by Evan R. Ash
The cartoons of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera are firmly etched in the American cultural consciousness. After finding widespread acclaim in the 1930s with Tom and Jerry, the creative team pioneered a more budget-friendly form of animation in the late 1950s and early 1960s that enabled them to drastically increase their studio’s output, developing series like The Flintstones, Huckleberry Hound, and The Yogi Bear Show, among many others. Less remembered, however, are the cartoons the pair did with producer John Sutherland for Harding College and the reactionary National Education Program of George S. Benson, the college’s firebrand president. Though the Hanna and Barbera are only credited with having directed only one of Harding’s cartoons, it is undoubtedly Sutherland’s most famous—1948’s “Make Mine Freedom.”1
The pro-free enterprise films produced at Harding under the auspices of Benson’s National Education Program began with a grant from the Sloan Foundation, whose namesake, Alfred P. Sloan, was the head of General Motors from 1923 to 1946. Sloan provided a grant of around $600,000 to Harding to produce films “that would extol the virtues of the American way of life, emphasizing the salutary effects of capitalism.”2 Indeed, in the beginning of “Make Mine Freedom” and several of the other films Sutherland’s studio created on behalf of Harding, a title card read: “This is one of a series of films produced by the Extension Department of Harding College to create a deeper understanding of what has made America the finest place in the world to live.”
In the process of looking for creators to oversee his desired cartoons, Sloan looked first to Walt Disney, who had, by 1945, firmly displayed his anti-communist credentials.3 Disney referred Sloan to John Sutherland, a former animator who left Disney in 1940, shortly before the strike. A profile of Sutherland notes that “Eric Sutherland, one of John’s sons, felt that, given his father’s strong belief in the free-enterprise system, Sutherland would not have supported the strike.”34
Referred to by NEP historian L. Edward Hicks as “probably [the NEP’s] most effective method for confronting the American public,” the Sutherland cartoons set a high bar for animated propaganda and demonstrated to corporations the value and payoff of underwriting these cartoons. These were no cheap, slapdash stop-motion films—Sutherland set a budget of $80,000 per cartoon, and the smooth animation, lush Technicolor, and skillful voice acting reflect this. Film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer agreed as well and received rights to distribute the Sutherland shorts to five thousand theatres across the country and became, at least according to Benson and company, “the most popular short subjects ever distributed by MGM.” Take that, perhaps, with a grain of salt.
Sutherland first came to Harding in 1946 as a highly-recommended expat from Disney. With the generous funding from Sloan secured, Sutherland hired a team of animators that cartoon magazine Hogan’s Alley described as “a midcentury who’s who” of cartoon artists. From that group of artists, we see William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who would collaborate to direct the project’s first major film.
Sutherland’s team turned out a cartoon project in 1947 titled “The Secret of American Prosperity,” summarized by its copyright entry as “[pointing] out that the freedom enjoyed by our Nation is endangered by conflicts between capital and labor, and among racial and religious groups.”5 Though Benson claimed a distribution to 10,000 theatres, supplemented by Harding alumni showing the film on tour around the country and a favorable Look magazine review that called it “a witty and convincing attack on political ‘isms’,” it generated little fanfare.6
Benson and Sutherland rectified this problem in 1948 by retitling the film “Make Mine Freedom,” editing it from 24 minutes down to nine and a half, and releasing it alongside another short film at the first of Harding College’s Freedom Forums, events sponsored by corporations that, like the Sutherland cartoons, extolled the free-enterprise system. “Make Mine Freedom” became the film that defined the NEP’s approach to Americanism and more discreetly the sly binary through which free-enterprise rhetoric and anticommunism buttressed each other. Journalist George Sokolsky, soon to become a fierce McCarthy supporter, praised the film in his syndicated column “These Days,” noting that the film “explains why the United States is an excellent place in which to live—in fact a better place than those proletarian heavens that are so widely advertised by the speakers of utopias.”7 Sokolsky believed that the film needed to be shown in every American theatre and declared that the film “is propaganda that parents should take their children to see, because our children need to know beyond doubt [sic] that just being an American is a blessing.”8
The power of “Make Mine Freedom” lay in its world-building and embrace of American mythology. Opening with a scrolling display of various almost universally white characters set against the American flag, the narrator proclaims, “America is many things to many people.” It quickly demarcates the various domestic spheres of the time as well: Junior at the malt shop, Grandpa on the front porch, Mother in church with the family, and father at the golf course. Also included in this vision of America are the “cracker-barrel philosophers in Crabtree Corners and the tycoons in Wall Street.”
