Animation Trails
March 16, 2022 posted by Charles Gardner

Flights of Fancy (Part 13): Watch and Learn

The middle of the war, and the middle of the year 1943, saw something new added on the animation front. With so large a portion of the population off to war, realization struck that there was a sizeable audience out on the battle fronts that was seeing life from a different point of view than the general viewing audience, who might appreciate a more down-to-earth depiction of their way of life than was traditionally palatable to the folks back home. Something with a bit more grit, and with the gloves off and no punches pulled for the sake of the censors as to the more raw humor and language considered acceptable by the “brass” among servicemen. This, it should be remembered, was a time when the services were only beginning to become co-educational with the introduction of such units as the WACS and the Waves, and sexual equality was a concept whose time was quite far away. Womanization was considered popular sport for the segregated and female-starved soldiers, and an obvious target for their humor. Harsher language was also commonplace (in the states, the word “hell” would still raise the eyebrows of Puritan spirits, and was a no-no to the Hays office – while the armed forces thrived on such expressions). And of course, violence was obviously the order of the day.

Someone, however, would have to provide the financing to make the production of films affordable for the special purpose use of the servicemen, which would never have a fighting chance for redistribution to the general viewing audience. These funds would ultimately come from Uncle Sam himself – with the string attached that the films not be merely entertaining, but generally carry some form of message woven into the humor. Disney had already entered into the business of producing educational training films for classified use in instruction to soldiers, aviators, etc., but these films were largely diagrammatical, and animated purely for the purpose of providing simple illustrations and moving graphics rather than to supply humor or give any sense of entertainment value. They were thus strictly classroom stuff. The breakthrough concept, hit upon by director Frank Capra, chairman of the U.S. Army/Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit, was to come up with a signature character to serve as a sort or “mascot” to the servicemen, with whom they could identify and find laughter from the potholes and pitfalls of his average day, be it out in the trenches or mopping up the latrines at base camp. Thus, Private Snafu was born – the first popular animated series character directed solely for the serviceman. Competitive bidding (Disney included) provided a winner for the task of production in the form of Warner Brothers. A more capable set of hands could probably not have been found at any price – though their bid substantially undercut Disney’s.

One would have to assume based on track record that a Disney version of the product would have seemed more rigid and lacked the cutting-edge humor that always lay just below the surface in the Termite Terrace boys, which would likely have resulted in the films’ educational angles being played stronger at the expense of the humorous content, and probably have made the films less popular or memorable. The Warner crew were definitely the right men in the right place at the right time for such an assignment, and went to it with a vim. Although Capra and other military personnel would insist on the series retaining some degree of class (such as, for example, avoiding the dropping of verbal F-bombs or other directly sexual dialogue), large leeway was permitted to the writers, allowing for many spoken expressions that would never have passed in the States to become a regular part of Snafu’s vocabulary, and for the frequent use of nudity, both male and female, usually falling just short of full frontal. This latter “frontier”, only rarely explored in pre-code cartoons or in “artistic” presentations such as Fantasia or MGM’s copycat The Blue Danube, would not be reached in American animation again until the sexual revolution of Ralph Bakshi’s feature productions, or the small-screen worlds of The Simpsons and Family Guy.

Snafu would prove the groundbreaker for more characters to come, though none of them came close to his freewheeling and unique style. The Navy department would counter with the creation of Seaman Hook by Hank Ketcham (best known for his enduring “Dennis the Menace” strip), though the series would falter after only four installments. And a series of low-budget shorts would be produced for the Marines by Hugh Harman featuring a Private MacGillicuddy on “Commandments For Health” (with “animation” much resembling the “narrated storyboard” style of the later Crusader Rabbit). By no mere coincidence, all of these series would at some point feature the voice work of Mel Blanc, spinning off from the Army’s successful voice choice.

Then again, the servicemen were not the only ones believed to be in need of education. While the “Screen Magazines” of the forces were providing the early-day parallels to the mixed educational-entertainment agendas of such later productions as “Tennessee Tuxedo” and “Sesame Street”, other voices felt a need to influence the masses on the realities of warfare, and upon perceived needs for an adjustment of strategy in order to achieve an ultimate end to the conflict. An unusual alliance was thus struck between Walt Disney and a renowned aviation expert for a feature film to graphically illustrate the points addressed by a best-selling book of the day – a film which proved influential on world leaders, thus driving its message home where it was most effective.

Amidst all this education, a few films sneaked through geared for purely entertainment purposes, dealing with our subject topic of planes and flight. Your education upon these additional entries also commences below.

