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Warner Brothers and Disney’s Cartoons in the Vaults

Updated on August 12, 2012
Donald Duck being heckled in how to spend his money during World War II in the Disney animated short, The Spirit of '43.
Donald Duck being heckled in how to spend his money during World War II in the Disney animated short, The Spirit of '43.

When you think of Disney and Warner Brothers, you think of cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny that have a wholesome appeal to children. However, there is a side to these cartoons that Warner Brothers and Walt Disney Pictures seem hesitant to talk about nowadays in the mainstream. These cartoons were all made during the middle of the 20th century where at that time, they were aimed towards appealing to wider audiences. Due to their use as World War II propaganda or racial stereotyping, some of Disney and Warner Brother’s cartoons were either rarely shown on television broadcast or banned outright from being circulated for video distribution. Such cartoons deserve not to be forgotten because they reflect the beliefs and humor present during that time. There are people today who try to preserve this history online. While the content may be offensive, denying the existence of these cartoons to the public would be considered censorship.

During World War II, it was common for Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons to be used as propaganda in support of American troops. Such propaganda consisted of encouraging Americans to become involved in the support of American troops and either depicting their enemies through documentaries or mocking them.

With supporting American troops, some Disney cartoons encouraged working Americans to remember to pay their quarterly income taxes so money was put towards supporting troops. During the 1940s, taxes were never deducted from the money earned by workers for taxes thus they paid voluntary income taxes every three months to the government. Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury during the time, persuaded Walt Disney to create animated shorts aimed at persuading Americans to pay their income taxes so the government had more money to fund the war. As a result, two Donald Duck cartoons were made to promote this message: The New Spirit and Spirit of ’43. The cartoons were a success, as Donald’s phrase of “Taxes to beat the Axis” became a slogan for income taxes during the war.

The Spirit of ’43 depicted Donald Duck as a working American at the start of the animated short. The beginning of the cartoon put him in a classic angel-devil conflict of consciousness concerning the use of his hard-earned money. The “angel” took on the form of an old duck dressed in Scottish attire encouraging Donald to put his money in the bank so it was saved for quarterly income taxes to be used in supporting the war. This shown the “angel” to be a representation of a war supporter. The “devil” was a smooth-talking hipster duck persuading Donald to spend his money at a tavern for his personal use. The main message of the short was money not spent on the war would be pushing things in favor of the Axis. This is strongly shown when the “devil” hipster duck turned into a caricature of Hitler, complete with mustache. This was a blatant portrayal of Nazi Germany. Donald shook the hand of the duck before knocking him out, showing his support of the war.

Some propaganda cartoons made in World War II depicted a bleak look into the nature of America’s enemies. Such cartoons painted the ‘enemy’ in a negative light portraying them to be pure evil influencing their people to support the cause of their leader. Such shorts were used to raise the audience’s hatred of American enemies during the war. One powerful example of this sort of propaganda came from the Disney short, Education for Death. The short’s focus was on Nazi Germany as it explored how a German boy named Hans was raised at youth to become a Nazi soldier. It created a dark portrait into the innocence of a child being stripped away and hardening him into a soldier devoted to the Nazi cause. The belief that the strong will reign over the weak was the main theme used throughout this anti-Nazi animated short.

Making a mockery of the enemy was another method used in World War II animated shorts to make countries aligned with the Axis look like fools. These mockeries were done the most by Warner Brothers who would pit their popular characters against an antagonist representing one of the Axis countries. These shorts depicted the enemy as an ethnic stereotype by exaggerating certain physical features and personality aspects. The humor was crude towards these characters with Warner Brothers characters usually letting out racial slurs to the antagonist and humiliating them in the usual cartoonist violent ways typical of Warner Brothers animated shorts at the time.

