I have no idea how to write about WWII propaganda, even well-made and entertaining pieces. I recently purchased On the Front Lines from Walt Disney’s Treasury Series, which collects a selected group of wartime shorts. During the war, the Disney studio’s output was making almost exclusively WWII-related works from countless training videos for armed forces and entertainment bits for those on the homefront. During these years, the studio itself was even armed and protected like a military base. This period in Disney history is woefully underwritten about. The books written about WWII Hollywood treat it like a footnote, though they were far and away producing more than anyone else, and an indispensable source for armed forces at the time. These shorts I review here fall in the entertainment category. Cartoons take a special kind of blunt reductivism within the propaganda sphere. It’s worth pondering what exactly the government was aiming to sell the American public with these shorts as well as if whether or not it accurately lined up with the general public’s perceptions. Thoughts on these four shorts will be more a collection of observations than summarized thoughts.
#47. Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943, Kinney) (USA)
- The life of a Nazi and fascism seen as nightmarish all-work-and-no-play, almost inviting an implied empathy for anyone operating within its warped depiction of Germanic life.
- Aroma de Bacon & Eggs
- Literal yellowface. Even by 1940’s standards, the hyper-overt racism is supremely uncomfortable. But it falls in line with Japanese representation during WWII, being far more barbaric and grossly offensive than other Axis powers appaearances.
- The structure is built heavily around the famous title song which is played out in full.
- The climax is easily the highlight in which the short goes all Dumbo on us re: Donald’s escalating insanity making way for surreal disembodied color blocked images colliding into a cymbal crashing wake-up call.
- Brought around to American democratic values at the end, where Donald (a super-patriot based on his room decor!) wakes up and is oh-so-grateful to be an American.
#48. Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943, Geronimi) (USA)
- Hitler youth as depicted by Disney, making for a weirdly abstract timeline.
- Narrator is just-the-facts stern, giving a removed and deliberately unrelatable feel. The use of non-subtitled German language has similar effect.
- Always acknowledges the master race but never the racial violence/hatred as the logical endpoint to that concept.
- Adapted from a novel by someone who lived in German for nine years.
- Awkward bit of apparently mandatory comedy doesn’t work at all.
- Interestingly, another case of empathy towards those indoctrinated, anger directed at the big guns so to speak, and not the common folk.
- May be my personal preference of the four watched, as there’s so much to pick over and admire as far as its effectiveness, execution and curio value.
#49. Reason and Emotion (1943, Roberts) (USA)
- Tries to take our brain impulses and depict them as corporeal figures in an ongoing battle for dominance. Reason is an upper-crust fuddy-duddy. Emotion is a proto-Flinstones reject.
- There are few moments in anything more amusing than when the short oh-so-subtly reveals its agenda, going from frivolous high-concept to propaganda. “That’s right emotion. Go ahead! Push reason out of the way. That’s great. That’s fine…for Hitler!”
- Still, its relative indirectness makes it a welcome change of pace from the previous two.
#50. Chicken Little (1943, Geronimi) (USA)
- Perhaps the most effective, or at least the most transferable, when looking at these with a modern eye because it uses the fable as a cautionary WWII allegory. Unfortunately it is overall not very engaging.
- Chicken Little himself is a particularly snotty little puke, even by this tale’s standards, prime for feeding lies and jump-starting chaos.
- The end represents how dangerous face value beliefs and fed false truths are, which not only speaks to the nature of propaganda itself (the most resonant thing about the short) but to nurture-based sociopolitical norms.
- Bleak as fuck end, even by this fable’s standards. Holy hell.
