Situation Normal All Fouled Up:
A Concise History of Private Snafu
Written by Pietro A. Shakarian
In 1942, filmmaker Frank Capra was put in charge of the Army-Navy Screen Magazine. Capra was tasked with making training films that were entertaining for the troops and devised an idea for a series of wartime cartoons featuring a bungling little soldier named Private Snafu (Situation Normal, All F***ed (or Fouled) Up). Capra wanted to give the Snafu films high quality in terms of gags, storylines, and animation. So he decided to take bids from the major Hollywood cartoon studios. Walt Disney placed the first bid and thought he would win and even went so far as to storyboard the first Snafu cartoon his studio would make, Introducing Snafu. Leon Schlesinger's bid came in higher than Disney's, and won the character. Snafu was designed and modified by Art Heineman and Chuck Jones.
All the Snafus were produced by the regular Warner staff (the Jones, Freleng, Tashlin, and Clampett units). The first short, under direction of Chuck Jones, is entitled Coming!! Snafu It introduces us to Snafu and demonstrates just how utterly incompetent he can be (here, Snafu can't even roll a pack correctly). The film comes off as more of a "coming attractions" preview than a training film let alone your average cartoon. The first actual Snafu cartoon would be the second film, Gripes, directed by Friz Freleng. Here, we see Snafu paying for all the goof-ups he caused earlier on, as he is reported to KP duty (peeling spuds). After some amount of complaining in rhyme, Snafu is visited by one Technical Fairy First Class, a tough, cigar-chomping, wise-guy as opposed to the usual Disney-style fairy. "I hoid ya sayin' dat everything stank, how you'd run things better if you had more rank, so as Technical Fairy, I gotta good notion, ta give ya a chance pal, here's a promotion!" with this, Snafu becomes the head of everything, only to make things worse. In the end, First Class teaches Snafu there's more to being a sergeant than just sitting around all day. "Da moral, Snafu, is dat da harder ya woik – da sooner we're gonna beat beat Hitler – dat joik!"
The third Snafu film, Spies is equally enjoyable. Snafu has learned a secret and tells us he'll "zipper up his lip." However, Nazi spies are everywhere, waiting for him to leak his secret. Snafu finally leaks it to a girl he meets in a local pub (who has a radio transmitter in her brassiere). Things get progressively worse and to such an extent that Snafu ends up in Hell. "Now who in Hell do ya suppose it was dat let me secret out?" A Hitler devil shows Snafu a mirror of himself as a "Jack-Ass." The rhyming scheme used in both Spies and Gripes was a direct influence from Snafu writer Theodor "Ted" Geisel (Dr. Seuss).
In the tenth Snafu short, Freleng's Snafuperman, Snafu asks Technical Fairy First Class to make him into a "Super Man" so he can fight off the Nazis single-handedly. However, everything back-fires and Snafu finally decides that studying field manuels is a much more important task. Another Jones effort, Gas, shows the importance of the gas mask and even features a cameo appearance by Bugs Bunny! In Booby Traps, one of the two Snafus directed by Bob Clampett, Snafu learns to avoid traps cleverly planted by the enemy. One gag involves Snafu playing Those Endearing Charms on a piano (rigged up to explosives) and then getting blown up – a gag that was later used by Freleng in cartoons such as Ballot Box Bunny and Show Biz Bugs. Target: Snafu shows the importance of how to stay safe from disease-carrying insects (the first in a series of three, the other two being Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike and It's Murder She Says).
Frank Tashlin's Censored is another good Snafu cartoon, which teaches troops to "watch what you write", so that no top secret military information would be carelessly spread to the enemy. Since they were not released for the general public to see, the Snafu cartoons could have no Hays Office boundaries. Swearing is common in many of the Snafu shorts, as well as occasional female nudity. Censored pushes such envelopes with scenes showing Snafu's girlfriend, Sally Lou, completely topless! The film made the military brass so nervous that many prints in circulation of Censored are indeed censored, though an unedited version also exists.
A few of the later Snafu efforts are not as educational as the earlier ones, but were made just for entertainment purposes. A good example would be No Buddy Atoll – another Jones short where Snafu and a Japanese general are stranded on a desert island, both still bent on destroying the enemy. Not only is this one of the funniest Snafu cartoons, but it also shows how far Chuck Jones had come as a director. By 1945, 24 Snafu cartoons had been completed, with two unreleased (these being Going Home (completed for May 1944, but held from being released because it contained secret military information) and Secrets of the Caribbean). While Going Home can be easily obtained by many, Secrets of the Caribbean, unfortunately, is now considered lost.
Warner Bros. was not the only studio that churned out Snafu shorts. MGM and UPA also got a small slice of the cake by making a more educational Snafu series under the "Few Quick Facts" banner. At least four of these shorts are known to exist. An additional MGM-produced, Tex Avery-directed Snafu entitled Mop Up is reported to have been completed through at least the animation stage. Unfortunately, no print of this short has surfaced as of this writing.
By 1945, Snafu was so successful that the WB staff was assigned to make shorts for the Navy featuring a sailor by the name of Mr. Hook. Hook wasn't as bungling as Snafu, but the message in his cartoons was clear – save war bonds. The Hook cartoons were of some success, but only three of the Warner efforts are known to exist along with a color Hook produced by the Walter Lantz studio entitled Take Heed Mr. Tojo. Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising had a similar idea, but decided to closely follow the Snafu formula. The result was Seaman Tarfu who was not much of a success and only starred in two films (Private Snafu Presents Seaman Tarfu In The Navy and the unproduced Tuscarora).
The Snafu shorts are important social documents and continue to fascinate many animation and film historians to this day. The preservation of these films is of extreme importance, especially since at least two have been lost. Fortunately, in December 2010, all of the existing Snafus were fully restored and released by Thunderbean Animation on a DVD entitled Private Snafu Golden Classics. This new compilation has proved to be a major success and has increased interest in both the Snafu films and the history behind them.
Click here to read the GAC review!
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