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Saturday, December 11, 2004
Disney goes to war
The strangest years of the Walt Disney Corporation have finally been dragged into the light. Nowadays it's a little known fact that the Mouse House all but closed its doors during World War 2 in order to produce tons of propaganda and informational shorts. In 1943, the company even released Victory Through Airpower, a full-length feature that reportedly helped convince FDR to finally commit to a full strategic air campaign against Germany.
In an effort to suppress what would no doubt be considered outdated and even racist material, the company tossed everything from the war era into its vaults, where, for the most part, they remained for 60 years. In mid 2004, Disney dusted off these once pariahs for a new DVD set, On the Front Lines, perhaps in an effort to explain the shorts, which have been surrounded by rumors since the war ended. Copies of shorts like Der Fuehrer’s Face, which won an Oscar in 1943 but quickly disappeared after the war for its depiction of Donald Duck as a Nazi, have been popping up in underground film festivals for decades.
Rather than entertain, the set is orchestrated as an educational release. Leonard Maltin introduces each short and places them in a historical context. While everything included here is neither as overtly racist as the Warner Brothers cartoons released during the same period ("Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," etc.), the set i still filled with the sort of weirdness the company might have been wise to leave locked up.
In one short starring the Seven Dwarfs, Dopey is encourage by an off-screen narrator to slaughter a mosquito in order to curb stateside malaria outbreaks. "Kill 'em good and dead, Dopey!" Because the dwarfs put up screens over their windows and eliminate standing water on their property, they remain healthy while their counterparts at a family farm die off one by one.
In Victory Through Airpower, included on disc 2, a bald eagle tears apart an octopus symbolizing Japan. In another, Donald Duck is divided between wasting his paycheck or investing in War Bonds. His id is split into two- an angel and a zoot-suit wearing duck with a swastika necktie. Subtle. In Education for Death, Hitler is depicted as a knight infatuated with an extremely obese and extremely daft embodiment of Germany as a budding Nazi becomes brainwashed in a fascistic classroom.
Mickey Mouse only pops up in one of these, clad in a uniform and in a framed picture at Minnie's place. While most of the rest of Disney stock characters make appearances, Donald stars in most of the shorts, possibly since he's closer to the quintessential "everyman" than bland, innocent Mickey.
Perhaps the most disturbing cartoon included in the set follows Donald as he enters boot camp. He quickly submits to the rigors of training and his cruel drill instructor, played by Pete, the bully that tormented Mickey in Steamboat Willy. On the edge of sanity, Donald pulls a gun and puts it to his head while laughing hysterically (see the montage above). Even Maltin is hard pressed to explain why the Disney animators would use this material to encourage draftees and boost morale overseas.
While it's not quite worth a purchase, On the Front Lines is worth a look if you're eager to see the companies icons behaving out of character and trapped in nightmarish war scenarios. If you're willing to brave your way past a few obscene banner ads, you can view a portion of Der Fuhrer's Face on this site.