After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II in December 1941, a large studio lot in Burbank, California, was swiftly requisitioned as an army anti-aircraft base. Nearby was the Lockheed aircraft production plant, and this newly established site would ensure the plant was protected from enemy raids.
The studios were the property of Walt Disney, already something of an icon in the United States for his animated films. Because of his status, he was soon approached by the US government to produce wartime propaganda films, a task that he embraced wholeheartedly. More than 90% of the Disney company’s wartime output was dedicated to assisting in the struggle against Japan, Nazi Germany, and their allies.
This remarkable period in the studio’s history is the subject of a new exhibition at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Curated by historian Kent Ramsey and in partnership with Seattle’s Museum of Flight, it showcases more than 550 examples of rare historical objects, film clips, and posters.
With regards to film, the Disney company’s output was particularly prodigious. Over the course of the following four years, the organisation made short educational features for every branch of the American armed forces and government.
Over 400,000 feet of film was eventually produced, which if played continuously would run for more than 70 hours. Production hit its peak in 1943, the year in which the Battle of Midway arguably turned the tide of the Pacific War in American’s favour, with 204,000 feet of film churned out within those 12 months alone.
There were also short movies for the general public, such as The Vanishing Private, in which Donald Duck, already a Disney stalwart, discovered invisible paint and used it to disguise a cannon and play mind games with a buffoonish general.
Many of these films are still kicking around online and are just as enjoyable as the feature-length, cinematic releases of that era, such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. Although now classics, these movies initially underperformed at the box office due to wartime conditions.
But Disney’s enduring popularity helped enormously in the success of the propaganda. The medium itself was ideal: brief and uncomplicated, films and posters with recognisable characters instilled either patriotic fervour or issued warnings for the public to be vigilant against wartime threats.
For curator Kent Ramsey, there is a strong personal dimension in bringing the exhibition together. ‘Disney’s insignia design team created two clever insignias for my uncle’s photo reconnaissance group,’ he explained. ‘Unfortunately, my uncle was shot down and killed one month before the war ended in Europe, and, for me, this exhibition serves as a salute to his supreme sacrifice.’
Text: Calum Henderson.
All images: Kent Ramsey/Disney Studio Artist.