Before we get into the subject at hand, some background might help, within the context of the cartoon…
The Second World War started with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939, followed by the Allies’ declaration of war two days later. America’s reaction to the war was complex. Their earlier involvement in the First World War in 1917-18 led to the general opinion that the country should adhere to its traditional isolationism, a belief particularly potent in the Midwest. However, many parts of the Northeast had traditional ties to Europe, and looked at the events of the war with fear and foreboding. Walt Disney’s second feature film Pinocchio, which premiered in February 1940, failed to earn as much revenue as Snow White, due to much of its European market overtaken by the Axis powers.
The United States Army was drastically downsized after the First World War; budget cutbacks during the Great Depression furthered this process. As Germany continued to invade European countries throughout 1940, the United States government decided to implement a peacetime draft— the first of its kind in the country. On September 6, 1940, Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act, which President Roosevelt signed into law ten days later. Men between the ages of 21 and 35 were required to register with local draft boards; from this registry, draftees would be selected by lottery. On October 29, 1940, the first capsule was drawn from the lottery—number 158. (In the original main titles for Tex Avery’s Of Fox and Hounds, released in December 1940, the credits for each of the artists are listed as draft numbers—Carl Stalling’s name listed as “No. 158,” with an editorial comment reading, “too bad!”)
Animation for The Rookie Bear began on November 16, 1940, scant weeks after the draft lottery, indicating that the story was likely written during and/or immediately after the passage of the draft legislation. (A December 5, 1940 model sheet (above) displays a working title of “The Army Bear.”) The film opens with a stentorian announcer—possibly Frank Bingman—associated with Strife magazine discussing the draft (a likely parody of Westbrook van Voorhis’ style narrating the “March of Time” newsreels, especially given the “Strife marches on!” gag). A number is drawn from a fishbowl (its previous disgruntled resident having been evicted, as animated by Ray Abrams), and the number belongs to Mr. Bear, as he is named in the film.
Mr. Bear’s present occupation is hibernating in the North Woods, as seen in lifted animation from his debut in The Bear That Couldn’t Sleep. Pete Burness animates Mr. Bear awakened by a delivery boy who hands him a telegram that appoints him to a free one-year vacation with special accommodations, sent by Uncle Sam. It is revealed that Mr. Bear has been drafted into the Army, with a small tent prepared for him along with promises of home cooking—a large surplus of beans.
Mike Lah animates the strongest character work in The Rookie Bear as the gullible bruin enters the gate, eager to start his extended vacation and equipped with sporting gear. As he looks around the surroundings, he backs into a machine gun that sets off a round of ammunition. Startled, he faces a pair of cannons that fire once Mr. Bear is in their direction. After he backs into the machine gun a second time, he notices the famous recruitment poster depicting Uncle Sam painted by James Montgomery Flagg; it seems the delivery’s boy’s mocking rendition of “You’re in the Army Now” in the earlier sequence did not register to Mr. Bear. He intends to exit the grounds but a sharp bayonet aimed at his backside stops him, persuading him to walk into the recruitment office, from which his now-useless civilian gear is ejected into the trash.
What follows throughout much of the cartoon is a montage sequence of the process of Mr. Bear becoming an American soldier. First, as animated by Pete Burness, he is barraged by a blathering series of questions and is photographed. Carl Urbano handles Mr. Bear’s physical examination as he is tightly fitted into a corset to adhere to the ideal proportions of the “average fighting man.” Al Grandmain, usually credited for effects, is credited in the draft for character animation as Mr. Bear is given his dental inspection. Grandmain is also credited on quite the WPA project, when it is revealed one of the bear’s teeth has a cavity the size of the Grand Canyon. (The Works Progress Administration was a key “New Deal” agency of the 1930s that was involved in many public works projects, and subject of parody in many cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s).
Mike Lah handles the next sequence after Mr. Bear passes inspection and accepts his new uniform, rifle and gas mask—with a skunk’s tail brushing underneath to determine its correct fit. (Incidentally, Mr. Bear is shown wearing the “doughboy” style helmet still in use at the time – the M1 “pot” style helmet only gradually came into use in the 1941-1942 period.) Carl Urbano animates the extended sequence of Mr. Bear marching with his full military pack with the cooking and sleeping supplies on top. The ending (animated by Pete Burness), in which Uncle Sam’s telegram notes that the situation is not a dream, is something of an editorial comment on the seriousness of the peril underlying the comedy of the cartoon.
The final animation assignments for The Rookie Bear were completed two months later, on January 28, 1941. Two other studios followed the response of the conscription bill. Their topical cartoons were released in the fall of 1941 before MGM issued their film—Friz Freleng’s Warner Brothers spot-gag cartoon Rookie Revue and the Walter Lantz-produced Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company ‘B’, based on the hit song from the Abbott and Costello vehicle Buck Privates sung by the Andrews Sisters.
The Rookie Bear was released on November 1941 and was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Bugle Boy; both lost to Disney’s Lend a Paw. A month after the release of The Rookie Bear, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor spurred America’s involvement in World War II. The laws of the earlier Selective Training and Service Act were revised—now men from the ages of 18 to 45 were liable for military service and those between 18 and 64 were required to register. Perhaps Mr. Bear’s disheartened reaction to the authentic telegram at the end of the film might have changed to a sense of pride—a patriotic salute—with the privilege of serving his country had the film been produced slightly after America entered the Second World War.
(Thanks to Michael Barrier and Eric Costello for their help.)