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Warner Brothers' Wartime Animation

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Wartime Animation:
Warner Brothers | Walt Disney

Throughout the Second World War an average of almost 85 million Americans visited the cinema each week. As well as the main feature film, and often a supporting film, there would usually be an accompanying newsreel and a cartoon. These cartoons, produced for the big screen rather than television and aimed at audiences of adults as well as children, were made to a much higher standard than cartoons made specifically for television in the decades that followed1. Many of these short animated films contained elements of propaganda.

Animation had been used for propaganda purposes before, particularly during the Great War. Cartoon comedy and caricatures are an extremely effective form of propaganda, and one that has been used in many instances throughout history. From rough 16th Century woodcut caricatures of the papacy to the humorous anti-Nazi cartoons of the New Zealand comic artist Sir David Low2 in the late 1930s and early 1940s, nothing displaces public fear of the enemy more than a satirical caricature of the aggressor. Yet during the Second World War, in their desire to 'sell' the war effort and demonise the enemy, many of the most talented Hollywood cartoonists of all time, including Theodore 'Dr Seuss' Geisel, Chuck Jones and others, perpetrated racist stereotypes.

Warner Brothers

Warner Brothers came into being in 1923, five years after the Great War had ended. Consequently, the Second World War was the first war which they had actively animated3. Warner Brothers had become a major Hollywood player in 1925 after purchasing one of the oldest established film studios, Vitagraph Studios. Following this they had the foresight to pioneer sound films, including The Jazz Singer. Consequently, one trait of many Warner Bros cartoons was to emphasise the use of popular music in its cartoons, often of songs featured in the studio's recent films. After the phenomenal success of The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers wisely purchased another established film studio, First National Pictures, acquiring their studio facilities and a cinema chain. This investment cemented Warner Brothers' place as one of the world's leading film studios.

Leon Schlesinger

At the start of the war Warner Brothers did not have their own animation studio; instead, their animated films were created by Leon Schlesinger Studios. Leon Schlesinger had begun animating in 1930 when, as a pioneer of sound-animation, he began making animated shorts under the name of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies4. Leon Schlesinger was a close friend of Jack Warner and may have helped finance The Jazz Singer.

More of a businessman than an artist, and concerned with keeping costs low and profits high, one of his greatest attributes was the ability to spot talent, notably Chuck Jones. In 1929 he worked with ex-Disney animators to create the first lip-synchronised animated cartoon, the experimental Bosko, The Talk-Ink Kid. In 1930 he made a deal in which his animated films would be distributed by Warner Brothers. This allowed his hand-picked highly-talented animators a greater degree of artistic freedom than teams at other animation studios, provided they stayed within a fairly narrow budget. From 1930's Sinkin' in the Bathtub, Warner Brothers became Disney's main competitor in the animation market.

Schlesinger sold his company outright to Warner Brothers for $700,000 when he retired in 1944. His studio was then renamed Warner Bros. Cartoons Inc.


Though the Second World War began on 1 September, 19395, America did not become directly involved6 until the Pearl Harbor attack on 7 December 1941. In early 1942, Elmer Davies, director of America's Office of War Information, stated that the motion picture could be 'the most powerful instrument of propaganda in the world, whether it tries to be or not'. The Office of War Information, or OWI for short, was formed in 1942 as the chief government propaganda agency. Its duties, as instructed by President Roosevelt, were largely centred on heightening public understanding of the war through the press, radio, and motion pictures.

After Pearl Harbor, the OWI requested that Hollywood incorporate the following themes into the production of their motion pictures:

  • The Allies and their strength
  • The enemies and their depravity
  • The issues
  • The home front
  • The production front

Hollywood rose to the occasion and soon became a part of OWI's home activities, launching a controversial campaign of propaganda through the medium of entertainment. These themes can be found in many of the films produced in this period. Capra's influential series Why We Fight, designed for the purposes of educating the army on the purposes of war, the allies and the enemy, became hugely successful among soldiers and civilians. Other films such as Casablanca and To Have and Have Not met the requirements of the OWI office while still retaining wider entertainment value.

The OWI had limited powers but was able to provide Hollywood with guidelines, allocate film stock and control which films were distributed to foreign markets. By agreeing to assist the war effort, animation studios were permitted to remain open throughout the war's duration as they were designated an essential industry.

Commitment to the cause became a major theme of Hollywood productions during the Second World War. An example can be seen in some of the characters played by Humphrey Bogart; that of the non-committal man who ultimately solves his inner conflict by taking up a gun and joining in on the fight against the aggressors. Similarly, the character of Daffy Duck often suffers from inner conflict on what the best course of action is. These doubts are resolved by the end of the animation, when he too has joined the fight for the greater good.