#51. Fox and His Friends (1975, Fassbinder) (West Germany)
These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important than self-respect. These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important period. Every single Fassbinder film is politically charged (on a broad level, but of course with specificity to West Germany), about the losing battle with societal norms. For him there is no winning and everything is a compromise. Because if you turn to terrorism or anarchy or simple rejection, you still operate and are defined by those same constructs, just in opposition as opposed to compliance. Money catapults Fox, makes him useable. And Fox is gullible, bordering on willfully I would argue; sucked dry. Fassbinder’s other major career-spanning theme, masochism, specifically in relation to what he would dubiously call ‘love’, is also present. Well, that’s not much of an observation. It’s also in every single film of his. Mirrors are a visual cue as reflection of what is right in front of Fox’s nose.
Augen is truly despicable. I mean he really has to be one of the most distasteful characters I’ve ever come across. I loved Fassbinder as Fox, his eager-to-please naivete. The rhinestone ‘FOX’ on the back of his denim jacket might as well say ‘SUCKER’. His unassuming character remains unconverted in spirit, but his identity, possessions and agency are corrupted. It’s very easy to spot the film’s downward trajectory because Fox’s ability to be deceived is made very clear both to us and everyone around him from the get-go, making his fate that much harder to watch. The final shot is searing stuff, carnival music bringing us back full circle under wildly bleak circumstances. Everyone has used him, nobody will stay with him even in death. Even the camera is fleeting, having gotten his story, backing away from him like a stranger. Use of “Bird on the Wire” potent and anticipatory, not to mention most welcomed.
– Fox’s telephone joke? ADORABLE.
#52. Veronica Mars (2014, Thomas) (USA)
Like a full season crammed into about two and a half episodes. This sounds like an insult, so let’s switch ‘crammed’ for ‘distilled’, because I pretty much loved this. After some clunky recapping, we’re right back in Veronica’s head and all is right with the world. It clicks along with just the right amount of ups and downs. Veronica’s just-when-I-thought-I-was-out (OK nine years is not ‘just’) arc is used as a foundation with which to build stakes and revisit and reestablish old patterns and connections to the past. Even the central mystery harkens back to a high school-era crime. The titular character’s ten-year reunion takes place a year before mine would theoretically occur, thus my headspace heavily related to the do-we-ever-really-change concerns. Most major players are serviced at least in some regard. That the film feels undercooked at intervals, as opposed to undercooked and rushed, is a bit of a feat considering how much ground is covered.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there lacks a big-screen feel to Veronica Mars; this is more made-for-TV movie territory in layout and stature. Most impressive is now largely natural the continuation felt, biting quickness and California-noir all fully intact.
#53. Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (2014, von Trier) (Denmark, etc)
It’s difficult to have any conclusive thoughts when I’ve only seen half the final product (though I pretty much know most of what happens in Volume 2), but I’ll jot down some thoughts. Von Trier embeds twinkles of playful humor into the deliberately unsexy provocation this time around, and it largely works to his advantage. It’s easy and natural to focus on the cobwebs of by turns messy and provoking gender politics to be found. I still say that von Trier puts more thoughtful care into his female characters, which are Trier surrogates to begin with (which yes, brings us back around to the male but the point remains), than most male directors, regardless of what he puts them through. I’ve always found that suffering to be explicitly linked to himself, making it impossible to toss off as a function of misogyny. A film about a specific self-destructive case of hypersexuality isn’t going to be sex positive, because it’s not really going to be about sex. It’s about the strands of habitual addiction and damaging compulsions that can coincide with it, male or female. This isn’t sex with consequences. This is sex as unquenchable fulfillment within the human condition. Sex as desperate momentary grabs at feeling alive. This isn’t about women. It’s at even broader and far more specific. This is about people. And this is about Joe.
What makes Lars von Trier films so singular is that they increasingly feel like a form of self-therapy; he’s exposed and inextricably linked to his work, not as a filmmaker but as a deeply thoughtful, endlessly wily, and haunted man. Nymphomaniac is about unfillable emptiness. For all the wildly entertaining but misrepresentative marketing, the sex scenes, and the body doubles, the structure emerges as most engaging. The framing device as open-ended dialogue approaches philosophical, but is mainly based around Stellan Skarsgaard’s Seligman and his inability to relate to human experience, bringing his education and esoteric knowledge to the forefront, regularly chiming in the only way he knows how. These cultural reference points even dictate the chapter titles and guide Joe along with his room full of coincidental reminders. Skarsgaard is doing unsung wonders with that role by the way.
