How Disney's Most Forgotten Era Saved the Studio During WWII –

WWII and Disney’s own success almost sunk the studio in 1940, until they stumbled on an idea.
In 1940, between financial strains, a fractured workforce, and a split focus on the war effort, Disney—the studio that revolutionized the animated feature just three years prior—found itself unable to independently sustain as a film company. The rest of the 1940s put the Disney studio in dire straits of finding ways to keep up with the demand for animated features they had suddenly created in the industry. Without the time, money, or manpower they had in the golden age, the studio needed a way to satisfy American audiences’ taste for animated features and make a profit on the cheap. Their answer: the package film. But how did it come this?
After the landmark release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, the future success and security of Walt Disney and his animation studio seemed like a guarantee. The first fully animated feature film had grossed $8 million at the global box office against a $1.5 million budget and still retains the distinction as the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, adjusted for inflation. The “fairest-of-them-all" garnered the studio worldwide prestige and enough profits to easily make its budget back, cover the costs of a shiny new studio in Burbank, CA and funding for future animated projects.
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While regarded as undisputed classics today, the Disney films that followed failed to match the monumental success of their debut feature. The production costs of both Pinocchio and Fantasia each doubled that of Snow White and were met with disappointing box office and roadshow returns that failed to match White’s numbers due to their massive budgets and a cut-off international market on the brink of war. Although these subsequent Disney films continued to net critical acclaim, they were putting the studio in serious financial jeopardy. Dumbo and Bambi sought to simplify production and cost far less than the studio’s previous films (just under $1 million), but not even cheaper budgets could save Disney Animation from the conflicts both within the studio and overseas.
Amidst what has since been dubbed the studios’ original golden age, the beginning of the 1940’s saw the Disney studio splintered by internal disputes and the United States’ growing involvement in World War II. A strict hierarchical power structure within the studio designated the lower ranking and newly hired animators as less important and least likely to be assigned substantial work on the feature films or even receive screen credit. This, along with pay disputes and Walt Disney himself widely accepting credit for the artists’ work, compelled the animators to go on strike in 1941 for unionization. During the 5-month picket, many of the striking animators quit to join studio competitors like MGM and Warner Brothers. Following the strike, the December 7th naval attacks on Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into World War II, drafting a sizable group of animators into the service and putting the studio into the employ of the U.S. government. From the Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer’s Face to Victory Through Air Power, most of the studio’s remaining animators were put to work on morale-boosting propaganda cartoons and informational military reels, delaying the pre-production development of Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Lady and the Tramp for nearly a decade.
The package films elicited the talents of the remaining artists and animators to create mid-budget films that, like Fantasia, compiled various shorts and pieces together to form an all-new entertainment experience. Throughout each of the package films, Disney’s animators were given the freedom to breathe and let their animation exist for its own sake and tell stories they otherwise couldn’t tell in a feature-length format.
Disney’s package films came in three forms: the South American travelogue, the musical medley, and the duology.
Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944) were conceived out of a goodwill trip Walt Disney and his animators took to Latin America on behalf of the U.S. State Department as part of the Good Neighbor Policy. Disney characters were popular in Central and South America and Walt Disney was sent to serve as U.S. ambassador to secure friendly ties with the neighboring nations during WWII. What resulted was two feature-length travelogues that celebrate the culture, color, and music of several Latin American countries, such as Peru, Brazil, and Mexico. Along with a cutting-edge fusion of live-action and animation, what these films are mostly remembered for is the creation of Donald Ducks’ fine-feathered amigos, fan-favorites José Carioca (Zé Carioca) and Panchito (Joaquin Garay)!
Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1948) follow in the steps of Fantasia as a concert-feature celebration of all that is music, but while Fantasia kept itself to a classical symphonic sound, these films run the gambit from orchestral music to folk songs to contemporary swing tunes. While Fantasia let its historically renowned music dictate the visuals of its segments with no lyrics or dialogue, both of these films tell their mostly silly stories through original modern songs and dialogue more akin to a traditional musical format. These films are also some of the earliest instances of animated movies enlisting a line-up of celebrity names to lend voices, with stars of stage and radio like Roy Rogers, Nelson Eddy and Jerry Colonna narrating in song, “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met”, “Casey at the Bat” and “Pecos Bill”.
Fun and Fancy Free (1947) and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) are closer in line with a traditional Disney feature, but instead of focusing on a single narrative, they each tell two loosely connected stories that, in recent decades, have been split up and presented as their own short films. These films are composed principally of story ideas and concepts the Disney studio had in mind for full-length features that either couldn’t be stretched to a full runtime or were quietly shelved at the start of WWII. “Bongo” tells the story of a circus bear who runs away to live in the forest and was originally pitched as a direct follow-up to Dumbo. “Mickey and the Beanstalk” was originally visioned as a standalone film with a full supporting cast, including Queen Minnie Mouse. The Wind and the Willows was also slated for the full-length treatment after Snow White, but found new life as an abridged retelling narrated by Basil Rathbone. Disney’s micro-adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, as told by the bouncily sultry voice of Bing Crosby, has persisted as an animated Halloween favorite with its gothic tones and edge-of-your-seat thrills of its finale.
In the discourse of Disney animation, the war-era package films are largely the most unfamiliar to modern Disney fans, save for a few iconic characters and segments. While they did not feature as many idealistic princesses, groundbreaking animation advancements, or even traditional narratives as the celebrated Disney classics, they did serve as fertile soil for the animators to grow in their craft across different styles, stories, and characters, despite the scaled-down production. The package films stand as a timely testament that even when in an uncertain world, Disney animation can still grow as an art form and even turn a profit.
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Austin Allison is an Animation Feature Writer for Collider. He is also a freelance artist, avid cartoon watcher, and occasional singer. His karaoke favorites include singing Rainbow Connection as Kermit the Frog and Frank Sinatra’s My Way as Goofy. Check out his Instagram (@a_t_allison) and Twitter (@atallison_) for his latest artwork and to submit commssions.


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