Short Rounds: Looking Back on Pearl Harbor and Hollywood in Wartime

Short Rounds: Looking Back on Pearl Harbor and Hollywood in Wartime

Dec 07, 2011

Today is the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, that day that would live in infamy. Historically, of course, our entry into World War Two might be the most significant American event of the 20th Century. Almost as proof, there are more movies about the years 1939-1945 than perhaps any other period in history. December 7th, 1941 lives on through From Here to Eternity and Tora! Tora! Tora! while just about every other major moment from the very real D-Day landings to the very fictional Guns of Navarone has been fictionalized and thrown onto film. Yet with all this cinematic memory, it can be easy to forget the extraordinary relationship between movies and the war while it was still going on.

The early 1940s were a hectic time to be working in Hollywood. The studios were quickly swept up into the war effort, producing such morale boosters as Watch on the Rhine. Films were made to train soldiers; both ideological and practical lessons to prepare them for combat abroad. Filmmakers were out recording the campaigns, bringing new attention and respect to the documentary form. Simple war bond advertisements and complex propaganda alike, the American public was inundated with cinematic patriotism. And what better way to look back at this complex period in American history than with the help of some shorts?

Pre-War Pacifism: Ferdinand the Bull

Before that fateful December day the bulk of the American people weren’t too excited about the prospect of international conflict, or even international relations; decades of isolationism and regret after the First World War still held strong. A small wave of successful theatrical cartoons ran with that feeling, even while the message of non-violence was under attack in Fascist Europe. The MGM short Peace on Earth from 1939 shows us a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by war, with only the mice left to tell the tale. And of course it’s Christmas-themed.

Yet my personal favorite is the 1938 Oscar-winner Ferdinand the Bull. Based on the best-selling children’s book by Munro Leaf, it’s the story of a young bull who simply does not have the fighting spirit. No matter how much he may be goaded on by the toreadors, he remains a peaceful lover of flowers. The book was banned in Nazi Germany and other Fascist countries, while becoming immensely popular in the US. This Walt Disney production is one of their greatest, as warm and meaningful today as it ever was.

Training Videos: Private SNAFU

Of course, once the war began the army needed to turn a bunch of Ferdinands into G.I. Joes. This particular set of films was the brainchild of Frank Capra, then chair of the army’s First Motion Picture Unit. Each cartoon was rushed to the soldiers, who absolutely loved them. Written with the help of Ferdinand’s Munro Leaf and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), and voiced by Mel Blanc, they followed the mishaps of the bumbling Private SNAFU. A comic way to tell GIs what not to do, these military secrets are now a historical oddity available for everyone to watch. In this particular short, the clumsy private has a bit of trouble keeping some top secret info to himself.

Propaganda: Norman McLaren and the NFB

Film nerds, of course, know the famous work of Leni Riefenstahl and the large-scale works of ideological power produced by the Nazis to strengthen their message at home. Yet propaganda was hardly a uniquely Fascist undertaking. In both the US and Canada countless films were made for the explicit purpose of keeping the country in tune with the national war effort. At one point the National Film Board of Canada even collaborated with Walt Disney, borrowing the Seven Dwarfs for a ridiculous cartoon in which the little men all chip in to buy war bonds.

Norman McLaren (who has become a regular in this column) cut his teeth in the 1940s, working on a number of propaganda films for the Canadian war effort. V for Victory is an abstract ode to patriotism, a John Philip Sousa march set to animation that urges its audience to buy war bonds. The second, Keep Your Mouth Shut, uses a skull on a black background to get a scarier message across. Take a look:

V for Victory:

Keep Your Mouth Shut:

Comedy Pushing the Limits: Herr Meets Hare

The studios also made plenty of films supporting the war effort without explicit government directive or propagandistic goals. There’s the Oscar-winning Donald Duck cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face, a risky and ultimately extremely effective portrayal of the oppressive Nazi system in Germany. Yet not all of these cartoons have aged so well. Herr Meets Hare was directed by Fritz Freleng in 1945, once victory in Europe was clearly in sight. It opens on Bugs Bunny in the Black Forest, having famously made the wrong turn at “Albukoykee” for the first time. He bumps into “Fatso” Goering, hunting in the woods while hiding from the impending American victory. Things get nutty pretty fast, and before the end there’s an appearance by the mustachioed dictator himself.

In the years since, it hasn’t exactly made everyone smile. Accused of unfair representations of the Germans, it was unofficially banned by Warner Bros. for years after the war. Now it’s one is finally available on YouTube: judge for yourself.

The Great American Documentary: The Battle of Midway

Finally, it would be a mistake to end any discussion of World War II cinema without a mention of the pioneering work of documentary filmmakers. The very first documentary Oscar was given out in 1942 to the Canadian documentary Churchill’s Island, a film showcasing the UK’s defenses and their victory in the Battle of Britain. The following year, however, the American entry in the war would cause the category to explode. Filmmakers like Frank Capra and John Huston teamed up with the armed forces to produce victorious narratives of war to send home.

The Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 1944 actually went to John Ford’s film about the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th. I’d show it here, but it isn’t really a short: the original feature length film included some criticisms of the Navy’s preparedness during the attack, and was cut down to short length (watch the full film here). Instead, here’s Ford’s The Battle of Midway, including footage he managed to capture with a handheld camera during the battle itself.

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