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'Doing Their Bit' Review

Concluding our extensive interview with Tad Stones, Joe Strike talks with the animation vet more about Darkwing Duck and direct-to-video projects.

Doing Their Bit.

Doing Their Bit.

Even though you may not be familiar with most of the 325 animated works discussed, the authors of Doing Their Bit: Wartime Animated Short Films 1939-1945 make the films come alive in their detailed descriptions. This is a carefully researched work by Michael S. Shull and David E. Wilt who saw almost all of the 290 theatrical cartoon shorts and features described along with 35 more films that were made for our fighting men and were not shown to the public. Probably the hardest task in researching this text was finding prints to screen, as most of the films haven't been in circulation since the war ended and they were never shown on TV.

The main focus of this book is a lively discussion of the content of each film. It also provides enough informative background material to give the reader a brief, but fairly good idea about how the cartoon studios depicted WWI and reflected political and current events during the years leading up to WWII. In the early 1930s it appears caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler were mainly included because they were famous people. They were not yet hated by most Americans.

Showing them as villains came in the late 1930s, after Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939. Hatred of Hitler intensified with the crushing defeat of France in 1940. The authors also point out the few cartoons that include brief references to the war in Spain and to the Japanese who had invaded China before the start of WWII.

The chapters that present an overview of cartoons made during the war are more detailed as there are more films that refer to the events of the period. Showing Donald Duck, Daffy and other stars trying to do their part for the war effort in cartoons that depicted our armed forces was a common occurrence. Other shorts related to the interests of civilians at home. There were cartoons made about shortages, rationing, bond drives, victory gardens and other issues of the day.

The overview addresses the racist depictions of the Japanese during the war. The authors found that the first of many blatantly ugly anti-Japanese cartoons was Popeye's Blunder Below, released Feb. 13, 1942. Superman was also quick to take on our enemy in the Pacific in The Japoteurs and The Eleventh Hour, also released in 1942. Another film from 1942, Destruction Inc., has the Man of Steel taking on evil German spies.

The authors acknowledge that racist images of black Americans were made throughout the war. They note that images of blacks in war cartoons showing them as soldiers or in civil defense roles "were diminished by stereotypes used for quick gags" and that the first positive images of blacks in war films were in live-action features from 1943 (Bataan from M.G.M. and Crash Dive from 20th Century-Fox). In their Appendix B they list how frequently different negative images appear. They found 42 cartoons with images of the Japanese, 40 with images of blacks, 45 with images of Hitler, 13 with images of Mussolini, 34 with miscellaneous Nazi/Fascist images and 10 with Japanese leaders.

While the overview gives a good general picture of what WWII animation was like, the real strength of the book is in the detailed filmography of 325 works that in some way reflect the thoughts and concerns of the American people about war and peace. This section begins with films from 1939 to 1941. It includes war allegories that can be seen as cautionary warnings and other films that refer to pacifism, spies, Nazis, neutrality, our fighting forces, the draft, the League of Nations, patriotism, the invasion of several countries by Germany and dozens of other topics.

Disney's 1941 feature Dumbo even referenced the war. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

Disney's 1941 feature Dumbo even referenced the war. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

Disney's Dumbo (1941) is mentioned because next to a newspaper photo of Dumbo flying near the end of the film there is a headline that reads, "Bombers for Defense." There is also a reference in Dumbo to "fireside chats," one of President Roosevelt's method of talking directly to the American public on the radio. Another obscure and prophetic reference that they found was Donald Duck saying, "I might as well be in a concentration camp" when he is forced to chop down trees in a lumber camp after trying to steal some food in Timber, 1941.With the outbreak of war some films that were probably already in production had wartime details added. For example in Superman's The Bulleteers, released in March1942, there is a sign reading "Buy Defense Bonds" in one scene. Soon there were films that were taking potshots at Hitler, Mussolini, Goring and the leaders of Japan. Others urged Americans to do their part by starting victory gardens, recycling waste and scrap material and by buying bonds. You may not read this section cover to cover, but if this period of our country's history fascinates you, you will probably be using it in the future as a source for reference material. The book has an excellent index if you use it for research.

Perhaps the most interesting items in the book for me are the numerous explanations to topical references in cartoons. For example, when the films were made most people knew what the codes meant on gas rationing stickers, but when I first saw Russian Rhapsody, 1944, I didn't know the difference between an A and a C windshield sticker so the joke lost its punch (A was the lowest priority so you couldn't buy as much gas each month as a person with a C sticker).

Even Happy and Grumpy did their bit by buying war bonds. © Disney. All rights reserved.

Even Happy and Grumpy did their bit by buying war bonds. © Disney. All rights reserved.

In The Daffy Duckaroo, 1942, a sign on a motor scooter reads, "Keep `em under 40, U.S.A.," a reference to the lowering of the national speed limit in order to save on gasoline. In the discussion of Tire Trouble, 1942, I learned, "Tires were one of the first items to be restricted during the war; gas rationing was enforced mostly to save rubber, not gasoline."

The book has a solid chapter and separate filmography on the Snafu and Hook cartoons made for people in the armed forces. The authors explain several things most of us are unaware of today. For example the Snafu theme song is known as, "You're a Horse's Ass," and two Snafu cartoons that I haven't seen, Malaria Mike and Target Snafu, can be construed as warnings about both malaria and venereal diseases. Knowing these facts adds to our enjoyment and understanding.

They also discuss Going Home, 1944, an unreleased Snafu that might have been banned due to its suggestion that a civilian spied for the enemy, which resulted in Snafu's unit being wiped out. The censored film also includes a vague reference to a secret weapon that can wipe out an entire Japanese island. While Chuck Jones, who directed the short, couldn't have had any knowledge of our atomic weapons program, his fantasy weapon may have been too close to the truth for somebody at the Pentagon who saw the film and did know about our atomic projects. The 4 Hook cartoons mentioned were made for the U.S. Navy by Lantz and Warner Bros. to promote the sale of savings bond to sailors.

Doing Their Bit is a good companion to the new DVD Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines.

Doing Their Bit is a good companion to the new DVD Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines.

The filmography for this book is useful for other reasons. Credits for each film are given when known. While some studios like Terrytoons never bothered to recognize their artists with credits, the authors provide sometimes hard to find credits for other studios including Columbia, Universal, Disney, Paramount (but not the George Pal films) MGM and Warner Bros.

They also include a few quotes from the Office of War Information about specific works. The comment about Superman in The Eleventh Hour, 1942, by an OWI analyst fascinates me, as it doesn't make sense. It reads, "It seems to me to have a bad influence. The Japs are not beaten by a mythical Superman, but by the men of the United Nations." Was there something wrong suggesting our allied forces could be victorious?

Another nice feature is having lines in italics after the discussion of each cartoon. They serve as a quick reference guide to the works' content. They begin with a code that indicates whether it barely hints at the world crisis (like Dumbo) or if it is hard hitting propaganda like Disney's brilliant Education for Death, 1943. The latter explains some of the things wrong with the way of life in Nazi Germany. The lines in italics also list the themes/topics depicted in the films.

If you have read this far you probably will enjoy adding this book to your library. It makes reading about these historic works exciting. The book is a good companion to the new DVD Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines.

Doing Their Bit: Wartime American Animated Short Films (1939-1945) by Michael S. Shull and David E. Wilt, McFarland, 2nd edition (soft cover, 246 pages, illustrated, $38.50 or $42.50 postpaid from the publisher, PO Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640 (800) 253-2187

Karl Cohen teaches animation history at San Francisco State (Dylan Brown was one of his students), 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.