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Saturday Matinee

Disney Cartoon #7: Seven Wise Dwarfs" (December 12, 1941)

by Albert Gutierrez


The number 7 seems to follow me wherever I go.  I was born on June 7th.  I was the seventh student in my first grade class when we were lined up alphabetically.  Our family van could seat seven people. Then we look at the 1950s, my favorite movie decade, which is also the 7th decade of filmmaking.  It had seven notable movies with the number seven: "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (1954), "Seven Samurai" (1954), "The Seven Little Foys" (1955), "The Seven Year Itch" (1955), "Seven Men from Now" (1956), "The Seventh Seal" (1957), and "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958).  Where exactly is this all leading up to?  Why, the seventh cartoon here at Saturday Matinee!  It's time for everyone's favorite heptad, the Seven Dwarfs!  And wouldn't you know it, Dopey is my favorite dwarf, and he's generally the 7th in line as well!

"Seven Wise Dwarfs" is a rarely-seen short that is better suited today as a historical curio rather than genuine entertainment.  Made in 1941, it took the "Heigh-Ho" scene from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and re-themed it to sell war bonds to theatre goers in Canada.  Like the other five buy-war-bonds shorts that the studio made, the short re-used familiar animation and popular characters in order to get its message across.  While the Dwarfs still are mining diamonds, rather than throw bags of the gems into a non-descript vault, they instead carry them into Ottawa, where they decide to invest them in Canadian War Savings Certificates.  The first six dwarfs take them to the post office, but Dopey, always one to be different, takes them to the bank.  Not that it matters where they were purchased, the dwarfs are instead happily singing about buying them at "five for four".  That meant that purchasing a bond in 1941 for $4 would yield you $5 in 1948, a nice return on your seven-year investment.

The short is remarkable to watch only as a study in both the concept of re-using animation and how cartoons have been used as propaganda during the war.  In the case of the former, it's rather astonishing to see how a difference of four years make for the animators.  The re-drawn animation here looks a bit more crude, and what little that is original (aside from the minute-long montage at the end) is very off-model.  Granted, the original animation was done with time and precision, even if a deadline was looming over their heads.  Here, we get something done quick and on-the-fly in order to send a message.  It's not meant to look feature-film quality, just adequate enough to be recognizable.

Then comes the case of using cartoons as propaganda.  World War II really serves as the first war to be covered in multiple forms of media.  This was the time period that saw all three major forms of media converging together: printed newspapers, on-the-air radio broadcasts, and theatrical film presentations.  Newspapers were easy access to most everyone, radio broadcasts were up-to-the-minute with news reports, and the escapist nature of films were preceded and followed by informative newsreels.  For Disney, still a small company in the early 1940s, they made their contribution to the war effort with both drafted animators and propaganda shorts.  The U.S. Army took over the animation studios, contracting them to make educational and instructional shorts (just look up "Four Methods of Flush Riveting" on Youtube).  And even some of our favorite characters helped in the war effort, as a series of shorts featured Donald Duck's misadventures in the army, while plenty of war-themed shorts also emerged from the era.

But the focus of this article is "Seven Wise Dwarfs".  Although there's little to the short itself, it's interesting to see how the studio continued to keep the characters in the public eye.  This is during a time when Disney Studios was not a major player in Hollywood as it is today, they had only a small base of characters to work with.  Compare that to today, in which Disney has produced so many characters and so many films that certain periods of time in the studio's history gets overlooked.  The World War II era and its follow-up generally gets relegated as the gestation period between "Bambi" and "Cinderella", which it was, but also had a series of creative highs and innovation.  The propaganda shorts may not be the most artistically-made by Disney, but its purpose and intent is a first for the company.

There's a great DVD set devoted entirely to the war years, "Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines."  It features a collection of Disney's entertainment and propaganda shorts, along with samples of their educational shorts and the 1941 film "Victory Through Air Power".  Unfortunately, the set is long out of print, but a few of the cartoons have lapsed into the public domain.  Thus, you can look up something like "The Spirit of '43" (in which Donald must decide to save for taxes, or spend for the Axis) without worrying about the police knocking on your door.  "Seven Wise Dwarfs" is also on Youtube, and is worth watching as the curio that it is.


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