For those in the United States, it’s tax season…everyone’s favorite time of the year, right? Well, once upon a time, a little angry duck helped everyone pay their taxes a lot quicker.
On December 12th, 1941 Walt Disney received a call from the United States government. Walt had already lent his studio’s services for the war effort to Canada, by creating training and propaganda films, but now he was going to start work for the United States. On the other end of the line was US Treasury Department official John L. Sullivan, who was calling on behalf of Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury Department, and requested Walt to fly to Washington DC that night. Walt, a family man, made mention of his daughter’s birthday, and that he didn’t want to miss another birthday, noting he had missed two previously. Sullivan just said “This is very important” and Walt hopped on a plane.
In DC, Walt met with Morgenthau, who said to Walt “We want you to help us sell people on paying income tax.”
Walt was perplexed by this request, “Wait a minute. You’re the Treasury speaking. You’re the United States government. Sell people on paying taxes?” he asked, “If they don’t pay ’em, you put ’em in jail.”
“That’s my trouble,” Guy T. Helvreing, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue lamented. The United States had recently introduced the Revenue Act of 1942, which lowered the personal income exemption from $1,500 to $1,200, and in doing so added fifteen million new taxpayers. “I can’t prosecute fifteen million people,” Helvering explained, “We’ve got to make them understand what taxes are and the part the taxes play in winning the war.”
Earlier, Walt had helped Canada in creating shorts to help sell War Bonds, and that is what Walt thought this meeting was going to be about, “I came back here all prepared to help you sell bonds” Walt said.
“That’s the point,” Helvering said, “People think when they buy a bond, that’s going to pay for the war. But how are we going to pay off the bonds? By taxes. We don’t want to prosecute those people. We want them to pay their taxes and be excited about paying their taxes as a patriotic thing.”
Before leaving DC, Walt called his story men, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer with a rough idea and had them get to work immediately.
The due date was February 15th, a tall order, meaning the short had to be completed and given the Technicolor treatment in less than six weeks, when normally a short would take four to six months. This sort of speed had never before been attempted by the studio, and artists worked eighteen hour days, and even slept in cots in the Animation Building. When the storyboards were done, Walt, Grant, and Huemer took them to Washington to present on January 4th.
After Walt’s presentation, a Treasury aide said “Well, I, uh – I always visualized that you would create a little character who would be called Mr. Taxpayer.”
Morgaenthau’s secretary bluntly responded with “I don’t like Donald Duck.”
Walt wasn’t happy. Not only had his artists been working at an impossible pace, but he was giving them one of his star characters in order to help the war effort, and he let them know it. “I’ve given you Donald Duck. At our studio, that’s the equivalent of giving you Clark Gable out of the MGM sable. Donald Duck is known by the American public. He’ll open doors to the theaters. They won’t be running a cartoon of Mr. Taxpayer; they’ll be running a Donald Duck cartoon. By giving you this, I’ll be losing money. Every theater that plays this short will knock off a Donald Duck cartoon that would have been booked. I did it because I want this thing to be successful. I felt it was the only way to tell the story: by using a character they know and putting him in a situation that they themselves would be in. If you don’t like this, I’ll have to throw away half the picture, because it’s already in work.”
Walt won out in the end, and the Treasury ordered 1,100 prints of the short, which was called The New Spirit.
The short was released to a reeling America in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and opened with Donald Duck listening to his radio, which asks if listeners wanted to do their part to fight the war, and Donald begs his radio to tell him what he could do, only to be crushed at the notion that it is his income taxes. But the radio announcer boosts Donald’s patriotism by reminding him the US is at war and that the government needs “taxes for guns, taxes for ships, taxes for Democracy – taxes to beat the Axis!”
With a fresh wave of patriotism, Donald runs off screen and returns with everything he thinks he’ll need to complete the headache inducing tax work, including a stack of books (two of which are law books), a globe, his piggy bank, a compass, two adding machines, and a bottle of aspirin.
But, the government has made it easier this time, with a new simplified tax form for those making under $3,000. Donald relays his address, occupation as “actor”, which his anthropomorphic pen laughs at and adds a question mark too, and his dependents, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, although spelt “Louey” here.
Donald calculates his taxes using a chart and it turns out he owes $13.00, which his pen promptly writes a check out for him.
Walt knew he wanted Donald to owe $13.00, but also wanted to make sure this moment in the film was accurate, and Walt asked his brother Roy to talk to a tax specialist to see just how much Donald had to make to owe $13.00. The response from the expert was hilarious in the seriousness of it, saying “It is understood that Donald Duck is unmarried but maintains a home in which he supports three adopted nephews under 18 years of age, for whose maintenance he has a legal and moral obligation” and continues to describe the types of tax credits he would receive.
After writing out his check, Donald’s radio encourages him to mail his taxes right away, Donald rushes past the mail box and runs clear across the country to deliver it in person.
The remainder of the film is a more typical propaganda piece, but to hammer home the importance of taxes, informing the viewer that taxes are being used for various instruments of war, such as guns, planes, and ships, all with imagery of the Axis being destroyed.
Near the end, the Nazis appear as a massive war machine destroying democracy, that the Allies must take down, all with the help of taxes.
The film then ends with various tanks, guns, and planes moving across a sky that appears like the American flag.
Just as Walt predicted, most of the theaters that received The New Spirit, at no cost, canceled orders for a regular Donald Duck cartoon. It is estimated that The New Spirit reached between 30 to 60 million people and a Gallup poll indicated that the short “affected 37 percent of taxpayers on their willingness to pay.” Viewers were also asked their opinion of the piece, which included comments like “terrific” and an “inspiration.” One person admitted it made them cry.
The Walt Disney Studio went on to make many more propaganda shorts during the war, including the Oscar winning short Der Fuehrer’s Face, which also featured Donald Duck. In addition to the propaganda shorts, entertainment shorts that included military content were created, including Private Pluto which first introduced audiences to the rascally chipmunks that would be developed into Chip and Dale.
You can watch the cartoon below, it is also available as part of the Walt Disney On the Front Lines box set that was part of the Walt Disney Treasures series, and includes more of the war shorts. Sadly the DVD is out of print, but is available for purchase on Ebay and Amazon.
Baxter, John. Disney During World War II: How the Walt Disney Studio Contributed to Victory in the War. New York, Los Angeles: Disney Editions, 2014.
Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Hyperion, 1976.
Images screencapped by myself. Images are property of the Walt Disney Company, and used for education purposes.