Walt Disney's World War II propaganda production

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Between 1941 and 1945, during World War II, Walt Disney was involved in the production of propaganda films for the U.S. government. The widespread familiarity of Disney's productions benefited the U.S. government in producing pro-American war propaganda in an effort to increase support for the war.

Disney's involvement[edit]

The early 1940s - Walt Disney Studios' financial crisis[edit]

Production Costs and Revenues of Walt Disney Studios' Animated Films (1937-1942)

Leading into World War II, Walt Disney Studios was on the verge of bankruptcy.[1] While Walt Disney studios had entered the early 1940s with major profits from films like Snow White which had seen high revenues, Walt Disney had a tendency to use all profits from released films towards the production of new ones.[2][3] In 1941, with the release of Fantasia, this policy led to severe economic loss within the company. Walt Disney spent four times more than his planned budget on the production of Fantasia which totaled about $2.8 million.[1][4] However, Fantasia did not receive the attention Walt Disney thought it would. The release of the film was met with low attendance and poor reviews.[5] In its road-shows of the film, Walt Disney Studios made only $325,000.[6] The studio lost about the equivalent of $15 million in 2015.[7] Other films like Pinocchio also failed to bring in the profits Walt Disney predicted because the war in Europe had prevented European moviegoers from seeing the film, minimizing the studio's foreign revenue.[6] With the extreme loss in profits and revenue, Walt Disney Studios, unable to keep its large number of employees on the payroll, laid off many of its animators.[8] This led to a labor strike of nearly half of the studio's remaining 800 employees in the spring of 1941.[9][8] The strike went on for four weeks until Walt Disney agreed to join a labor union.[9] As Walt Disney handled negotiations with the labor union, Roy Disney attempted to persuade the studio's main distributors to invest more money in the film company, trying to secure more production funds for the studio which could no longer afford to offset production costs with employee layoffs. Roy was unsuccessful in finding any new investments.[6]

Walt Disney Studios entered the winter of 1941 still in a financial crisis.[1] On December 7, 1941, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Axis-affiliated Empire of Japan, 500 United States Army troops began an occupation of Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California that would last for the next eight months—the only Hollywood film studio under military occupation in history. The soldiers were stationed there to protect a nearby Lockheed aircraft plant from the enemy air raids, convert parking garages into ammunition depots, and fixing equipment in large soundstages.[10] Soon after the start of the occupation, Walt Disney was approached with requests from the U.S. services to produce propaganda films.[11] On December 8, 1941, Walt Disney settled on its first film contract with the Navy. The contract required that Disney produce twenty war-related animated shorts for the United States government for a compensation of $90,000.[12] Walt Disney Studios received $4,500 for each short it produced which was significantly higher than its standard profit for shorts.[1] Other branches of the government, including the Army Air Forces, the Department of Agriculture, and the Treasury Department, rapidly caught on to Disney's creative approach to generating educational films, propaganda, and insignias and offered additional agreements.[11] Considering the impact of the agreements made between the U.S. services and Walt Disney Studios, scholar Gerard Raiti suggests that "if it weren't for the U.S. Military, the Walt Disney Company might not exist today"; the compensation the studio received from these contracts may have been the reason Walt Disney Studios recovered from the economic turmoil of early 1941.[1]

Overview of propaganda production[edit]

During World War II, Disney made films for every branch of the United States Armed Forces and government.[13][14] This was accomplished through the use of animated graphics by means of expediting the intelligent mobilization of servicemen and civilians for the cause of the war. Over 90% of Disney employees were devoted to the production of training and propaganda films for the government.[13] Throughout the duration of the war, Disney produced over 400,000 feet of educational war films, most at cost, which is equal to 68 hours of continuous films. In 1943 alone, 204,000 feet of film was produced.[11]

As well as producing films for different government divisions from 1942 to 1943, Disney was asked to create animation for a series of pictures produced by Colonel Frank Capra for the U.S. Army.[11] This series included films such as Prelude to War and America goes to War. Although these films were originally intended for servicemen, they were released to theaters because of their popularity.

The Navy productions[edit]

The Navy first requested 90,000 feet of film to be ready in three months. The purpose of these films was to educate sailors on navigation tactics. This was a shock for Disney, as he was used to creating 27,000 feet of film in a year.[11]

The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs also requested educational films for aviation branches of the navy and not compact tactics to ground crew aircraft maintenance.[15]

The Treasury Department productions[edit]

Disney created The New Spirit (1942) after a request from the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., to make Americans accept the payment of income taxes. The film was followed by a rushed sequel The Spirit of '43 (1943). In this film, Donald Duck deals with income taxes and shows their benefit to the American war effort.[16] The film was seen by 26 million people. In a later Gallup poll 37% admitted that the film played a factor in their willingness to pay taxes. Disney also made a book for children to try to encourage them to purchase War Savings stamps.[17]

The Army Air Forces (USAAF or AAF) productions[edit]

Aerology film production was supervised by naval aviation experts and some members of Disney's team learned how to fly to better understand the problems the Army Air Forces encountered.[13] Victory Through Air Power (1943) is one of the propaganda films Disney produced for air warfare.[15] This film is an attempt to sell Major Alexander de Seversky's theories about the practical uses of long range strategic bombing. The animated film humorously tells about the development of air warfare and then switches to the Major illustrating how his ideas could win the war for the Allies.

