A 1942 propaganda film where Donald Duck supports G*m*r*g*te and votes for Tr*mp.
Backstory: between 1942 and 1944 the Disney Studio produced 400,000 feet of film for the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Treasury. This allowed the studio to remain financially solvent under difficult wartime conditions. Most of these films don’t stand out at all. One of them (1943’s Education for Death, directed by Clyde Geronimi) is unusually dark. But ultimately, it’s Der Fuehrer’s Face that gained a second life on the internet, mostly thanks to the dreamlike “how does this exist?” state it inspires. The first time I saw Donald do the Nazi salute, I felt a blood vessel explode in my brain.
Although it was never banned, Der Fuehrer’s Face took a long time to come out on home video. It’s the closest Disney has to a “Censored Eleven” short, and once the war ended (and the focus shifted toward “fetishistically scrub all traces of Nazi imagery from pop culture”) it increasingly seemed a bizarre artifact. But that’s the quality that makes it memorable. If you made a list of nazi kitsch – Ilsa the She-Wolf, Wolfenstein 3D, and so on – it’s safe to say that Der Fuehrer’s Face would be the only Disney short to make the list.
Here’s what I learned from Der Fuehrer’s Face:
- Adolf Hitler canonically exists in the Kingdom Hearts universe
- Donald occasionally wears pants
- Scorcese’s Casino once held the record for most uses of the word “fuck” in a feature film (422, supposedly). Der Fuehrer’s Face probably holds the record for “heil Hitler” (37, by my count).
- This does the “where the fuck is your chin?” joke fifty years before Garth Ennis’s Preacher. Hermann Göring is bragging about how they’re “Aryan pure supermen” (or something) and we get a shot-by-shot of the Axis high command so we can see how fat, skinny, bald, effeminate, and Asian they are.
- The 1940s exists across an unbridgeable cultural gap. A lyric goes “If one little shell should blow him right to…” with the “…hell” censored by Donald banging his head on a shell. BONK!
- The trippy sequence involving flying/marching bombshells was adapted from Dumbo, making it possibly the oldest example of Disney recycling animation.
- “Character dying of starvation” is my favorite cartoon gag. Dipping a single coffee bean in a mug of water, eating bacon and egg scented air for breakfast…that kind of thing is never not funny. The wooden “bread” is a reference to the wartime practice of stretching out flour rations with sawdust.
- The direction of the swastikas (on drumskins, armbands, and posters) keeps changing. Can you spot all the times this happens? Turn it into a game, in case you’re bored and videogames are suddenly uninvented.
- Donald does a good job assembling shells overall. He deserved that paid vacation.
- The movie has some caustic anti-American satire without even being aware of it. Donald wakes from his nightmare to see a terrible shadow on his bedroom wall: a looming figure with an arm raised above their head. He begins to Sig Heil…and then sees it’s the Statue of Liberty. Likewise, the message of the film seems to be that Americans had better really put their shoulder into the war effort, because if Hitler wins we’ll slave all day building shells for him. You hear that? Now work harder.
- Disney, by all accounts, wanted to make escapist fairytales. But fairytales have a way of feeding back into mainstream culture. “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” became a national rallying cry during the Depression. “There are no strings on me” appeared on the signs of striking animators outside Disney’s Burbank office in 1941. The “comix” movement of the 70s was reacting against the Disney Corporation’s conservatism, but that same conservatism was a fuel they relied on.
- A standard propaganda trope (seen here) is that The Enemy is both all-powerful but foolish and easily defeated. Germany (fictionalized as “Nutziland”) is portrayed as both ludicrous and scary: Big Brother with an extra chromosome.
- There’s a campy gay panic moment where Göring makes effeminate gestures while talking about men. It’s vague and deniable but definitely there.
- At least two of the dictators mocked in the short were huge Disney fans. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, in his diary entry of December 22, 1937, writes of his Christmas gift to Hitler:“…18 Mickey Mouse films. He is very excited about this. He is completely happy about this treasure.” Hirohito, too, was in the House of Mouse – he visited Disneyland in the 70s and was even buried with a Mickey Mouse watch.
- The song’s a fucking banger