This week marked an unusual legal victory for Donald Duck and The Walt Disney Company, as the highest court in the Russian region of Kamchatka overruled a 2010 decision that placed a 1942 Donald Duck short on the country’s list of extremist material.
The 2010 case accused a local resident of “inciting hatred and enmity” for uploading “extremist” material—including the Disney short—to the internet; the resident received a six-month suspended sentence, and the short was added to the Russian Ministry of Justice’s Federal List of Extremist Materials, effectively making it illegal to produce, store, or distribute in Russia. The list, which was established in 2002 and contains over 3,700 items, frequently targets religious material, anything critical of the Russian government, and Nazi propaganda. Apparently, the 2010 court ruling placed Donald Duck the latter category.
The short film, titled “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” depicts Donald Duck trapped within the Nazi war machine, forced to work in a munitions factory assembling artillery shells (don’t worry—the short’s ending reveals Donald’s time in Nazi Germany was just a nightmare). The film is a relic of Disney’s time as an enthusiastic member of the American propaganda effort during World War II—an effort supported by some of the greatest creative minds of the era, including classic directors Frank Capra, John Ford, and John Huston.
Despite winning the 1943 Academy Award for best animated short, director Jack Kinney expressed ambivalence towards the film in a 1973 interview, saying, “I never thought it was a good picture. It won the Academy [Award], but it was just another picture. Except the tune; I think the tune was great.”
The tune Kinney’s referring to is the short’s title track, recorded by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. The song, which was released as a standalone single, was a major radio hit according to Time magazine. In “Dispatch for Disney,” a WWII pamphlet produced by the studio for employees serving in the military, composer Oliver Wendell explained how the song came to be:
The time was 3:00 P.M., and I was feeling low. I had been a naughty boy the night before.
That had to be the moment when Walt encountered me in the hall and gave me a rush order: “Ollie, I want a serious song, but it’s got to be funny.”
The further information that it was to be for a picture telling Donald Duck’s adventures in Nazi land didn’t help very much.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Suppose the Germans are singing it,” Walt offered. “To them, it’s serious. To us, it’s funny.”
This satirical approach seems to be what confounded the Russian court. But after discovering the short had been added to the extremist materials list, RT explains, the case’s prosecutors “filed a cassation [sic] with the regional court explaining that the video is a classic Walt Disney cartoon made within the framework of an anti-Nazi propaganda campaign.” The prosecutors further explained that rather than being a call to Nazism, the film was using satire to mock the ideology.
The court agreed with this interpretation, and ruled that “Der Fuehrer’s Face” should be removed from the list. A victory for fans of Donald Duck (and satire) everywhere.