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The Battle of Washington

By Dick Huemer

Reprinted from Funnyworld No. 22 (1980).

Walt at Washington

In the photograph above, Walt Disney points to a storyboard for The New Spirit, and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. is at Walt's right. Dick Huemer is at the far right in the photo, and Joe Grant is to his right.

Almost immediately after the outbreak of World War II, Walt Disney formed a liaison with Henry Morgenthau, Jr., then President Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, to produce, at the government’s expense, a propaganda animated cartoon film to be called The New Spirit, ostensibly designed to bolster the morale of the American people—as if they needed any bolstering against Hitler and his passel of hoodlums—as well as (if they should happen to get hold of a print) knock the knockwurst out of his arrogant Nasties.

Under Walt’s dedicated surveillance, Joe Grant, myself, and others of Walt’s myrmidons had in record time prepared a set of storyboards on the above premise. And now, these storyboards had to be taken back to Washington and presented to Mr. Morgenthau, Jr., for his okay.

I broke out in a cold sweat when I learned that I was to be included in the group that would be flying East to accomplish this. Understand that my apprehension didn’t stem from timidity over a face-to-face confrontation with so eminent an official as a cabinet member. No indeed! It was the flying aspect of this particular caper that terrified me! You see, I was irrevocably opposed to ever becoming airborne, unless I could sprout a pair of wings of my very own. And that, at some vague and far distant date, at which time I would also be entitled to free harp lessons, and one of those absurd shiny things over my head; which head would be re-endowed with its pristine bushy locks.

Que faire? As the French would have it. Did you or did you not casually mention to Walt, when you accidentally met him on the lot, “Oh, incidentally, boss, it is my well-considered conviction that there is still quite a bit of rethinking to be done vis-a-vis heavier- than-air transportation. So-o-o-o, if it is all the same to you, old boy, I’ll just pass on this little junket?” Not on your granny’s moustache cup you didn’t! You went! Without comment! Or moues.

Except for the not too obtrusive droning of the DC’s engines, it is quiet in the dimly-lit plane. But clearly heard by me is the persistent voice of one of Roy Disney’s henchmen, who hunkers beside my aisle seat with his open briefcase, and keeps up a running monologue on Studio matters in which I’ve not the slightest interest, or for that matter, comprehension. He is as brisk and bright as though it was two in the afternoon instead of three in the morning. Why is he doing this to me? I wonder. Of course! It is my apprehension at being confronted with sudden shattering death at any minute that has only me of our group, sitting so upright, and wide-awake staring. Joe Grant is quietly snoozing beside me, and Walt and Roy are behind me. They are quite obviously meant to be the real audience for this brownie-point-gathering performance. Apparently they are not asleep, although they are not talking either. Theoretically, they are also listening to the constructive shop talk.

If I could only summon up a yawn or two to deploy in his face! Or if I could suddenly and miraculously cork-off like a goddamn pussycat! And while I am ruminating on escapement devices, he stops!

Do I detect a shadow of annoyance on his face? What have I done? Then impatiently—and sloppily—he snaps his briefcase shut over its brimming mess of paperwork, and with a hurried “Night” he oozes back to his seat. Rather odd behavior, think I—wonder what got into him? And then I know. From behind me comes, yes, not one, but two of the most heaven-sent snores I ever heard, and/ or gratefully approved of. I settle down contentedly, and close my eyes for the first time that night. “How comforting!” I think. “The great Walter Elias Disney does not worry. He sleeps blissfully—and snores—just like any other ordinary human being! Then what the hell am I so scared about?” And soon, the tight grip on the arms of my seat slowly relaxes, and gradually I too fall asleep—and probably snore. And when I awake we are dropping thru heavy fog to the Washington airport. Being surrounded outside my window with white opaqueness does not reassure me. But I know I am not quite as worried as before.

Mind you, I have used the designation “Battle of Washington” only in a figurative sense (besides, it’s an arresting title) for we history buffs are well aware that, since Confederate General Jubal Early’s half-hearted threat to its outer defenses in 1864, and our English cousin’s hotfooting of the White House back in 1813, there has been no real battle involving our capital city. Nevertheless, Washington’s atmosphere in early 1942 was intensely war-oriented. There was an urgency in the air that is now difficult to describe. Everything and everybody seemed to take part in some way with the war’s prosecution. Even our cabbie at the airport exuded an air of dedication, and I became suffused with a tingling excitement that rarely left me while I remained in the city.

