We’re two days into our fundraiser to get Mauricio the fruck out of Veneuzuela and we’re already one third funded! So, to say thanks, I’m publishing the first of the War Era Short reviews which I was originally going to put up in September. I’ll publish another when we get to €500 and a third when we’re fully funded. And if you haven’t contributed already, please consider doing so. And if money’s tight, please help spread the word by sharing the GoFundMe page. Actually, do that anyway.
Both Mauricio and I could not be more grateful,
Studio: Walt Disney Productions
Country of Origin: United States
First Screened: January 1st, 1943
Ugh. Ugh! A review of World War 2 shorts that includes Der Fuehrer’s Face. How obvious. How predictable. How vulgar. How basic.
But there’s really no way you can’t talk about this, one of the most controversial of all American animated shorts made during the war years (and hoo boy is that up against some stiff competition!). So let’s state three things straight up front.
1) Yes, this is the cartoon where Donald Duck yells “Heil Hitler!” 33 times (also known as “a full Bannon”.)
2) Notwithstanding that, it’s a really, really good short.
3) Actually, in context, it’s probably less offensive than pretty much any other short we’ll be reviewing as part of this series.
When I announced this series, I posted this image of a saber wielding Donald leading a battalion of cartoon critters into battle against the forces of the Third Reich.
Some of you very astutely spotted something rather weird with this picture: How prominent Donald is, how de-emphasised Mickey is (he is driving a tank waaaaaaaaay in the background in case you missed him) and how “not there” Goofy is.
It suddenly struck me that I’d never seen a Disney short from the war years that featured either Mickey or Goofy, while I’d seen plenty that featured Donald as well as Huey, Dewey and Louie. So why were the ducks so heavily featured? I resolved to find the answer and embarked on an epic quest across the internet. I consulted Wikipedia. I consulted Quora. God help me and forgive me my sins, I consulted Reddit. And after all that research, do you want to know what I found?
Frustrating and unsatisfying as it might be, from what I can gather the answer to the question “Why did Disney use Donald Duck so heavily in their propaganda and not Mickey and Goofy” the answer appears to be “’Cos they…just…did.” I can offer a few theories, though. At this point in history Donald Duck was cresting in popularity whereas Mickey was already yesterday’s news so his reduced role could simply be a reflection of the fact that he just wasn’t drawing the crowds any more. Goofy was still very much a star, though, which makes his absence quite baffling. The only clue as to why this might be is that Pinto Colvig, Goofy’s voice actor, and Walt had fallen out by this point. Goofy had thus been transitioned into the “How to…” series of cartoons where Goofy doesn’t speak and instead follows the instructions of a suave narrator. These cartoons were very popular so Disney may have simply decided to use the ducks for their propaganda shorts rather than tampering with a formula that was working by sending Goofy into the army.
Anyway, to the matter at hand. The short was originally titled “Donald Duck in Nutzi Land” but the song Der Fueher’s Face (written by Disney songsmith Oliver Wallace who would later write the music for Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom) was actually covered by Spike Jones and His City Slickers before the cartoon was released. It became such a hit that the title of the cartoon was changed to Der Fueher’s Face. The song itself is a parody of the The Horst Wessel Song, originally the anthem of the Nazi Party and later the co-anthem of Nazi Germany which I was very disappointed to find is a cheery oom-pah-pah number and not a dark and sinister Imperial March. It’s almost like they didn’t know they were the baddies. Just as the song is a piss-take of the real Nazi anthem, Der Fueher’s Face is a piss-take of Nazi Germany itself. It places Donald in “Nutzi Land”, a version of Hitler’s Reich taken to absurd and comical extremes (if you could actually get more extreme than the real thing).
One thing I’ve been impressed by while re-watching Disney’s war-era shorts is that they’re relatively uninterested in whipping up fear and loathing of the enemy. Instead, they focus on puncturing the propaganda of the Axis powers. To counter Germany’s image as an industrial behemoth capable of providing its citizens with every luxury, the short shows Donald living in a constant state of comedic deprivation and exhaustion. The goal is to make the Nazis look ridiculous and harmless, to strip away their menace while making the viewer appreciate their own freedoms. Of course, like any short that portrays the Nazis as buffoons, Der Fuehrer’s Face has been criticised as minimizing the horrors of that regime. To this all I can say is, I hope we can all agree that there are appropriate artforms for analysing and understanding the barbarism of the Holocaust and that Donald Duck cartoons are not one of them.
That said, this is forties Disney. And there is always some tar mixed with the sugar.
There is one second, one single frame, that never fails to chill me to the bone.
Look at this beloved cartoon character. Broken. Chained. Exhausted to the point of death. His eyes staring into nothingness as he feebly raises his wing in fascist salute.
Reaching for the sky, just to surrender.
And for one terrible second, we are no longer in Nutzi Land.
We are somewhere much, much worse.
How’s the animation?: Excellent, and with a really striking Disney acid sequence towards the end.
Art or Propaganda?: Both. Unlike a lot of the Donald Duck war era cartoons which were simply standard Donald Duck cartoons in an army setting, this short has a definite propaganda objective. But it’s also a really funny, well animated short.
How does this rate on the Jingo-Meter?: I give it four star-spangled sets of pyjamas out of five.
What’s going on with the War?: In January 1943 the Soviets have encircled the German Army at Stalingrad, inflicting massive losses. General Tojo orders the evacuation of Guadalcanal in the face of overwhelming American force, a Jewish uprising in the Czestochowa ghetto is brutally repressed and the Casablanca Declaration is issued, where Churchill and Roosevelt declare that they will accept nothing less that total surrender from the Axis Powers.
Dude, is this racist?: Dude, this is somewhat racist. There’s an uncomfortable yellow-face portrayal of a Japanese soldier. Oh, and one of the Germans is clearly supposed to be gay.
Should I buy bonds?: You should absolutely buy bonds.