The OWI's themes were also incorporated into much animation of the time. Indeed, animation served a useful purpose in conveying them, especially (perhaps because of its comic nature) that of demonising the enemies and holding them up to ridicule.

American Animation in the 1940s

Cartoons shown in American cinemas during this period were almost exclusively released by seven companies. Many, like Warner Brothers, distributed the cartoons made by other independent studios. The seven companies were:

  • Columbia Pictures
    Cartoon star: Fox and Crow
  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
    Cartoon stars: Tom and Jerry, Droopy, Barney Bear
  • Paramount7
    Cartoon Stars: Popeye, Superman, Betty Boop
  • RKO - releasing the films of Walt Disney8
    Cartoon Stars: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto
  • 20th Century Fox
  • Universal
    Cartoon Stars: Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda
  • Warner Brothers
    Cartoon Stars: Bugs Bunny, Duffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Snafu

Of these film studios, by far the most dominant in the animation market was Warner Brothers. Throughout the war, the number of Warner Brothers cartoons that were either war-related or contained war themes remained around 70%.

The Eve of the War

Parallels with the global political situation had begun to appear in Warner Brothers cartoons in 1937, and in 1938 the cartoon What Price Porky featured a group of fascist goose-stepping ducks on Porky Pig's farm whose leader resembles Mussolini. In 1941's Meet John Doughboy, Porky Pig, wearing a Great War uniform of the sort worn by 'Doughboys'9, is drafted into the armed forces. The cartoon mentions German U-boat attacks off American shores and the narrator prophetically asks 'Are we safe from air attack? Supposing one day a fleet of enemy bombers appeared over the horizon?'

The (dis?)Honorable Private Snafu

New characters were introduced for the purposes of educating and training troops. The most notable of these was Private Snafu, a hopeless US army serviceman who was devised in order to instruct servicemen and women how to survive in the US army by showing them how not to do it. The incompetent Private Snafu, whose name stands for Situation Normal - All Fouled Up10, is helped along by the Technical Fairy First Class, an army sprite that comes to Snafu's aid when he gets himself into tough situations. The Snafu cartoons were created as a humorous and entertaining form of education, and many of them incorporated little in-jokes about US military life in an attempt to build up a feeling of familiarity with the troops. However, as the war progressed and drew to a close, US servicemen had by now become experienced veterans themselves, so Snafu became more heroic although he retained his pig-headedness.

The Snafu cartoons were shot in either black and white or sepia, were directed by Chuck Jones, Isadore Frelang11 or Frank Tashlin and written by Theodore 'Dr Seuss' Geisel and Phil Eastman, and the voice of Snafu was provided by Mel Blanc, famous for voicing most of the Warner Brothers cartoon characters including Bugs Bunny12. Ray Harryhausen sculpted a series of models of Snafu for the illustrators to use, ensuring they drew the character correctly. As these films were shown exclusively to servicemen rather than civilians, they were permitted to be ruder and cruder than films intended for an ordinary family audience. In fact Snafu snuffs it in many cartoons as a consequence of ignoring the rules.


During the war Warner Brothers' animation presented an opportunity to cast well known characters in a patriotic light, fighting for America against the tyrannical aggressor. For example, the larger-than-life spirit of Uncle Sam visits Porky Pig in the 1939 short Old Glory, where he teaches Porky about the pledge of allegiance while recreating historical scenes from America's past. The cartoon was intended to stir up the audience's patriotism through the use of historic examples of American strength, made all the more evocative by featuring the all-American image of Uncle Sam. Sam is drawn as a massive figure when compared to Porky, thereby portraying Uncle Sam, and by extension America itself, as both strong and mighty, unafraid in the face of evil. Although Old Glory is set during the American Revolution, the fact that Britain was the enemy during that conflict is overlooked; the character of Paul Revere13, shouts To arms! rather than his traditionally (but incorrectly) attributed cry The British are coming! This piece of artistic licence hints that America and Britain will be allies, rather than enemies, in the forthcoming conflict.

This is taken one step further in Daffy - the Commando. The Commandos were an elite force of soldiers formed in Britain in 1940, with similar American units following suit in 1941. In this cartoon Daffy at one point appears to be British, wearing a British army uniform and helmet and singing in a Cockney accent.