After presenting the ideals that buttressed the liberal consensus vision of America (made up of all classes, colors, creeds, freedom to work and worship and safety from unlawful search, ad infinitum…), the cartoon presents its main characters: a raucous union member, a capitalist with diamond-speckled ascot, a greying politician that gleefully plays both sides, and a down-to-earth yeoman farmer. Immediately they are at each other’s throats: labor hates business, business hates labor, the untrustworthy politician tries to play both sides, while the farmer insists that all these city dwellers “can’t tell corn from oats.”
Suddenly, while the men bicker, they hear “Step right up, folks! Here’s the answer to your problems!” The scene then cuts to a dashing tan man in a zoot suit, hawking what he calls “Dr. Utopia’s sensational new discovery, ISM!”, which “will cure any ailment of the body politic.” The salesman presents each man with his own bottle of ISM, guaranteeing higher profits, higher salaries, and more job security with the absence of votes and strikes, and even offers the product to the men for free! However—before they receive their tonic, they must sign away their freedoms—literally—to ISM, Incorporated. Not just their freedoms, but their children’s freedom and their children’s children’s freedom!
While the four men clamor to sign the salesman’s paperwork, a quiet, unassuming man wakes up from his nap on a nearby park bench and begs the salesman’s attention. This man is John Q. Public (again, literally)—the genial everyman who asks to read the fine print, declaring “Sign away my freedom! This is ridiculous!” JQP notes that the system of free enterprise is not perfect but begs the men to see what the system has brought before they sign themselves over to “some important doubletalk.”
The film then cuts to a flashback of a man named Joe Doakes and demonstrates that because Doakes was “free to dream his dream and tinker,” his idea (a prototype of a car) came to fruition—at least until he crashed it into a tree. Undaunted, Joe solicits money from his buxom Aunt Minnie (who fishes it out of a thigh garter), Uncle Angus, Grandpappy (who has stacks of cash hidden under his mattress), and a local, Mr. Tybus. “When Joe’s friends and relatives to help him buy tools and property,” John Q. Public (now turned narrator) warmly explains, “they were capitalists.” Immediately, the four contributors turn red and hide their faces in shame. “Don’t blush, folks,” intones John Q. Public, “it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
According to the film’s narrator, capital, management, and labor all worked together to transform Doakes’ business instantly from a small wooden garage to a sprawling, smoking factory with “DOAKESMOBILE” in towering neon letters. With this corporate turn, the film launches into a brief lauding of the automobile industry before imparting on the audience just how fortunate the united states was to have a high standard of living, even during the Depression, and how the United States’ national income far surpassed every other major country’s (never mind that the United States was the only major nation with infrastructure not dramatically affected by World War II).
The film dissolves back to the present with Public wagging his finger at the four pondering men and proclaiming, “This is just a sample of the things the capitalistic system has given us in just the last one-hundred and sixty years.” As an ominous note sounds in the orchestra, Public invites the men to try Dr. Utopia’s formula before they sign their selves away to the company. In the worker’s nightmare, he finds himself shackled to machinery, yelling “You can’t do this to me, I’ll strike!”, to which a large blue hand shackles him with a ball and chain that reads “NO STRIKE LAW” and declares “The state forbids strikes!” The worker responds “Wait’ll the union hears about this!” and the hand promptly stamps him with “STATE UNION MEMBER 1313.” Relegated to a simple number, the worker appears distraught and the scene spins into the office of the businessman.
“I’ll take this case to the Supreme Court!”, yells the tycoon, whose door has been painted over and designated “State Factory #29”. “The state is the Supreme Court!”, yells the disembodied voice of the enormous blue hand, “[and] our decision is as follows: no more private property, no more you!”, before flicking the capitalist icon offscreen. On the farm, as giant hands sweep away the farmer’s hogs and hay, he complains “Eh, the farm vote’ll put a stop to this!” “Farmers don’t vote anymore,” declares the voice, before shackling the farmer with a collar that reads “STATE FARM SLAVE 21930,”, and reassuring him that the state will do his planning from now on.