Coming: Snafu (Warner, Private Snafu, 6/28/43 – Charles M. (Chuck) Jones, dir.) – A short first installment for the series, masquerading as if a theatrical teaser trailer, but consisting entirely of footage original to the episode itself, providing an introduction to the title character. The term “Snafu” is first explained, with an attempt to “clean up its act” in the name of good taste, that was cleverly calculated to generate a knowing laugh out of any savvy servicemen who knew what the letters of the term really stood for. The narrator breaks the word down into individual letters on the screen, the words they represent appearing one by one as the narrator reads them. However, the narrator deliberately hesitates when reaching the letter “F” – which actually stands for the worst imaginable – and makes a comic substitution: “Situation Normal: All – – – Fouled Up.” Our star Private is depicted in a number of duties, complaining, careless, and largely brainless, as the type of “Joe Shmoe” one might expect to meet as a raw recruit, who has a lot to learn about being an effective soldier. His personality was fashioned to make all but the most pitiful washouts of the inductees feel a certain superiority over him, and to classify him as a pure dope. By this method, the animators used reverse-psychology, meeting head-on the resistance and boredom of soldiers to follow the model of a lecture-style “do as I do” film, and instead utilizing their funny-bones to provide lessons through a comic illustration of “what not to do” that would instinctively leave an audience with the desire to do exactly the opposite to prove oneself the better man. This in a nutshell accounts for why the films remained so popular and memorable, while still presumably accomplishing their intended purposes. Nobody wanted to be accused of being a “Snafu”!

In his first assignments, Snafu provides a nodding bow to the air corps, as he attempts to accomplish the simple task of towing a plane to the runway using a small tractor. In an extended musical number, he lapses into daydreams of a burlesque queen peeling, while he sings a rendition of Johnny Mercer’s recent song hit. “Strip Polka”, all illustrated to the audience in a thought cloud above Snafu’s head, where “Censored” signs appear upon the dancer’s body in vital places as her dress begins to fall. Snafu is so obsessed with his dream, he fails to notice he is driving the tractor through the narrow gap between two tall posts, then under a low steel girder, paying no attentions to the dimensions of the plane he is towing. When he reaches the end of the runway, all that is left of the plane is its snapped-off tail, and a string of control wires dangling therefrom, dragging the motor behind. Snafu complains that “I know my rights” as two M.P.’s approach – and in his last shot, Snafu is seen behind bars, shouting for someone to get him a good lawyer. An army mule brays at him, and the camera flips to reveal the ass’s ass with the words “The End” written on it, as the narrator sums up, “This is Snafu.”


Gripes (Warner, Private Snafu, 7/5/43 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.) – In his first full length installment, Snafu is in a complaining mood, serving triple duty K.P. as he scrubs pots and pans, peels potatoes with his feet, and sweeps the floor with a broom tied to his waist, all at the same time. He also complains about doctors jabbing him with this injection and that, still winding him up bedridden and with a fever. And he complains in general about discipline and morale, insisting if he were in charge, things would be mighty different. A surprise puff of smoke at the foot of his bed marks the first appearance of a frequently-recurring character of the series – a sprite with a five-o’clock shadow, gruff voice, miniature army hat, and concentric circles on each wing resembling the old insignia of allied planes during WWI, who introduces himself as “Technical Fairy First Class”. Playing the role of Snafu’s fairy godfather, the fairy indicates he’s heard Snafu’s complaints, and has decided to let Snafu get his chance to run the show, by means of an instant promotion. With a wave of a wand, Snafu wears a uniform with about fourteen stripes running down the entire length of his sleeves, and is placed in sole charge of the camp. He announces over the P.A. system that the place is under new management. Less duties, more pay. No saluting. Standard regulation distribution of two dames per each soldier. Free use of jeeps for transportation of enlisted men and their dates. Optional zoot suit uniforms. And no cleaning latrines. Snafu himself takes full advantage of these freedoms, as he relaxes in a sheik-style harem tent on velvet pillows, amidst a bevy of beautiful women. But the sound of explosions outside rocks Snafu’s world, and his harem runs for cover, as Technical Fairy informs Snafu that the Germans are coming. Snafu grabs a bayonet, and is ready to order a charge, when he realizes, “Where are my troops?” They are all busy eating chow at a local diner, and chasing dames around the building, and when a call to arms is sounded, respond only with a disdainful wave of their hands, and a unison defiance of “Aw, Nuts!”. With no discipline or morale, Technical Fairy declares Snafu’s army a total washout. A flight of German bomber planes soars overhead, one bomb bay opening, and a blockbuster bomb with swastika insignia is released. Snafu grabs a shovel, and attempts to bury himself in the soft sands of the parade grounds. The bomb stops short of impact, opens its nose cone, and reveals a mechanical hand, which shovels away at the sand pile until Snafu’s rear is revealed, then hangs a bulls-eye target upon it. The bomb then climbs back into the sky, and descends again, obliterating the scene in an explosion cloud. When the smoke clears, Snafu is back in his hospital bed. He leaps out from under the covers, and returns to his K.P. duties, performing them at double-speed and with a will. The Technical Fairy, who was not part of a mere dream after all, appears again, and closes with the words to Snafu: “The moral, Snafu, is the harder we work, the sooner we’re gonna beat Hitler, that jerk!”


