Suspended Animation #273
“When der Fuehrer says, ‘We ist der master race’,
“We HEIL! (phhht!) HEIL! (phhht!) Right in der Fuehrer’s face!
“Not to love Der Fuehrer is a great disgrace,
“So we HEIL! (phhht!) HEIL! (phhht!) Right in der Fuehrer’s face!”
Those are the opening lyrics to the iconic theme song of the only animated cartoon for which Donald Duck won an Academy Award, Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943), that has been locked deeply in the Disney vault because of its content for many decades and only occasionally being shown under limited circumstances despite its popularity. (It was only released to home video media in two limited edition sets of the Disney Treasures in 2004/5.)
Written by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer (the writing team responsible for Dumbo among other classics), it was originally to be entitled Donald Duck in Nutziland (Nutsy Land/Nazi Land because Nazis were “nuts” or crazy, get it?) and was intended to be used to encourage audiences to pay their taxes promptly to support the war effort.
Grant and Huemer wrote that “…we feel that a public character such as Donald Duck, writhing rebelliously in the clutches of the Nazis, will bring the situation home to every man, woman and child in this country…for Donald belongs to them like a member of their own family. They will end up hating Hitler twenty times more than if they had gone through the same ordeal with some curly haired hero who is, after all, merely another movie actor.”
The cartoon is a clever nightmare of Donald working in a munitions plant in Nazi Germany. The film ends with a famous image of Hitler’s face being hit by an over ripe tomato. (On the film’s sheet music, poster and advertising Donald Duck himself tosses the tomato.)
The cartoon features the memorable song written by Oliver Wallace who began his career at the Disney Studio in 1936. Like Carl Stalling, Wallace had been a theater pianist and organist (who had also written motion picture scores at Columbia and Universal Studios before joining Disney).
Wallace scored for 147 shorts between 1937 and 1956 (including most of the Donald Duck shorts including creating Donald’s theme song) as well as contributing to Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
According to Disney Studio records, the song was published before the film was released and Spike Jones, a trombonist in the John Scott Trotter band who had started his own jazz group, The City Slickers, thought the novelty tune might make a good “B” side to the main song on his record, I Wanna Go Back to West Virginia.
However, when the record was released, it was Der Fuehrer’s Face that drove the sales of the record to over a million and a half copies and helped establish Spike Jones and his City Slickers as a bonafide entertainment phenomenon.
A New York radio personality played the song on his show and got so many requests that he offered a free copy of the song to anyone who pledged a fifty dollar war bond. That promotion was so successful that in just two days, the song had earned sixty thousand dollars for Uncle Sam.
There even had to be restraints put on the performance of the song to allow RCA’s Bluebird label (who released the record) and Southern Music (who released the sheet music) to catch up with the avalanche of orders.
Originally released January 1st, 1943, the cartoon was directed by Jack Kinney and had animation by Bob Carlson, Les Clark, Don DaGradi, Bill Justice, Milt Neil, Charles Nicholas, and John Sibley.
While there was a campaign manual published (suggesting such things as hanging an effigy of Hitler in the theater lobby so audiences could give the bronx cheer raspberry sound to the dummy), like most of Disney war work, it is difficult to find documentation about the short. Fortunately, there is Dispatch from Disney.
Dispatch from Disney is an extremely rare booklet that was done by the Disney Studio for employees who were serving in the Armed Forces during World War II. It was intended to be a regularly published booklet that would keep Disney servicemen up to date on the happenings at the Studio. Unfortunately, only one issue was done: Volume One Number One!
From that very rare edition (that has sold for upwards of a thousand dollars), here is Oliver Wallace’s memory of writing that very famous World War II song in his own words:
The song became popular everywhere. In November 1942, LIFE magazine published this article. On the August 1943 cover of the Four Favorites comic book (Number 11), the four heroic stars of the comic (The Unknown Soldier, Captain Courageous, Lightning and Magno the Magnetic Man) loudly sing the song while a War Bond knocks out Emperor Hirohito, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini with one blow.