A cartoon which runs along a similar theme is the 1943 Warner Bros cartoon Scrap Happy Daffy. This cartoon shows Daffy collecting scrap metal for victory, a task which would have been intended to make the audience think about their contribution to the war effort. Hitler is outraged at Daffy’s show of patriotism and tries to destroy his scrap-pile by sending in a metal-eating goat. Daffy is continuously beaten by the goat until, when he is slumped in defeat, the spirit of Abraham Lincoln duck and other American historic figures visit him and tell him 'Americans never give up'. Daffy then turns into 'Superduck' and succeeds in blasting the goat and the Germans off his scrapheap.

The cartoon incorporates themes of patriotism and dedication to the war effort, and propaganda like this would perhaps have affected the American public quite strongly. It also fits the requirements of at least two of the six main instructional points set out by the OWI; it shows the patriotic strength and fortitude of Americans in the face of various enemies, and urges the American public to think about what they can do on the production front.

One of Warner Brothers' favourite themes was the spoof newsreel. In the 1941 film Porky's Snooze Reel, Porky Pig hosts the 'Passe News' rather than Pathe news. The latest American anti-tank device is a giant mousetrap, a dogfight between fighter aircraft involves the planes biting each other and yelping. News reel spoofs had also been used in Nutty News in 1942 and The Weakly Reporter in 1944.

Mainstream animation was by now an effective propaganda weapon, and Warner Bros even went as far as to introduce characters that were aimed directly at the US public's sense of patriotism.

Racist Propaganda: P-per-p-per-p-picking on the 'Japs' and 'Jerries'

Animation was used for purposes of education and to stir up jingoistic feeling within Americans, but it was also extremely effective when used with the intention of demonising the enemy and holding them up to ridicule. The cartoon, both animated and in newspapers and magazines, can perhaps pander to stereotype much more effectively than any other form of visual narrative because it makes use of vastly exaggerated caricatures to emphasise its messages and enhance the comic appeal. Thus, cartoons were frequently used as a means of ridiculing German, Japanese, and Italian troops and playing up to popular preconceived notions by portraying and exaggerating the supposed and often entirely false idiosyncrasies of the enemy.

The worst examples of racial stereotyping were directed against the Japanese. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor Americans wanted revenge, and animators duly obliged. Since America and Japan were at war, and Japanese audiences were therefore unlikely to view American cartoons, Hollywood14 lost no profit by portraying the Japanese in an, at best, strongly stereotyped manner, and more often in an outright racist fashion. The Japanese, particularly Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Tojo, were shown as wearing thick glasses and having buck teeth, and were portrayed as incompetent, smelly, and lecherous. Warner Brothers were as guilty of propagating these unfounded myths as much as other cartoon studios. For instance, in the film Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, the stereotypes not only include the buck-toothed image, but also Sumo wrestlers, perhaps with the notion of suggesting that the overweight, cumbersome Japanese wrestlers were somehow inferior to the fit, agile American, an assertion which belies the strength, skill and sprightliness of most rikishi.

The OWI soon announced that such racial stereotyping was counter-productive. At home it encouraged servicemen to dismiss the very real threat that Japan posed, while it was feared that mocking Japanese culture would encourage Japanese resistance and make a surrender less likely, and even offend their Chinese allies.

Perhaps the most extreme example of racist anti-Japanese sentiment can be seen in the 1943 Warner Brothers animation Tokio Jokio. Popular misconceptions held during the war were ridiculously exaggerated for what at the time was comic effect, but is now painfully racist. The film begins with a 'captured Japanese newsreel' that includes information on Japan’s latest war developments, news, sport and fashion, full of caricatures and their overstated reactions to various situations. Examples include 'Japan’s finest air raid siren', which is a Japanese soldier having large pins stuck into his behind and screaming in pain. The 'honourable aircraft spotter' paints spots on planes. In Professor Tojo's Kitchen Hints section, we are shown how to make a 'ration card sandwich' by placing a meat ration card between two bread ration cards. Japanese troops in a submarine are also shown looking at peep shows. This cartoon reinforced contemporary stereotypes of the Japanese.

Although animation studios were not alone in promoting this persecution (following Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps known as 'relocation centres') they were certainly guilty of perpetuating it.

Although Adolf Hitler, as a person, and the Nazi party were depicted as evil, neither the Germans or the Italians were stigmatised to the same extent. Other than Mussolini, Italians rarely featured in American cartoons of the period, and Mussolini was usually portrayed as Hitler's henchman. Why Mussolini often appears in Warner Brothers films as a duck, not only in Meet John Doughboy but also The Ducktators, is never really explained, especially as other cartoon studios tended to portray him as a monkey, ape or gorilla.

