On Dec. 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawai‘i. Early the next day, before Congress had formally declared war, Walt Disney received a phone call at his home informing him that an anti-aircraft battalion was taking over facilities at The Walt Disney Studios. By the end of the week, Disney had a contract with the U.S. Navy to produce training films.
For the duration of World War II, more than 90 percent of Disney productions was at-cost work for the U.S. war effort: films for soldiers and civilians, insignia for military units and cartoon shorts boosting patriotism — including a couple that were blatant propaganda.
More than 550 films, posters, pieces of artwork and other artifacts from this time are on exhibit at Seattle’s Museum of Flight through Feb. 5, 2023. The exhibit, “The Walt Disney Studios and World War II,” was created by a partnership between The Museum of Flight and The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
Kids seem to have a good time watching the video installations and coloring the information sheets, but it’s an eye-opener for adults, too. Very few of us have lived through a war that involved everyone in the country.
A poster made for Washington state farmers highlights that they were instrumental in food production for the troops. A short film educates taxpayers on how to fill out the special wartime income tax form. Think you get frustrated filling out IRS forms? Wait till you see Donald Duck.
In the exhibit, one display is covered with letters from the commanding officers of U.S. and Canadian military units asking Disney for unit insignia. There’s something appealing about these very serious men confiding how much they would love to have Goofy or Jiminy Cricket represent their unit.
Roald Dahl, not yet a prolific novelist and writer of beloved children’s books, published an early story, “Gremlins,” with Disney; the cover is in the exhibit.
There’s also a feature on the work of Gyo Fujikawa, a Nisei artist and illustrator who was working as a promotional artist for Disney when the war began. The company moved her to their New York offices. She escaped the fate of the rest of her family, who spent the war in an internment camp. Fujikawa went on to become a successful writer and illustrator of children’s books.
Other Japanese American employees at Disney were not so fortunate. The exhibit section on “Finding Art in Tragedy” tells the story of several Disney employees who were sent to internment camps with their families. It’s accompanied by a sweeping watercolor of a camp in Wyoming, Heart Mountain War Relocation Center, by Rokuro “Bob” Kuwahara.
Most of the exhibit is more upbeat and bright with Disney’s characteristic European-storybook-style artwork, and there are small reminders of how good the studio was at telling a story. A short sequence on learning to make a good rivet is engaging and clear, with Disney’s characteristic smooth animation.
According to the exhibit catalog, Disney realized early in 1941 that animation was often a better medium than live action for explaining complex subjects, partly because animation could peel away exteriors and reveal cross sections in a way live action could not. Moreover, Disney staff had discovered that animation kept audiences more alert and made the information more accessible. Watch that little clip on how to make a perfect rivet and see if you’re not confident you could do it.
This was not simply Disney’s vaunted creativity at work. The Disney Company was in serious financial trouble. The catalog mentions the issues but only in passing, with phrases such as “grappling with multiple box offices losses” before going on to discuss something else.
Disney borrowed heavily to produce “Fantasia” and install special sound systems in theaters that showed it. The film was a major box-office flop, losing the equivalent of $15 million today. A bitter strike by Disney cartoonists held up production and left company morale shattered.
It’s hard for people who didn’t live through it to realize how completely the entire country mobilized for World War II. The federal Office of War Information got cooperation from the entire motion picture industry, which provided everything from patriotic movies and propaganda to appearances by movie stars in USO shows and at the Hollywood Canteen. It just so happened that the government demand came at a time when Disney was already looking for work that his studios could do to keep the company alive. As the catalog discloses, he was already pitching ideas for training films, including the rivet animation, to the Lockheed aircraft company in April 1941, months before the war started. It was an opportunity, and Disney was more than ready for it.
It’s likely that Disney’s studios would not have survived without devoting the war years to at-cost production for the war effort. While the company wasn’t actually solvent until “Cinderella” in 1950, the fact that it survived meant that it got to see the eventual success of “Fantasia,” which has become a classic and a big seller on video. The VHS sales in the early 1990s alone brought in half a billion dollars. The postwar years brought Disneyland and Disneyworld. Today, the Disney moviemaking empire includes Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, 20th Century and Searchlight Pictures.
Back to the museum, it’s a rich exhibit. Thoughtful sections on the artwork make clear the depth of artistic background Disney artists had. Luminous background paintings pull a viewer in, even without action going on in front. Military insignia use every Disney character, from the Seven Dwarfs representing a Royal Canadian Air Force flying school, to Fifinella, who represented the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). (Fifinella also gets an excellent coloring and information sheet to help kids learn about the WASPs.)
Donald Duck is the star toon of this exhibit. Mickey Mouse hardly appears, even though he was already the corporate spokestoon for Disney. Maybe it’s because you have to be dignified to be a corporate logo, and being funny requires a certain anti-gravitas? Donald is also the centerpiece of one of the modern touches in "The Walt Disney Studios and World War II": The insignia for the Seattle exhibit shows Donald in pilot garb holding a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. Mount Rainier is in the background.
Entrance to the exhibition is free with tickets to the museum, which are available on the museum’s website, at museumofflight.org. Admission is free on the first Thursday of each month, and there are discounts for military, veterans, Boeing employees, AAA members and a variety of others. The Museum of Flight also participates in the Museums for All program: One person with an EBT card may receive $3 admission tickets for up to six people. A regular Sensory Day is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 8. Parking is free in the large museum lot; Metro bus #124 goes from Downtown Seattle or Tukwila to the door of the museum.
Read more of the Oct. 12-18, 2022 issue.