BACK TO PART 2

 

Private Snafu’s Hidden War:

Historical Survey and Analytical Perspective

 

 

PART 3

The behavioral portrait of women fares little better than the physical portrait but is, again, in keeping with the desires of the audience and the tenor of the times. In “Coming Home,” the “good” girls back in the U.S. spend most of their time smooching with soldiers under bushes, in cars, hanging out of windows, and just about everywhere else conceivable. Snafu’s jitterbugging girlfriend even swings the lucky private beneath her skirts. Subliminally, these views promise every soldier that a loving and enthusiastic beauty waits for him to return home from the war—a sure-fire unconscious stimulus for the soldiers to fight harder so they can end the war as quickly as possible and attain their sexual rewards. This stimulus–response is directly displayed in “A Lecture on Camouflage” when, at the end of the picture, the Technical Fairy’s expert knowledge and actions afford him the privilege of cradling a buxom and very topless mermaid in each arm. The Technical Fairy, beaming broadly, says, “So gentlemen, remember. If you want to fool ’em, you gotta get into the picture.” It becomes problematic if the “they” he refers to are the enemy or women, for the implication is that proper performance of duty is what women look for in a man and that beautiful women are the reward for services well performed.

But the avoidance of public ridicule and censure and the promise of sexual rewards are only parts of the psychological picture of the Private Snafu series. Equally important is that Snafu is a lone character. It seems that most of his personal contacts are with the officers who give him orders and the enemy he fights, both of whom cause consternation and hardship. He is swamped with duties, overwhelmed by his small stature, and in constant danger of losing his life. Snafu not only represents the abstract everyman soldier but the concrete reality of every individual soldier watching the films, for his smallness and confused and overwhelmed outlook access the personal loneliness and fear haunting each of them. Because of this, the Private Snafu series had to be nonthreatening and sympathetic to the fears, desires, and problems of enlisted men. Some of this emerges, as has been discussed, in the Technical Fairy and his nonthreatening, godfatherly relationship to Snafu, but other elements contribute to demonstrating a sympathetic kinship with the soldier in order to put him at ease and achieve a commiserate resonance with him.

But the avoidance of public ridicule and censure and the promise of sexual rewards are only parts of the psychological picture of the Private Snafu series. Equally important is that Snafu is a lone character. It seems that most of his personal contacts are with the officers who give him orders and the enemy he fights, both of whom cause consternation and hardship. He is swamped with duties, overwhelmed by his small stature, and in constant danger of losing his life. Snafu not only represents the abstract everyman soldier but the concrete reality of every individual soldier watching the films, for his smallness and confused and overwhelmed outlook access the personal loneliness and fear haunting each of them. Because of this, the Private Snafu series had to be nonthreatening and sympathetic to the fears, desires, and problems of enlisted men. Some of this emerges, as has been discussed, in the Technical Fairy and his nonthreatening, godfatherly relationship to Snafu, but other elements contribute to demonstrating a sympathetic kinship with the soldier in order to put him at ease and achieve a commiserate resonance with him.

 

Foremost among these elements is the semirealistic ambiance of the cartoons. When weapons and other military equipment are displayed, they are depicted in a realistic fashion. “Fighting Tools” even opens with a visual catalogue of infantry weapons, all drawn in photo-realistic detail. But the realism of the cartoons extends beyond the physical details into the difficulties the servicemen faced in daily life. Daily problems were never minor for them but were pervasive facts of life. The boredom and dirtiness of unpleasant duties, such as KP, are dealt with in numbers like “Gripes,” where Snafu learns that these duties have a purpose in maintaining discipline as well as enabling the military machine to function on a practical level. The pain and rigors of basic training are depicted in “The Goldbrick,” where Snafu learns that the hardships imposed on him during training have the twin purposes of winning the war and keeping him alive. “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike,” “A Lecture on Camouflage,” and “Gas” contain a similar message plus a demonstration that the need to follow orders predicates personal survival. And underlying almost every Snafu cartoon is an injunction for alertness and exactness of personal behavior, without which the war will be lost and Snafu killed. These themes come across most strongly in “Spies,” “Coming Snafu,” “Rumors,” and “Snafuperman.” In “Spies” and “Coming Home,” Snafu’s lack of alertness and exactness results in mass destruction of American forces, and in “Rumors” they destroy not only Snafu’s personal will to fight, but the internal cohesion of the army itself. “Snafuperman” demonstrates that even superhuman powers are ineffective without awareness, training, and intelligence.

 

But the most important point here, at least with respect to gaining the confidence of the GI viewer, is that Snafu, just like any soldier, is always uncomfortable and overburdened with hot, dirty, boring, exhausting, exacting, fearful work. The sympathetic resonance that the common soldier had to feel for Snafu would lead that soldier into a mutual bond with Snafu—a bond that would encourage the soldier to accept and act on the behaviors that Snafu comes to accept and that keep him alive and to shun the behaviors that result in Snafu’s death. And here, with the subject of death, the psychology of the Snafu series takes a turn into grimmer territory.

