Since Nazis have been in the news after the terrible events of the Charlottesville rally, I thought it might be worth looking at some of the best cartoons to take on the Nazi party. Comedy has always been a great tool against fascism – from Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Great Dictator to Mel Brooks’ hysterical Springtime for Hitler sequence in The Producers – but some forget that during World War II, popular cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Donald Duck, Mighty Mouse, etc. all went to war and skewered Hitler in morale-boosting propaganda shorts.
Here are my picks for the ten best cartoons to spit right in Der Fuehrer’s Face:
10) SCRAP HAPPY DAFFY
Directed by Frank Tashlin / 1943 / Warner Bros.
This hilarious Daffy Duck film – his last black & white appearance – features everyone’s favorite cartoon fowl matching wits against a Nazi goat that was sent by Hitler to devour his scrap pile. During WWII, Americans donated scrap metal to the war effort, and the scraps were recycled into guns, tanks, etc. In this film, Daffy sings of the virtues of collecting scraps in a delightful original song “We’re In to Win”, which features Mel Blanc at his best as he runs down a list of junk items at rapid-fire speed. The gags in this film are hilarious, but some of the best are the pot-shots at the Nazis: Daffy identifies a horse’s ass as “Schicklgruber” (Adolf Hitler’s true family name), and Hitler himself is so infuriated by his “Non-Aryan Duck” nemesis that he madly gnaws on his own rug (helpfully labeled, “Chew along the dotted line”). Director Frank Tashlin later went into live-action movies, and his love of film technique and unusual camera angles can be seen most obviously in a standout sequence where the Nazis demand the scrap pile be destroyed, which is pure cinematic brilliance (Orson Welles couldn’t have done it better). The film also climaxes with a morale-boosting bit where Daffy’s ancestors remind him that “Americans don’t give up”. Propaganda, to be sure, but propaganda was never funnier. Watch it HERE.
9) SPINACH FER BRITAIN
Directed by I. Sparber [Uncredited: Jim Tyer] / 1943 / Famous Studios
Although the Popeye cartoons produced at the Max Fleischer studio in the 1930s are the spinach-eatin’ sailor’s best work, the first batch of Popeye shorts produced by Famous Studios are enjoyably energetic. A good example would be this wartime cartoon in which Popeye attempts to deliver some spinach cans to Britain (as the title implies), but first has to beat up some Nazis in a submarine. The film is unabashed “Pop-a-ganda”, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining, with lots of funny anti-Nazi jokes (including a running gag where one Nazi hops on another while shouting, “Heil Hitler”) and some charmingly jingoistic dialogue (Popeye declares, “That’s the way to swat the swastika!”). The short contains Popeye voice actor Jack Mercer’s wonderfully witty ad libs (“This pea soup reminds me of the London fog”), and there’s some fantastic loose and wacky animation from cartoon god Jim Tyer, who handles the standout scene where Popeye encounters some bombs in the water. The ending gag, where Popeye blasts four notes on his pipe, is meant to symbolize the dot-dot-dot-dash Morse Code for “V”, standing for “V for Victory”. With spinach on our side, how can we lose? Watch it HERE.
Directed by Chuck Jones / 1943 / Warner Bros.
One classic cartoon character in desperate need of rediscovery is Private Snafu, who appeared in a series of animated shorts created exclusively for the armed services from 1943 to 1945. Private Snafu (an army acronym that stood for “Situation Normal: All F*cked Up”) was billed as the “worst soldier in the army”, and he was intended to demonstrate to soldiers what not to do to defeat the Nazis. These black & white cartoons were created by the staff responsible for the Warner Bros. cartoons, and they match the high quality of the Looney Tunes cartoons of the era, complete with voicework by the great Mel Blanc. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, was that many of the cartoons were written by Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, who supplied his signature kooky imagination to the series. This cartoon – a cautionary tale about keeping your lips sealed for fear of leaking information to the Nazis – is even told in rhyme, making its Seussian origins doubly obvious. The cartoon’s visual wit and occasionally racy humor are directed with finesse by animation genius Chuck Jones, who would later work with Seuss again in creating the classic TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966. Watch it HERE.
