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Disney's War-Themed Shorts Provide a Link to the Past

19 May, 2004 By: Jessica Wolf

People's obsessions always amaze me. And I've always been intrigued by people with Disney obsessions. It seems that, for some people, when they fall in love with Disney as a kid, they keep that fascination going the rest of their lives.

I recently sat in a theater surrounded by such Disney fans for a screening of Buena Vista Home Entertainment's third wave of its “Walt Disney Treasures” special edition DVD, On the Front Lines, showcasing a series of propaganda and war-themed shorts and cartoons from nearly 60 years ago.

During the question-and-answer session with one of the DVD producers held after the screening of the shorts included on the double-disc set, I was surprised at how well-informed the audience was about the wartime propaganda shorts and cartoons we had just watched.

Plenty of Disney lovers eagerly waving their hands to query DVD producer Dave Bossert were right around my age, or maybe a little bit older. Only a small portion of the audience, I think, could remember actually seeing these shorts on TV or in movie theaters during World War II.

I realized these Disney buffs were likely the same kids who would race through the theme park as kids, parents in tow and personalized mouse ears perched atop their heads — much like I did. But, unlike me, their fascination for Mickey Mouse matured as they did into a fascination with the cultural and historical impact this company has had on our country.

Apparently, all were especially excited over the airing of “Der Fuehrer's Face,” in which Donald Duck has a bad dream that he's a Nazi. This cartoon hasn't been available for legit viewing for some time, in part because it is so negative in its references to German and Japanese people.

I actually found myself getting caught up in that fascination a little bit as I watched the WWII propaganda shorts. They're a little touchy, just a little beyond the pale for today's mentality, considering they're just this side of politically correct. Sensitivity issues were part of the reason much of this footage hasn't been seen in decades, Bossert admitted that night. But they made me think about what must have been going through Americans' minds as they sent their sons, brothers and husbands off to war. The shorts were about conservation, food storage, saving bacon fat to help with weapon manufacturing, even one with Donald Duck excitedly and happily paying his income tax to help the war effort and the Seven Dwarfs chipping away in the mines for precious stones, which they promptly traded in for War Bonds.

It called to mind footage of the old “duck and cover” public policy campaign from the Cold War. “Duck and cover,” like these shorts, gave people something to do, something to think about, besides how scared or concerned they were about the threat that loomed.

Maybe we could use something like that these days.

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