During World War II, film audiences were looking for brasher, edgier cartoon characters. It is no coincidence that the same era that saw the birth and rise of Bugs Bunny also saw Donald Duck's popularity soar. By 1949, Donald had surpassed Mickey Mouse as Disney's most popular character. Before 1941, Donald Duck had appeared in about 50 cartoons. Between 1941 and 1965, Donald would star in over 100.
Several of Donald's shorts during the war were propaganda films, most notably Der Fuehrer's Face, released on January 1, 1943. In it, Donald plays a worker in an artillery factory in Nutzi Land (Nazi Germany). He struggles with long working hours, very small food rations, and having to salute every time he sees a picture of the Führer (Adolf Hitler). These pictures appear in many places, such as on the assembly line in which he is screwing in the detonators of various sizes of shells. In the end he becomes little more than a small part in a faceless machine with no choice but to obey until he falls, suffering a nervous breakdown. Then Donald wakes up to find that his experience was in fact a nightmare. At the end of the short Donald looks to the Statue of Liberty and the American flag with renewed appreciation. Der Fuehrer's Face won the 1942 Academy Award for Animated Short Film.
Other notable shorts from this period include the Army shorts, that follow Donald's life in the United States Army from his being drafted, to his life in basic training under Sergeant Pete, to his first actual mission as a commando having to sabotage a Japanese air base.
In 1984, during a celebration for Donald's 50th birthday, the United States Army had awarded Donald Duck a promotion to Sergeant in honor of his wartime cartoons. The ceremony was similar to actual military promotion ceremonies, with Donald in military uniform being given the certificate and insignia of a sergeant by an Army officer, then hugging Daisy Duck in joy.
Donald's Disney War Years titles include:
- Donald Gets Drafted (May 1, 1942)
- The Vanishing Private (September 25, 1942)
- Sky Trooper (November 6, 1942)
- Der Fuehrer's Face (January 1, 1943)
- Fall Out Fall In (April 23, 1943)
- The Old Army Game (November 5, 1943)
- Home Defense (November 26, 1943)
- Commando Duck (June 2, 1944).
I came across the following short promo (courtesy of YouTube.com) about the effects of World War II on the Disney Studios and how Donald Duck became a part of the war effort included on Limited Gold Edition VHS called An Officer and A Duck.
Disney's War Years is ©Disney