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For many years I've known people who have worked at Disney, and the biggest frustration with their incredible library of work was the lack of access to some of it. Sixty years have passed since WW2 and just now have the vaults opened for a look at the company's rich resource of War-themed work.
Half educational but all entertaining, On the Front Lines is a collection of short subjects and one feature illustrating Walt Disney's considerable contribution to the war effort. Leonard Maltin's host segments have an essential function here, as the context and meaning of most of these films will need to be explained to most of the audience. Even better for historians, the material on the disc does not appear to be censored (at least to these eyes) to remove racially offensive material, as has been done in the past.
The two-disc set is comprised of 32 short subjects and one feature made at Disney for the war effort. Disc One offers war-related cartoons and educational short subjects that use Disney animation and characters.
Some of the Propaganda and Entertainment cartoons appear here on video for the first time, but others remained in release after the war. The originals have RKO distribution info in the credits and open with the giant heads of the characters wearing serviceman's hats and caps. Again, the meaning and usefulness of the cartoons is made clear by Leonard Maltin's introductions, giving viewers unfamiliar with the subject more of an idea of why they were made and how they were received by the public.
Donald Duck is the star in
The Educational shorts use fancy animation and gags to sell war-related concepts to the public, often with Disney characters as the salesmen. These were commissioned by governmental agencies here and in Canada too. As Maltin explains, the Three Little Pigs, Donald Duck and others were used to promote timely tax-paying, to assuage fears about food shortages, and to create pride in our agriculture industry. The second half of this group were part of the Pan American relations campaign intended (with various audio tracks) to help educate rural South Americans.
Thrifty Pig recycles the original 3 Little Pigs cartoon to show War Bonds as bricks in the Pig's solid defenses.
From the Vault isolates some shorts with individual Maltin intros, as their content requires special handling, especially for Disney's target family audience.
Der Feuhrer's Face is easily the most famous and most popular wartime cartoon, and has been shown and excerpted a lot on other Disney compilations. The Spike Jones song razzing the Nazis provides hilarious, off-color bookends for a Donald Duck nightmare where he's trapped in an oppressive "Nutziland." He works on an assembly line like Chaplin in Modern Times, prompting an animated whirlpool reminiscent of the drunk scene in Dumbo. A German tuba player is revealed to be a Hirohito buck-toothed Jap (anese) stereotype, and Goering is wickedly (well, accurately) portrayed as gay.
Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi is a sinister recap of the ethos of the Nazi Hitler Youth, starting with mothers fearing for their babies' lives because the Nazis will exterminate unhealthy children (somewhat of an exaggeration). Authoritarian control turns the kid into a monstrous soldier, one of millions to be fed into the Nazi war machine for future world-conquering. The only relief from grim tragedy is a funny spoof of Wagnerian opera, with a Hitler character contending with an impossibly fat (and big-a**ed) female Goering diva. As a partially animated portrait, Goebbels looks just like a deviant Robert Crumb character! The real threat of the film seems to be government control over our private lives; the dramatics used against the Nazis here would be immediately used against the Russians in a few years. But the example of a schoolkid brutalized into conformity as an obedient Nazi automaton is dramatic and compelling. Interestingly, the excellent narrator is Art Smith, later blacklisted for his continued political activism after the war ended.
Reason and Emotion is an example of faulty propaganda linked with bad psychology. People's personalities are crudely divided into an emotional caveman and a rational milquetoast to demonstrate how Hitlerian rhetoric can sway the masses. Intelligence never comes into the picture and human life is presented as an equally simplistic struggle between good and bad demons. Emotion is always irresponsible, but Reason doesn't seem too bright either. Fear, conformity, and selfish greed are also strong reasons why masses fall behind popular demagogues, and this cartoon's caricatures of its audience as idiot cavemen are kind of insulting. The "emotional" girl is food-crazy and her "reasonable" is a prissy librarian stereotype.
Chicken Little sees Disney wandering into outright cynical allegory, taking up the lead from a James Thurber fable about foxes and chickens. The Chicken Little story shows how the subversive fox undermines the security of the henhouse through lies and innuendo. Again, the public is slandered as just a bunch of impressionable idiots, gossips, pea-brained intellectuals and drunks ... or is that an accurate assessment? The barnyard is doomed when the fox smears the credibility of the only rational character, a rooster representing a conservative status quo. Because it wisely eschews overt Nazi associations, the cartoon is equally adaptable to an anti-Red campaign. Although Maltin recommends discretion in showing it to children, Disney included it in at least one kiddie cartoon compilation on VHS that I showed to my kids. It probably wasn't withdrawn because it fit well into the Cold War climate. Even more interesting is the cartoon's final "fear stampede," which pretty accurately describes our post 9-11 national situation.
