In 1943, the United States military was immersed in World War II. They had to train an army (pun intended) of enlisted men in topics such as security, military protocol, hygiene, and other sensitive subjects. Most of the troops were not well educated, and some couldn't read at all. Pamphlets were not the answer. The army wanted short animated films that would be light, humorous, and instructional. Disney was the natural choice, and given their economic woes (described in the previous article), they should have jumped at the chance to land a government contract. Indeed they did, but they asked for the sun moon and stars. Their bid was high, and they demanded exclusive rights to the character, including follow-on merchandising. Perhaps they thought this would become their cash cow. But Warner Bros Studios underbid them by ⅔, with no additional stipulations, and therefore won the contract. Disney would have to wait for Cinderella to pull them back from the brink of bankruptcy.
The lead character was called Private Snafu, using a military acronym that was already well known: Situation Normal, All Fouled Up. (And no, the F didn't really stand for Fouled.) Private Snafu was not very bright, and he typically made some crucial mistakes in each film. Soldiers were suppose to laugh at his antics, but also learn from his mistakes. The language was simple, and even included mild profanity.
Frank Capra, director of It's A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was, at the time, chairman of the Army Air Force First Motion Picture Unit. Frank developed the character of Private Snafu, while Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote many of the shorts. Chuck Jones, famous for his immortal Looney Tunes Characters, directed the films, and Mel Blanc provided the voice of Private Snafu. Not surprisingly, Private Snafu sounds a lot like Bugs Bunny. In fact, Bugs himself makes cameos in two of the shorts.
Private Snafu was classified Top Secret, intended for U.S. Military personnel only. Animators were fingerprinted and cleared by the FBI. They had to wear identification badges at work at all times. Furthermore, each animator was given only ten cells at a time, so they could not deduce the content of the film.
Really? Is it possible to keep a film secret while showing it to 8 million army recruits? Is it necessary to classify a film about standard military protocol? Of course not, but the government always has, and always will, overclassify, making projects much more expensive than necessary, and draining the limited resources of our security agencies. this is an inevitable consequence of the "Better Safe than Sorry" mindset, I suppose. I have personally seen classified information that was also on the pages of Scientific American.
fortunately, these films have since been declassified, and are in the public domain. If you have a Looney Tunes collection at home, and IN my opinion everyone should, you might want to supplement this with Private snafu. The shorts are both entertaining and informative, providing a window into our past. The hearts and minds of the War Department, and the general public, are reflected in these films. Depictions of Japanese and Germans are stereotypical by today's standards, though not at all unusual for the time. The enemy was not generic, you knew darn well who we were fighting. Here are some notable episodes.
Spies: Snafu leaks sensitive information to the enemy, a little at a time, until they are able to piece together the location of his transport ship and blow him out of the water with a torpedo. Snafu goes to hell, literally, somewhat like Sylvester in Looney Tunes Satan's Waitin. By the way, you don't want the edited version of this hilarious Sylvester Tweety cartoon, with its final scenes cut. I suppose the networks had to edit these cartoons for children's viewing, but much is lost. There is a world of difference between the edited and unedited versions of Hillbilly Hare. The former falls flat once you have seen the latter. Well no worries about edited versions of Private Snafu, as these were never sanitized for a young audience. In fact, six Snafu shorts, including Spies, lead to his death due to his glaring incompetence. The cartoons were funny, but they had a serious side. There were lessons to be learned.
Booby Traps: Snafu does not learn to watch for and recognize booby traps set by the enemy, and so he is blown up by a bomb hidden in a piano.
The Goldbrick: if you don't do your share, you could be run over by an enemy tank.
A Lecture on Camouflage: Snafu is smoking in the woods, when a tree, speaking in a German accent, asks him for a light. He does not recognize the enemy in Camouflage, and after running around the woods in confusion, he is killed by a falling bomb.
Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike: Disregarding orders, Snafu does not take his malaria medications or use his repellant properly, and a mosquito bites him in the behind. Although malaria is slow in its incubation and development, Snafu dies of his affliction by the end of this 5 minute film.
Going Home: This short exposes the dangers of casual conversations while a soldier is home or on leave. In the film, Snafu tells his girlfriend about a new "secret weapon", which is under development. With hindsight, the weapon is eerily similar to the atomic bomb, which was nearing completion in 1944, and would change, dramatically, the course of the war in the Pacific. But the Manhattan Project was highly classified, and was entirely unknown to the filmmakers. The connection that we see so clearly today was unintentional. They viewed it as just another topic for discussion, just another lesson to be learned courtesy of Private Snafu.
Gas and Three Brothers: cameo by Bugs Bunny.
Three Brothers: This film introduces us to Snafu's two brothers, Tarfu (things are really fouled up) and Fubar (fouled up beyond all recognition). Again, F does not really stand for fouled. Apparently Snafu's mental disorder runs in the family, though we don't know if it's genetic or environmental. :)
Some of the Snafu shorts are included in Warner Home Videos Looney Tunes Golden Collection as bonus material. If you want them all, you can order Private Snafu, Golden Classics from Thunderbean Animation.