7) EDUCATION FOR DEATH
Directed by Clyde Geronimi / 1943 / Disney
Easily the most serious film on this list is Disney’s Education for Death, a somber short about how little boys are brainwashed into becoming Nazi soldiers, inspired by the non-fiction book of the same name by Gregor Ziemer. Although the film contains comic relief (there’s a parody of Sleeping Beauty with Hitler as the prince, which features some marvelously zany Ward Kimball animation), the film is generally darker and more terrifying than we typically associate with Disney. The scene where Hans falls sick and his mother pleads with a merciless officer is masterfully directed by Geronimi, staged and lit to beautifully convey a sense of menace and fear. And then there’s the sequence in the classroom, which isn’t as visually dour but is perhaps even more unnerving. Seeing children indoctrinated into spouting inhuman hate speech, and seeing an intimidating teacher shame the one boy who still has a shred of mercy until he breaks down and adopts the Nazi worldview, is quite startling in a Disney film. And then comes the climax, lit in bloody red, which shows us that the little boy we’ve been following has become a faceless killing machine, indistinguishable from every other goose-stepping soldier. The artless anti-intellectualism of the Nazis is shown in a hair-raising montage of destruction, as the works of Einstein, Voltaire and Milton are set ablaze and religious artifacts are replaced with weapons of destruction. The full scope of the Nazis’ cruelty was not yet known to the American people in 1943, but what they show here is disturbing enough. The film’s conclusion is almost assuredly the grimmest ending ever attached to a Disney film. No ray of sunshine here, folks, but startlingly effective filmmaking all the same. Watch it HERE.
6) RUSSIAN RHAPSODY
Directed by Bob Clampett / 1944 / Warner Bros.
Of all of the anti-Hitler cartoons produced during World War II, one of the most gleefully merciless is Russian Rhapsody, where a bunch of little gremlins wreak havoc on Der Fuehrer as he attempts to fly to Moscow. Gremlins were a popular myth among serviceman as a source of blame for accidents and malfunctions, but Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett was the first to bring gremlins to the screen in both Russian Rhapsody and 1943’s classic Bugs Bunny short Falling Hare. This cartoon portrays gremlins as colorfully impish little Bolsheviks (given that the Red Scare that took place in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, it’s easy to forget that Stalin was briefly considered something of a hero in the United States because he presented a threat to Hitler), and the stretchy, highly distorted animation of the Clampett unit makes this takedown of Hitler a joy to watch. The opening is a highlight, where Adolf makes a “speech” where he madly sputters gibberish (tossing in references to sauerkraut and Warner director Friz Freleng). The fireworks continue as the gremlins electrocute Hitler and bash him with mallets, even transforming the fascist dictator into a jack-ass (with the phrase “jack-ass” written across his body in case you missed it). If you keep your eyes peeled, you can find dozens of caricatures of Warner Bros. staff in the gremlin designs, including producer Leon Schlesinger, fellow directors Chuck Jones & Friz Freleng, and even Bob Clampett himself as a naked pink little creature with a pick-axe. The gleeful anarchy of the gremlins featured here and in Falling Hare were an acknowledged influence on Joe Dante when he directed the 1984 fantasy classic Gremlins. Watch it HERE.
5) TULIPS SHALL GROW
Directed by George Pal / 1942 / Puppetoons
This Oscar-nominated stop-motion short tells the story of two Dutch sweethearts whose happy lives are brought to ruin when an army of mechanical soldiers called the Screwballs invade the land and destroy everything in it. The film was made as an allegory for the Nazis’ conquest of Holland, and it is perhaps the crowning achievement in the long and varied career of George Pal, an animator of Jewish descent who lived in Germany in the early 1930s before leaving as the Nazis came to power. The short is overloaded with delightful visuals, reaching a visual zenith during the climax where all of the robot men rust, crumble and sink into mud, which is mesmerizing to watch. But beyond just serving as eye candy, the film is a masterful example of the use of comedy to convey somber themes. The Screwballs are depicted with bolts for heads, goose-stepping in a goofy parody of robotic precision, while tanks are dropped from the sky through the aid of umbrellas. It’s a whimsical and imaginative take on the Nazis, exposing the absurdity of their mission as only a cartoonist could. Pal reduces the Nazis to unthinking, unfeeling robots (“Machine men with machine minds”, as Chaplin put it in The Great Dictator), programmed for deranged and utterly pointless destruction. In a different kind of film, the Screwballs’ defeat via rainstorm might be a disappointing deus ex machina, but not here. The short isn’t a jingoistic adventure about overthrowing an adversary; it’s a wise parable about how the Nazis’ hatred and destruction is unnatural and cannot survive. The confident pronouncement written in text at the film’s conclusion is enough to bring tears to your eyes. The idea that life will go on and humanity will ultimately prevail must’ve been deeply reassuring to the theater-going public in 1942. Watch it HERE.
4) PLANE DAFFY
Directed by Frank Tashlin / 1944 / Warner Bros.
In one of the finest of the many great wartime cartoons produced by Warner Bros., a squadron of pigeons avoid the seductions of notorious spy Hatta Mari by sending the army’s #1 woman hater Daffy Duck to deliver a military secret. This sends us into a glorious showdown between the shapely Nazi spy and the deranged duck, who – it must be pointed out – is a pretty poor excuse for a woman hater. It’s a spectacular cartoon, with brilliantly stylized, angular poses and wonderfully creative jokes. In addition to being a pitch perfect slapstick comedy, the film is virulently anti-Adolf, with an ending gag that involves Nazis blowing their brains out for a laugh. The film’s edgy humor, which revolves largely around sex, serves as a nice reminder that the Warner Bros. cartoons were not aimed at children when they were originally released. Director Frank Tashlin had a particular penchant for dirty jokes, and he continued to bait the censors with lewd visual gags and sexual innuendoes in his later live-action films, particularly his two Jayne Mansfield vehicles The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). In fact, some have remarked that the slinky Hatta Mari served as something of an animated precursor to Mansfield, whose outsized sexuality made her resemble a real life cartoon. Watch it HERE.
