Deep Roots Theater

Remembering Private Snafu

A true historical obscurity now, except possibly for WWII veterans, Private Snafu is the title character of a series of black-and-white American instructional adult cartoon shorts, ironic and humorous in tone, produced between 1943 and 1945 during World War II. Although comic in nature, these animated shorts were designed to instruct service personnel about security, proper sanitation habits, booby traps and other military subjects, with improving troop morale being an equal goal. Primarily, these cartoons demonstrate the negative consequences of doing things wrong. The main character’s name is a play on the military slang acronym SNAFU, “Situation Normal: All Fouled Up.” with the opening narrator in the first cartoon merely hinting at its usual meaning as “Situation Normal, All …”

These were not amateur-hour productions; rather, the Snafu shorts are notable for being produced during the Golden Age of Warner Bros. animation. Directors such as Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin worked on them; Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, Philip D. Eastman and Munro Leaf were on the writing and storyboard artist team; and voice characterizations were provided by Mel Blanc (surprise! Private Snafu’s voice was similar to Blanc’s Bugs Bunny characterization).

Private Snafu in ‘Booby Traps,’ January 10, 1944, directed by Bob Clampett. This is believed to include the first use in film of the Thomas Moore’s 1808 song, ‘Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms,’ which would later appear in 1951’s ‘Ballot Box Bunny,’ 1957’s ‘Show Biz Bugs,’ 1965’s ‘Rushing Roulette’ with the Road Runner, in a 1965 Andy Griffith episode (‘Rafe Hollister Sings’), even on South Park, in the 2010 episode ‘Crippled Summer.’

The character was created by director Frank Capra, chairman of the U.S. Army Air Force First Motion Picture Unit. Although the United States Army gave Walt Disney the first crack at creating the cartoons, Leon Schlesinger of the Warner Bros. animation studio underbid Disney by two-thirds and won the contract. Disney had also demanded exclusive ownership of the character, and merchandising rights. The cartoons thus represented a multi-talent collaboration by some of America’s best in their respective fields; a common occurrence in the war effort.

The goal was to help enlisted men with weak literacy skills learn through animated cartoons (and also supplementary comic books). The content simple language, racy illustrations, mild profanity and subtle moralizing. Private Snafu did (almost) everything wrong, so that his negative example taught basic lessons about secrecy, disease prevention and proper military protocols.

Private Snafu in ‘Fighting Tools,’ October 18, 1943, directed by Bob Clampett and featuring a cameo by Daffy Duck playing Father Duck. Note the headline in the lower right corner of the newspaper seen briefly at the 12-second mark: ‘Hitler Commits Suicide.’ Prescient it was–18 months later, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker along with his companion, Eva Braun.

Private Snafu cartoons were a military secret–for the armed forces only. Surveys to ascertain the soldiers’ film favorites showed that the Snafu cartoons usually rated highest or second highest. Each cartoon was produced in six weeks. The shorts were classified government documents. Martha Sigall, employed at the ink and paint department, recalled the government security measures imposed on the staff working on them. They had to be fingerprinted and given FBI security clearances. They also had to wear identification badges at work. Workers at the ink and paint department were given only ten cels at a time in an effort to prevent them from figuring out the story content.

‘Gas,’ starring Private Snafu, directed by Chuck Jones, May 24, 1944. Features a cameo by Bugs Bunny at the 1:04 mark, when Snafu pulls the wascally wabbit out of his gas mask bag and is greeted by ‘Eh, what’s up, doc?’

The shorts did not have to be submitted for approval at the Production Code Administration and so were not subject to the Motion Picture Production Code. Most of the Private Snafu shorts are educational, and although the War Department had to approve the storyboards, the Warner directors were allowed great latitude in order to keep the cartoons entertaining. Through his irresponsible behavior, Snafu demonstrates to soldiers what not to do while at war. In “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike,” for example, Snafu neglects to take his malaria medications or to use his repellent, allowing a suave mosquito to get him in the end-literally. In “Spies,” Snafu leaks classified information a little at a time until the Axis enemies piece it together, ambush his transport ship and literally blow him to hell. Six of Snafu’s shorts actually end with him being killed due to his stupidity: “Spies” (blown up by enemy submarine torpedoes), “Booby Traps” (blown up by a bomb hidden inside a piano), “The Goldbrick” (run over by an enemy tank), “A Lecture on Camouflage” (large enemy bomb lands on him), “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike” (malaria) and “Going Home” (run over by a street car).