The Insert Poster

Victory Through Air Power (Disney/United Artists, 7/17/43), began life as a best-selling book by Major Alexander P. De Seversky, and ace pilot for the Imperial Russian Navy, and founder of the Seversky aircraft company after emigrating to the United States. He had substantial – and convincing – ideas that Allied forces were proceeding in an erroneous dorection in their use of aircraft in the present global conflict, utilizing planes mostly for cover for ground troops rather than as an independent fighting weapon in their own right, and wrote the book with recommendations of how, and why, to change emphasis to develop aircraft for use in long-range bombing. Among his readers was a certain Walter Disney, who believed wholeheartedly that Seversky’s writing was a prophecy for the future. Employing the substantial experience and techniques the studio had been recently engaging in in its mass-production of training films, Disney teamed up with Seversky to attempt to create a training film for the masses, to educate the public on the realities of the offensive difficulties of the conflicts in the European and Asian theaters of war, and of why current practices seemed to spell no easy solution to bringing about any foreseeable end to the battle. Sweetening the deal with a minimum of introductory entertainment among the instruction, Disney would combine his skill in creating animated charts and graphics developed for the military with voice-over narration and intermittent on-camera appearances of Seversky himself, to see if the Allied armed forces and politicians behind them couldn’t be made to learn a lesson of their own. When RKO wouldn’t release the picture, Disney turned to his previous distributor, United Artists, to obtain the bookings. The public watched.

The film begins with a dedication to another former prophet regarding the importance of aircraft to successful military tactics for the future – Billy Mitchell, a general who built his reputation in staging daring raids of aircraft over enemy lines during WW1, and a staunch and vocal supporter of the formation of an independent Air Corps and use of massed air attacks as a strategic weapon which he claimed would someday outrank the firepower of the battleship. It then brings those of the audience who may somehow have failed to recognize the contribitions that airplane had made to transportation, modern life, and military strategy up to speed, bu way of an extended and entertaining sequence chronicling the history of aviation. Beginning with the Wright Brothers and their 12 second powered flight that changed history, the film features what may be the first animated recreation of that famous day at Kitty Hawk, with a mildly humorous take at turn of the century life and styles, and at the baffled countenances of the few onlookers in attendance that day. It accurately reflects the general disinterestedness of the press in the event, with newspaper write-up on a back page that thought the only newsworthy item was that the brothers would be back home for Christmas. It also gives a humorous take at how the first battles between pilots in WWI may have begun, beginning with purely reconnaissance flights where pilots from opposing sides would merely wave to each other, and even take each other’s picture. It depicts one day when a German pilot stuck out his tongue and made faces at a French pilot in a picture. Feeling insulted, the Frenchman throws a brick at the German pilot on the next fly-by. Next day, the German produces a pistol, and takes a pot shot at the Frenchman. By the next day, both have acquired rifles. Subsequently, the acquisition of the machine gun (though depicting the problem of shooring one’s own prop off before the development of the synchronized machine gun to precisely fire between the prop blades). Dropping of hand bombs and grenades develops into the first heavy bombers with bomb bays and large payloads. And the dogfight becomes a feature of war. However, once the war ends, the pilots return to a world where they are still viewed by the general populace as a mere novelty, barely making a living by barnstorming or taking up passengers for a few dollars at a time for a few minutes of flight. Yet aeronautics graduallly develop, with the likes of air races, non-stop flights, stratospheric endurance, and the beginnings of commercial service – all trends we have seen exhibited in previous films discussed in this article series.

Then comes the rise of the dictators in Europe and Japan. Hitler’s dependence on air power as an offensive weapon for conquest is depicted in the capture of surrounding nations, and the entire evasion of the French Maginot line of fortified bunkers and trenches by merely flying over it. The battle for Britain is depicted, with Britain only able to defend itself by means of concentrated fighter power at close proximity to the island, maintaining dominance over its own skies. And the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor is presented. At this point, we are introduced to Seversky, who begins to outline his theories on the weaknesses of Allied strategy regarding its use of air force. The basic problem to establishing a dominance over the air space and lands of the enemy is depicted as one of supply lines, via graphics showing the heart of Eirope and a wide expanse of land and sea surrounding Japan as centralized hubs, operating like the spokes of a wheel to supply streams of needed machinery, troops, munitions and basic supplies over short distances to a well-fortified ring of forces around its perimeter. The Allied forces, on the other hand, are depicted as winding and elongated cargo routes spanning the globe over wide expanses, trying to supply battlefields in far-flung and difficult-to-reach areas through sea transport from distant supply centers, all open to the severe exposure of attack by enemy U-boats. Seversky concludes that no matter how hard Allied forces may push into the perimeter of one of the enemy hubs, the short supply lines within its spokes ensure it will reinforce before any substantial advantage can be gained, at a rate the distant supplies of the Allies will be unable to match. The most logical solution – need for an attack upon the central hubs themselves, deep within the enemy perimeter. But where to launch them, and from what source? Seversky convincingly runs a number of currently-suggested scenarios through, including carrier-based attacks, island-hopping establishment of bases in the Pacific, etc., pointing up the various fallacies and faults as to why these ideas have as yet failed to work to any lasting advantage (for example, discounting the idea of carrier attack, for the sheer and simple reason that home-based planes of the Japanese have the advantage of longer and permanent runways, allowing for larger and heavier aircraft of superior class and firepower, while the limited decks of carriers can only support small fighters or bombers, such that any match of enemy power would require far more carriers than the Allies could ever hope to amass. Seversky concludes that only the development of the long range bomber, capable of launching from far outside the perimeter of enemy influence yet able to reach the hub with its payload, will succeed in bringing the battle to the enemy’s doorstep. Seversky believes time is on the Allies’ side, as the enemy must maintain its shorter-range flight emphasis to protect its own troops seeking to maintain control of captured lands, while the Allies, having no such need, remain free to change the focus of their flight development. An animated closing sequence depicts an American eagle attacking with its beak ad talons upon the tentacles of the enemy influence, represented as the arms of a huge octopus choking the Pacific sea lanes, until the tentacles retreat, and the sea is free once again. The eagle returns to its home upon a golden ball, where it too turns to gold, as the decoration atop the flagpole of a waving American flag.

