Another Memorial Day is here, and it’s always a good time to celebrate our brothers and sisters, both veterans and those actively in the military with Memorial Day cartoons.
At first I was going to write about the many really impressive propaganda cartoons of WW2, because I’ve always been fascinated by propaganda of all eras. The problem with propaganda cartoons is they are invariably racist to one group or other, the worst being the representation of the Japanese and Chinese. There were Japanese-American soldiers fighting in World War II who came back to find their families in internment camps. Actually, our friend and animation legend Willie Ito experienced the horrors of the Japanese internment camps, and you can hear his stories about that HERE. There is also, as far as I know, only one cartoon representing Black soldiers, released during WW2 on January 16th, 1943, which is Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, written and directed by Bob Clampett. Unfortunately it has such stereotyped characters that in April of 1943 it was protested by the NAACP, who called on Warner Bros. to withdraw it. It became one of WB’s “Censored Eleven”. I went through all eleven cartoons, and… yikes! They are a strong argument for why people of color have always needed and still need to have positive representation onscreen.
I also thought about posting some anti-war cartoons, but again, that doesn’t really highlight how lucky we are to have people in the military who have in the past or who are protecting and defending our country or standing for those around the world needing to be protected, as the military did in World War II. What’s happening right now, and how much politics enters into who we help and who we don’t, doesn’t lessen the importance and value of what the individuals who serve do.
That being said, if you DO want to watch several of the the most famous anti-war cartoons, there are three that immediately come to mind:
Peace on Earth (1939): This is an MGM cartoon directed by Hugh Harman which has become a yearly Christmas staple in my house. It is a gorgeous and poignant short which features Mel Blanc as the voice of Grandfather squirrel, and captures a post-apocalyptic world in which only animals exist. War destroys man, and the animals, inspired by a book that speaks of loving one another, rebuild the world as non-violent and peaceful. Peace on Earth was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to The Ugly Duckling.
Mickey Mouse in Vietnam (1969): Originally titled Short Subject, this underground animated short was directed by the Whitney Lee Savage, father of Adam Savage of Mythbuster fame. It’s short and sweet, coming in at a minute and ten seconds. An award winner at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in 1970, it’s not a happy flick, but you can watch Mickey Mouse do his brief military duty below.
Graveyard of the Fireflies (1988): Although director/screenwriter Isao Takahata is an anti-war advocate, he vehemently denies his film, which is based on the 1968 short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, is anti-war. Arguably the most depressing piece of animation anyone could ever watch, (name another if you have a sadder one, by all means), the story takes place at the end of World War II, and tells of a brother and sister who die of starvation after Kobe is firebombed. Watch at your own peril, and with your anti-depressants close at hand.
For the main substance of this Memorial Day Cartoons blog, instead of writing about pure propaganda or anti-war shorts, I wanted to find cartoons that in some way celebrate or highlight the sacrifice of those in our armed forces, but also speak to the importance of supporting them and each other in hard times, such as we’ve had during the pandemic. I also wanted to include really 2 really important cartoons that literally changed the course of World War II.
With that in mind, here are some cartoons that will keep your attention and capture a moment in America you can watch in honor of Memorial Day:
Let’s start with a great featurette released in 1983 on Memorial Day as a prime-time special, and was introduced by Charles M. Schulz.
What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? (1983): If you’ve ever watched Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (1980), you know that Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy, Woodstock, Peppermint Patty and Marcie took a trip to France. This adventure takes place during that trip, though it isn’t mentioned in Bon Voyage. Schulz explained, “I kept thinking how interesting it would be if they should somehow get lost on this little trip and end up at Omaha Beach and envision the scenes of the famous D-Day Invasion of World War II. I even thought that they might pass through Belgium and we could show some landscapes affected by World War I, and how emotional it could be if one of the characters somehow could be made to recite the immortal poem, John McCrae‘s In Flanders Fields.”
Of course Linus does indeed recite the poem, and here’s a clip of that:
You can see the whole featurette on Daily Motion, complete with Marcie giving motorists a piece of her mind in French. It’s pretty great, especially if you’re a fan of everyone’s favorite philosopher, Linus.
