Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 3, 2004)
Once the United States entered World War II at the end of December, 1941, the nation really mobilized behind those efforts. That included Hollywood, and the Disney studios joined to fight via films meant for educational and propaganda purposes. This two-disc set entitled Walt Disney On the Front Lines packages a slew of this material.
DVD One splits into three areas. When we look at Propaganda and Entertainment Subjects, we discover 11 shorts. This area opens with a 94-second introduction from Maltin, who discusses the use of animation for these purposes.
From there, we head through the 11 cartoons. These include 1942’s “Donald Gets Drafted” (eight minutes, 55 seconds), “The Army Mascot” (7:14), “The Vanishing Private” (7:28), and “Sky Trooper” (7:14). From 1943, we see “Private Pluto” (6:49), “Fall Out - Fall In” (7:23), “Victory Vehicles” (8:06), “The Old Army Game” (6:59) and “Home Defense” (7:47). Finally, 1944 presents “How to Be a Sailor” (7:09) and “Commando Duck” (6:54).
All 11 of the shorts feature prominent Disney characters. Donald Duck makes the most appearances, as he stars in seven of the 11. Both Pluto and Goofy show up twice each. I thought the use of Donald seemed the most interesting as well as the most logical. More people can identify with him, and he can also act like a slacker more readily; people wouldn’t as easily accept a grumpy Mickey as a soldier.
Although they titled this area “Propaganda and Entertainment”, the latter category strongly dominates. By my reckoning, I only saw two shorts as “propaganda”. “Victory Vehicles” offers a comedic look at ways to encourage citizens to avoid car use. It’s not educational, but it does shove a message down our throats. “Commando Duck” qualifies as propaganda mainly due to its intensely negative portrayal of the enemy. We see stereotypical Japanese here in an otherwise unexceptional short.
The other nine cartoons served no discernible propaganda purpose. Frankly, they had little to do with the war for the most part, as they mainly just showed Disney characters in military situations. The cartoons would work just as well outside of a wartime circumstance, though the presence of war makes them stand out a little.
They certainly don’t go out of their way to make the military look good. For example, “Drafted” paints a humorously unpleasant picture of army life. None of them really slams the military, though they also don’t provide a rosy glow to service.
I scored the shorts on a scale of one to 10 as I watched them, and three earned an “8” or above. “Fall Out – Fall In” got an “8”; it was humor at Donald’s expense and provided an inventive and somewhat surreal experience. Imaginative and clever, “The Army Mascot” could have been cute, but it got a “9” for being charming and fun. Best of the bunch, “The Old Army Game” received a perfect “10”. Clever and funny, surreal and even scary at times, it’s an excellent short.
None of the others fall into the “bad” category, but they seem more lackluster than the ones mentioned above. “Home Defense” appealed to me the least and only got a “5”, as it was mediocre and not very amusing. Nonetheless, these cartoons mostly were fun.
Note that the first few of the Donald shorts actually present a connected mini-story. We see the Duck get initiated into the army and pursue his dream to be a pilot. This theme peters out after a few cartoons, though, and isn’t present by the last smattering. Also, look for some chipmunks in “Private Pluto” who offer precursors to Chip ‘n’ Dale; that pair didn’t make a formal, named appearance until a few years later.
Educational Shorts includes 13 pieces. This three-minute and five-second snippet goes into the various subjects addressed in the cartoons. 1941 provides “Thrifty Pig” (4:11) and “Seven Wise Dwarfs” (3:48), while 1942 gives us “Food Will Win the War (5:41), “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Firing Line” (3:20), “Donald’s Decision” (3:36), “All Together” (3:00), and “The New Spirit” (7:23). From 1943, we find “The Spirit of ‘43” (5:42), “The Winged Scourge” (9:45), “Defense Against Invasion” (12:37) and “The Grain That Built a Hemisphere” (10:36). 1945 shows us “Cleanliness Brings Health” (8:28) and “What Is Disease?/The Unseen Enemy” (10:36), while we finish with 1946’s “Planning for Good Eating” (8:28).