The film was reportedly seen by, among others, the highest voices in the allied campaign, including Franklyn D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. There was overall a consensus that the theories behind the film and its presentation made sense, and, although some note that certain shifts in emphasis to bomber strategy were already in the works when the film was screened, it is believed that Seversky’s prophecies, aided by Disney’s presentation, brought about desied change in battle strategy, and greater emphasis upon air power as a major thrust thereof. The ultimate closure of the war with the long-range drops of the atom bomb upon Japan may indeed be testament to this shift of thinking. Right or wrong, the war did end in a swift and final fashion. Seversky may further have been right about time and tactical change favoring the Allies, as, despite the fact that the film might be construed as potentially telegraphing to the enemy a forthcoming military secret, it seems that the Axis powers were unable to muster any effective response to it before their ultimate defeat.

A curious sidelight was the inclusion within late portions of the film of a few illustrations of potential futuristic weapons which might be developed as more powerful payload for bombing raids. Though presenting no envisioning of the power of nuclear weaponry, Disney illustrates a bomb with an added mechanism in its tail to ignite a rocket just before impact, resulting in added penetrating power with Seversky claims could break through steel roofing used to shield U-boat fleets from overhead attack – sort of like Superman’s “Bulleteers” car discussed earlier in this series without the questionable breakable headlight. He also presents an advanced modification which he claims might deeply penetrate the earth, to produce localized earthquakes! While the “earthquake bomb” was never developed, and sounds severely impractical due to the likely need to know the location of fault lines in order to have hope of effectiveness, British forces in fact experimented with the rocket bomb, and found it to have some degree of effectiveness in breaking through heavy concrete enclosures. Its development came too late to receive much practical use before the war ended, but it was affectionately known among its developers as “the Disney bomb.”

Ironically, however, the breakthrough that would ultimately lead to the more effective and widespread use of long-range bombing would come from behind enemy lines, from the research discovered in experimental planes captured from the Nazis, employing the first successful use of jet engines in place of props. This would pave the way for the development of Seversky’s ideas into further wars yet to come.


Take Heed, Mr. Tojo (Walter Lantz, Seaman Hook, Aug. 1943 – James (Shamus) Culhane, dir,) – As mentioned above, it wasn’t long before the Navy department would seek to have an animated mascot of its own. The Navy initially decided to do things bigger and better than the army, by commissioning a full-length one-reel cartoon in Technicolor for their new character, Seaman Hook, The job was won by Walter Lantz, who had learned from long experience with tight budgets how to produce competent color cartoons on a shoestring. However, even Lantz’s final price tag must have seemed ultimately too costly for the Navy’s tastes, as no green light was given to Lantz for a second production, and the contract for the remaining few films in the series would be turned over to the same producers of the Snafu films at Warners, in black and white and for a lower cost.

Unlike Snafu, Hook did not have a primary agenda of providing education. Instead of training the sailors, Hook was conceived primarily as a bond salesman, his actions designed to encourage the servicemen to stoke away their idle pay in investments in their government, with the promise of a later return dividend for a rosy future. Thus, although he was occasionally permitted to do things in a comically inept way, he could not be portrayed as a blundering idiot, or no one would take his final message seriously and make the desired purchases. This weakened both the comic possibilities for the series and the memorability of the character, as little actually developed to provide him with distinct personality traits, or a reason for being that would be entirely palatable to the servicemen. It is doubtful that his films, whose relative rarity in surviving prints today is probably a direct reflection upon the smaller number of times they were screened or called for, accomplished much in the way of increasing war bond sales, and the Navy would quickly admit defeat by abandoning the project, while films involving Snafu would continue unabated right up through the end of the war.

In the post war future of 1953, in a suburb of the modern city of Anytown, U.S.A., we find our seaman, slightly advanced in years, living in a comfortable home with a mailbox indicating himself as retired. Inside, Hook, in civilian threads, dozes on the sofa, while his son, presumably less than 10 years of age, plays a game of commando, startling Hook awake with the rat-a-tat-tat of a toy machine gun. “What’s amatter, pop? Did I scare ya?”, asks the young prankster. Despite being upside down under the sofa, Hook saves face, insisting he’s not afraid of guns, and to illustrate, begins to tell the tale of how he shot down a Zero without using a gun (pointing to a tail and rudder he has mounted on a plaque as a hunting trophy in the living room).