Speaking of unsung work, Stacy Martin as younger Joe gives a very subtle and perceptive performance. She remains stoic and removed, because her Joe doesn’t have to answer to anybody. Chapters 3 & 5 stand out. Chapter 4 stops the film dead in its tracks. Partly Christian Slater’s fault, whose tree-loving dad I don’t buy. But it’s mostly von Trier’s fault for indulging in monotonous drudgery for an extended period of time with no impact. Uma Thurman is everything you’ve heard. It’s a tour-de-force from an actress not given many opportunities to show what’s she’s capable of. Shia LaBeouf’s accent is a joke, which is a shame because I’m one of the people who thinks, nay knows, he can act. That accent isn’t strengthening my case though. Overall a solid entry, not ultimately one of my very favorites from the Dane; but as always, lots to chew on. Seeing Volume 2 on Monday night.
#53. Ernest and Celestine (2014, Aubier, Patar, Renner) (France/Belgium)
Sweet-natured beyond reproach, fully enlivening two distinct worlds (that of bears and mice) which are inextricably and antagonistically defined by the other. The lumbering wannabe thespian Ernest and the sprightly artistic Celestine enter a mutually beneficial dynamic which turns into inseparable friendship. From the creators of A Town Called Panic, the former’s chaos is recalled in spurts (the dual Police chase is a favorite) and calming downtime gives E&C room to blossom with us as witness. The animation has gorgeously fluid backgrounds with a watercolor aesthetic applied to still winters, pastoral spring, and two dream sequences that give more freedom to the animators. The characters themselves have a quickness of movement that also recalls ‘Panic’.
#54. Little Women (1949, LeRoy)
I’m picky with my Little Women. The 1994 Gilliam Armstrong film is a precious and sacred entity to me, to the point where even the source material itself doesn’t tickle my fancy. But surprisingly, I liked this! Most praiseworthy is its use of Technicolor and all technical contributions to the looks; cinematography, costume, and art direction. So a lot of the mise-en-scène touchstones. It’s one of the most strikingly photographed films I’ve ever seen. There’s an illustrative quality to it, with tones somehow both warm and vibrant, every color fully felt. And the cast mostly meets the criteria. Janet Leigh’s Meg is appropriately just sort of present. Margaret O’Brien makes for a much younger Beth (and edges Claire Danes out of the Weepiest Beth award). Elizabeth Taylor’s distracting blonde wig notwithstanding, gets at the put-upon haughtiness of Amy. And June Allyson, who I don’t normally think of as being an actress I particularly like, makes a wonderful Jo, particularly in her portrayal of Jo’s desire for everything to continue forever unchanged. The men don’t fare well; Laurie is dull as a sack of potatoes and they hilariously cast an Italian actor as Professor Bhaer….while keeping the character German.
#55. Five Graves to Cairo (1943, Wilder)
Billy Wilder’s underappreciated second feature film is easy to get undeservedly lost among WWII-era pictures. Adapted from a play originally set during WWI, the isolated action is moved to a hotel in North Africa where espionage, undermining, and deception all run amok by the core cast. Despite its eventual committed seriousness, quite a bit of Five Graves to Cairo is light on its feet, until it isn’t, treating its subject with a winning mix of popcorn fare and brass tacks purposefulness. Fortunio Bonanova’s buffoon of an Italian general pretty succinctly sums up the way Italians were portrayed during wartime; as largely nonthreatening underlings. Erich von Stroheim, one of Wilder’s idols, walks away with the film. His Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is cunning, particular, and direct.
#56. Muppets Most Wanted (2014, Bobin)
Short review/rant coming soon