Quickies: Disney's Der Fuehrer's Face
There are four things that stand out in my mind about Operation Desert Storm, the first Iraq War. The CNN footage of the laser guided bombs, hitting their targets in Baghdad with deadly accuracy on the first push into Iraq. Dana Carvey as George Bush Sr. on SNL, doing victory laughs with his little giggles. The Bart Simpson bootleg shirts, featuring Bart with a MMA fighter build using his bare hands to choke out a Simpson-fied version of Saddam Hussein (the text read something like ‘Eat My Shorts, Saddam’). The political cartoons carried by the local newspaper, with their large nosed exaggerations of Hussein, the large ears of Bush, the Elephant of the GOP driving tanks, the Donkey of the Democrat party, applauding and bowing in a political defeat.
The last two bookended my child weirdness. The first, an illegal and dubious image of my familiar cartoon hero in a violent pose of patriotism. The second, jokes and commentary too pointed for my mind to really understand, but their essence distilled down to understandable characterizations, poking fun in a way that even a politically unengaged nine-year-old could understand. I would keep my eye on that commentary space for the years to come, often the second or third place I would turn to daily for the years we had the paper, weekly when I would pick it up on occasion after. I studied things that were not relevant to my classroom teachings via the history of the political cartoon, from those included in the Benjamin Franklin pamphlets to Thomas Nast’s Tammany Hall cartoons, to the animated propaganda machines supporting the war efforts in World War II.
Der Fuehrer's Face was one of those pieces of political propaganda I heard about from the mid-90s in artist history books, through the early, pre-Youtube, pre-Wikipedia proliferation aughts on message boards populated by movie fans and cartoon nerds. What separated Der Fuehrer's Face from something like the Private Snafu shorts, of which I remember finding a VHS copy of at our local library in the late 90’s, was Der Fuehrer's Face including a major mascot of the Disney company, Donald Duck. It’s history as an Oscar award winning short film and it’s ‘locked in the Disney vault’ status made it something of a ‘white whale’ for me, historically significant to cultural and political movements.
My interest in it would wax and wane; sometimes I would spend nights pronouncing message boards and user histories for submissions; I would risk random file share downloads that would provide me with the Spike Jones recording, or a backdoor naming to download Neo-Nazi sermons.
It wasn’t that long ago that The Internet was The Wild West, you guys.
But finally, one night, a dive thru a Digg user submissions who posted the ‘Zippity Doo Da’ scene from Song Of The South held my ticket. I was redirected to a Ebaums World knock off with a flash player; the shakey audio adjustment of a VCR transfer on Donald Duck's face against a Looney Tunes background, and then, the Spike Jones song I’d heard more than a handful of times started up as the credits rolled.
Besides the personal significance, the cultural significance of Disney history and the political significance of the Disney studio involvement in the civilian war effort, Der Fuehrer's Face is a beautiful ballet of the best of peak Disney animation. From the wonderful caricatures of German political party members, and the modern problematic characterizations of a fey Benito Mussolini and racially insensitive Hideki Tojo, there is biting political satire. Donald Duck, living in the Nazi nightmare landscape, is awoken by their marching band, and subject to horrific war rations and slavish labor conditions. The satire continues, painting the vanity of the Nazi party's blind jingoism, including productivity killing stops to salute ‘Der Fuehrer’, mid-munitions manufacturing. The 48-hour work day and the mandatory overtime get to Donald, and his frustrations overflow into a ballet of factory whistles and bomb blasts, until Donald awakes in his bed, safely back in the United States Of America. This madness ballet is reminiscent of the pink elephants sequence in Dumbo, and the final turn, that it was all a dream, is a spirited shot of enthusiasm and optimism to an American public, restricted by rations and fighting the war time effort themselves. This civilian heartening in the time of war is what makes Der Fuehrer's Face significant; it wasn’t for the troops and it wasn’t a slight piece of propaganda included in the film, it was popular characters in a popular artform reaching all ages of war-affected Americans.
Disney’s secretive and closed off nature about some of their past output that is no longer culturally couth or in line with their current corporate attitudes denies some of their better artwork. But Der Fuehrer's Face, sticky as the historical ramifications may be, is a deserving classic, recognized by the industry for it’s artistic flourish. This perfect combination of catchy music and jaunty animation style, with the existential crisis of any Donald Duck meltdown being amplified by the stress of war, makes it one of my favorite Disney shorts of all time.