This demonisation of the enemy can also be seen in many other animations of the period. For example, in Plane Daffy, Courier Homer Pigeon is pursued by a beautiful spy, Hatta-Mari, a 'se-duck-tress' femme fatale straight out of a film noir15. She is trying to obtain his military secret. Daffy is sent to complete Homer Pigeon's mission, but is caught and swallows his secret document. Hatta-Mari straps the duck to an X-ray machine, finally trapping him, and broadcasts his secret to Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels who are watching via television. The secret reads 'Hitler is a stinker', Goering and Goebbels yell, 'That’s no secret - everybody knows that!' only to commit suicide when found out by Hitler. It is obviously the Nazi leaders who are being parodied here, and although they are given more credibility in this cartoon than the Japanese are in Tokio Jokio, the same devices are still used to poke fun at the Germans. It can also be argued that this cartoon symbolically depicts American attitudes towards the allies, as Daffy attempts to rescue a comrade who has fallen into the clutches of the attractive Nazi agent. The idea of wily, very attractive female spies were common during this period, and the content of the cartoon shows the American public the apparent guile and manipulative nature of the Nazis.

The villainy of the Germans is more subtly portrayed in the 1943 cartoon Falling Hare. Bugs Bunny, shortly after reading about 'Victory thru Hare Power', a spoof of 'Victory through Air Power', ferociously battles a gremlin that is guilty of 'dia-boli-cal saba-togee' on an airbase. This cartoon injects humour while serving as a serious warning in regard to the possible enemy sabotage of American aircraft.

The Power of Animation

These wartime animations were much more than just a cheap laugh before the main feature, and the effect of their propaganda was far more powerful than any instructional military lecture on the public threat posed by the enemy, because to decrease terror and allow the public to laugh at and ridicule the dictator and his allies hugely restores public confidence in the ability of the nation to defeat the antagonist. These Warner Brother’s animation shorts depict the threat posed by the enemy and why they must be stopped, and by ridiculing the Japanese and German people the cartoon would have evoked laughter within the audience; the ability to laugh at the aggressor rather than shrink with fear.

Animated cartoons produced during the Second World War served a variety of functions. They were instrumental in changing public attitudes towards war and the enemy, they were used to inspire jingoistic feeling and educate audiences on the part to be played by the allies and by those at home, and they also served to educate both the American public and the American troops. Cartoons, as well as other types of motion picture, were described by Elmer Davies as 'a powerful instrument of propaganda'.

The Animations Today

Some of these cartoons have been commercially released, often slightly edited to remove racist references and imagery. As the cartoons were made in the 1930s and 40s, many are now in the public domain.

1Consequently, this era has been nicknamed 'The Golden Age of Animation'.2Perhaps most famous for creating Colonel Blimp.3Their cartoons had contained a few references to the Spanish Civil War, but not to anything like the same extent.4The titles emphasised the fact that these animated films had sound, as well as being uncannily similar to Disney's Silly Symphonies.5Although many related conflicts had begun earlier, including Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and the Sino-Japanese War in 1937.6Roosevelt's signing of the Lend-Lease Act giving arms to Britain and the US Navy's unofficial attacks on German U-boats occurred before America declared war.7Including George Pal's Puppetoons, 13 of which were animated by Ray Harryhausen including the 1942 Oscar-nominated short Tulips Shall Grow.8Including the Oscar-winning 1942 cartoon Der Fuehrer's Face, which famously portrays Donald Duck wearing a Nazi uniform after waking up in a nightmare totalitarian world.9A colloquial term for certain American soldiers during the Great War.10A slightly modified and rather more polite version of a common US service expression of the period.11Isadore 'Friz' Freleng had started animating with Disney in the 1920s before moving to Warner Brothers' Merry Melodies unit, where he created Speedy Gonzalez and Yosemite Sam. When Merry Melodies dissolved in 1963 he formed De-Patie-Freleng Enterprises, hired many of his Warner Brothers colleagues, and made the opening sequence to The Pink Panther, winning the Best Animated Short Film Oscar for The Pink Phink in 1964.12As well as the diminutive robot Twiki in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.13Famous because of Longfellow's poem Paul Revere's Ride, which in truth he did not complete, after the Battle of Majabigwaduce at the Penobscot Expedition in 1779 Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Revere was investigated by an American Court of Enquiry for cowardice. Longfellow's grandfather, Brigadier-General Peleg Wadsworth, testified that Revere refused to obey orders, was often absent from his post and consistently in favour of abandoning the siege of the British fort there.14Today, some of the most anti-Japanese Hollywood studios are now owned by Japanese companies, including Columbia, which is owned by Sony.15Hatta-Mari was one of the inspirations for Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

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