For the most part, the different shorts support a few offices. “Thrifty”, “Dwarfs”, “Decision” and “Together” advertise for Canadian War Savings Certificates, while “Food” is for USDA and glorifies farmers. “Pan” encourages women to save grease and fats for use in weapons, while both “New Spirit” and “Spirit of ‘43” push for citizens to promptly pay their income taxes. All of these connect to the war in that they prod regular folks to help out with the war effort. Really, they seem closer to propaganda than the shorts in that domain; with slogans like “taxes to beat the Axis” and some borderline subliminal imagery, these offered a more pointed line than the prior batch of cartoons.
The final six all come attached to the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. These don’t address the war effort, as they exist mainly to encourage public health and safety. The last four are clearly aimed at folks south of the US border, as they use generic Latin personalities to promote cleanliness and other topics. Of these six, only “Scourge” includes an appearance by Disney characters, as the Seven Dwarfs pop up in it.
Those six from the Inter-American Affairs group are also the ones with the strongest educational focus. All of the ones for Canada simply ask for money, which is also the case in the tax-related ones. “Food” and “Pan” are slightly educational, but the latter really just encourages public assistance in the war effort; it doesn’t teach anything otherwise. The final six offer actual educational content.
Don’t expect much entertainment from these, although they’re interesting to see. The two tax ones with Donald provide the highestlevel of entertainment; despite their underlying attempts to beg for money, they have some fun with the subject. The others are drier, though they provide some occasional Disney-style goofiness to make them more charming than the average public service announcement. I like them more from a historical point of view than anything else, but they remain cool to watch.
Lastly, From the Vault presents four sdhkdhsak. We find “Der Fuehrer’s Face” (1942 - 7:58), “Education for Death” (1942 - 10:11), “Reason and Emotion” (1943 - 7:57), and “Chicken Little” (1943 - 8:51). I’m not sure why these didn’t appear in the “Propaganda” domain, as they closely match up with that category. I suspect they got their own subheading because they offer more potential controversy than any of the earlier shorts; each one is more open to interpretation in that way.
Easily the best of the bunch, “Face” stars Donald and earns a “10”. It presents a creative and inventive attack on Nazism that also comes across as very amusing. It’s not just simple bashing, as it makes its point neatly and with humor. The story of the Nazi perversion of children, “Death” follows little Hans as he grows to be a robot of sorts. A mix of dark menace and broad comedy, the combination seems weird but interesting to see. The darkest of the bunch, it gets a “7”.
“Emotion” combines education and propaganda, as it involves Hitler in the depiction of the appeal to emotion without thought. Creative and lively though sexist, it merits a “7”. “Little” seems similar to “Reason” but without the blatant Nazi imagery. It’s more about whispering campaigns and also works well as it earns an “8”.
As we shift to DVD Two, the main attraction comes from the theatrical release Victory Through Air Power. I don’t believe 1943’s Victory has ever enjoyed a home video release in the US, so it alone merits attention for this package.
The 69-minute Victory opens with an animated depiction of the history of aviation. We watch as flight begins and grows and also how it develops into military applications. Then Major Alexander P. de Seversky discusses the strategies of air warfare and various related elements. Through his chats as well as animated depictions of the then-current fight and challenges, we get a picture of air technology and tactics. Seversky goes through his concepts and the film pushes a more active form of air power, as implied by the title.
To be sure, Victory presents an unusual feature film from Disney. Though entertaining at times, one can’t call it a piece of entertainment. It includes those elements as well as both educational and propaganda overtones. I won’t call it a fun flick, but it’s very interesting and definitely an intriguing time capsule.
Next we get a collection of “Training Shorts”. We find three examples of this form: “Four Methods of Flush Riveting” (1942 - 9:31), “Stop That Tank” (1942 - 21:35), and a “Training Film Montage” (5:14) that consists of tidbits from a mix of shorts. During his introduction, Maltin implies these are dull, and he’s right, though “Tank” starts with a humorous depiction of Hitler and a few other comedic moments. Nonetheless, they weren’t created for entertainment, and they add a cool look at history to this package.
And what a great package it is! Whereas many of the Disney shorts found on other DVD collections have appeared in other places, the majority of the material from Walt Disney On the Front Lines hasn’t been seen in years. A mix of entertainment, propaganda and educational pieces, it’s all a lot of fun to see for a mix of reasons.