Then there are two cartoons released by Disney I especially l love, one that promotes buying war bonds, and the other than asks us all to use all our brain and heart power, and not succumb to bigotry and hate when at war (or, I might add, at any time).
All Together (1942): Walt Disney created four educational and propaganda shorts in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada. They were part of an attempt to keep the studio afloat, after the outbreak of the war in Europe lost them an important market for their films. This 3-minute cartoon was released theatrically, and asked Canadians to support their troops by buying war bonds. Directed by Jack King, it features Walt himself voicing Mickey Mouse, which is the only time Mickey is in a WW2 propaganda film. It shows a parade of Disney characters including Pinocchio, Donald Duck, the Seven Dwarfs, and Pluto, carrying banners about buying bonds. The cartoon was later used in the US theaters, after it entered the war.
Reason and Emotion (1943): Nominated for an Oscar upon its release, you’ll recognize this Disney propaganda short as a major influence on Pixar’s Inside Out, as confirmed by director Pete Docter. Essentially the message is the US version of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On”. Animators Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnson worked on this cartoon, which argues it is essential to use both your head and your heart, not just your heart, or rather your emotions, lest you be manipulated by Hitler’s fear-mongering. The film is also trying to make people aware of how propaganda works, so they could better recognize it when faced with it. You can watch Reason and Emotion on Daily Motion.
Representing all the armed forces wasn’t possible, but I do have three out of four, with the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and apologies to all the Marines out there. I guess the Marines didn’t need cartoons?
The Mighty Navy (1941): Popeye’s 100th theatrical short made him an iconic member of the US Navy, and gave him the white uniform he would often wear in the future. Onboard a Navy training ship, Popeye encounters challenges, especially with the stringent rules and the complicated equipment. When the ship gets surrounded by the enemy, Popeye takes matters into his own muscled hands. In the end he is honored by being adopted as the official insignia of the Navy Bomber Squadron. Reality followed fiction in this case, as images of Popeye started being used on insignias and as nose art.
Donald Gets Drafted (1942): Released on May 1st, 1942, this famous WW2-era Donald short is a favorite among Donald fans and animation art collectors, and is the first time we hear Donald’s full name, Donald Fauntleroy Duck. The short shows Donald enthusiastically heading to the draft board after getting his draft notice, and although he wants to join the Air Force, it is the Army that takes him. After he runs the gauntlet of a number of tests during basic training, Donald winds up in a room full of potatoes with KP duty. What is most interesting about the cartoon, though, is that pacifist Carl Barks, who co-wrote the cartoon, infused it with anti-military messages. He was against the US’s involvement in the war. Barks wanted to show the difference between the reality of wartime Army experience, and the recruitment propaganda that glamorized the life and heroism of military service. Donald was a wartime star, and the most famous of his cartoons from that era, Der Fuehrer’s Face, won an Oscar.
Victory Through Air Power (1943): Based on Alexander P de Seversky’s 1942 book of the same name, this short is extremely important to the outcome of the second world war. Financed personally by Walt, the New York Times devoted a half page to pictures and captions from the film just before its release. The studio had converted itself to a propaganda machine after Pearl Harbor, and the main target of this film was to gain the attention of people in power and realign their way of thinking. It was a success in that way. It influenced both FDR and Winston Churchill in significant ways.
We can’t forget our four-legged veterans and military ‘personnel’. Dogs have been essential during both times of peace and war.
War Dogs (1943): MGM, by way of Hanna and Barbara, celebrated dogs on duty with a short that features one of the less intelligent of the pups in service. Though it does have a brief, unfortunate caricature of a Japanese soldier, the rest of the cartoon is quite sweet in how it explains, even in the midst of the comedic elements this mockumentary uses, the true value of canine recruits.
Lest you believe even a small percentage of pups are as daft as the one represented in War Dogs, I’ll leave you with a live action short released by the Department of Defense as part of the “Big Picture” series, which highlighted aspects of the armed forces. It was filmed in the 50s, and shows the uses and training of Army dogs in Korea and Germany.
That’s it for today’s blog! I’ve had World War II and wartime animation art before, and if you’re interested in this wartime cartoon art as a collector, let me know and I’ll be on the lookout for art from this historic era. Happy Memorial Day, my friends!