Two animated shorts used by Warner Brothers to depict stereotypes of the Axis were Bugs Bunny’s Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips and Daffy Duck’s Daffy – The Commando. Nips the Nips featured Bugs targeting the Japanese who go after him when he landed on their island. The title itself featured the racial slur “nip” which was used to bash Japanese people at the time. This anti-Japanese propaganda short featured Bugs going against a Japanese soldier and a sumo wrestler. The soldier was depicted as being short with buck teeth, slanty eyes, wearing glasses, and speaking gibberish instead of Japanese. All were racial stereotypical features depicted of the Japanese during the time. The sumo wrestler was depicted as how most large characters were portrayed at the time in Warner Brothers cartoons being tough, but easy to fool and slow-witted. In the finale, Bugs wiped out the rest of the Japanese army by disguising himself as an ice cream man and giving ice cream rigged with grenades to the soldiers while letting out different racial slurs based on their physical features towards the gullible soldiers.

Daffy – The Commando featured Daffy Duck targeting his antics towards Nazi Germany. In the short, Daffy was an American commando sent to cross Nazi Germany lines and the commander Von Vulture trying to stop his advances. Some of the humor of this short came off the exaggerated use of German dialogue. Much like Nips the Nips portrayal of Japanese, some of the spoken German was gibberish instead of actual dialogue. One example of this was shown during the ending to the short where Daffy clobbered Hitler on the head with a mallet while he was making a speech to the Germans. Another way to poke fun of the language was through the written dialogue and lisp that came from the heavy accent of Von Vulture. In the written telegraph Von Vulture read at the start of the short, for example, the telegraph was translated into English that would sound like a heavy accent when read out loud.

Another running gag of Daffy – The Commandocame in the form of Schultz, the soldier assisting Von Vulture. Throughout the short, Schultz came marching towards Von Vulture and let out a Hitler salute whenever called upon. This poked fun of the endless marching done by Nazi soldiers and their obedience towards Hitler or any Nazi military superiors. As further proof of mocking this obedience, Schultz would bare any abuse from either Daffy or Von Vulture throughout the short while maintaining his composure towards his commander’s orders. When Schultz was sent flying into the air from a bomb during the middle of the short, he went back down to the ground in a salute after Von Vulture called for him.

Racial stereotypes were elements of humor often used in Warner Brothers cartoons during the mid-20th century. Because racial discrimination was commonplace during this period, portraying racial minorities in a negative light was acceptable at the time for cartoons, especially considering the adult audience that watched them. Such features of a race target were physical features, their lifestyles, and their language. The biggest targets of the racial humor were African Americans. The humor used to portray African Americans varied from parodies of popular stories to an homage of the jazz scene that spurred in popularity thanks to the Harlem Renaissance. Famous animation director Bob Clampett created two animated shorts, Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs and Tin Pan Alley Cats as a homage to jazz during the early 1940s. Clampett was acquainted with a number of jazz talents on the Los Angeles scene, which inspired him to make the shorts. Coal Black was a musical parody of Disney’s adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the entire cast was black. Tin Pan Alley Cats featured a cat on the night scene that was a caricature of jazz pianist Fats Weller, one of the era’s most famous musical figures.

Once racial equality came into place during the mid-1960s for African Americans, times changed with the humor that was presented through Warner Brothers cartoons. In the late 1960s, Warner Brothers cartoons began to be edited for television broadcast due to their increasing popularity with children. Questionable content such as smoking, intense violence, and racial jokes faced editing for broadcast. However, a number of cartoons were deemed too politically incorrect to air on television due to their racist themes towards African Americans. Distributors felt such cartoons were impossible to edit and in 1968, the film studio United Artists, the company that owned the entire Warner Brothers animated short library, banned eleven cartoons from broadcast. This set of banned cartoons became known by animated short enthusiasts as the Censored Eleven. Even when the Warner Brothers animated library was bought by Turner Broadcasting in 1986, Ted Turner refused to allow any of the Censored Eleven to be aired on television or distributed to video.

