The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco has opened a new special exhibition, “The Walt Disney Studios and World War II“, a retrospective of The Walt Disney Studios’ extensive contributions to the Allies’ World War II effort. The exhibition is curated by World War II historian Kent Ramsey.
When Walt Disney received word that the Disney studio lot in Burbank had been requisitioned as an Army anti-aircraft support base after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, he and his staff pledged to support the war effort without hesitation — and without profit.
“Most people do not realize that The Walt Disney Studios dedicated over 90% of its wartime output to producing educational, entertainment, training, and propaganda films as well as massive print media and over 1,200 insignia designs,” Ramsey tells Cartoon Brew. The exhibition traces this history.
Walt Disney knew that cartoons would be an ideal medium for communicating with the American people — in an uncomplicated and amusing manner — about war-related issues and anxieties. In addition to the short films and military insignia produced, Disney characters appeared in a variety of home-front initiatives, from advertisements, magazines, and stamp books to government posters promoting tax payment, food recycling, rationing, war bond sales, and farm production. The exhibition includes 550 examples of these rare historical objects and film clips.
This unique period in Disney’s (and animation’s) history was critical to the survival of the studio, which had been in a precarious financial position in the early 1940s, due to the loss of overseas markets as the war engulfed Europe.
“Walt was a visionary and he realized that the domestic debate over American involvement in the war would likely change,” Ramsey says. “The implementation of America’s first peacetime draft in October of 1940 signaled that the country was heading down a path to war, and Walt wisely convened an animation conference at his new studio in April of 1941 with the goal of picking up a new revenue stream. Walt fortuitously believed that government training films would keep the lights on and provide his artists with work.”
Ultimately, Disney consecrated a greater proportion of its wartime output to war-related films than any other animation studio in the U.S. It produced over 200 training films, many of which were b&w and simple in style in order to save on cost and meet tight deadlines.
The notion that the studio got rich from this work is a misconception, explains Ramsey. “Some people believe that Walt Disney was a war profiteer, and this is simply not true. Walt maintained a promise of ‘operating without profit’ or basically at break-even during the war years. He lost money on a few government projects and his studio financed the film version of Victory Through Air Power as a patriotic contribution to the war effort.”
Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, The Walt Disney Studios and World War II will be on display in the Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall through January 9, 2022. A new insignia designed exclusively for this exhibition by Mike Gabriel features Donald Duck dressed as a pilot holding onto the wings of a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat while soaring over the Golden Gate Bridge (image at top). This boat was commonly seen in the San Francisco Bay during World War II.
“The museum is humbled and honored to mount the first major exhibition to explore in depth The Walt Disney Studios’ involvement in the World War II effort,” says Kirsten Komoroske, executive director of The Walt Disney Family Museum. “This rarely-shared period in the Studios’ history offers insight into the creativity, innovation, and positivity that Walt and his team brought to the military leaders, troops, and civilians at home and abroad.”