About Christmas TV History

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Peace on Earth (1939) Christmas cartoon

In case you don't know, cartoons like this were originally made to run in movie theaters before feature films. Audiences usually saw a couple cartoons, a newsreel, maybe other shorts, and trailers before the movie. Those were the days, eh?

I thought October would be a fun time to look back at the 1939 cartoon Peace on Earth. It was Oscar nominated for “Best Short Subject” that year. While this yuletide classic is not typically considered a horror story, it does contain frightening imagery with the intention to shock viewers--an experience that stands out against most other Christmas entertainment. Even if you've become accustomed to Dickens' ghost story, a post-apocalyptic story about the extinction of mankind isn't what we expect from a Christmas cartoon. If you haven't seen it in a while, let me remind you of the details.

The imagery from the start is bleak and frightening.

The 1939 MGM animated short was originally filmed in Technicolor, and directed by the legendary Hugh Harman. The story begins with snow falling on a bombed-out church with splintered stained glass windows, abandoned artillery, and a community in ruins after war. Viewers hear the carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," however the lyrics have been changed to highlight a repetition of the phrase "Peace on Earth." Eventually we see a warm, little community of houses made from military helmets, spent mortar shells, and cannon barrels. Within that community, chipmunk carolers are seen as the ones singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." An elder squirrel walks by the carolers, offering them a friendly holiday greeting before entering his home.

Grandpa squirrel offers the young ones a scary bed time story about humans.

Once inside, the elder squirrel is welcomed home by his wife and grandchildren. He offers to them the same festive greeting "Peace on Earth. Good Will to Men!" His grandchildren ask him "What are men?" and the elder squirrel decides to share a scary bedtime story to amuse them.

Confirmed: gas masks and bayonet rifles are horrifying!

The squirrel's story begins with a description of men as monstrous creatures that were always fighting about their significant and trivial differences. The description is accompanied by frightening images of a soldier wearing a gas mask and carrying a bayonet rifle, a line of tanks roaring through a bombed-out city, and a sky lit up by exploding bombs.

The last man's desperate grasp sinks into the mud as he dies in battle. This is some scary stuff!

The grandfather's story continues, explaining that humans continued to wage war until they made themselves extinct. The nightmarish point is made by showing how the last two humans killed each other, and their bodies sink into the mud. With mankind gone, the animals emerge from the forests and begin to investigate what's left behind.

The animals stumble across the human's own ignored instruction "Thous Shalt Not Kill." Ouch!

The elder squirrel explains that he was quite young then, but he joined a group of animals in a war-ravaged church. An owl reads from a "book of rules" left behind by the humans which includes the 10 Commandments and the Old Testament verse "Ye Shall Rebuild the Old Wastes." Learning from the humans' mistake, the birds, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits begin to rebuild their homes and community in peace and cooperation from what's left behind.

A sign identifies the new city as Peaceville.

The new community "rebuilt from the old wastes" recycles the obsolete helmets, mortar shells, and artillery into habitat for the forest survivors. As we hear the carol "Silent Night" over the soundtrack, viewers recognize that Peaceville is the same village where the elder squirrel and his grandchildren now live. With his grandchildren fast asleep, he tucks them into bed on the peaceful Christmas evening. The cartoon’s clear anti-war message is deliberately created to overlap with the Christmas sentiments of peace, goodwill, and respect for God’s rules, such as the Ten Commandments.

The lyric "Sleep in Heavenly Peace" from Silent Night completes the cartoon's message.

While the cautionary tale remains as relevant as ever, the powerful imagery of the modern soldiers and warfare in 1939 certainly points to the immanent conflicts in Europe at the time, namely the incursions of Nazi Germany. Moving against the warnings made in this short film, less than two years later, the United States joined in the fighting in what was to become World War II.

The cartoon was re-made in 1955 as Good Will to Men by Joseph Hanna and William Barbera. More on that, coming soon. [To see my review of the 1955 re-make Good Will to Men, click HERE ].

Watch the 1939 cartoon for yourself at this link: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/xuiut

Do you have a favorite scary Christmas tale? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com


  1. I've seen that cartoon before - it's a very disturbing story, and yet at the same time I think it's quite an appropriate reminder of the message behind the season. Far be it from me to throw out bon mots to a Christmas expert, but I think it's a very perceptive choice. I wish someone would do a version of "A Christmas Carol" with the same dark moodiness (darker even than the Sim version), all the better to make Scrooge's epiphany greater.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mitchell. I think it's very disturbing too. I first saw it years ago airing on the Cartoon Network running alongside other Christmas cartoons--it was quite shocking! It never ceases to jolt me no matter how many times I watch it. And, yes--to your 2nd comment about "A Christmas Carol." The best adaptations of that story seem to capture the highs and lows of Dickens' tale in just the right light to capture our hearts. You have seen the 1964 movie "Carol for Another Christmas" right? Written by Rod Serling, it is an adaptation of Dickens with post-apocalyptic consequences. Look for it airing on Turner Classic Movies during the holiday season--it's worth seeking out!

  2. Staggeringly still relevant, unfortunately. It's a beautifully animated short with a scary message.