The Censored Eleven were not the only set of cartoons that faced censorship from animation studios. World War II propaganda cartoons from Disney and Warner Brothers were rarely, if ever, broadcasted on television and distributed to video due to the politically incorrect themes of the animated shorts over the past three decades. When such shorts are lucky enough to be officially released on video, they usually faced pressure from minority and advocacy groups to be pulled if the content contained any racist depictions. For example in the first set of a number of Looney Tunes cartoons released on home video in December 1991, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips was among one of the cartoons released in the collection. Japanese advocacy groups lashed out against the cartoon’s presence in the set. As a result of the pressure, the video sets with the offending cartoon were recalled from stores and replaced with another animated short. Also in 2001, Cartoon Network faced pressure from Warner Brothers to remove 12 Bugs Bunny cartoons from its June Bugs marathon due to racial humor found in those cartoons. June Bugs was a 48-hour annual marathon that Cartoon Network used to air every year full of Bugs Bunny cartoons. For that year, Cartoon Network claimed that they were going to air every Bugs Bunny cartoon ever made. Amongst the 12 Bugs Bunny cartoons banned from broadcast were Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips and All This and Rabbit Stew, the only Bugs Bunny cartoon that was among the Censored Eleven.

Despite attempts by Warner Brothers to prevent public distribution of the Censored Eleven, this has not stopped animation enthusiasts from finding ways to get the controversial cartoons out to the public. Bootlegging the animated shorts onto VHS and DVD was one method used to get them out to the public. But due to the shorts not having been digitally remastered since their banning in 1968, their video quality was often poor in comparison to other Warner Brothers shorts available publicly. But with the presence of the Internet, distribution of the shorts became easier to accomplish. Video hosting sites like Youtube and file downloading programs like Bittorrent gave Censored Eleven pirates an easier means of distributing the animated shorts online. Warner Brothers made repeated efforts to remove the content from online. In an article reported in the New York Times in April 2008, several video clips of the Censored Eleven were pulled off Youtube from a copyright claim made by Warner. However on that same day, more video clips popped up online in their place. Defenders of the cartoons proclaimed that they were never banned and deserve to be used in an informed way to teach today’s generation of young adults about the times in which they were made. Three of the animated shorts in the Censored Eleven are now in the public domain due to Warner Brothers failing to renew their copyright claims on some of the cartoons in their library. The three Censored Eleven shorts now in the public domain are All This and Rabbit Stew, Jungle Jitters, and Hittin’ the Trail for Hallelujah Land.

In recent years, Warner Brothers and Disney have shown signs of lightening up on their stance of preventing the distribution of any cartoons in their library containing racial humor or World War II propaganda. Both companies have begun releasing DVD volumes that feature a number of animated shorts with the questionable content in its entirety and completely uncut. In 2004, Walt Disney Pictures released a two-disc set of many of their animated shorts used as World War II propaganda called On the Front Lines, a part of the “Walt Disney’s Treasures” collection. In the case of Warner Brothers, the studio launched yearly releases of many of the cartoons in their library since 2003 in four-disk DVD sets known as the “Looney Tunes Golden Collection.” Some of the titles included in the sets were titles that were rarely shown on television due to racial humor or World War II propaganda. The Looney Tunes collections each came with a warning regarding the racial humor present in some of the shorts yet informed viewers that they did not face censorship of any kind on the disks since it was important to present the times in which the cartoons were made.

The truth of Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons being made for wider audiences is a fact only well known to animation enthusiasts and those who researched the material. Because of the appeal of cartoons with children, some of these cartoons were rarely shown or locked away from being shown to the public due to their politically incorrect content. However, animation enthusiasts opposed their censorship believing such shorts needed to be shown to reflect on the time period in which they were made. The makers of the shorts responded to these pleas by releasing a number of the animated shorts on DVD. Even with this response, animated shorts, such as those from the Censored Eleven, continue to be banned from television broadcast or video distribution. There is still a need to demand the release of animated shorts with racial humor or propaganda. It could be used in a way to teach young adults of this generation of how the attitudes of people in the middle of the 20th century influenced the content put in these cartoons.


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    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 4 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      All of these sound great to me and I gotta see'm all again. Those photos bring back the memories. I enjoyed this very much. You have this laid out beautifully and it is easy to understand. Keep up the great HUBS. I gotta give this an Up ONE AND BEAUTIFUL. I'm now your fan!

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      Gage 3 years ago

      Brings back very indiscribably painful memories to me, unlike the soothing, comfortable memories of the Present (2008-present). Bugs Bunny is a disgrace to cartoon characters everywhere.

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      Andrew 3 years ago

      I like the stuff in this site it was very useful

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