The scene changes to the deck of an aircraft carrier, where Hook, back in 1943, swabs the flight deck. As he passes the radio room of the ship, a hand reaches out the door and hands Hook a message received for the captain – “Jap plane sighted – INTERCEPT.” Hook scrambles to the skipper’s cabin, though pausing at the door briefly to make sure that his shoes are shined. He attempts to hastily inform the captain of the message’s contents, but can’t find the words, so performs in pantomime, by pulling on his face to slant his eyes and jutting his front teeth out while talking in mock Japanese, then soaring around the room making verbal sounds like the firing of a machine gun. The captain grabs away the radiogram, and gets the idea. The ship’s P.A. system loudspeaker transforms into a metallic pair of lips, ordering the crew, “Hey, you guys! Hit the deck and man your planes. There’s a jap overhead.” Hook wig-wags flag signals on the flight deck as a squadron of planes revs up, then the planes nearly knock Hook off the edge of the deck as they take off, the words “Zoom” and “Swish” appearing on screen in their exhaust contrails (a gag used previously by Lantz in his regular-production films, including in Andy Panda’s “Dizzy Kitty”). Hook is left alone to guard the ship. Wouldn’t you know, all the other planes pass by the Jap entirely, who is hiding in a cloud, and the enemy pilot takes advantage of the opportunity to begin strafing the ship. A line of machine gun bullets makes a near miss of Hook, but punctures both his mopping pails, to spring leaks of their contents. Hook races around the deck, with a zig-zagging line of bullet holes following wherever he goes. In his panic, Hook runs straight through a metal wall of the ship’s superstructure, finding himself inside the office of the ship’s purser, which houses a large supply of purchased war bonds for the sailors’ safekeeping. Hook observes posters on the wall, reading, “Be a hero. Down a zero with war bonds,”, and “War bonds are ammunition.” Hook takes these signs literally, and grabs up a large stack of bonds, together with a conveniently placed textbook on a nearby desk reading “How to Fly”, and leaps into the sole remaining plane aboard ship. In an instant, he is in flight, but uncontrollably looping and turning, as he studiously attempts to read his textbook to figure out what to do.

Back amidst the concealment of his cloud, the enemy pilot pokes his head out, produces a dagger, and pitches it straight at Hook, the dagger stabbing through the pages of Hook’s book, and pinning it to the control panel of the cockpit. Turning his plane, Hook dives nose-first into the cloud. Inside it, a fist fight ensues, the combatants emerging into view periodically, seen exchanging blows, holding one another in strangleholds, etc. Suddenly, Hook’s plane is tossed out, with its wings, tail, and landing gear twisted around themselves like a pretzel. From his cloud, the Japanese pilot laughs, his hand holding a textbook of his own: “Jiu Jitsu – How to Tie Your Friends in Knots”. Just managing to get his wings unknotted before impact, Hook’s plane makes a bellyflop landing upon the ocean water. The Japanese plane zooms down for the kill, but Hook takes to hiding by steering the plane to dive underwater. Below the surface, we see the plane using its wings to perform a forward crawl swimming stroke. The enemy plane dives in the water too, and a panning shot by the camera on the surface tracks the chase’s progress, as the two planes leap out and back into the water like porpoises, Hook sometimes still in control of his plane, but intermittently seen hanging on to the dorsal fin of a shark instead. Finally, the Jap plane comes up, bit can’t find any sign of Hook. As he peers about for sight of Hook’s plane in the skies, he fails to notice Hook is stopped directly underneath him, and has acquired from nowhere a harpoon, which he sticks through the belly of the enemy plane, to jab the enemy pilot right through his pilot’s seat. A series of flight maneuvers are borrowed straight out of Popeye cartoons previously reviewed in this series, as the Japanese fighter positions itself to rap Hook on the head with its wing repeatedly, catch Hook’s head between its landing wheels to mash him, then knocks one wing of Hook’s plane downward with its own, to send Hook’s plane into a spin. As Hook tries to recover from dizziness, the enemy takes pot shots at him. Hook remembers the cargo of war bonds he is carrying, and decides the time has come to use them. Grabbing an armful, he tosses them back at the pursuing pilot. They spin in a whirlwind, one by one landing upon and sticking to the enemy plane, until it is covered from head to tail like a flying mummy. Hook takes a speed-dive past the plane, whizzing by so fast, he draws away the bond covering with a ripping sound, taking away with it the skin of the plane’s fuselage, and leaving the pilot peering around in surprise from the skeletal superstructure. Hook drops from above his remaining bonds in one large tied bundle, as a final blockbuster. The enemy plane is blasted apart by the impact, the pilot falling to earth with only the engine cowling and propeller caught upon the neck of his uniform. He crashes face first into an atoll, shortly followed by the tail section of his plane. On impact, the pilot disappears from sight, with only his crooked false teeth remaining, to chatter away in sped-up gibberish. We return to the future, where the plane’s tail section remains mounted on the wall, as Hook concludes his story, noting that bonds not only won his battle, but the war, and paid for his home and all the good things they have. Hook even notes that if it wasn’t for bonds, “You wouldn’t even be here.” The boy coyly remarks, “That ain’t the way I heard it”, leaving dad perplexed at his son’s knowledge, for the iris out (and the inevitable “Buy Bonds” plug).