This excitement was now superseded by the impending more crucial story meeting with Secretary Morgenthau. Ours was not to worry however, for our boards were as classy as usual. And didn’t we have the best damned storyboard spieler in the business—Walt Disney himself to present it? There were only the three of us that day in the Secretary’s outer office—Walt, Joe, and me. Roy Disney and his men had gone on to other matters, and we didn’t see them for the rest of our stay. It seemed to us that it took quite a long time while we awaited the pleasure of the great man in the inner office. Actually, much too long. Could it be that something had gone wrong? There had been uncomfortable rumors of Congressional grumbling over wasting money on ours and similar projects. Suddenly, our concern was heightened to the breaking point when Morgenthau’s private secretary came out of the room where the boards were set up and waiting, and addressed himself to Walt.

“Would Mr. Disney mind coming in alone?”

Of course he wouldn’t, and he followed him in, looking a bit puzzled. And Joe and I must have looked a lot crushed. There was only one thing to make of this. The deal was off! Morgenthau was going to wind it up right now! It was back to Burbank with our stupid boards! Suddenly we both hated the childish project. Hell! It was just as well! What good would it have done anyway? And we went on trying to console one another in similar fashion, and time once again seemed to stretch interminably as our fate was being determined inside that office. Meanwhile, also, we had time to evaluate the loss of numerous fringe benefits normally accruing to trips such as this. No Corcoran Gallery for Joe. No Smithsonian for me. None of the other wonders of Washington which neither of us had ever seen, and now might never see. Undoubtedly we would be flying back home on the next plane. At least Joe and I would.

And the waiting was protracted, as though to further certify to the debacle. We fell silent and waited for the blow to fall. War sure was heck!

And then the door is open! And nothing but joyous noises are issuing from Morgenthau’s sanctum! And anon, two happily conversing executives emerge. No doubt about it, the “Whiz of the West” has brought it off!

Walt explained it to us later. Our project never was in danger. It seems that the good Secretary had awakened that morning with a splitting headache, and just couldn’t stand the idea of a formal noisy meeting with a lot of people. Even his underlings were barred. It was just too bad we had to miss one of the boss’s most inspired performances. At any rate, it cured the headache, for Morgenthau appeared just fine when we saw him later to take pictures of the event.

We were unexpectedly invited to dinner at the Morgenthau ménage that evening—informal, of course. When I relive the opening moments of our arrival before the Secretary’s home, I see two shadowy forms standing beside the tall stoop, and I am again chilled by the realization of the ever-present danger in which those in high office stood. Twenty-four-hour guards! But a secret sign from our guide and all was well. Too bad Lincoln wasn’t guarded that way that fatal night at the Ford Theatre.

Only one thing comes to mind in connection with that delightful informal dinner. It happened at cocktail time (Old Fashioneds). Apropos of what, I can’t remember either, but suddenly, Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury of the United States of America, was saying a most astonishing thing!

“What I am about to tell you,” sezze, “must under no circumstances leave this room!” And he sucked thoughtfully on the heavy glass muddler of his drink, while we sat breathlessly awaiting his pronouncement (I wondering if muddler licking was some kind of custom in official Washington —and hoping it didn’t include tossing the dregs of your drink over your shoulder—glass and all). With the air of a large eagle being conspiratorial, he then said, “This may come as a surprise to you, but the truth of the matter is that the United States government does not really need all that War Bond money it is agitating for! It is only for the purpose of keeping our people from squandering their spare cash, and thus creating artificial shortages in certain commodities, and so possibly adversely affecting the economy.” Though none of us were on speaking terms with economics, we all exhibited signs of being vastly impressed—at least I did.

One more item involving the good Secretary before we start wrapping it up. Having gotten the okay we had come for, Walt now gave some thought to production of The New Spirit. Joe and I had suggested that the short should be produced in what was called the “Baby Weems technique,” which is nowadays known as limited animation. It had not been then thought of as a deliberate money saver for that picture, but rather as an effective way to show the reading of a story book on the screen with pages turning and all.

It so happened (HAW!) that we had brought along a print of the Baby Weems episode from The Reluctant Dragon, and Walt ran it for Morgenthau, who very gratifyingly laughed at the right places, but had the wrong answer after the showing.

“Very fine,” said he, “but Mr. Disney, I think we had better go for the blue plate special. Real animation treatment, that is.” Not what we had hoped for, but very perceptive of him, we all had to acknowledge.

Well, Congressional doubting notwithstanding—although in light of Secretary Morgenthau’s optimistic monetary disclosures, we couldn’t imagine what they were worried about—Walt Disney’s first squib of defiance in the faces of the unspeakable Axis was successfully brought off. And this was followed by some real blockbusters, like Education for Death, Reason and Emotion, and the raucous Der Fuehrer’s Face. How effective films such as these were in helping to win the war is perhaps open to question, and that puts me in mind of the last two lines of Southey’s famous poem, which is concerned with another war. I quote:

“But what good came of it at last?"

