A Cartoon Takes on the Third Reich: Disney’s Chicken Little (1943)

When I usually think of World War II propaganda, I usually think positive. American propaganda- in the form of posters, articles, radio broadcasts, and films- were no exception. Slogans like “We can do it!” or “Give it your best!” come to mind.  Its easy to find colorful examples of propaganda providing encouragement and positive examples of working hard, achieving victory, and being the best you can be. But this isn’t the whole story. Propagandists also used scare-tactics and images of death and destruction to warn Americans away from bad habits and poor decision making. The war could be won by hard work on the home front, but it could also be lost by mistakes too.

The “Rosie the Riveter” poster was made by the Westinghouse Company. Image credit: Smithsonian Institution.

Along with the government, private businesses also got involved in propaganda too. Business interests ranged from patriotism to production profits and better attitudes of the public towards business. Disney Studios, still under the direction of founder Walt Disney, was no exception. The studio’s artists produced dozens of patriotic films that covered topics from military tactics to the purchase of war bonds and everything in between.

The Disney Cartoon “Der Fuehrer’s Face” won an Academy Award in 1942.

Walt Disney’s artists even designed the insignia for over a thousand units in the American and allied armed forces! According to historian David Lesjak, “Walt did everything that was asked of him during the war, and much of what the studio produced was either done for free or at-cost…out of all of the cartoon studios, Walt, by far, contributed the most.” If you want to learn more about all of Disney’s contributions to the war effort, I’ve linked to some good articles here and here.

I recently watched Disney’s version of Chicken Little, which was released as a short cartoon in 1943. At first I didn’t know when it was made but I knew there was something different about this one. Afterwards, I started looking into it and this version of Chicken Little is a pretty sinister version of the folk tale

I suspect that viewers in 1943 didn’t have much trouble finding the “hidden” message here: don’t listen to anti-American or anti-government propaganda, or the Nazis will win.

Apparently the original 1943 version of the film had the villian Foxey Loxey using a copy of Mein Kampf  to plot against the farm animals. He easily used the book’s instructions to persuade and divide Chicken Little and his friends. Before long, the barn yard’s trusted leader Cocky Locky had been deserted and their protective roost abandoned. Frantic birds, led astray by herr fox’s cunning words, ran to his cave believing it would offer better shelter from doom and destruction. Unsurprisingly, the cave ended up being their grave as they were all swiftly eaten by the fox.

This Chicken Little storyboard was published in Coronet Magazine in 1943.

chicken-little-scriptI’ve been reading conflicting reports, but it seems at some point Disney’s animators decided to change Foxey Loxey’s book to a more ambiguous title: “Psychology,” and altered the cartoon’s dialogue to take out all direct references to Mein Kampf and Nazis. I’m not sure if this change was at the last second before its original release, or later in the 1960s when it was re-released to a new generation of viewers. I wonder if this change was to make sure the cartoon would remain relevant and understandable to new generations of viewers in the future, or make it less scary to viewers. Either way, I think its message would have remained clear to its original 1943 audience.

Interestingly enough, the decision to change Mein Kampf to “Psychology” raises another point- the relationship between World War II era propaganda and psychology. At the time, German and American propagandists were both heavily influenced by advertisers and public relations experts, many of whom had backgrounds in psychology. The most famous public relations expert of the time, Edward Bernays, was actually the nephew of Sigmund Freud and knew how to use theories of psychology to get practical results. After many successful public relations campaigns for governments and businesses, Bernays wrote several books on the subject. Bernays later learned that Joseph Goebbels, the minister of Nazi propaganda, was using his ideas to strengthen the Third Reich. “They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.” So in a way, Mein Kampf and “Psychology” were equally appropriate titles for Foxey Loxey’s book of destruction. What do you think? Which title fits better in the cartoon today?



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