Since part of the movie going experience, back in the day before these enlightened times of the $7 bag of popcorn, included cartoons and newsreels, today and tomorrow (and from time to time) we’ll take a look a few famous examples of these other movie house attractions.
Two cartoons when examined together tell us a lot about the World War II era, and from two different viewpoints. These two cartoons are “Peace on Earth” (1939) and “The Ducktators” (1942).
Just by the titles and the dates of release, we can tell these films are drastically different. “Peace on Earth” is rather like “All Quiet on the Western Front” for kids. A Grandpa Squirrel puts his grandkids to sleep with a story of long ago, how strange creatures called “men” fought a terrible war against each other. The flashback is stark, colored in grays and browns and blacks, looking realistically like an old film of World War I soldiers. There is chaos in the trenches, and a horrific man-like figure in a gas mask with a gleaming bayonet. It is a nightmare vision. Finally, only two men are left, and they kill each other from opposing foxholes. This is why, as Grandpa, voiced by Mel Blanc, explains, there ain’t no men no more.
The little squirrels go to bed, and we see that the whole squirrel village is made from old army helmets. All is peaceful under a blanket of snow. All trouble is gone because man is gone. “Peace on Earth” was nominated for an Academy Award.
This cartoon was released in December 1939, when World War II was a few months old. The strong pacifist message it carries was rooted in the horror of World War I, which created for most nations and people who participated in the war an aversion to future war that directed public policy, at least in Britain, France and the US, for the next generation. The cartoon also reflects American nervousness at the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe and how deeply reticent most Americans were at having to commit to the struggle. As it is, it took the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor to drag us in, over two years later.
Which brings us to “The Ducktators.” This is a sillier cartoon, a more humorous cartoon, with lines like, “My mama done told me - Sieg Heil!”, but despite the silliness it is a more savage cartoon. Here is a link to “The Ducktators”: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1390519574176708696 .
There are no polite manners here, where barnyard animals are taken over by three bullies intended to represent Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito. Ethic and racial characteristics are obviously exaggerated to ridicule these bullies. There is a brief comic signboard from the invisible theater management to announce, “We wish to apologize to all the NICE DUCKS and GEESE in the audience - The Management.” How funny this seemed to Americans of German, Italian, and Japanese ancestry who by the time of this film’s release must have endured a bellyful of caricature, we can only guess. Still, it is interesting that the producers would even tuck in that notice, as if to say they knew they were crossing a line, with sensitivity that was quite uncharacteristic for that time. Even a black duck sounds like the Rochester character on the Jack Benny radio show, played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.
But, in this cartoon, even the Dove of Peace is caricatured as an effete fellow speaking in couplets. We know that right is on his side, but we can’t help but be a bit disgusted by him as he sits waving around olive branches (note that he is perched near an actual jar of olives), and letting the bullies run the barnyard. We only begin to like the Dove of Peace when he has had enough of being trampled upon, and beats up the bad ducks in a Popeye-like fistfight.
The end of the cartoon, usually cut off in later releases, concluded with a plea to buy war bonds.
It is fascinating that terrorists of today are as evil as any enemy we encountered in World War II, yet we tread a fine line making fun of them, especially in the use of caricature. If we do not, we would run the risk of insulting millions of people these terrorists claim to represent, but do not represent and are innocent.
We are not even encouraged to buy bonds. It is as if even today we are caught between the messages of these two cartoons: one, that all war is bad. Two, that only the enemy is bad. Public policy may have taken a quick and drastic change after Pearl Harbor, but in the psychological span evidenced between these two cartoons, it is negligible how prompt most Americans were to respond to it.