in phony racial theories and other manipulative techniques.
Victory Through Air Power
Most of the second disc concerns the feature Victory Through Air Power (1943). The complete film is shown along with a theatrical trailer for it, silent footage of a very tired looking Walt on the films live-action set, and still images of art used to make the production. The disc also features three interviews (Grant, Hench and Roy Disney) and a sample of the studios animation for training films.
Victory Through Air Power was a project unlike anything else Walt had ever done. He was committing a tremendous amount of money and studio labor toward a feature that he hoped would convince our nation to build the greatest air force in the world. Major Alexander P. de Seversky, an aviation pioneer, based it on the book Victory Through Air Power. The book and film champion the idea that what we need to win the war will be better long-range bombers. By flying over the enemy in Germany and the Pacific we can attack the heart of their war production industry. Bombing them from the air will save American lives and shorten the war. (And it did.)
Unlike other Disney films that can be shown year after year, Walt must have realized from the start that this feature would have a short-lived exhibition history. Bossert says the film hadnt paid for itself when it was sent to the vaults to gather dust. After reading the records in the studios archive and after talking with people connected with the production, Bossert concludes, Walt felt it was his greatest contribution to the war effort. He believed in it.
Victory Through Air Power was made when the aviation industry was less than 40 years old. Not every general in the Pentagon felt that bombing our enemies from the air was the answer to winning the conflict. Some saw airplanes as just another weapon and they saw no need for a U.S. Air Force separate from the other branches of the service.
Bossert says that Churchill, while attending a conference in Quebec with Franklin D. Roosevelt, found out our president hadnt seen the film. He insisted Roosevelt see it at once. A special screening was set up and after that screening Roosevelts commitment to air power increased. Yes, Victory Through Air Power is a remarkable and convincing work of propaganda.
The film begins with a comedic history of aviation. Next we meet Major Seversky who tells us how Hitler, using a fast moving army, his air force and the element of surprise, had conquered much of Europe. He then explains why we need great long-range bombers, scientific bombing and the use of rocket bombs and other weapon systems to end the war as quickly as possible. Dramatic animated sequences illustrate his ideas.
Disney hired H.C. Potter to direct his friend Sasha (Seversky) in the live-action sequences. To avoid making the live segments seem like a straight forward lecture, Potter had Seversky hold and touch things and move from one part of the set to another without the audience noticing he had a limp (the major had a wooden leg). He also moves the camera in and out for dramatic emphasis and varies the camera angles.
Other credits go to David Hand who supervised a team of 15 animators that included Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, Hugh Fraser, George Rowley, John Sibley, Norm Tate, Vladimir Tytla and Bill Justice. The solid narration was delivered by Art Baker, who later was host of the TV show You Asked For It.
RKO, Disneys distributor, declined handling the 65-minute film. Instead, United Artists distributed it. The film received mixed reviews with some critics applauding Disneys accomplishments at propaganda and others finding the hard sell offensive. Looking at it as a historical document, I think it is a remarkable hard-hitting masterpiece with exceptional production values. Like it or not we live in a world full of propaganda and this film is an exceptional example that should be honored for its contribution to shortening the war.
A Conversation with Dave Bossert
Bossert says he first proposed that the studio release the WWII films about 10 years ago. He drew up a proposal and dusted it off every couple of years, but nobody was committed to doing it. Right after 9/11, he talked with Tom Schumacher (then head of Disney Feature Animation) about the project and he responded by taking the proposal to Roy Disney (then Disney vice chairman) and Dick Cook (Disney Studio chief). Bossert screened a selection of the films for them and they all agreed they were of historical importance to the company and our nation and that they should be made available to the public. Bossert assumes the earlier rejections of the project were from people not familiar with the films. He says they probably thought they were full of insensitive moments and would prove to be an embarrassment to the company.
Creating the DVD was a labor of love for him. He had to go through a lot of red tape to produce the project and more red tape to arrange a public screening of 35mm prints at the Academy last year and another in May of this year for ASIFA-Hollywood members and the public.
When the DVD set was scheduled to go on sale last December, advanced sales were 225,000 sets (production of the sets was postponed by Technicolor as they had more work than they could handle at their duplication plants). There will only be 250,000 sets made of this Disney Treasures Collection, so he hopes some or all of the material will be released in the future in a different series.
When asked what wasnt included on the DVD, he said the studio produced hundreds of training films that were often classified and shown only to individuals in carefully controlled situations. The dullest film on the DVD is a complete print of Four Methods of Flush Riveting. There is also a long excerpt from Stop That Tank (how to use an anti-tank rifle) and short excerpts of artistic merit from other training films.
Bosssert says Disney made lots of films on naval and aircraft identification. There were also lots of films on night bombing as the method of marking targets with colored flairs kept changing. When our enemy figured out what the flairs meant they began to deploy fake displays of flairs so we would bomb fields instead of the intended targets. There were also films on bombsights, autopilots and other war devices.
He also wanted to end the DVD with someone putting the films in an historical perspective and talking about their importance. He wanted to use a well known military figure and have him on a set similar to the live-action set built for Victory Through Air Power.
Bossert heard some unusual stories about life and work at the studio during the war. At the beginning of the war there was a housing shortage in Burbank, California, so a major lived in Walts office for several months. There was an anti-aircraft battery on the grounds of Disney as Lockheed Aircraft was next door.
When they produced Victory Through Air Power, the sound segments had to filmed at night because there was too much noise from aircraft taking off during the day. Walt was working long days and then, at night, he would supervise work on the sound stage. That is why footage of him on the DVD shows him in need of a shave and looking tired.
Grant, who just turned 96, still has an office at the studio. He has a great memory and he recently told Bossert that when they were working on classified government films different parts of the productions were animated by three directors working with different animators so nobody knew what the film was about. When the films were completed all the artwork, camera negatives and other materials were given to the military for security reason. Although all of the productions were declassified in the late 1960s and early 70s, Bossert recently discovered that the National Archives in Washington had about 20 films that Disney had no record of. Prints of all of them have since been added to the Disney Archives.
Bossert began work at the Disney studio 20 years ago. He began as an animator and has worked since then as a visual effects supervisor, artistic coordinator and director. He was the producer of the DVD and was associate producer of Destino.
If You Are Interested in Animated Propaganda
The new Disney Treasures series includes a second DVD set that can be considered propaganda. Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond is almost as interesting as the WWII set. Uncle Sam and several major corporations made public relations films to sell the American public on their spending enormous sums of our tax dollars on the space race and the Cold War. This set includes rare TV shows that were used to educate the public about the need for great rockets and other new technology.
Shows included are Man in Space, 1955; Man and the Moon, 1955; Mars and Beyond, 1957; Eyes in Outer Space, 1959; Our Friend the Atom, 1957 and Epcot, 1966. Our Friend the Atom was made at a time when thousands of people around the world were asking Uncle Sam to ban the use of atomic weapons. Epcot is believed to be Walts last appearance on film.
Walt Disney On the Front Lines, featuring exclusive declassified material and bonus material. Unrated. Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Three hours, 30 minutes $32.99.
Karl Cohen teaches animation history at San Francisco State is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators (McFarland, 1997), is president of ASIFA-SF and is a frequent contributor to Animation World Magazine. In 1984, he directed, shot, edited and did the effects for an anti-nuke film Speak Up! Uncle Sam is Hard of Hearing. This short includes an animated/special effects sequence and is distributed by Canyon Cinema.
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