The first two frame grabs show a bombed-out church. The next frames are a right pan, with items in the foreground on overlays to add depth. Toward the end of the pan, we see houses that have been made out of soldiers’ helmets.
Harman and his writer aren’t very subtle. A boys choir sings “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” over and over, but remove practically all the lyrics except the lines about “peace on Earth” (“Silent Night” gets its lyrics butchered as well). And Mel Blanc’s grandpa squirrel keeps croaking “Peace on Earth” over and over and over so that you want to gag him after awhile. Regardless, Harman was proud of this cartoon. The artwork and effects are top-notch.
Daily Variety followed the film from its start through to its Oscar nomination (Disney won for The Ugly Duckling; I can only imagine Harman’s reaction). Here are the clippings:
April 19, 1939
Metro plans to give classical music heavy play next season in animated cartoons. ‘The Blue Danube’ has been selected by Producers Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising as first to reach cameras. Jack Cosgriff and Charles McGirl have completed script to fit Strauss waltz. Harman and Ising also plan production of pro-Americanism, anti-war cartoon under title ‘Peace On Earth.’ Insects will be used as characters to unfold story of how human race was wiped out through international conflict.
October 25, 1939
Eddie Ward scoring 'Bad Little Angel' at Metro, in addition to writing background music for two cartoons, 'The Bear Family' and 'Peace on Earth.'
December 1, 1939
Metro's Hugh Harman has turned out a telling preachment against war in 'Peace On Earth,' one-reel animated cartoon done in Technicolor, and intended for Christmas release. It was given preview last night at Fox-Wilshire.
Done in fable mood, briefie has venerable squirrel paying Xmas eve visit to his two grandchildren, whose question, 'What is a man?' he answers by relating the story of man's own extermination of mankind through war. Deftly handled background music, including vocal chorus, runs through his narration, which is given ironic emphasis by newest European conflict.
Battle scenes are done with drawings, with tag disclosing all animaldom peacefully intermingling as a result of lesson they have gleaned from humans who once inhabited earth.
Harman has highlighted his tints, bringing out hues in unusual sharpness. Opening scene showing snow falling on animal village is exceptional from standpoint of capturing varying hues.
December 6, 1939
December 12, 1939
Metro is submitting its one-reel technicolor cartoon preachment against war, 'Peace on Earth,' to the Nobel Prize Committee of the Academy of Sciences at Stockholm as entry for award for international peace promotion.
January 10, 1940 (New York Herald Tribune)
Consuls of warring European nations are invited to attend a film showing of the animated cartoon “Peace on Earth,” tomorrow night at 8:15 p.m. by Professor Frederic M. Thrasher, of the New York University School of Education, at the auditorium, 41 West Fourth Street. Produced by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film depicts the fallacies of war. It will be shown before Professor Thrasher’s class on the motion picture. The consuls will be invited to comment on propaganda in the films.
January 27, 1940
Cartoons entered for Sunday night showing follow ‘Goofy and Wilber,’ ‘The Beach Picnic,’ ‘The Ugly Duckling,’ ‘The Practical Pig,’ ‘The Pointer,’ all from Walt Disney; ‘Old Glory’ and ‘Detouring America,’ Warners; ‘Peace On Earth’ and ‘The Little Goldfish,’ Metro; ‘Scrambled Eggs,’ ‘A-Hunting We Will Go,’ ‘The Sleeping Princess,’ Universal; ‘Peaceful Neighbors,’ Mintz; ‘The Orphan Duck,’ 20th-Fox; ‘Fresh Vegetable Mystery,’ Paramount.
The Motion Picture Herald offered these reviews from small-town theatres:
● Here is a swell cartoon that should be held off in booking until Christmas week of 1940. It is excellent for the proper time of the year. Save it. Running time, nine minutes. — A. J. Inks, Crystal Theatre, Ligonier, Ind. Small town patronage.There was trade talk by MGM about re-issuing the cartoon every December. We suspect Pearl Harbor got in the way of that idea.
● This one is everything the critics have said. A swell cartoon that you can be proud to show and one you can brag about. — Fred Brown, Plymouth Theatre, Plymouth, Wis. General patronage.
● Fair cartoon in color which lacked comedy. Running time, seven minutes. — E. M. Freiburger, Paramount Theatre, Dewey, Okla. Small town patronage.
● There is no doubt about it. Here is the best cartoon of the year. Don't wait for next Christmas; play it now. The war angle is more dominant than the Christmas angle. Of course, this isn't funny so make your other shorts humorous. Unusually appreciative applause followed this. Running time, nine minutes. — W. Varick Nevins, III, Alfred Co-Op Theatre, Alfred, N. Y. Small college town and rural patronage.
● Above all others get this color cartoon. One grand cartoon. Will help in a big way to round out any program. Running time, nine minutes. — C. W. Hawk, Ada Theatre, Ada, Ohio. Small college town patronage.
● A grand short that everyone should play at this time. — C. L. Niles, Niles Theatre, Anamosa, Iowa. General patronage.
● Was especially liked. Running time, nine minutes. — Warren D. Smith, Lee Roy Theatre, Wallace, Neb. General patronage.
● Excellent.— L. A. Irwin, Palace Theatre, Penacook, N. H. General patronage.
● Very beautifully colored cartoon.— Gladys E. McArdle, Owl Theatre, Lebanon, Kansas. Small town patronage.
● Played this in October . Very appropriate subject in the Fall of the year. After last Xmas very poor. Running time, eight minutes. — A. L. Dove, Bengough Theatre, Bengough, Saskatchewan, Canada. Rural and small town patronage.
What did cartoon studio boss Fred Quimby think of Peace on Earth? Showmen’s Trade Review of December 9, 1939 reported:
Commenting on MGM's departure from the usual in screen cartoons with the production of a semi-dramatic subject for the Christmas season, Fred Quimby, head of the company's short subject distribution said that conditions this year suggested the idea of breaking precedent in connection with a seasonal cartoon subject.We also know what Quimby thought of Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising. Not an awful lot. He told Hedda Hopper in her column of August 4, 1940 that the name their of producing partnership, Harman-Ising, was misleading. Growled Fred C.: “They could never work together and both of them are so high in the clouds they haven’t any idea of what money means.”
Following a screening of the film for the trade press in New York, Quimby said: "We decided on something different and perhaps a little daring this year, because we felt that, with conditions as they are, this Christmas was the logical time to offer in place of the usual light and frothy cartoon a subject dramatically, yet at times whimsically, imparting the full significance of 'Peace On Earth, Good Will To Men'." The cartoon, "Peace On Earth" is reviewed in this issue.
Is it any wonder Quimby was ready to be enticed by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera into allowing them to direct cartoons. Both could stick to a budget and garner Oscar nominations. And about 15 years later, they came up with a cartoon that opened with a pan over a snow-covered bombed-out church, with a choir singing mangled lyrics to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It was called Good Will To Men. Fred Quimby’s name was on it. Hugh Harman’s wasn’t. He deserved better. At least we’re remembering him today.