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By Phil Hall | May 23, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 234: “Private Snafu” (1943-45 series of animated cartoons produced by Warner Bros. as part of the U.S. World War II effort).

LAST SEEN: Several of the cartoons are available online.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in collections of public domain cartoons..

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No copyright was ever filed on these shorts.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope, it’s stuck in public domain hell for eternity!

During World War II, the U.S. War Department (the forerunner of today’s Department of Defense) was eager to indoctrinate the members of the armed forces into the rules, regulation, protocol and mind frame of the military. This was not a particularly easy task at a variety of levels, but someone in Washington came up with the bright idea that using cartoons could help provide information while tickling the funny bone.

In early 1943, the War Department first called on Walt Disney to create a series of cartoon training films. Disney had already produced a few cartoons on behalf of the wartime government, most notably “Victory Through Air Power,” but Uncle Walt’s relations with Uncle Sam were strained due to the cost overruns of these films. Disney also made two demands of the War Department: that the cartoon series consist of color animation (an added expense) and that his studio retain the ownership and licensing rights to the characters created for the series.

Not surprisingly, the War Department looked elsewhere and tapped into Leon Schlesinger’s happy little lowbrow comedy animation division at the Warner Bros. studios. Schlesinger was not pre-occupied with licensing rights, nor was he concerned about making cartoons in black-and-white. And, thus, the most unusual non-theatrical cartoon character was born: Private Snafu.

As his name would suggest, Private Snafu was an accident waiting to happen (“snafu” is a military acronym for Situation Normal, All F**ked Up). The character was given a passing resemblance to Elmer Fudd, a nasally voice that was similar to Bugs Bunny, and a propensity for doing everything incorrectly, with disastrous results. In this manner, it was determined that Private Snafu could provide educational instruction to the military personnel by showing them the wrong way to go through various procedures.

Looking back at this series, it’s fairly startling that any of the Private Snafu cartoons ever got made. All of the cartoons required War Department approval before they were screened, and no one ever accused the U.S. military of having a sense of humor. But the films place a very heavy emphasis on slapstick knockabout, often using slightly blue jokes, mild cussing (the word “hell” turns up) and vaguely tasteless gags to get their points across. But somehow or other, the cartoons received official approval, resulting in 28 shorts (averaging slightly less than five minutes) that were made between 1943 and 1945.

Private Snafu is supposed to be the world’s worst soldier. In “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike” (1944, arguably the best of the bunch), he disregards Army regulations regarding exposure to disease-carrying mosquitos. Malaria Mike is the winged enemy who spies a naked Snafu bathing in a Pacific Island stream; later, Snafu is sleeping in an Army tent with an improperly installed mosquito net. As the target of the sting, Snafu is seen as naked from the rear, which is more than a bit surprising given the censorship requirements of the day. Nonetheless, Malaria Mike makes repeated attempts to inject/infect Snafu before hitting bulls-eye. The cartoon ends with Malaria Mike bragging to his young son about his prize: Snafu’s head is on a wall display, not unlike the head of a wild animal bagged by a hunter.

The cartoon “The Chow Hound” (1944) is even more bizarre. A virile bull, just married to a sweet dairy cow, volunteers for the wartime military – and winds up becoming food for the armed forces! The bull’s ghost watches the progress of his canned remains as it reaches Private Snafu, who fails to finish his meal. The bull’s ghost is furious that Snafu is wasting government-issued food, and the dumb private receives a swift hoof-kick in the rear.

Then there’s “Gas” (1944), which finds Snafu failing his attempt to secure a gas mask during a drill (he winds up pulling a brassiere from his pack, then he pulls out Bugs Bunny and ties the rabbit by the ears around his head!). Snafu learns the hard way about the importance of knowing how to use a gas mask: an anthropomorphic gas villain is dropped by an enemy bomber and makes his poisonous way through Snafu’s platoon.

In several of the cartoons, Snafu is aided by Technical Fairy, First Class. This character is a tiny, somewhat slovenly miniature G.I. with wings who grants Snafu wishes. Of course, Snafu’s incompetence always gets in the way of a properly-delivered wish. For example, in “Snafuperman” (1944), Snafu gets super hero powers – which he mucks up because he was too lazy to read the training manuals that went with his new skills.

In a few cartoons, Snafu actually has little to do. “In the Aleutians – Isles of Enchantment” (1945) is pretty much a surreal skein of jokes about the extremes in weather up in the Alaskan archipelago. Snafu barely shows up in the film, and the best jokes are reserved for a talking walrus that resembles Jimmy Durante!

To their credit, the Private Snafu films represented the best in the Warner Bros. talent department: Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng directed the films, Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) and Phil Eastman wrote the scripts, Mel Blanc offered the voice performances, and Carl Stalling created the scores.

But, truth be told, the films aren’t particularly top-tier Warner Bros. Snafu is not a likeable character – he’s actually a bit obnoxious – and perhaps the military personnel who watched the films could enjoy a condescending laugh at the poor dope’s chronic inability to do the right thing. Viewed today, however, the films are somewhat stale, with an uneven mix of Merrie Melodies hijinks blended roughly into military protocol orders; the insistence on using extreme racial stereotypes to depict the Japanese enemy also dates the films very badly.

Yet judging the films on a retrospective basis is probably doomed to failure. The Private Snafu films were never meant to be seen in the context of other commercially available animation. These were strictly meant for military personnel only – they were included in the Army–Navy Screen Magazine, a film series that was shown at U.S. military bases around the world during World War II. None of these films are known to have played in a theater during wartime.

When World War II ended, the series was caught short – four cartoons were still in production and were never publicly screened because they were no longer needed. Actually, Private Snafu himself wound up in a sort of no man’s land – Warner Bros. made no attempt to secure him for its theatrical presentations, while the War Department’s production contract with the cartoon studio was not renewed. The character literally disappeared.

Since the cartoons were technically the property of the federal government and not Warner Bros., none of the films were ever registered for copyright protections. Copies of the films have circulated in the public domain channels for years, and the cruddy visual quality of many of these shorts suggests they’ve been duped several times over. You can find some of these online, while others have wound up in video collections of public domain cartoons.

Private Snafu is a curio footnote to both the Warner Bros. animation legacy and the history of U.S. military training films. If the character and the films never truly received any respect, at least the endeavor can be credited with helping (in some strange way) in winning the war.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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