The Truck That Flew (George Pal/Paramount, Madcap Models, 8/5/43 – George Pal, dir.). Strictly for entertainment, George adapts a children’s book of the day into stop-motion puppet form, introducing a character he would reuse in a handful of films in subsequent years, as a sort of white rival to his more successful all-black series of Jasper and the Scarecrow. Rusty is a red-headed toddler, usually seen at night in his pajamas, with a big imagination, and a fire of mischief in his eyes. The character would be the only one of Pal’s creations to receive exploitation in another medium, being later featured in at least one record project for Capitol records entitled “Rusty in Orchestraville”. The film depicts the simple plot of a boy who refuses to go to sleep after his mother tucks him in and shuts the lights. The boy lies awake, thinking random thoughts of anything to keep himself awake – of sliding down bannisters, smoking cigars (an idea which would develop into the later film, Good Night, Rusty), staying up past 2:00, and having multi-course ice cream banquets. He then starts thinking of his favorite modes of transportation – boats, trains, and especially trucks, of all kinds. As sleep begins to overtake him, he hits upon the fantasy brainstorm of a special truck that can fly, and as he reclines in bed, dreams that his bed is converted into such same truck, with him sleeping in the open “bed” of the rear chassis of the vehicle. In his dream, the truck-bed flies out the window and into the night sky, for a jaunt up a path of milky way stars, a circle around the crescent moon, and a few laps around the rings of Saturn. A rather cloying song, “Moonlight Holiday”, accompanies his flight, making the film resemble too closely something Famous Studios might have envisioned as a dream sequence for Little Audrey or Raggedy Ann. But the peace of these moments is suddenly shattered by the jarring image of a trail of machine-gun bullet holes crossing Rusty’s bedsheets just below his toes, while a roar of engines and an ominous shadow also pass over the bed. Circling overhead are three Japanese Zero fighters!

They double back as Rusty ducks deep into the middle of his covers, and two more rows of bullet holes trace lines across the bed both above and below him. Another spray of gunfire makes the engine of the truck begin to sputter. Out from under the side of the covers springs Rusty, raising one hand to point at the enemy planes, and jittering his finger as if the vibrating barrel of a machine gun, as Rusty mimics the sound of such a weapon with verbal “Ah ah ah ah ah”s. In a dream, anything is possible, and Rusty’s mock “gun” scores a direct hit on the lead plane, causing an explosion and sending it plummeting in a fatal dive. Rusty gives the same treatment to the other two planes, which fall simultaneously at angles from opposite directions of the sky, their paths tracing a black line through the stardust, then converging in the lower middle of the screen. The two planes blink out of existence, leaving a carved “V” in the sky. From nowhere, Rusty produces an ink stanper, and in red ink stamps three times the insignia of Japan’s rising-sun flag on his bedsheet for confirmed kills. (This certainly represented an odd change of mood for Pal, whose pacifist “divine intervention” ending to Tulips Shall Grow had been anything but violent. Was this really what we wanted our five-year olds to be dreaming about? – Shooting down the enemy in cold blood? Perhaps the Paramount executives had exerted some pressure upon Pal to get with the times and join in the studio’s massive propaganda agenda as represented by its Popeye and Superman output discussed in this series. No discussion has ever arisen about this film to indicate how Pal himself may have felt about it personally.) The truck finally comes in for a landing, returning to Rusty’s bedroom, and converting back into a bed. Rusty’s mother looks in on him, believes he’s sound asleep, and comments to herself that he’s probably dreaming of being with the angels. As the door closes, Rusty opens his eyes for a look at the audience, and sketched-in images of devil horns appear protruding from his head to close the film. (Keep murdering Japanese pilots, and it might come true.)

NOTE: The Truck That Flew will soon be available, restored, on blu-ray on The Puppetoon Movie Vol. 3


Honorable mention for Reason and Emotion (Disney/RKO, 8/27/43 – Bill Roberts, dir.). The first of a set of four films to be released without a series banner over the course of about a half a year, all with wartime-related themes, this and said subsequent films featured new opening and closing credits, very different in style from the standard “burlap” red or brown backgrounds common to most other releases since Disney’s move to RKO Radio Pictures. These I call the “searchlight” series, for use of title cards predominantly in dark blue and black, with letters lit in profile by beams of light from underneath resembling searchlights in a night sky. Also unusual to these credits was the use of fade-ins and fade-outs at the beginning and end of the reel, instead of the traditional “pop” on and off of images by a simple jump cut standard to other cartoons (the late Silly Symphonies being the only other Disney cartoons to open and close in this fashion). Two titles still exist with these credits: this cartoon and “The Pelican and the Snipe”, to be reviewed later in this series. Two others which likely should have used this style in their original issues were “Figaro and Cleo” and “Chicken Little”.

