A 1942 film where Donald Duck supports G*m*r*g*te and votes for Tr*mp.
Context: from 1942 to 1944, Disney became a propaganda outlet for the US Department of Defense, producing over 400,000 feet of film for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Treasury. This allowed the studio to remain financially solvent under difficult wartime conditions. Most of these films are disposable hackwork, although 1943’s Education for Death (dir. Clyde Geronimi) is strikingly dark and existential. But it was Der Fuehrer’s Face that gained a second life on the internet thanks to its fever-dream “how does this exist?” quality. The first time I saw Donald do a Nazi salute, a blood vessel exploded in my brain.
It’s among the odder relics in the Disney canon. Never actually banned, Der Fuehrer’s Face kept getting missed in home video releases, thus making it the closest Disney came to a “Censored Eleven” short. Once the war ended (and the world’s focus shifted from “fighting Nazis” to “imagining Nazis”) it increasingly seemed a bizarre artifact, adrift in time. This made it perfectly suited for the irony-poisoned internet. If you made a list of Nazi kitsch – Ilsa the She-Wolf, Wolfenstein 3D, and so on – it’s fair 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 a similar 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 accidentally includes some caustic anti-American satire. 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.
- Disney, by all accounts, wanted to make escapist fairytales. But fairytales have a way of backpropagating 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 the 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
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