Wartime Animation and the Warner Bros.

2 Conversations


In 1942, Elmer Davies, director of the 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, was formed in 1942 as the chief government propaganda agency. Its duties, as instructed by Roosevelt, were largely centred on heightening public understanding of the war through the press, radio, and motion pictures. Hollywood soon became a part of OWI home activities shortly after the outbreak of war, and launched a controversial campaign of propaganda. Studios began producing not only instructional military films, but also began to introduce forms of propaganda to the American public through the medium of entertainment.

After Pearl Harbour, the OWI requested that Hollywood incorporate six main themes into the production of their motion pictures: the allies, and their strength; the enemies and their depravity; the home front; the issues; and the production front. Hollywood indeed rose to the occasion, and all of 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 whilst still retaining much entertainment value. Commitment became a major theme of Hollywood productions during World War Two, and an example of this theme of commitment 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.

However, these themes were also incorporated into much animation of the time. Indeed, animation served a useful purpose in conveying these themes, and especially, (perhaps because of the comic nature of it), in demonizing the enemies and holding them up for ridicule.

The (dis?)Honorable Private Snafu

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. New characters were also introduced for the purposes of educating and training troops. One of the most notable of these is perhaps the character of Private Snafu, a hopeless us army serviceman who was invented for the purposes of showing army servicemen and women how to survive in the U.S. army by showing them how not to do it. The incompetent Private Snafu is helped along by the Technical Fairy First Class, who is a tough army sprite that comes to snafu’s aid on the various occasions when he gets himself into tough situations. The Snafu cartoons were created as a humorous and entertaining form of education, and many of the cartoons incorporated little “in” jokes about U.S. military life in an attempt to build up a feeling of familiarity with the troops.


There were other Warner Bros. characters introduced that were aimed directly at the US public, however, and mainstream animation was an effective propaganda. For example, the larger than life spirit of Uncle Sam visits porky pig in the cartoon short Old Glory, and teaches him the meaning of the pledge of allegiance, whilst recreating glorious historical scenes from America’s past. The cartoon is obviously intended to stir up feelings of patriotism within the audience through the use of key examples of American strength in the past, and this feeling was probably made all the more evocative by the fact that it is the famous figure of Uncle Sam, a poster figure used to recruit troops in World War One, that is being used. Sam is also drawn as a massive figure when compared to porky, which invokes the feeling of him being a strong and mighty character that would not recoil in the face of evil.

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, and this in itself would have made the audience think about their contribution to the war effort. Hitler is outraged at Daffy’s show of patriotism in this animated feature, and tries to destroy his pile by sending in a metal eating goat. Daffy is continuously beaten by the goat until, when he is slumped in defeat; a spirit visits him and says “Americans never give up”. Daffy then turns into a “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. For the reasons stated above, this type of propaganda would perhaps have affected the American public quite strongly. It also fits the requirements of one 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 to contribute to the war effort.

Pepepepep-picking on the 'Japs' and Germans

Animation was used for the 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 for ridicule. Cartoon can perhaps pander to stereotype much more effectively than any other form of visual narrative because it makes use of caricatures as a standard device to enhance its’ 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 idiosyncrasies of the enemy.

For example, in the 1943 Warner Bros. animation Tokio Jokio popular (and usually false) American conceptions of the Japanese people are ridiculously exaggerated for comic effect. The film begins with scratchy lines on a blank screen, indicating that we are about to see a Japanese newsreel. The newsreel follows, and includes information on japans’ latest war developments, news, sport and fashion. The joke here is the Japanese caricatures, their overstated behaviour and their reactions to various situations. For example, “Japan’s finest air raid siren” is shown as a Japanese troop having large pins stuck in his behind and screaming; the “honourable aircraft spotter” paints spots on planes, and professor Tojo shows us how to eat a “ration card” sandwich. During an air raid a skunk is shown wearing a gas mask whilst standing next to a Jap, and Japanese troops in a submarine are also shown looking at peep shows. This cartoon reinforces typical stereotypes of the Japanese; they are apparently incompetent, smelly, and lecherous.

This demonisation of the enemy can also be seen in many other animations of this period. For example, in Plane Daffy the duck is pursued by a beautiful spy, Hatta-Mari, who is a “se-duck-tress” trying to obtain his “military secret”. It is obviously the Nazi’s being parodied here, and although they are given considerably more credibility in this cartoon than the Japanese in Tokio Jokio, we can see that the same devices are still used to poke fun at the Germans. It can also be argued that this cartoon also symbolically depicts American responsibility towards the allies, as daffy is initially on a rescue mission to save “Homer Pigeon”, a comrade who has fallen into the clutches of the attractive Nazi agent.

The idea of a wily and very attractive female spy was a common one during this period, and the content of the cartoon shows the American public the apparent guile and manipulative nature of the Nazi’s. As Hatta-Mari straps the duck to an x-ray, finally trapping him, and broadcasts his secret to (which he has swallowed) to Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels via television, the secret reads “Hitler is a stinker”. Goering and Goebbels yell, “That’s no secret!” and then promptly kill themselves.

The villainy of the Germans is more subtly portrayed in the 1943 cartoon Falling Hare, in which bugs bunny ferociously battles with a gremlin that is guilty of “dia-boli-cal saba-togee”. This cartoon injects humour whilst serving as a serious warning in regard to the possible enemy sabotage of American aircraft.

The power of animation.

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 woodcuts caricatures of the papacy to the humorous anti-Nazi cartoons of the British comic artist David low in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, nothing displaces he public fear of the enemy more than a satirical caricature of the aggressor. 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, as Davies states, a “powerful instrument of propaganda”.

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