Quoth little Peterkin.

“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,

“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

The New Spirit

Wilfred Jackson directed most of The New Spirit, and he remembered that extraordinary production in a letter published in Funnyworld No. 19 (1978). That's a publicity still from the film above.

Directing The New Spirit was a unique experience, in that, for once, meeting our deadline took precedence over all other considerations—even including making sure we got exactly what Walt wanted into the picture—or making sure Walt knew how his picture was going to look in time for him to do anything about it if he did not like something in it. This was, perhaps, the only time I was in complete control of a large part of one of the cartoons I directed for Walt. (The ending, with scenes of battleships, etc., was Ben Sharpsteen’s. Only the part with Donald Duck was mine.) But this wasn’t quite as good as it may sound, because there was not enough time allowed to do a good job of it.

We were given an absolutely ridiculous, completely impossible deadline for a cartoon with full animation of the Duck in a good-sized part of it, considering the way production procedures were set up in the Disney organization, and the way we had all been trained to make Walt’s cartoons for him. As I recall it, we had something like one month from our first story meeting to the delivery date with a Technicolor answer print.

Our little crew working on the picture pitched in that first day and each of us kept on working until he was too tired to work any more. Then he went home to sleep, whatever time of whatever day it was, and whenever he woke up he came back to work again, whatever time of the day, or night, of whatever day that might be. This caused some interesting problems for a director, who was also working that way, in coordinating the efforts of the various artists and technicians who actually made the cartoon.

We had to invent a completely new approach, for us at Disney’s—a production routine that would save every minute possible in each step on the way to the final answer print. As soon as a small part of the continuity was pinned up on the story board, and approved in a mini-story meeting, it was broken down into the final production continuity of scene cuts and put into animation, often using the story sketch as a temporary layout. Dialogue was recorded piecemeal as small portions of the story were visualized, instead of for the entire short subject, as we usually did. Layouts and background sketches were often made while the animator was working on a scene, even occasionally after the animation was done, instead of before the animator picked up his scene, as we always did it. Meanwhile, the story men were getting the next little section up on the boards. Everyone was doing everything all at the same time, instead of in proper sequence. It’s a wonder it worked at all.

Animation was not roughed out and tested. The animators drew cleaned-up extremes which were also in-betweened with cleaned-up drawings. A clean-up pencil test was shot, then the scene moved on through ink and paint while the film of the test was being developed and sent back to the animator so he could see what he had done. Usually, the animator would get his test to me for me to view it on my Movieola before the inked and painted cels were finished and in camera being shot for production. I did not have a running reel to see the test in continuity with other scenes, but viewed each isolated scene by itself in sync with the appropriate part of our temporary sound track. After I saw each test it was cut into the running reel—we didn’t take time to do that first because it might make the difference between catching a mistake that had to be corrected while the scene was still in ink and paint, and not catching it until the scene had been shot, requiring a retake instead of just changing a few cels. Only if something was radically wrong did I call for a correction. It was vital not to interrupt the flow of work through ink and paint and to camera unless absolutely necessary. These changes were not tested. I did not see the changed action until the “daily” came back from Technicolor. Then, if it was absolutely necessary to do so, and if time enough remained before our deadline, a retake was needed before another change could be made. This was a quite different approach to making a cartoon from our customary painstaking process with high quality as the prime objective.

Of course Walt was in on our piece-by-piece story meetings to okay each bit for production before animation was begun on it. But, as I recall it, each little piece of the continuity got an “okay with changes,” frequently with such extensive changes to be made as to amount almost to doing it all over in a different way. It was this altered version Walt did not see until it was too late for him to do anything about it. I asked him, from time to time, if he would like to see a few of the tests as they began to come in, but he chose not to see any of the animation until he could see it as part of the complete continuity of the picture. We simply did not have the time to spare to shoot story sketches to fill out the running reel, so this did not come about until the last two or three scenes were in camera being shot for production. When Walt finally got his first look at what we had done it was only a day or so before our deadline. This left no time for any retakes—only barely enough time to get a balanced print from Technicolor and a final re-recording of our soundtrack for the print.

I do not believe I have ever seen Walt so completely frustrated when viewing one of the cartoons I directed for him.

But, as ridiculous as our deadline was, we made it. I have the satisfaction of knowing that I had my part in doing the impossible for Walt that one time. The word impossible was not in Walt’s vocabulary, and so he expected it of us all as a matter of course.

[Posted October 26, 2007]