Dec. 17 – Peace on Earth (1939)

Original release date December 9, 1939.

Hugh Harman was one of the early stars in the field of animation. In fact, we talked about one of his shorts already this year, but perhaps his most famous and most celebrated is the 1939 anti-war film Peace on Earth. According to Harman, the short subject was nominated for The Nobel Peace Prize, but no such record exists of that officially happening. Perhaps it was merely in the conversation and Harman was mistaken or the record of its nomination was simply lost to time. Either way, it’s often a distinction tacked on to any conversation about the short, but in truth, it doesn’t need such accolades to justify its relevance as the short carries a very simple, relatable, and irrefutable message.

The cartoon centers around the lyric and Bible verse “Peace on Earth / Good will to men,” or as stated by Luke “on Earth, peace, good will toward men.” It came during a time when the world was moving towards another global conflict that would eventually be labeled World War II with many people alive still able to remember the first World War. It’s understandable why there would be a lot of uneasiness at that time, and Harman seemed to think that Christmas would be the appropriate backdrop for this anti-war piece. It was released by MGM in December of 1939 and would receive an Academy Award nomination, though it lost to Disney’s The Ugly Duckling. It’s certainly a bit heavy-handed, so maybe that explains why it wasn’t embraced more in the moment, but it came to be relegated as one of the best short subjects that takes place during Christmas. In my youth, Cartoon Network could be guaranteed to show it every Christmas Eve, usually late at night and possibly right around midnight, and that’s where I saw it most. Laying in my bed, unable to sleep due to the excitement to follow the next day, watching as many Christmas cartoons as I could find on television.

Not many Christmas cartoons begin with a look at a church in ruin.

The short opens with an animated title card. “Peace on Earth” is in an elegant font while shadowy men run by and a church appears to burn in the background. The camera pans across weapons of war all covered with snow and the ruins of an old church, possibly the burned out one from before. A choir can be heard singing an original composition, sort of. It’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” but the words have been adjusted to really emphasize the “peace on Earth” portion of the song. At least I think it’s original as the old audio and the fact that it’s sung by a choir can make it hard to decipher the lyrics. There are other songs out there called “Peace on Earth” that may or may not be the same or similar. Either way, it sounds lovely enough.

Sing it, boys! That’s the good stuff!

It’s a snowy, nighttime, setting and an old, gray, squirrel (Mel Blanc) is walking through town. The song is originating from a trio of carolers that appear to be red squirrels or chipmunks. They’re anthropomorphized and wearing clothes while the buildings appear to be made out of human items so they’re not giant animals like Mickey Mouse or even Bugs Bunny. The old squirrel walks with a cane, but he’s got a big smile on his face as he sings along really emphasizing the whole “Peace on Earth, good will to men,” part. He encourages the carolers in their singing and when he reaches a small house with a wreath on the door he pauses to remark how it’s a wonderful world! He sure is in high spirits.

I want to call this a cozy, Christmas, setting, but there’s really nothing Christmassy in the shot.

In a small house, a mother squirrel knits while two smaller squirrels sleep in a cradle. One is in blue pajamas and the other pink so I’m guessing they’re brother and sister assuming animals abide by the gender norms of the era. The old squirrel bursts in singing his song and the two little ones wake up instantly shouting “Grandpa!” It would appear grandpa here mated with a red squirrel at some point if the mother is his daughter. We don’t know, as she will only have one line. I have to give her credit for not getting ticked off with the old guy for waking the children.

Uh oh, it’s grandpa and he’s ready to party!

The kids and their grandfather exchange “Merry Christmas,” and all that. There’s apparently no material component to animal Christmas as the grandfather has not come baring gifts or anything, they’re just happy to see him as they jump into his arms. He waddles over to an arm chair the mother vacated for him, but she failed to remove her ball of yarn and crocheting tools and the poor guy sits on them. He pops up immediately and for a moment appears ready to lose his cool, but he just tosses the yarn aside and sits down. That little gag is basically the only physical comedy we’re going to get in this one.

Settle in kids, it’s time to talk about the apocalypse.

The whole time the grandpa squirrel has been walking around he’s been continuing the song and also just muttering to himself the “good will to men,” line. One of the children then asks their grandfather what the line means. It would seem there are no more men so the kids have no reference point for them. Well, this just means we’re going to have to have a bit of story time as old grampy squirrel tells the kids about who man was and why he’s no longer around.

It’s easy to see why they’d fear us.

How does a squirrel describe men to those who never saw them? Well, as monsters! He rises from the chair to demonstrate and all we see are the shadows of the characters on the wall, but they soon fade and are replaced with images of men. He describes them as great, big, monsters with iron pots on their heads that walked on two legs that carried terrible looking shooting irons. The image we see is of a soldier wearing a helmet and gas mask carrying a rifle. The uniform is brown and likely deliberately nondescript so as not to put the blame on what’s to follow on any one group of people, but all people.

A banner Bugs Bunny would support.

The grandfather continues to describe the man we’re looking at and mistakes the hose on the gas mask for man’s nose. As he describes them, we cut back to the little home and the two kid squirrels are a little scared. One of them expresses relief that all of them are gone and the other agrees. The grandfather then goes on to say he couldn’t figure them out and describes them as always fighting. When one argument was settled, another came up. This whole time we’re watching tanks and artillery getting moved into position and the grandfather describes the escalating hostility as so silly that vegetarians began waging war against meat eaters. We see that displayed via banners of war, another rare instance of legitimate humor in this one.

Now he’s getting into it!

