A Heil Of A Wacky Hit

By Carl Zebrowski

"Der Fuerher’s Face" wasn’t the cleverest satirical song, but it was one of the more financially successful. And it is funny, in a silly way. Premiering on the radio in the summer of 1942, it became the first hit for Spike Jones and His City Slickers, allowing the zany tunesters to quit their day jobs as serious studio musicians and go on to become one of the biggest musical novelty acts of all time.

The song was conceived in the fertile mind of Walt Disney. While his studio was working on a Donald Duck cartoon making fun of the Nazis, Disney approached songwriter Oliver Wallace to come up with a song fast. “Suppose the Germans are singing it,” Wallace recalled Disney saying. “To them, it’s serious. To us, it’s funny.” Wallace came up with lyrics that featured the recurring line “Ven der Fuehrer says, ‘Vee ist der master race,’ / Vee Heil! Heil! Right in der Fuehrer’s face!” It’s sung with a playfully exaggerated German accent, and every “Heil!” is punctuated by a raspberry (the famed Bronx cheer). Even the dullest listener must have noticed the allusion to breaking wind at Adolf Hitler.

“Der Fuehrer’s Face” introduces and ends the cartoon, which begins with Donald asleep in his bed when he’s rousted to attention by a German marching band passing in the street. He goes outside and follows the musicians to a Nazi munitions factory, where he works on an assembly line, taking harsh orders until he suffers a nervous breakdown. In the end, Donald wakes up to realize it was all just a nightmare and he’s still at home in the land of the free.

A while before the movie’s January 1, 1943, release, the song was published as sheet music, and Jones and his boys recorded it as the B side of their would-be hit “I Wanna Go Back to West Virginia.” It turned out to be “Der Fuehrer’s Face” that everyone from the GI stationed in England to his mom back home in Wichita to the big man sitting in the White House wanted to hear. The record sold 1.5 million copies, and by the time the cartoon came out, its title had been changed from “Donald Duck in Nutzi Land” to “Der Fuerher’s Face” to capitalize on the widespread popularity.

The cartoon won Donald his only Oscar, but then disappeared for decades, seemingly hidden in the cellar by Disney due to its overtly propagandist nature and the potentially touchy fact that Donald plays a Nazi (albeit an unwitting one in a nightmare). The short finally reappeared in 2004 on DVD as part of the limited edition collection Walt Disney Treasures.


Carl Zebrowski is the managing editor of America in WWII magazine. This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.

Illustration: A promotional poster for the Walt Disney short cartoon "Der Fuehrer’s Face."

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