This film laid the prototype for the much more recent Pixar success Inside Out, examining the goings on in the human brain by means of personification of personality traits in the form of little humanized figures running the show from a cockpit and command center inside the skull. While Pixar used a “control panel”, this film depicts the controls in more automotive form, as a driver’s seat with stick shift and steering wheel, but assisted by chart readings on side information screens. The eyes serve, as in Pixar’s tale, as a windshield, from which the head’s inhabitants view the world. While Pixar broke the brain’s processes down into five distinct characters, Disney uses only two. The first, Reason, is cool and collected, analytical, attired in businessman’s garb, wears glasses to give him that “educated” look, and speaks in longer words and proper dictionary English. The second, Emotion, has the looks and build of a Neanderthal, dressed in caveman leopard skin, unshaven, low-browed, impulsive, dense and coarse, uses slang expressions in his speech. and is apt to jump into any situation or hazard without thinking at all. The two attempt to balance each other out for control of the driver’s seat, much as did the characters for Pixar, resulting in a sort of halfway point in conduct between unnatural over-perfection and the depths of human faults and foibles. While their conflicts are usually resolved in verbal exchanges, illustrations are presented when emotion temporarily gets hold of the steering wheel and leads things astray, such as in making flirtations with a female of the species on a chance encounter. As in Pixar’s version, we also receive the opportunity to view the ladies’ counterpart of these two characters – a prim and proper Puritan type and a cave girl in leopard leotard, who have the same kind of battles over paying attention to men, as well as a riotous sequence where female Emotion breaks a diet with binge eating, while female Reason reacts in aghast shock as the graph charts on other screens reveal their figure inflating into a blimp.

However, the film switches gears in its last half, to demonstrate what the two go through in a wartime atmosphere. First, a typical American is depicted listening to the radio, and believing every conflicting and negative report as to things not going as planned on the battlefront, succumbing to general fear that the war is being lost, food supplies are being depleted, and that life as we know it is about to come to an end. Emotions of Fear take hold, and the man envisions gossiping women and men turning into parrots, skeletons, and ventriloquist dummies, while inside the head, Caveman Emotion runs amuck in panic. Just as emotion is about to take up a club to reason to take control of the show, the narrator interrupts them, pointing out that this is just the way to help – help the plans of Hitler. Switching viewpoints, we are transported into the mind of a Nazi soldier, listening to one of Hitler’s speeches. Inside his head, a version of the caveman wearing a German spiked helmet and talking in Germanic dialect plays the patsy to Hitler’s arousal by means of threats, pleas for sympathy, nationalistic pride, and false prejudices of superiority. Adopting these tactics, the caveman praises the Fuehrer as a genius, and browbeats and subjugates Reason at bayonet point into a min-concentration camp, to have no say in the decision making processes of the soldier. Returning to the American’s head, our original duo realize it is their job to maintain balance rather than let either gain advantage over the other, and shake hands to work as a team. The final scene depicts them in aviator’s gear, as the American is revealed to have joined the ranks of pilot of a bomber setting out on a mission for the Allies, hopefully with two cool heads in control of his one to successfully see his mission through. The film was nominated for an Academy Award.


This would not be the last we would see of this duo. Many years later, in 1979, a short educational film, Understanding Alcohol Use and Abuse, would be produced by the studio, reusing some shots of Emotion from this film, but including much new animation, including a slightly re-designed Reason voiced by Daws Butler, as the two deal with the problems of maintaining control when the influences of alcohol make Reason an easy target for Emotion’s impulsiveness and foolishness. It wasn’t as entertaining a film as the original, but the character concepts still held weight for reasonably effective graphic illustration. This sequel is viewable on Youtube, under the title, “Disney film on alcohol.”


Brief mention should be made of an unknown item, Gandy Goose’s Camouflage (Terrytoons/Fox, 8/27/43 – Eddie Donnelly, dir.), about which no descriptive data seems to have turned up. Since Hitler had been permitted to appear in at least one previous title included in edited form in CBS’s broadcast schedule, it can only be surmised that the total exclusion of this cartoon from television broadcast indicates another appearance by Japanese forces. If so, it is likely that the camouflage referred to was in defense against Japanese air raids, placing this film as a likely suspect for inclusion in our survey. If anyone possesses any information regarding the subject matter of this title, your contributions will be greatly appreciated.


Honorable mention goes to A Corny Concerto (Warner, Merrie Melodies (All Star), 9/25/43 – Robert Clampett, dir.) – Bob Clampett would butt heads with Walt Disney on multiple occasions during his career, providing comic lampoons of major Disney successes and various quick jabs at the mogul whenever possible. One of his first major efforts in such vein has appeared in the preceding year, “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs”, an all black full parody of Walt’s groundbreaking feature debut. With this project under his belt, certainly Clampett felt that Disney’s major experiment in classical music, Fantasia, was also fair game, leading to this brilliant satire featuring nearly all the then-major stars of the Warner roster. Clampett would continue to ruffle Disney’s feathers in subsequent years, with two cartoons intruding upon what Disney considered an exclusive property but which never materialized in final feature form (to be discussed in later instalments of this series), a quick shot in “The Bashful Buzzard” where a baby elephant captured by a buzzed and being dragged through the sky holds up a banner reading “I am not Dumbo”, and later television episodes of “Beany and Cecil”, again taking on Disney’s first feature in “So What and the Seven Whatnots”, and poking fun at Disney’s latest commercial venture, with the amusement-park “Beanyland”.