‘Private Snafu vs Malaria Mike,’ March 27, 1944, directed by Bob Clampett. Snafu’s irresponsible behavior in failing to take his malaria meds or to use his repellant was intended to demonstrate to soldiers what not to do while at war.

Nine of the Snafu shorts feature a character named Technical Fairy, First Class. The Technical Fairy is a crass, unshaven, cigar-smoking miniature G.I. whose fairy wings bear the insignia of a technical sergeant, and who wears only socks, shorts and a uniform hat. When he appears, he grants Snafu’s wishes, most of which involve skipping protocol or trying to do things the quick and sloppy way. The results typically end in disaster, with the Technical Fairy teaching Snafu a valuable lesson about proper military procedure. For example, in the 1944 cartoon “Snafuperman,” the Technical Fairy transforms Private Snafu into the superhero Snafuperman, who takes bungling to a super-powered level through his carelessness.

‘Snapuferman,’ starring Private Snafu and the Technical Fairy, directed by Fritz Freleng, March 6, 1944

Later in the war, however, Snafu’s antics became more like those of fellow Warner character Bugs Bunny, a savvy hero facing the enemy head-on. The cartoons were intended for an audience of soldiers (as part of the bi-weekly Army-Navy Screen Magazine newsreel), and so are quite risqué by 1940s standards, with minor cursing, bare-bottomed GIs and plenty of scantily clad (and even semi-nude) women. The depictions of Japanese and Germans are hostile-comic, par for the course in wartime U.S.

‘Censored,’ Private Snafu, directed by Frank Tashlin, July 17, 1944. A notice at the start of the cartoon announces: ‘This film will not be shown to the general public without the permission of the War Department.’

Toward the end of the war, other studios began producing Snafu shorts (the Army accused Schlesinger of padding his bills), though some of these never made it to celluloid before the war ended. The Snafu films are also partly responsible for keeping the animation studios open during the war–by producing such training films, the studios were declared an essential industry.

The character has since made a couple of brief cameos: the Animaniacs episode “Boot Camping” has a character looking very much like Private Snafu, and the Futurama episode “I Dated a Robot” shows Private Snafu on the building-mounted video screen for a few seconds in the opening credits.

‘Three Brothers,’ Private Snafu, directed by Fritz Freleng, December 4, 1944. Bugs Bunny makes a cameo at the 3:57 mark, helping Fubar escape a pack of dogs.

While Private Snafu was never officially a theatrical cartoon character when the series was launched in 1943 (with the debut short “Coming! Snafu,” directed by Chuck Jones), a proto-Snafu does appear, unnamed and in color, in Jones’ cartoon “The Draft Horse,” released theatrically one year earlier, on May 9, 1942. This appearance, coming at the 3:30 mark, would serve as the basis for Snafu’s character in the series.

‘Going Home,’ Private Snafu, directed by Chuck Jones, June 5, 1944. The 24th film in the Snafu series, this cartoon was never released. The reference to a ‘secret weapon’ predated the atomic bomb, then still under development

The 24th film of the series, Going Home, produced in 1945, was never released. The premise is what damage could be done if a soldier on leave talks too much about his unit’s military operations. In the film, Snafu discusses a “secret weapon” with his girlfriend which was unnervingly (and unintentionally) similar to the atomic bombs under development that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1946, a series of cartoons for the Navy featuring Private Snafu’s brother “Seaman Tarfu” (for “Things Are Really Fucked Up”) was planned, but the war ended and the project never materialized, save for a single cartoon entitled “Private Snafu Presents Seaman Tarfu in the Navy.” In the cartoon “Three Brothers,” it is revealed that Snafu has two brothers, a carrier pigeon keeper named Tarfu and a dog trainer named Fubar (for “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition”).

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