He then goes on to say that one day they got into a terrible fight. Now we’re seeing those weapons of war being used, and the burning church from the intro is back as men run past it. Artillery weapons are firing, planes are dropping bombs, and soldiers are banging away. The grandfather is shown acting things out by swinging his hat and cane around in the living room and banging on a pot. He describes hearing a whistling sound, which we then cut back to the scenes of war and recognize them as bombs. The music has been steadily rising in intensity as well. There’s explosions, soldiers firing machine guns, troops running around and that same background of the flaming church shows up again. The sequence ends with soldiers at a stationary machine gun and fades to show the grandpa mimicking them using his cane as the gun and rattling it over some logs. He’s wearing the pot on his head.

The death of the last man.

The children then ask what happened next and the grandfather confirms it was terrible. Just two men were left. We see one soldier aiming from inside a trench and another waist deep in a swamp. A gun shot rings out and the soldier recoils, but before he falls he’s able to squeeze off a round of his own presumably hitting the other. The swampy soldier then sinks to his demise.

The world belongs to them now.

Among the tattered trees and desolation, the woodland critters poke their heads out. As they begin to explore the now man-less world, a mournful instrumental of the main theme plays. They soon flock to a blown out church and a younger version of the grandfather squirrel approaches a wise owl looking over a book. It’s a version of the Bible, likely the old testament, and when the squirrel asks what it says he reads aloud the commandment before him, “Thou shalt not kill.” He then flips through the pages and remarks that it seems like a collection of mighty good rules, but man chose to ignore them. He comes to rest on a page that reads, “Ye shall rebuild the old wastes.”

All right, we get it!

Upon hearing that, the other animals (which are basically all small mammals and a few birds) declare that’s what they’ll do. They’ll rebuild! They start picking up the wreckage left behind, mostly old helmets from fallen soldiers, and start building around them. The music picks up and the scene shifts to a brightly lit setting. The animals are now wearing clothes and utilizing tools to build their new society from the ashes of war. If you didn’t get the message of this short, the name of the town will drive that point home for you: Peaceville.

They fell asleep once they got past all of the killing.

The camera pans over the animals building and it transitions to a shot of the town in the present day. The choir comes back in singing “Peace on Earth” and the camera pans across the town until it comes to rest on the little house where the story is being told from. The carolers then shift to “Silent Night” and the grandpa is shown sitting in the armchair with his grandkids in his arms fast asleep. He’s finishing his story, but before he can actually finish the line “Good will to men,” the mother “shushes” him. He smiles and puts the kids back in the cradle then he hobbles his way towards the door grabbing his hat along the way and reciting over and over to himself “Peace on earth.” He leaves, though without his cane, and the camera pans back over to the mother squirrel who finally gets a line, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” The image fades to one of clouds with the words “Peace on Earth” in the center of the screen. It fades out and we see the clouds with beams of light passing through them.

The mother finally gets to do something just before the thing ends.

That’s how Peace on Earth concludes its message. It’s a nakedly obvious message, but one that really can’t be refuted. The Harman directed short is able to sidestep most politics of the day by not depicting any one army and puts the failure of war squarely on all of mankind. The mood is sort of hopeful as we see the animals come together to build their own society, but at the same time it feels pessimistic since, you know, all of mankind had to die in order for peace to be achieved. It gives the short a time capsule feel as this was likely the mood of many a person as the world was on the verge of all-out war once again. The short also offers a solution in the form of the Bible, or church, which feels a bit dated now since it seems all of the worst people are backed by evangelicals in the United States, at least. The messages are still there, but few seem interested in following the basic tenants.

There certainly are some cutesy looking animals in this one.

It’s a nice sentiment that’s baked into this one, but it’s also pretty on-the-nose. It feels like “Oscar bait,” but at least that’s reflected in the budget. The animation on this one is Disney level. I am having a hard time thinking of many non-Disney shorts that look this good. Maybe some of the early Tom and Jerry stuff or the Chuck Jones early works that were deliberately trying to imitate Disney. The characters all have that round, soft, look to them which makes them pleasant to look at while the men are done in a realistic style. Some of their movements may be rotoscoped, but it’s hard to know for certain. The backgrounds are highly detailed, though they are a bit few. Especially in the scenes of war as many are recycled and they got a lot of a mileage out of that burning church background. I suppose it’s fine though since they look good and there are only so many ways to portray a darkened, war-torn, setting in an 8 minute short. The quality of the score also matches the production quality of the images as it’s very cinematic and often intense.

The short gets a lot of mileage out of this background, but at least it’s a good one.

I don’t know if Peace on Earth is worthy of being considered for a Nobel Peace Prize, but it is a good cartoon. It does straddle the line as far as taste goes so I can see it being too much for some who might respond in a cynical fashion. And I can also see plenty of folks finding it profound. For me, my response is more in the middle. It’s a sweet little cartoon and I enjoy the visuals, but it could use some subtlety as well. As a kid, there was a shocking element to the short for me the first time I saw it when it just tosses out that mankind is gone. As an adult, it’s less shocking and on my darker days almost seems likely. As a Christmas cartoon, I think it appeals more to the devout since the religious aspect of the holiday is pretty front and center without actually mentioning Jesus. The modern trappings of Christmas aren’t present, and that’s fine. We don’t need Santa in everything.

That’s the goal. It sure would be nice to live to see it.

If you want to check out Peace on Earth, MeTV will probably air it either on the show Toon in With Me or as part of its Tom and Jerry Saturday morning block. Considering today is a Saturday, it might air this morning or next Saturday. If you can’t catch an airing of it though, it has been preserved on the Internet Archive and can be streamed there as well as in other places. It’s not hard to find and these 8 minute shorts don’t even need to be as good as Peace on Earth to make them worth watching at this time of year.

Can’t wait until tomorrow for more Christmas? Check out what we had to say on this day last year and beyond:

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