Propaganda productions[edit]

As requested by the U.S. Government, Walt Disney created a number of anti-German and anti-Japanese films for the servicemen and the U.S. public. He wanted to portray these countries and their leaders as manipulative without morals. A few of the films he produced were Reason and Emotion (1943), Der Fuehrer's Face (1943), Education for Death - The Making of a Nazi (1943), Commando Duck (1944), and Donald Gets Drafted (1942).[18]

In Der Fuehrer's Face, Donald Duck experiences a day in a Nazi country where he has to make do with eating ridiculous Nazi food rations (smell of bacon and eggs, coffee made with one bean, and a slice of wood-like stale bread), experiences a day at a Nazi artillery factory and breaks down. He wakes up realizing that the experience was a nightmare, embraces a model of the Statue of Liberty and exclaims "Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!" Der Fuehrer's Face went on to win the Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Film.[1]

Education for Death - The Making of a Nazi was a wartime propaganda film that takes on the perspective of Hans, a young German boy. As the movie progresses and Hans is exposed to Hitler youth and the Nazi culture, his ability to value human life decreases. In Commando Duck, Donald, by himself, destroys an entire Japanese airbase.

Donald Gets Drafted starred Donald Duck who gets conscripted into the United States army. The film gave the American public a look into the life of a US soldier, showing Donald getting a medical examination and speaking with his army sergeant. According to film historian Dr. Tracey Mollet, "due to the speed at which [the] film was made and released", for many Americans, it gave the first glimpse into "the reality of life in the forces, before many of them had heard about it from friends, neighbors, or even loved ones".[18]                                                       

Further reading[edit]

  • "Disney's Troupe Goes to War". Times. 15 November 1942. p. 20–21

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Raiti, Gerard C. (2007). "The Disappearance of Disney Animated Propaganda: A Globalization Perspective". Animation. 2 (2): 153–169. doi:10.1177/1746847707074703. S2CID 144807122.
  2. ^ Block, Alex; Wilson, Lucy (2010). George Lucas's blockbusting: A decade-by-decade survey of timeless movies including untold secrets of their financial and cultural success. itBooks.
  3. ^ Cooper, Timothy PA (2014). "Walt at War – Animation, Transformation and Indoctrination: The Hypothetical Image of Disney's Animal Soldiers". Animation. 9 (3): 333–351. doi:10.1177/1746847714546251. S2CID 154783079.
  4. ^ Fantasia, IMDB
  5. ^ Doty, Meriah (2016). "The Year Disney Almost Died -- and How It Survived to Thrive". TheWrap.
  6. ^ a b c Michael., Barrier, J. (2008). The animated man : A life of Walt Disney. University of California Press. OCLC 1158444882.
  7. ^ Gabler, Neal. "Disney's "Fantasia" Was Initially a Critical and Box-Office Failure". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2021-02-23.
  8. ^ a b Shale, Richard (1982). Donald Duck joins up: The Walt Disney Studio during World War II. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press. OCLC 8169865.
  9. ^ a b Acuna, Kirsten. "Photos From The 1941 Disney Artist Strike That Changed The Studio Forever". Business Insider. Retrieved 2021-02-23.
  10. ^ Moseley, Doobie (December 7, 2015). "Pearl Harbor Changed Everything, Even the Disney Studio". Laughing Place.
  11. ^ a b c d e "Walt Disney's Animated War". Flying. March 1945. p. 50–51
  12. ^ Louise., Mollet, Tracey (2017). Cartoons in hard times : The animated shorts of Disney and Warner Brothers in depression and war 1932-1945. Bloomsbury. OCLC 1086269762.
  13. ^ a b c "Walt Disney Goes to War". Life Magazine. 31 August 1942.p. 61–69.
  14. ^ "Walt Disney: Great Teacher; His Films for War are Revolutionizing the Technique of Education". Fortune. August 1942. p. 90–95
  15. ^ a b "Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck Work for Victory". Popular Science. 141.3 (September 1942): 98. September 1942.
  16. ^ "The New Pictures". Time Magazine. February 9, 1942. Archived from the original on July 28, 2010.
  17. ^ "Disney Studio at War". Theater Arts. Jan 1943. p. 31–39
  18. ^ a b Louise., Mollet, Tracey (2017). Cartoons in hard times : The animated shorts of Disney and Warner Brothers in depression and war 1932-1945. Bloomsbury. OCLC 1086269762.

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