Just as Walt Disney was exploring the possibilities that feature-length animation could bring, the world at large was about to be thrown into turmoil.
On September 1st, 1939, the German army marched on Poland, rolling over the country as the Polish defence was no match for the invading forces. This act began, in earnest, the Second World War.
Admittedly, in the early years of the war, from Poland’s invasion right up until December 1941, the war was fought almost exclusively in Europe. With the notable exception of Japan, which were on the Germans’ side and were the reason that the war eventually arrived on America’s shores.
It is worth noting that it is not strictly true that the USA had no part in the early days of the war. Although they were determined to avoid being dragged into another costly world war publicly, they supported Britain by selling arms and other supplies to their allies (The UK would continue to pay war debt to the USA until the end of 2006, sixty-one years later).
America would be eventually dragged into the war in the most public and violent ways possible when the Imperial Japanese Empire launched an attack on Pearl Harbour. A US naval base situated on the island of Hawaii. The Japanese Navy surprised the US forces by bombing the base, sinking several of America’s battleships, destroyed planes, and killing over 2,000 servicemen, along with several civilians.
The USA subsequently declared war on Japan. This lead to Germany declaring war on the US soon after, therefore officially joining the allies in fighting the war.
“Well thanks for the history lesson and all, but what has this got to0 do with animation?” You might be asking yourself, well, first of all, have some patience. All that stress will raise your blood pressure. Secondly, animation was a key tool in the American war effort during the Second World War., To the extent that some shorts were even government-funded as they were good morale boosters for the troops and the population at home.
One man keen to help in this area was Walt Disney (long-time readers will remember that Walt tried to enlist during the tail-end of World War I but was ultimately shipped out after the signing of the armistice). With the memories of Snow White’s successes still fresh in the mind, he was more than willing to help with the war effort.
Perhaps the most well-known of Disney’s war propaganda shorts (although not entirely for the right reasons) is Der Fuhrer’s Face. In the short, Donald Duck has a nightmare in which he’s forced to work in an artillery factory for Nazi Germany. It includes a lot of imagery that would be unacceptable today. Such as Donald throwing up a Nazi salute while shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ (although admittedly, it is kinda funny to hear that said in Donald’s voice). Not to mention its depictions of Japanese soldiers, which have aged just as poorly as you imagine.
This era was not a particularly profitable one for Disney. The Government’s war office partially funded Their films. Still, this arrangement was not intended to line Disney’s pockets but was for, as we’ve discussed, propaganda. It didn’t help that their feature films at the time weren’t setting the box office on fire either. The ’40s opened with Fantasia, which was critically lauded (and was regarded by Disney himself as his masterpiece), but not a big hit. Neither was the following feature, Dumbo. More significant a box-office flop was 1942’s Bambi. Given the nature of the opening scene of Bambi, it’s easy to see why families who might have experienced personal loss would enjoy watching a baby deer lose her mother for their entertainment. It’s beloved today, especially for its art, but was financially disappointing at the time.
These box office disappointments were followed by a change of tact in Disney’s release strategy, as their focus shifted from fairy tales to so-called ‘package films’. Several shorts edited together as a feature-length ‘package’. This new era of Disney feature films began with Saludos Amigos in 1943, followed by The Three Caballeros in 1945, just before the war ended. Neither of these we successful at the box office either. Saludos Amigos grossed just over $1.1million, and The Three Callaberos didn’t do much better, raking in only $3.3million.
Not that Disney was the only game in town during the war. Other studios were also providing the US government with films to boost morale. Most notable of these was the film series about the character ‘Private Snafu’, a Warner Brothers creation. The character was solely intended to instruct the military about certain wartime dangers but are now declassified and widely available on the internet.
These films were more adult-oriented in tone to suit the sensibilities of young soldiers. Since they were never intended to be available for public viewing, they tend to include more mature themes. Even the name ‘Snafu’ comes from a rather X-rated military acronym SNAFU, which means ‘Situation Normal. All Fucked Up.’ (sometimes also “All Fouled Up” if used in print or on the radio). The character was animated by Chuck Jones and voiced by Mel Blanc (both legendary names I will cover later).
These films were shown to soldiers because his character was intended to show what a soldier should not do during a war, such as carrying a gas mask or not talking about military secrets in public. These events usually end with Snafu getting killed due to his stupidity.; Hoping that the soldiers watching would learn not to copy Snafu and survive long enough to go back home. The success of these films with the military helped Warner Brother animation survive in the financially disastrous era.
So the world emerged from the war a much different place after the second worldwide war in under fifty years. Countries were divided, and the survivors would still bear the scars for the rest of their lives. The war left even the victorious countries to pick through the rubble and rebuild themselves.
The animation industry was similarly bruised and battered from the effects of war. Box office receipts were, perhaps understandably, down as a result of the war. Most studios work had been in aid of the war, so hadn’t turned a profit either. Although the war had necessitated the studios staying open due to their propaganda production, they were now in a somewhat financial precarious position, to put it mildly. Still, animation would bounce back as the 40s turned into the 50s, but that’s a story for another time…
Next time: The rise of Looney Tunes and Warner Bros.