Clampett follows the format of Disney’s “concert feature”, dividing his short reel into two segments, bridged by narration from the concert master against the backdrop of a silhouetted podium with velvet red rear lighting. Elmer Fudd (unshaven, no less), doubles as both narrator and conductor, taking on both Leopold Stokowski’s and Deems Taylor’s roles. His dialogue includes such immortal classical references as a lift from the lyric of a 1935 novelty hit, “The Music Goes ‘Round and ‘Round”, with Elmer concluding, “…and it comes out here.” Bugs allows Porky to play hunter in Elmer’s stead, in a segment set to “Tales of the Vienna Woods” following fairly typical Bugs cartoon style but entirely in pantomime. Part 2, the “Blue Danube”, coincidentally chooses the same light classic that MGM would use for their own serious attempt to rival the as-yet forthcoming Fantasia in 1939. However, Clampett plays it for the usual broad laughs, utilizing the opportunity to perform a double-lampoon of Disney by telling as the visual story his own take on Disney’s 1939 Academy Award winner, “The Ugly Duckling.” A junior version of Daffy Duck receives the role of the unexpected homely hatchling. A somewhat redesigned Beaky Buzzard is cast as the heavy, putting the swan family in peril. But Daffy is below his culinary standards, and is rejected by the buzzard with a sign fastened to his rear by a plunger, classifying him as “4-F” (familiar draft board rejection level). In his determination both to get even, and to endear himself to the swans to win a home, Daffy instantly acquires the powers of flight, and soars off of the lake with the sounds of a plane engine, gritting his teeth fiercely. A quick dissolve visually transforms him into a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, with the same red toothy-mouth insignia borrowed by Jerry Mouse last week from the “Flying Tigers” squadron headed by Colonel Claire Lee Chennault (a group of American volunteers operating raids on Japanese aviation from a base in China). Beaky takes his lumps, and receives from the duck a powder keg of TNT, blowing him into the form of a robed angel playing a harp, with his tail supported in its flight by a tied-on balloon, for no specific reason. The film ends happily with Daffy adopted into the family (though his reflection on the lake takes a different turn than he does, and takes some time catching up as the family swims toward the horizon, as did Disney’s swans for their closing).

More classic Warner moments, and a serviceman special from Frank Thomas, next time.

9 Comments

  • When the “Victory Through Air Power” DVD came out some years ago, I considered buying it for about two seconds before deciding no, reasoning that the film would only be of interest to aviation buffs, war historians, and Disney completists. I still think so after seeing it, but I’m grateful for having been presented the opportunity to do so. The opening sequence about aviation history was fairly entertaining and interesting on its own merits. But I had to laugh out loud at the fighter plane of the future, bristling all over with anti-aircraft guns like some kind of giant flying porcupine.

    The music that plays during the sequence about Seversky’s early life comes from the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and it’s much, much too fast. Another passage from the same symphony occurs a couple of times in Star Trek whenever Ensign Chekov declares that something or other is “a Russian inwention.”

    The rollicking anapestic couplets of “Gripes” betray the hand of Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. I wonder if he also had a hand in designing the German bomb with its white-gloved mechanical hands.

    In 2013 Heritage Auctions sold a set of three background paintings from the Gandy Goose cartoon “Camouflage”. One shows a thatched hut on a tropical island bearing the sign “Camouflage Dept.”; another shows a tent on the same island; the third shows the wreckage of enemy planes floating in the ocean. Therefore the cartoon most certainly merits inclusion in this Animation Trail. Might UCLA have a print of it?

    • A negative for “Camouflage” (picture and sound) exists at the UCLA. No prints.

  • Does anybody else think that the footage from 1:00 – 2:00 in “Take Heed Mr Tojo” looks like it was animated by someone from Warner, specifically Chuck Jones’ unit? I can’t recall any other Lantz cartoon that had that appearance.

    • An educated guess would be Emery Hawkins as the animator of that sequence…

  • Unrelated to the Gandy cartoon, but I have seen another World War II-era cartoon simply titled “Camouflage”. It stars a chameleon with a top hat, as he lectures an army camp about all sort of methods of disguise. The uploader says it’s Terrytoons, but it doesn’t really match their current style. Connecting to the topic, there is a air fighting scene with the Japs near the end, with the soldiers continuing to use their camouflage methods.
    https://youtu.be/oUtJCqJnDKE

    • Save comments on this film for next week, as it’s from the following year. It’s not a Terrytoon – it appears to be from members of the Disney staff.

  • I can’t believe Warner Bros. Animation never got around to “Encore Corny Concerto.” (My choice for the music: “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” to which Warners conveniently owns the rights.) If “Fantasia 2000” is any example, it’s probably just as well.

    • Interesting thought. Are you thinking a vehicle for Rocky and Muggsy? Or perhaps a revival of Tex’s Edward G. Robemsome? Or maybe the entire rogue’s gallery from “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery”?

    • Maybe the Mouse on 57th Street could commute crosstown for a quick cameo.

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