3) THE BLITZ WOLF
Directed by Tex Avery / 1942 / MGM
Animation legend Tex Avery is rightly credited with setting the wild and witty tone of the Warner Bros. cartoons in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, but he reached his creative height while working at MGM. The Blitz Wolf was his first film for the studio, and it’s an explosive debut, hysterically sending up Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs cartoon from 1933 (Avery even enlisted Pinto Colvig to reprise his voice as the smart little pig). Still, the fairy tale trappings are just a lead-in to a truly brutal parody of Adolf Hitler, a depiction so acidic that it reportedly made producer Fred Quimby nervous (Quimby apparently said to Avery, “After all, we don’t know who’s going to win the war”). The film kicks off with the disclaimer, “The wolf in this photoplay is NOT fictitious. Any similarity between this Wolf and that @#$!! jerk Hitler is purely intentional”. Avery then proceeds to skewer Adolf in every manner possible, having him sign documents with the subtitle, “Colossal stinker”, ride a tank labeled, “Der Fewer (Der Better)”, get hit with a tomato from the audience, daintily hold up the skirt of his tank to walk over the mud, ride a P-U airship, and finally get blown to Hell in a satisfying conclusion. Tex Avery was never one to pull punches, and The Blitz Wolf remains one of the most outrageous creations on his incredible resumé. Watch it HERE.
2) DER FUEHRER’S FACE
Directed by Jack Kinney / 1943 / Disney
In 1940, Charlie Chaplin crafted one of the most ingenious satires ever made with his boldly caustic film The Great Dictator. However, I would rank Der Fuehrer’s Face – a Walt Disney Donald Duck cartoon – right alongside it as one of the best comedic takedowns of Nazism. The film, inspired by the title song by staff writer Oliver Wallace and famously recorded by Spike Jones, is one of the most wildly anarchic Disney films ever made and a triumph of visual creativity (Hitler’s authoritarianism is acerbically illustrated by converting every prop and location into a swastika, including clouds, fire hydrants, etc.). One reason it remains one of the best war cartoons is because it goes beyond simply making fun of the Germans or thumbing its nose at the enemy, but actually satirizes the de-humanizing process of the Nazi Party. The sheer numbing pointlessness of Donald’s work is powerfully captured when the duck is forced heil a bunch of framed photographs of Hitler placed on an assembly line for no apparent reason. The cartoon is so effective, in fact, that Donald’s eventual flipout is truly cathartic (frankly, I can’t think of any piece of Disney animation that I like better than Donald’s shivering, spewing breakdown). We’re then launched into a marvelous bit of surrealism that recalls the famous Pink Elephants sequence from Dumbo, but adds a bit of scathing social commentary into its visual imagination. The short is a great reminder that animation can be a brilliant tool for satire, as it can cut straight to the ludicrousness of a society or institution with a freedom of imagination that all other mediums lack. The short concludes with a tomato being flung at Hitler’s face, which has nothing to do with the narrative of the film but is a perfect conclusion nonetheless. Hitler, reportedly, attempted to burn every copy of this film he could find, which was an added delight to the animators. Watch it HERE.
1) HERR MEETS HARE
Directed by Friz Freleng / 1944 / Warner Bros.
Out of all of the many cartoon characters to appear in morale-boosting wartime cartoons during WWII, no character struck a stronger chord than Bugs Bunny, whose wiseguy attitude and unflappability made him a great symbol of the American spirit. The wascally wabbit was even officially inducted into the Marine Corps, complete with dogtags, before being discharged at the end of the war as a Master Sergeant. This hilarious cartoon, in which real-life Nazi leader Hermann Göring goes hunting for Bugs in the Black Forest, marks his best WWII-themed short, full to bursting with great animation and hilarious gags. The film is an important Bugs cartoon for several reasons; it was the first to include the character’s immortal catchphrase, “I knew I should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque”, and it also features a Richard Wagner parody that served as a predecessor to Bugs Bunny’s ultimate masterpiece What’s Opera, Doc? (1957). Bugs dons some great disguises in the cartoon; he does a screamingly funny Hitler impersonation, and he does a great Josef Stalin for the closing gag (quoting the ad slogan for Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco). More than anything else, however, it’s Bugs’ cool attitude even in the face of Nazi oppression that makes the film so special and makes Bugs Bunny the king of cartoons. Watch it HERE.
Thanks for watching!