As we honor the men and women of the armed forces for their service past and present on this Memorial Day, I’d like to take a peek at the often overlooked, but important, work of the Disney studio during WW II and it’s effect on Walt and the Studio. Like many of his generation, Walt Disney lived through two world wars. He was too young to enlist in WWI. Even though the war, for the most part, was over, 16 year old Disney found a way to serve by being an ambulance driver, stationed in Paris in 1918. By all accounts, he returned, a changed man. Widening his view of the world encouraged him to look beyond whatever ambitions his parents had for him and encouraged him to find his own way. Having been around, but also, not served during my generation’s wars, Vietnam and the two gulf conflicts, I think I can say, without hesitation, armed conflict affects everyone in some way, either positively or negatively. Walt’s experience in Europe left him with optimism about his abilities led him to open his first business, illustrating and lettering for magazines.
In 1941, right after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the Disney studio property, not only had to deal with war time rationing and other changes, but, became the only major movie studio to be occupied by the U.S. Army. Staying for 8 months, the military took over large sections of the studio, including having one Navy Commander, take up residency in Walt’s office bedroom for several days. I don’t think that the War made Walt anymore patriotic than he had been. However, with overseas profits cut off, his studio commandeered, he launched his staff and himself into an all out effort to support the war effort in the best way he could – film making. Commercial efforts were completely halted, but the overall output of the studio actually increased at the same time cost to produce short pieces, educational films, and propaganda decreased by a whopping 98%.
The downside to this flurry of activity was threefold. First, the general public did not see much of the top secret or educational films, which amounted to 93% of the Studio’s output. Films on aircraft identification, venereal disease, dental health, precision bombing and pacific islands slated for invasion were praised for the effectiveness. But aside from some lighter pieces featuring Goofy, Pluto and Donald Duck on military service and propaganda films like “Out of the Frying Pan into the Firing Line (Minnie teaches housewives how to save kitchen fat for use in explosives)
“Winged Scourge” (7 Dwarves show how to combat malaria), and the “New Spirit” (Donald Duck demonstrates the importance of paying income taxes), Disney produced only two films that had significant public showings.
One was heaped with high praise, Der Fuhrer’s Face, for it’s morale and propogandist value. The other, Victory Through Air Power, the only film of the period Walt controlled completely from start to finish during the war, generated no money and poor critical reviews.
Second, although the Army kept the Studio busier than they had ever been and every effort was made to reduce production costs, the U.S. government was, not only, cheap, but was slow to pay and often, Walt had to go directly to Congress to get paid at all. In typical government fashion, opinions about the value and quality of the Disney work would be endlessly debated, even though there had been a promise to pay for the work. As a result, even the increase in film footage from the normal about 37,000 feet per year to over 200,000 feet, the Studio spent the war years barely breaking even. Walt was not one to complain. As a patriotic American, he felt it was his duty to have the Studio help support the war effort as much as possible. All of this was accomplished while many artists left Disney for more creative work, and others were drafted, while the remaining staff struggled to keep up with military and government demands and short deadlines. Keep in mind, that while Disney toiled through primarily government contracts, other studios were producing films like The Philadelphia Story, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, Going My Way, and Double Indemnity, to name a few. Not that those studios didn’t support the war effort, but their output was still primarily under their control. During 1946, in contrast to Disney’s struggles to stay solvent and restart his Studio, the industry, as a whole, had its best year ever.
Which brings me to the third, and perhaps, most important negative effect of the Studio’s war effort. The war had come almost immediately on the heels of the of the traumatic and crippling animator’s strike that almost brought the Studio almost to a halt in 1941. Walt was terribly hurt and felt betrayed by the artists that he had worked so hard to build into a creative powerhouse and transformed the Company from a mom and pop shop, into one of the most respected and profitable film companies in the world. I will not spend time here going into a full account of the strike or whether Walt was justified in his thinking. (Read some of the many biographies like The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life by Steven Watts or Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neil Gabler for more strike details). But, here was a man who thrived on inspiration and the freedom to create as he pleased, being forced to work through the frustration government contracts coupled with a limited set of choices for what to work on. With little understanding of the situation, he was called unpatriotic and a war profiteer by some and even by government officials who were dictating the work. Since he was told by the military to avoid humor or invention in the films, I’m sure he just got bored. Later, those same people criticized the work because it had no humor.
As a result, Walt withdrew from much of the day to day, hands on work that had been part of the foundation of his earlier success – the Disney touch. The effects, psychological, financial, creative, of this strike and the War, undoubtedly led, in some part, to the rather uninteresting film period that followed, characterized by quick, lower budget bundling of shorts like those in Make Mine Music and Fun and Fancy Free.
On the other hand, after the war, it could be said that doing more live action film making in England, to take advantage of monies that were frozen there, may have encouraged the dawning of a new focus for Walt. He turned most of the day to day work over to others, who shepherded Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan to successful outcomes. Walt spent more time on the sets of the other movies, learning and building what he would need for future films like Treasure Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Mary Poppins. Time to think, tinker with his backyard railroad also gave him time to work out the beginnings of his next great adventures, TV and Disneyland.
Not everyone contributed to the War effort by fighting. Certainly, the Disney Studio work was cited for its morale boosting and educational value. But, there is no question that Walt lost the better part of 5 years of creative energy to do his part. Finances dictated many of the decisions he was forced to make in the ensuing years to keep his Studio afloat. The fallout from, creative boredom, focus on money and the disappointment he felt toward the striking animators who he had respected and tried to do right by, most likely played a factor in Walt’s disillusionment with the direction he saw America taking. Some of animated projects that had been put off during the war were made and most are considered part of what many call the Silver Age of Disney Animation. But many remained, concept art, unfinished scripts, or in some cases just unproduced ideas. What might have become of unrealized ideas like The Rainbow Road to Oz, Don Quixote, Chanticleer and unfinished collaborations with Roald Dahl and Dali. Many or none may not have made it out of the conceptual stages. And I would be the last to say, I wish Walt had stuck with animation instead of doing TV, building Disneyland or producing Mary Poppins. For now, I’d like to remember that while Walt didn’t man a post, his work and the work of his Studio, was a factor in the Allied effort to win the war.