ANIMATION ANECDOTES
June 26, 2020 posted by Jim Korkis

In His Own Words: Oliver Wallace on “Der Fuehrer’s Face”

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.

Composer Oscar Hammerstein II called the song “the great psychological song of the war.” Before the cartoon was released in 1943, the title of the short was changed to the title of the popular song.

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:

How I Wrote “Der Fuerher’s Face”

By Oliver Wallace as told to Ralph Parker

The time was 3:00 P.M., and I was feeling low. I had been a naughty boy the night before.

That had to be the moment when Walt encountered me in the hall and gave me a rush order: “Ollie, I want a serious song, but it’s got to be funny.”

The further information that it was to be for a picture telling Donald Duck’s adventures in Nazi land didn’t help very much.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Suppose the Germans are singing it,” Walt offered. “To them, it’s serious. To us, it’s funny.”

Walt walked away. I stood in the hall. I continued to stand in the hall. Once more I was on the spot. Arriving home disgruntled, I encountered no idea while eating dinner.

Then I laid down for a rest. “To hell with it,” I told myself.

The wee small voice told me what it thought of me. It was a familiar routine.

“Get off your back and get on your bike,” said my wife. “You’re going to the store with me.”

The fresh air brought out the nobility in me. I turned receptive and laid myself wide open to any idea. There ought to be a German band. The music came to me in one flash. It nearly knocked me off the bicycle. My mouth opened in surprise.

There followed a second surprise. Words came out of that mouth. I heard myself singing with the loudness which distinguishes my voice: “Ven Der Fuehrer says, ‘Ve iss der Master Race,’ Ve Heil! Heil! Right in Der Fuehrer’s Face.”

My wife laughed. “Who wrote that?”

“I’m writing it!” I yelled–and almost ran into a truck.

Half an hour later, it was finished. I sang it to my two daughters (separately) –and when each said she liked it, I thought I had something. But would Walt like it?
Arriving at the studio next day, I sang it all over the place.

The sound brought Walt out into the hall (where he does most of his business).
“Let’s hear it,” he said.

I stalled. “Orchestration . . . there’s a funny sound in it . . . can’t be made without an instrument . . . has to be practiced . . .” The truth is, I didn’t know what Walt would think of the highly robust Bronx cheer. Could such a sound be used in a Disney picture?

“Let’s hear it,” said Walt.

I let loose. Walt laughed. The rest is history.

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.

10 Comments

  • Where do I enlist???

  • In the pages of Bob Thomas’s “The Art of Animation” Wallace added one crucial detail to his story of how he came up with “Der Fuehrer’s Face” while bicycling to the market. He recalled that at first he had nothing, until the constant sound and rhythm of pumping the pedals of his bicycle suggested the beat of a German military band, THEN everything else came to him, building upon that very regimented time signature. It seems peculiar that Wallace would have left that important point out of his earlier (and more recent) recollection published in “Dispatch from Disney,” yet he somehow did.

  • “Dispatch from Disney” was the newsletter that had the cartoon about a typical day for Walt, right?

    • Yes and the illustrations were drawn by Roy Williams if I recall.

  • Some years ago an orchestra I used to play in did a Spike Jones concert, and the conductor wrote a new version of “Der Fuehrer’s Face” titled “Osama’s Face”. He sent me the lyrics, and they were pretty funny, but the Board of Directors nixed the idea. He wasn’t happy about it, but I think the Board made the right decision. Turning monsters like Hitler and Osama into mere comic foils does a disservice to the people fighting against them, not to mention the victims of their regimes.

  • Spike Jones was a DRUMMER (not trombonist) with studio orchestras , most notably with John Scott Trotter (as mentioned in the article) who was Biing Crosby’s musical director/orchestra leader on several sessions for Decca Records. In fact, Spike is at the drums on Bing’s original version of “White Christmas.”

    • That’s true. However, years ago I read somewhere that prior to his comedy career, Spike Jones was principal timpanist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and several orchestral percussionists have told me this as well. But this is NOT true; Spike Jones was never in the LA Phil.

  • Are you sure that’s Hirohito and not General Tojo? He is the one who was commonly caricatured in WWII cartoons — especially with his round glasses — as depicted in “The Ducktators”, “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips”, “You’re a Sap Mr. Jap”, “Scrap Happy Daffy”, “Tokyo Jokio”, etc. in Warner and Fleischer cartoons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hideki_Tojo

    • It’s the Emperor. He and Tojo both wore round glasses, but the figure on the 4 Favorites cover has a full head of hair. Tojo was bald.

  • I have a very distinct memory of seeing at least part the cartoon on TV as a kid, in black and white sometime after 1960. I was haunted by the assembly line, Donald Duck’s hallucination (especially the Hitler-faced bomb whacking the heads of miniature Ducks), and finally Donald hugging his little Statue of Liberty. Years later I connected it with WWII history and images in animation books. Any chance a documentary or some such featured clips?

    The song itself was always familiar, included on reissues of Spike Jones through the 60s and beyond. Not the only Jones recording to outlive the original’s context — the immortal “Cocktails for Two” (Clink. CRASH!) was a 1934 ode to the recent repeal of Prohibition (listen to the lyrics in the introduction).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *