Animating the Troops
From 'Fighting Tools' (1943). Photo: Warner Brothers/Schlesinger
March 14, 2016 4:51 p.m. ET
The cartoons of the Warner Bros. studio—which brought us the antics of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and company—are known for their fast-paced comedy, their high-energy (even violent) style, their remarkably vivid characterizations and, somehow, both their outrageousness and their subtlety. Since their heyday some 70 years ago, the studio’s beloved “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” largely have been marketed to generations of children, first in movie theaters and then on television and home video. But there was also a lesser-known series of Warner cartoons—scarcely seen since World War II—that were much more adult in their outlook, with decidedly blue humor, cheesecake shots of seminaked pinup girls, and language not for toddlers. These are the Looney Tunes that your grandfather, who fought in Germany, never told you about.
Between 1943 and 1945, the Leon Schlesinger studio, which was at that time the cartoon division of Warner Bros., produced roughly 26 “Private Snafu” cartoons for the United States Armed Forces First Motion Picture Unit, created by Frank Capra. It was Capra’s idea to include an animated segment in the “Army/Navy Screen Magazine,” a collection of short films produced for the service audience that contained a mixture of humor, morale-building, information, “propaganda” and general entertainment. The three- to five-minute cartoons starred a luckless schlemiel whose name comes from vintage Army slang, the acronym for “Situation Normal: All Fouled Up”—and, no, “fouled” is not the actual word. Now, the complete Snafu output has been released in a stunning Blu-ray restoration, taken from the original 35mm negatives in the Library of Congress, by Thunderbean Animation.
The series’ clueless, blundering and lazy private is introduced in a three-minute trailer titled “Coming!! Snafu.” We meet “the goofiest soldier in the U.S. Army” as he is shown fantasizing about a burlesque dancer in action (as he hums Johnny Mercer’s “Strip Polka”) when he should be concentrating on his job. Private Snafu’s comic antics had a serious purpose: to drive home to G.I.’s the consequences of goofing off.
The slapstick and physical comedy are perhaps even more extreme than in the civilian Looney Tunes. There’s a very real savagery, for instance, in the battle of Snafu against a Japanese soldier in “No Buddy Atoll” (or against a burly Nazi in “Fighting Tools”) that you won’t find in a Sylvester & Tweety episode.
Although produced for a lower budget in black-and-white, the Snafu cartoons are just as imaginatively written, directed and animated as the Bugs Bunny entries that Warner Brothers was producing at the same time for civilian release. (The wabbit even makes a cameo appearance in Chuck Jones’s “Gas.”) The Snafu films not only look and feel like the Schlesinger cartoons we all grew up with, they sound like them too: Mel Blanc is the voice of Snafu, and the scores by Carl Stalling are indistinguishable from the theatrical shorts—in “Payday,” for example, Snafu struts into “un hôtel” with a French demimonde in time with a few minor key notes of “Blues in the Night.”
That scene with the floozy indicates the degree to which, to invoke a WB catchphrase, “something new has been added!” Nearly every episode has some titillating female flesh on display: In “Censored,” there are long, lingering shots of Snafu’s girlfriend in garters and hose; in “Spies,” our hapless antihero blabs military secrets to a blond German spy wearing a brassiere wired for sound; the title of “Booby Traps” refers to a female mannequin with bombs for breasts.
The shorts were supervised by Schlesinger’s all-star directorial staff—perhaps the best in animation history: Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones and Frank Tashlin. And the scripts are especially astute—not only entertaining, but carrying a practical message for servicemen. Also on the story team was Theodor Geisel, already known as “Dr. Seuss,” who supplied rhyming dialogue for several shorts (including “Rumors”). “It’s Murder She Says” is superior storytelling, with the focus on “Anopheles Annie,” alias “Malaria Moll”—a disease-carrying camp-follower of a mosquito depicted as a beaten-down good-time girl, spreading malaria germs among soldiers as if they were an STD.
Soldiers, beware. Animation and military history buffs—and everyone else—rejoice.
Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.