Disc Two has the big guns, the real war-related material. The main feature is Victory Through Air Power, a theatrical release that championed the strategic arguments of Major Alexander Seversky. Disney liked the ideas of Russian aviation expert and naturalized American Seversky, and made the feature as a public service - even though it wasn't in line with official government ideas on how to run the war. The movie is beautifully made, with some of the best graphic animation Disney ever did. There's a lengthy comic section about the history of flight, the only part excerpted later, many times in fact. Then Seversky comes on to sell his theory, mainly that air power was being wasted as support for ground troops, when it could be doing a lot better as an independent force (there was no stand-alone Air Force until 1947 or 1948).
Seversky's thinking is indisputable up to a point - Billy Mitchell's struggles against entrenched military thinking didn't end in WW2. He contends that bombing of essential industries at the core of an enemy nation is better than slowly trying to hammer away at their outer defenses, and Disney backs up the idea with compelling graphics showing how strategic supply lines favor the aggressor, etc. But the docu contends that the island-hopping strategy in the Pacific is costly (true) and unnecessary (very debatable) because long range bombers that can reach Tokyo could knock the fight out of Japan. We eventually got the B-29s to clobber Japan from a thousand miles away, but they sure weren't ready in late 1942 when we started fighting back in the South Seas.
The strategic bombing idea was controversial then and still is now. For all the tonnage of TNT dropped on Germany, the resourceful enemy was able to minimize the damage to their industrial machine and hold out for years. Eventually strategic bombing became largely a terror weapon (very American concept) that burned down entire cities and incinerated whole populations. Bombing actually strengthens the enemy's will to resist and fight back, as was proven in Vietnam. That tiny country literally moved underground for years, took more bombs than were dropped on Europe, and still was able to accelerate its war effort - and they didn't even have an Air Force with which to resist.
Still, Victory Through Air Power is a brilliant graphic achievement. It's exciting and educational and very funny in the early comic section. Animated maps and representations of forces in combat communicate complicated ideas beautifully, and doubtless Washington was impressed. It's just that Seversky's essential element - a long-range bombing capability - took time to develop. We're now used to seeing global threats represented by giant animated fists striking knives into countries, and the examples here are breathtaking. The finale may have been animated by Bill Tytla - to reach the proper emotional pitch, an American eagle fights a giant Japanese octopus in a battle to the death. Instead of being silly, it's stirring.
Training Shorts are potentially the dullest subjects here, but we're given an interesting variety.
Four Methods of Flush Riveting is
just that, a dry primer on how many ways one can drive a rivet. Dull, but instructive.
Bonus Features has the expected trailers and galleries, and three interviews with Disney personnel who remember the war years and how the studio changed - with armed guards and an officer billeted in Walt's studio office apartment. The artists wanted to get back to pure entertainment but liked being so useful; they stress how Disney often lost money making the wartime shorts as good as they could be. Roy Disney was just a kid at the time and has fond memories of the lot "under Martial Law."
Walt Disney on the Front Lines is one heck of a disc set. Almost all of the material is in flawless condition, perhaps because it stayed unmolested in the vaults. Victory Through Air Power, the cartoons and the short subjects all look perfect, with strong soundtracks and brilliant color. The range of animation styles and attention to detail is evidence that Disney's staff were the best film communicators in movie history.
Nothing seems to be censored. Even though the word "Jap" is thrown around and caricatures of asians and huns abound, the films show a general restraint - unlike some Warners shorts I've seen that show Tokyo Rose sitting on a toilet, etc. In one of the interviews we see a sketch-cartoon with an animator and a songwriter trying to pass blame to each other, in a joke future where the Germans have won and want revenge on the creators of Der Feuhrer's Face. It may be funny, but had the war gone the other way, the propagandists of Hollywood could all have been condemned to Nazi meathooks. Or, if the stories of Goebbels secretly admiring these films are true, maybe they'd have all become official UFA staffers, rewriting history to favor the victors.
Disney's animators were surely one of the strongest assets for galvanizing and mobilizing the unity of the Allied cause. I think their efforts worked so well because their cause was just and the conflict clear enough to be depicted without too much distortion. Attempts to do the same in the more complex and contradictory post-war world have mostly failed.
The Double Disc set with its huge list of goodies is well-presented with a much simpler menu system than Disney's older special sets, dropping most of the time-wasting and headache-inducing graphic animations. The artwork is handsome. The gimmicky collectible tin is just one more complicated container to navigate to get to the content; my tin is going in a box with the old Davy Crockett tin. Happily, there's a normal Keep Case inside to enable this superlative collection to be put on a shelf.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,