In a small barbed wire cage (State Concentration Camp #5), the politician clamors that freedom must be fought for, otherwise everything will be lost. Upon hearing this, the blue hand smashes a turntable over his head, and the boisterous politician becomes—literally—a broken record, repeating the words “everything is fine” as State Propaganda Speaker 3120. Disgusted, the men spit out the ISM and begin to turn on the salesman. “When anybody preaches disunity,” exclaims John Q. Public, “tries to pit one of us against the other in class warfare, race hatred, or religious intolerance, you know that person seeks to rob us of our freedom and destroy our very lives…and we know what to do about it!” Taking Public’s cue, the men chase the salesman off into the horizon, throwing his ISM bottles back at him. The film ends with the characters marching with a flag set against the Lincoln Memorial, supplemented by patriotic music. The narrator closes the film, intoning “Working together to produce an ever-greater abundance of material and spiritual values for all. That is the secret of American prosperity.”
Free-enterprise advocates could not have produced a more perfect, more succinct paean to their values. “Make Mine Freedom,” in its short nine and a half minutes, served at once as history lesson, tool to promote unity, pro-business propaganda, and not-so-thinly veiled anti-communist potshot. “Make Mine Freedom” fit into every mode of the free-enterprise mindset, as well as the emerging liberal consensus in America, which the free-enterprise movement underwrote. Above all, it stressed freedom and ingenuity of the individual, while glossing over the collective effort it took Doakes to launch his automobile business.
It also, through its vague gestures to racial unity, both brushed aside racial strife and upheld the greater consensus vision at the same time. The consensus ideology that formed in later years demanded complete praise for American ideals describing a land of freedom and hope, and the appeals to racial unity reflected in “Make Mine Freedom” show the “official” denunciation of racism and prejudice—never mind that the film featured a crude Middle Eastern caricature and portrays the tanned primary antagonist as a smiling snake in a zoot suit--reminiscent of negative stereotypes about Mexicans and African-Americans.
Lastly, the film offered a rhetorical device that spread into anti-communist propaganda of all sorts: a vague antagonistic collectivist vision that very carefully attacked communism without ever uttering its name. Films like “Make Mine Freedom” played an instrumental role in the construction of a sort of willful ignorance by Americans of Soviet politics or policy. They were wont to listen to experts, or in Benson’s case “experts” (his doctorate an honorary LL.D from Harding), forming opinions grounded in a misinformed conception of totalitarianism that prevented any early coexistence with Soviet Russia.
The team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera largely avoided the spotlight during the course of working with Sutherland, due in part to the industry’s tendency to not credit the individual creators and talents of industrial films and cartoons. Their star began to grow ever brighter in the 1950s with their own multitude of creations, but their experience with Sutherland and Harding show us that meeting your heroes can be a shaky business.
Note: “Make Mine Freedom” and the rest of Sutherland’s propaganda films are in the public domain and are available through the Internet Archive, thanks to the Rick Prelinger Film Collection.
2 Tom Heintjes and Mark Arnold, “Animating Ideas: The John Sutherland Story,” Hogan’s Alley: The Magazine of the Cartoon Arts, May 14, 2012.
3 During a crippling strike in May 1941, Disney accused his picketing animators of being communists. Disney also held membership in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a group of high-profile Hollywood conservatives that resented accusations of communist influence in Hollywood. See “Toon Wars” in Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, The Comic Book History of Comics (San Diego: IDW Publishing, 2011) and “The Motion Picture Alliance For The Preservation of American Ideals”, Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers Research Database, 2005.
4 Heintjes and Arnold.
5 Catalogue of Copyright Entries, Library of Congress Copyright Office, 1948 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1948), 32.
6 “Make Mine Freedom: Hollywood Paints a Gay Picture of the Dismal Life in a Police State”, Look magazine, May 11, 1948.
7 George Sokolsky, “These Days,” syndicated column in Pottsville Republican (Pottsville, PA), May 8, 1948.