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1940 Fifty Years Ago

April 2023
1min read

On November 4 Americans went to the polls to choose between a third term for Franklin Roosevelt and a first one for Wendell Willkie. Willkie, the upset-nominee of the Republicans, who’d changed parties only the year before, faced a President who four years earlier had beaten Alf Landon by the greatest margin in U.S. history. Yet the margin was only 52 to 48 percent in the final Gallup poll. Willkie crossed the country, charging that Roosevelt had signed “secret agreements” and had left the country’s defense ill prepared. Roosevelt began the campaign by not campaigning, appearing at news briefings instead, and rarely mentioning his opponent by name. In the final six weeks, however, he entered the race in earnest, declaring famously, “I will not pretend that I find this an unpleasant duty. I am an old campaigner, and I love a good fight.”

Willkie appealed across parties, as a Republican and former New Dealer and as an internationalist and civil libertarian. He forced a pledge from Roosevelt that the United States would have no part in the war “unless attacked.”

Roosevelt next took up Willkie’s charges of ill-preparedness in his “Martin, Barton, and Fish” address at Madison Square Garden. These three congressmen represented an isolationist wing of the Republican party that had repeatedly voted down FDR’s defense appropriations. “When I heard the President hang the isolationist votes of Martin, Barton, and Fish on me, and get away with it,” Willkie later admitted, “I knew I was licked.” He was. The election went to Roosevelt, 27,244,160 votes to 22,305,198.

The epic animated feature Fantasia opened in New York City on November 14 and reversed the fortunes of Mickey Mouse. Two years earlier Walt Disney’s trademark character had been surpassed in popularity by two more idiosyncratic cartoon colleagues, Donald Duck and Goofy. Eager to revive Mickey’s career, the animator devised a short feature based on Paul Dukas’s 1897 orchestral work The Sorceror’s Apprentice . Enlisting the aid of the conductor Leopold Stokowski, Disney set out to create an elaborate experimental vehicle for Mickey’s talents.

The idea evolved into a featurelength project entitled Fantasia , encompassing eight pieces of classical music, all conducted by Stokowski and interpreted by Disney’s army of animators. The film, which took two million dollars and two years to make, struck Bosley Crowther of The New York Times as “a creation so thoroughly delightful and exciting in its novelty that one’s senses are captivated by it.” But purists were angered by the film makers’ abbreviations of the composers’ works to fit the pictorial format. “If Beethoven had lived to see the inside of a Nazi concentration camp,” the journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote, “his tormentors might have driven him mad by the performance of Mr. Stokowski and Mr. Disney.”

Fantasia flopped upon its initial release. The highbrow crowd shunned the film, and the mainstream audience seemed scared off by its erudite concept. Subsequent revivals proved more successful, particularly in the late 1960s, when younger people attributed psychedelic properties to the lush combinations of sight and sound.

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