23 February 2008

Ducktators (1997)

I recently watched a Dutch documentary called Duckators (Guus von Wavern, Martin de Vries & Wolter Braamhorst, 1998) about animated propaganda done in Hollywood during the Second World War. I recall vividly some of the anti-German propaganda by Disney of swastikas crawling like spiders across Europe that I saw when I was a film student. I can’t recall the name of the film let alone the rest of the film, but that iconic image and its intended message branded itself in my memory. The animated propaganda from this period, in places like the States, Canada, and Japan, played a very important role in the home front war effort because they produced entertaining shorts that were extremely memorable.

This documentary, named after a famous propaganda film starring Donald Duck, looks at the output of Disney and Warner Brothers during the war. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, both companies threw themselves whole-heartedly into the war effort not just out of patriotism but, as one of the interviewees emphasizes, because it was profitable for them. By 1943, 94% of Disney’s output involved war-related material.

I really enjoyed the documentary because the filmmakers allow their material to speak for itself. The cartoons themselves are intercut with interviews with Sody Clampett (widow of Bob Clampett), Chuck Jones, Eric Smooden (film historian), Elfriede Fischinger (widow of Oskar Fishinger), Bob Clampett, Jr, and a number of other critics and historians. This lack of narrator really works in the film’s favour because it contrasts nicely with the heavy voice-of-god narration of the times (à la Lorne Greene).

The selection of propaganda footage in Ducktators demonstrates how effective animation, which at this time as TV critic Karl Cohen explains precedes the “ghetto-ization of cartoons to kids only”, was at ridiculing and de-humanizing the Axis forces. They poke fun at Hitler’s concept of himself as being a heroic, superhuman figure, and they deliberately make the Japanese as ugly and inhuman as possible. The Japanese are depicted as being small with buckteeth, glasses, and insect-like.

Here is Tokio Jokio, an example of Warner Brother's anti-Japanese propaganda:

I have read a great deal about the Japanese animation done as a part of their war effort, but have yet to see the films. Ducktators does contain a clip of an anime of the bombing of Pearl Harbor that certainly whets my appetite to search down more of these films.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008