Throughout the Second World War an average of almost 85 million Americans visited the cinema each week. When they did, accompanying the films and newsreel on screen, a cartoon was normally shown. These cartoons, made 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 for television made 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. 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 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 animated2. 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 established film studio First National Pictures, acquiring their studio facilities and a cinema chain. This investment cemented their place as one of the world's leading film studios.
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 Melodies3. 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, including Chuck Jones. In 1929 worked with ex-Disney animators to create the first lip-synchronised animated cartoon, the experimental Bosko, The Talk-Ink Kid. In 1930 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 they had at other animation studios, provided they stay 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, 19394, America did not become directly involved5 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 much entertainment value.
The OWI had limited powers, but was able to provide Hollywood with guidelines, allocate film stock and control what films were distributed to foreign markets. By agreeing to assist the war effort, animation studios were permitted to remain open during the war's duration as they were designated an essential industry.
Commitment became a major theme of Hollywood productions during the Second World War, 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. 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 greater conflict for the greater good.
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), demonising the enemies and holding them up for ridicule.
American Animation in the 1940s
Cartoons shown in American cinemas in this period were almost exclusively released by seven companies. Many, like Warner Brothers, distributed the cartoons made by otherwise independent studios. The seven companies were:
- Columbia Pictures
Cartoon star: Fox and Crow
Cartoon stars: Tom and Jerry, Droopy, Barney Bear
Cartoon Stars: Popeye, Superman, Betty Boop
- RKO - releasing the films of Walt Disney7
Cartoon Stars: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto
- 20th Century Fox
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 a constant 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 nicknamed 'Doughboy', 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 also introduced for the purposes of educating and training troops. The most notable of these is 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 US army by showing them how not to do it. The incompetent Private Snafu, whose name stands for Situation Normal - All Fouled Up8, 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 the cartoons 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 drew to a close and US servicemen had themselves become experienced veterans, Snafu became heroic, although he remained pig-headed.
The Snafu cartoons were black and white or sepia, directed by either Chuck Jones or Isadore Frelang9 or Frank Tashlin and written by Theodore 'Dr Seuss' Geisel and Phil Eastman. The voice of Snafu was by Mel Blanc, famous for voicing many Warner Brothers cartoons including Bugs Bunny as well as robot Twiki in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. 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. Snafu snuffs it in many cartoons as a consequence of his 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. Uncle Sam teaches Porky about the pledge of allegiance while recreating historical scenes from America's past. The cartoon is intended to stir up the audience's patriotism through the use of historic examples of American strength, made all the more evocative by the fact that it features the famous figure of Uncle Sam. Sam is drawn as a massive figure when compared to Porky, portraying Uncle Sam, and by extension America itself, as both strong and mighty, unafraid in the face of evil. Curiously, for a cartoon set during the American Revolution, the fact that during that conflict Britain was the enemy is overlooked; the character of Paul Revere10, rather than shouting The British are coming! as is traditional, instead warns To arms!. This oversight implies that, rather than enemies, America and Britain will be allies 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, 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, 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. 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.
There were Warner Bros characters introduced that were aimed directly at the US public, and mainstream animation was an effective propaganda.
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.
Racist Propaganda: Pe-pe-pe-pe-p-picking on the 'Japs' and 'Jerries'
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 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 Pearl Harbor, American animators wanted revenge. As America and Japan were at war and Japanese audiences were unlikely to view American cartoons, Hollywood11 lost no profit by portraying the Japanese in an at best strongly stereotyped and more often racist fashion. The Japanese were shown as wearing thick glasses, have buck teeth and resemble either Emperor Hirohito or Prime Minister Tojo while their characteristics ensured that they were incompetent, smelly, and lecherous. Warner Brothers were as guilty of propagating these unfounded myths as much as other cartoon studios, for instance, in film Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, the stereotypes not only include the buck-toothed image, but also Sumo wrestlers. 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 are 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. 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 reinforces contemporary stereotypes of the Japanese.
Animation studios were not alone in promoting this persecution; following Pearl Harbor Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps known as 'relocation centres'. However they certainly were guilty of perpetuating it.
Although Adolf Hitler as a person and the Nazi party were depicted as evil, neither the Germans nor Italians were stigmatised to the same extent. Italians other than Mussolini rarely featured in American cartoons of the period, where Mussolini is 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 show him being a monkey, ape or gorilla.
This demonisation of the enemy can also be seen in many other animations of this 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 noir12. 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, 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 are being parodied here, and although they are considerably more credibility in this cartoon than the Japanese in Tokio Jokio, the same devices are still used to poke fun at the Germans. It can also be argued that this cartoon also 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 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 New Zealand comic artist Sir David Low13 in the late 1930s and early 1940s, nothing displaces 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 described by Elmer Davies as 'a powerful instrument of propaganda'.
The Animations Today
Some of these cartoons have been officially released on DVD etc, 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.