25th 05 - 2015 | 3 comments »

The New Spirit (1942)

Directors: Wilfred Jackson and Ben Sharpsteen

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, when many Americans remember those killed and maimed during their military service and honor them with parades, commemorative speeches, and the ritual eating of charred meat. There are, however, millions upon millions of unsung contributors to this country’s war efforts who will never win a medal or have a song written about them—indeed, there is a growing minority seeking to avoid doing their part at all costs, most of them at the very top of the social pecking order. I am, of course, referring to all those Americans through the decades who have paid their income taxes.

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Wars don’t come cheap these days, and it is a profound irony that conservative elements in our government who rail against taxing anyone to pay for our country’s freeloaders—you know, kids, old folks, the disabled—can’t vote fast enough to rush spending to the industrial giants who supply the guns, tanks, aircraft, bombs, and computer technology that make going to war possible. This peculiar prioritizing I lay at the feet of none other than Donald Duck.

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In 1942, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., approached Hollywood about preparing some propaganda to encourage citizens to pay their income taxes in full and on time to help pay the freight for World War II. Walt Disney, a true-blue American who drew patriotic cartoons about World War I for his school newspaper, was highly receptive to the request. The film studio responded with The New Spirit, a short cartoon that was the company’s first entry into the propaganda war. Enlisted to create this important short were two proven animation veterans, Ben Sharpsteen, supervising director for Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941), and Wilfred Jackson, the animation director of those two films. The sailor-suited Donald Duck, the government-approved mouthpiece for this task, became the everyman to sell the importance of tax filing to the public, some of whom were alive before 1913 when there were no federal income taxes.

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Donald (Clarence Nash), like many Americans, is literally filled with patriotic fervor fed by outrage at the attack on Pearl Harbor, American flags rising on the whites of his eyes as a radio announcer (Fried Shields) becomes the motivational voice of the anthropomorphized, floor-model radio. He winds Donald up about a very important contribution he can make to the war effort, leaving Donald pleading that he will do anything, anything to help. Nonetheless, when he finds out he’s being asked to pay his income taxes, his reaction is less than enthusiastic.

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Once convinced of the importance of this duty, however, Donald throws himself into it, bringing every weapon of calculus at his disposal. The all-knowing radio reminds Donald that he made less than $3,000 that tax year, so he can file that era’s version of a 1040EZ form. The film helpfully goes through the steps needed to file this form. Donald, in his eagerness to help win the war, zips across the country to hand-deliver his tax return to the Treasury.

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It is here that the drums of war pound with growing sexual tension as phallic columns of coins turn into factory smoke stacks and production lines turning out “guns, guns, all kinds of guns.” “Taxes to beat the Axis” becomes the rhythmic slogan that helps hype the battle action—sinking ships, shooting down planes, destroying submarines. Of course, the enemy craft are marked clearly with the Nazi swastika or rising sun and equipped with predatory fangs and evil eyes. Ultimate victory is predicted, freeing everyone from want and fear, with heroic assurances that “taxes will help keep democracy on the march.”

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It’s not certain what parts of The New Spirit were most effective, but a Gallup poll that year found that of the estimated 60 million people who saw the cartoon, more than 37 percent said it positively affected their willingness to do their taxes. Ironically, the government never paid Disney to produce the film, which had originally been part of the bargain, and the studio lost a bundle on it.

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In one of the most bizarre moves by the Association of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The New Spirit was one of the 25 films nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category. Perhaps it was nominated for its psychological realism about the seductive power of weapons. It’s a perverse delight to think what would greet such a film made and distributed widely today—it might just cause a rightwing meltdown.


13th 06 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Our Backstreets #30: The Ayes, Not the Ears, Have It

By Marilyn Ferdinand

For those of you who may have been wondering why things have been quiet at Chez Ferdy on Films, the answer is that I’ve been in Orlando working a convention for my day job. Specifically, I have been at one of the resorts that service visitors to Disney World. The property, the Coronado Springs, has a Latin American theme. The eateries are Mexican cuisine, though in a nod to people who don’t want to eat quesadillas every day, a cafeteria-style restaurant offers pizza, pasta, and salads. The sit-down restaurant features margaritas of every stripe as their signature drink. A sweeter, more nauseating margarita I have never had. The grounds are beautifully planted around a manmade lake that is encircled with a trail for early morning joggers—in mid June Florida, only a crazy person would go running when the sun dominates the sky.

And, of course, the ever-present Big Brother that is Disney surveys it all.

Now, I’m not talking about Walt and Roy per se. Yes, the cartoon-centered empire is built upon their creations and business sense, and Walt makes appearances via all the TV screens and monitors Disney controls. It is that control that makes Disney so B.B. on the Disney Magical Express shuttle from the airport to the resort, those little pop-down screens you see on airplanes creating a hazard to body and mind. I literally injured myself when I bumped my head on one as I sat down in my seat. During the 40-minute ride, not even the sight of great blue and great white herons flying and strutting through what marshes remain along the spaghetti bowl of highways could help me escape the nonstop commercial that ran on these Orwellian ViewScreens. When I took the shuttle back to the airport at the conclusion of my business, one of the passengers said families should plan to bring $2,000 per child for a trip to Disney World, and seeing how the commercial hyped the shopping and the necessity to go to all of Disney’s theme and water parks, I’d say his estimate was right on the money. Oh, and don’t forget that if you are kicking yourself for not buying that $200 Cinderella porcelain music box, there’s always the online shopping experience for when you get home. Oh, and don’t forget, we have another park in Anaheim (but let’s not talk about EuroDisney right now—it’s not the happiest place on earth). Cruises to Alaska, Europe, Mexico, and the Caribbean populated with your favorite Disney characters and gift shops complete the money pit.

I was not prepared for the total immersion of Disney. Little girls can be seen everywhere wearing princess costumes. Every product, from a candy bar to a belt buckle, is Disney-branded. The Coronado Springs is brightly colored and, from a distance, looks like a cartoon set. It is impressive beyond belief how single-minded the Disney Co. is in creating its own highly scripted version of reality. This really is Disney World, covering a vast expanse in Central Florida that pays homage to American family values—children, wholesome entertainment, shopping—like nothing else. It’s impossible not to be awed into wanting everything Disney has to offer.

I had no time or energy—nor was I tempted to part with several hundred dollars—to try to get to Downtown Disney, Epcot, or any of the other locations accessible by bus (no walking here!). So my remove from the actual frenzy of kids and parents enjoying and enduring at the main attractions let me take a look at the value on offer at the resort. Frankly, the guest accommodations were pretty paltry. The rooms were fine, but the safe for valuables would hold a wallet or two, being that it was just a shallow hole cut in a wall with a locking metal panel in front of it. The TV set had very few entertainment stations, taken up as they were by more Disney advertising. Many of the sinks didn’t work in the common bathrooms, and I swear I heard Mickey Mouse laughing every time the toilet flushed.

My Disney memories have nothing to do with Goofy or Donald or even the Mouse himself. My most exciting moments comprise having a hummingbird feeding at a flower while I sat on a bench talking on my cell to the hubby, seeing a locust on the ground moving slowly and bending its legs like a folding chair in a hypnotic ritual, and watching the volunteer members of the association for which I work conduct their business according to Robert’s Rules of Order—a fascinating look at democracy in action on behalf of children. Disney could take a few cues from these volunteers.


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