Toons on the March — How Hollywood Animators Turned Their Characters Loose on the Axis

Walt Disney was just one of the many Hollywood studios that loaned its talent to the war effort. Popular cartoon characters did everything from shill for government bond drives and poke fun at the enemy to train soldiers for combat. Few of these cultural artifacts have been shown publicly since.

Walt Disney was just one of the many Hollywood studios that loaned its talent to the war effort. American cartoonists (and their loveable characters) did everything from shill for government bond drives and poke fun at the enemy to train soldiers for combat. Few of these cultural artifacts have been shown publicly since, but some can still be seen online.

“Most cartoons in the wartime genre were quickly pulled from circulation. In fact, few born after the 1945 ever saw any of them.”

DO YOU REMEMBER THE OLD Merry Melodies cartoon in which Daffy Duck gives a Nazi the hot foot? Or what about the classic where Bugs Bunny drops an anvil on a Japanese soldier? Can’t seem recall those ones, you say? Well, that’s because movie audiences haven’t seen them since VJ Day. Yet during the Second World War, the big Hollywood animation studios like Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM, cranked out an endless array of shorts like these featuring all of their popular characters (and a few new ones created just for the occasion). Produced at the request of the War Department, these lost films were used to sell war bonds, train GIs, or just to entertain the public. Interestingly, few of these works survived the post-war period. In most cases, the content no longer resonated with audiences. After all, who cared about victory bonds in 1947? Others, particularly those with racially-insensitive depictions of Germans, Italians, and Japanese, quickly became embarrassments for studios. As a result, most cartoons in the wartime genre were quickly pulled from circulation. In fact, few born after the 1945 ever saw any of them. But now thanks to sources like YouTube, we can revisit some of these curious cultural artifacts.

Here are few samples:

In “Daffy the Commando” (1943), Warner Bros.’ favourite irreverent duck takes on the Third Reich and even manages a swipe at the Fuhrer himself. Click above to watch the seven-minute cartoon.

 

Warner Bros. tried hard to forget that it made “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips” (1944). Setting aside the title itself (and the overtly racial slurs contained in the script), the film’s depiction of the Japanese as bucktoothed and bespectacled dupes certainly offended post war sensibilities, making the film almost unwatchable by modern audiences. In fact a multi-volume Bugs Bunny retrospective released for home video during the 1990s drew so much fire for including this cultural relic, the distribution company was forced to yank it and re-release the entire collection without the offending episode. [1] Click above to have a look for yourself.

 

And if you thought that was bad, get a load of this Looney Toons cartoon from 1945 entitled Toyko Woes — a send up of the famous Japanese American propaganda radio personality Iva Toguri. The film’s protagonist, Mr. Hook, was a cartoon pitchman for the U.S. Navy. He was the star of other wartime classics you probably never saw like Take Heed Mr. Tojo and The Good Egg.

 

Walt Disney Studios on the other hand had to make few apologies for this harmless wartime ditty entitled “Sky Troopers” (1942). The short focuses on Donald Duck’s enlistment in the airborne and his many run-ins with a hulking sergeant. No controversy here.

 

Not all of the Disney’s wartime cartoons were as playful; some were rather grim. The studio’s notorious animated film “Education for Death” (1943) follows the indoctrination of a German child as he grows up in the Third Reich. The 10-minute film does mix in a bit of humour, but it seems strangely out of place amid the earnest warnings about the threat of Nazism.

 

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. showed that a cartoon could denounce the Nazis while being fun at the same time. “The Ducktators” (1942) was a seven-minute black and white short about the rise of a fascist water fowl.

 

Wartime cartoons did more than just alternate between frightening audiences and making them laugh. Some served as a call to arms, encouraging civilians to pitch in and help with the war effort. Consider this Bugs Bunny public service announcement designed to get theatre audiences to invest in Victory Bonds. Unfortunately, the spot is marred by a cringe-inducing Al Jolson “black face” routine that all but guarantees that this 90-second spot will never be shown in public again. Watch if you think you can stand it.

 

Warner Bros. also turned out animated training films during the war. A series of two-dozen short films featuring the long since forgotten Pvt. Snafu were designed to warn GIs about everything from the dangers of excessive drinking and loose women to the hazards of spilling military secrets. And don’t kid yourself: these cartoons aren’t for children. Many feature themes even too racy for most 1940s movie-goers. But the barracks humour likely resonated with 20-something infantrymen. Here’s one about the dangers of booby traps (and all appropriate the double entendres). By the way, the dialogue in these films was written by none other than Dr. Seuss himself Theodor Seuss Geisel.

 

The British also used cartoons as training films, as this three minute black and white short shows us. In this particular piece, RAF aircrews are reminded of the importance of wearing their oxygen masks at higher altitudes. It’s not exactly Looney Toons, but it does the trick.

 

Speaking of training films, this short was produced by Disney for the Canadian army. It teaches soldiers how to destroy enemy armoured vehicles using a portable anti-tank rifle. The studio made a long string of these sorts of flicks for Canadian consumption, both civilian and military.

And it wasn’t just America and its Allies that released the power of wartime cartoons. Other countries used animation to inform, indoctrinate and propagandize too. Consider these:

 

A copyright infringement lawsuit from Hollywood was probably the least of Nazi Germany’s worries when it produced this cartoon using rip-offs of everyone from Popeye to Mickey Mouse. The one-and-a-half-minute film was produced to point out to civilian populations in occupied France that it was in fact Allied bombers that were raining destruction down on their cities, not the Luftwaffe.

 

Russia had a lot to learn about cartoons, judging by this ham-handed 1941 propaganda gem entitled “Fascist Jack Boots Shall Not Trample On Our Homeland.” The two-minute black and white film features a wild boar in Nazi garb being thwarted by Cossacks and tanks. While it’s a far cry from Fantasia, the film’s music was composed by virtuoso Sergei Prokofiev.

(originally published on Oct. 26, 2012)

2 comments for “Toons on the March — How Hollywood Animators Turned Their Characters Loose on the Axis

  1. 26 October, 2012 at 2:15 am

    Alas, good sir, I have likely seen every one of them in the late 50’s through the very early 60’s. Perhaps that is one source of my patriotism. Similar to the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon classics showing a stereotyped servant of the South, yes, all have been yanked from TV…and its a shame historically.

    Some of my favorites were of Popeye which you briefly mention. I remember them to be B&W, too.

    Aside from cartoons, there was “Combat” on prime time TV. Even on that show, the Nazis were referred to as if it was still wartime. But interestingly, my mother – who married my Kibei father who was part of the MIS during the Occupation, fell in love with Sgt. Saunders (played by Vic Morrow).

    Great post.

  2. MHN
    26 October, 2012 at 6:50 am

    Thanks for that. I never watched Combat, but I did enjoy the Rat Patrol in syndication during the 80s.

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