On December 7, 1941, the USA was unexpectedly plunged into the middle of World War II. There was a lot of panic, confusion and plumb dumb goofs made right from the beginning.
Hollywood to the rescue! The “Office of War Information” was set up to educate and influence the general public using whatever they could get their hands on – newspapers, magazines, radio and even comic books. Under the leadership of Brigadier General Frederick Osborn, movies were picked as the best medium, and the enlisted Service men and women as the best target. These new recruits were fresh and full of spirit, but they came from all walks of society, from field hands who could barely read to Captains of Industry used to command.
Film Director Frank Capra was picked to lead the educational film team. He produced a series of propaganda shorts called, “Why We Fight”. Eric Knight, the writer who created the fabled film dog “Lassie”, added some animated bits to these shorts. Those cartoons got some of the biggest laughs from their audiences, so Capra looked to make a whole new series of cartoons designed to teach raw recruits what to do. Bids were put out to make these, with Walt Disney considered the likeliest winner. However, Disney wanted to keep the rights to any characters created, plus they put in a high bid. Warner Brothers’ animation Producer Leon Schlesinger bid low and won the deal, including keeping the characters in the public domain.
The cartoons would be short and done in black and white, to keep costs down. Schlesinger used his best talent from the “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” staff, with directors Friz Freleng (inspiration for “Yosemito Sam”), Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin and Bob Clampett. The masterful Mel Blanc provided voices. Capra picked Ted Geisel (who would become “Dr. Seuss”) as the chief writer. Over the course of the series, others would add their talents.
Schlesinger decided to educate by counterexample, and came up with an “Everyman” who did it all wrong due to ignorance and laziness. Private Snafu was introduced in the 1943 “Coming!!!” which also explains his name. “SNAFU – Situation Normal, All ….. Fouled Up”. The first set of cartoons covered basic military topics like rumor control (“Rumors”), laziness (“The Goldbrick”), regular equipment maintenance (“Fighting Tools”, “Gas”). Keeping military secrets was another theme, with “Spies” and “Censored”. Munro Leaf, who wrote “The Story of Ferdinand”, also wrote “The Chowhound” about not wasting food (both stories featuring bulls).
Because the Snafu cartoons were only intended for an adult male military audience, there were a lot of subtle jokes and nudity. In “The Home Front”, Ted Geisel put in a joke just to see what the animator would do -“(In Alaska) it was so cold, it would freeze the nuts off a jeep”.
“Booby Traps” literally included … a booby trap!
The Axis villains are drawn very unfavorably. Germans are big, overweight and dumb. The Japanese are tiny with huge glasses and even bigger teeth. The casual racism of that wartime era is jarring today.
The Snafu cartoons succeeded because they entertained while delivering their brief lessons on keeping secrets, cleaning gear or mess hall chores. They weren’t preachy, and Snafu sometimes learned his lessons by the end. As the war progressed and an Allied victory became more and more likely, the Snafu cartoons became a little drier. “A Few Quick Facts: Inflation” and “A Few Quick Facts: Fear” were done by the UPA animation studio with a different but still entertaining style. “Hot Spots” (by Hanna and Barbera, who started “the Flintstones”) shows us how to survive in Iran, with its camel melting heat. “In the Aleutians” looks at the mud, wind and rain of the Alaskan island chain. When the war ended, so did the series – the last one, “Private SNAFU Presents Seaman TARFU” (written by Hank Ketcham, of “Dennis the Menace” fame) was never released.
The Warner studios churned out a new Private Snafu cartoon every month (occasionally with help from a rival studio, like UPA and MGM) through the end of the war. With a total cost of only $300,000, these were some of the cheapest weapons, and certainly among the funniest.
We hope you enjoy these Private Snafu cartoons!