 

Since combat and death were constant threats to the soldier, they serve an important function in the Snafu series. Death in these cartoons is unlike death in any other cartoon of the time. In all other cartoons, at least until the pseudo-realistic cartoon adventures and artistic animations pioneered in the 1960s, death was simply not a fact of cartoon life. Elmer Fudd or Daffy Duck or any other civilian cartoon character can get shot or smashed or blown up ad infinitum and still find instantaneous resurrection. Snafu, on the other hand, does not find resurrection so readily. He may reappear alive in the next installment, or, rarely, his death occurs in a dream from which he awakes; most often, however, if Snafu dies in one cartoon, he stays dead in that cartoon.

 

And die he does, with great frequency. Out of the first thirteen Snafu cartoons, Snafu dies at the end of six. In one more he ends up as a German prisoner of war, in another in a military jail, and in yet another as an inmate in a psycho ward. In each case, Snafu is killed or imprisoned due to faulty behavior. Thus, these cartoons, to promote positive military attitude and action, use a psychology whose message is clear—either Snafu understands that the promoted behavior is truly appropriate and acts accordingly, or Snafu dies or undergoes unpleasant, humiliating, and possibly permanent confinement. The rapport between Snafu and the GI would not have to be as strong as it probably was for this reality to be frighteningly clear to the soldier.

 

An important adjunct to this grim reality of death also functions psychologically in these cartoons in the depiction of carnal desires, which include the desires for sex, alcohol, tobacco, and recreation. As noted before, sex is a major motif in the Snafu series. The surface message of “Coming Home” is that when you get home after a successful war there will be a sexy, buxom babe waiting for you with open arms. And for even more immediate gratification, it is strongly hinted that the soldier who knows and performs his duty will be rewarded with the sexual favors of women, just as the Technical Fairy is rewarded with his brace of nubile mermaids in “A Lecture on Camouflage.” In “Gripes,” a newly promoted Snafu gives all his fellow GIs two women each, while he enjoys the attentions of three women dressed in scanty harem attire. Indeed, sexy, buxom women are everywhere—at home, in the dance hall, in the cinema, and often in the bushes—and are usually being willingly groped by Snafu or some other soldier.

 

Except for Snafu’s mother and his girlfriend in “The Home Front,” who becomes a WAC, the sole asset these women contribute to the war is their sexuality. Their purpose is to please the soldiers, and although this innuendo could not have been displeasing to the legions of lonely young men watching these cartoons, the other side of the issue constantly lurks in the background, as demonstrated in “The Home Front.” In this cartoon, Snafu imagines his girlfriend succumbing to the ministrations of a suave lothario. The implication is that all the beautiful babes back home are making love, but not necessarily to the lonely soldier. Thus, even the supposedly faithful girl back home is a potential whore.

 

Woman as whore is, in fact, the predominant image of women in the Snafu series. The Snafu cartoon that does not have a pinup prominently displayed is rare. Some of these pinups, although partially clothed, are all too ready to remove their clothing for the GI, as seen by the pinup whose dress blows up in rhythm to Snafu’s snoring breath in “The Goldbrick.” The symbolic stripper defrocking for the GI in this cartoon is more explicitly portrayed in “Coming Snafu” and “The Home Front.” In the former, a stage stripper gyrates sexily before letting her clinging gown slip down to her hips. The “Restricted” signs that appear over her breasts and navel only serve to allow imagination to embellish the image that the clinging gown and sexy gyrations have already revealed almost completely. In the second cartoon, a stripper writhes explicitly before taking it all off as the camera angle drops for a shot downward from mid-thigh. Again, the suggestion is more powerful than the actual image, and in case the viewer didn’t get the idea, the stripper is followed by a trio of high-stepping female dancers in fringed g-strings and strapless brassieres.

No doubt, though, the soldier watching the strippers in the Snafu cartoon was too busy whistling and pounding his chair or dreaming of a buxom babe of his own waiting back home to worry about the social implications of demeaning sexist images. And just as likely, he also consciously missed the implication of events surrounding Snafu’s attention to women. This implication is aptly demonstrated at the very outset in the first Snafu cartoon, “Coming Snafu.” Snafu, walking by a sexy pinup, turns and whistles and promptly falls into a hole. The message was made a little more obvious in “Spies” when Snafu, bragging to his girlfriend, a seductive sexpot spy with microphones hidden in her brassiere, unwittingly discloses vital military secrets. The trend continues in “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike.” Snafu gets jabbed by Mike because he exposes his bare ass while kissing a pinup. And in “Gripes,” the sexual license of Snafu and his troops results in defeat by the Germans. In the event that some soldiers still had not understood the message, one entire cartoon was devoted to expounding on the hidden but definite dangers posed by women.

This cartoon is “Booby Traps,” set in North Africa. The name is not, at first, the dead give-away that it probably ought to be, for the piece ostensibly deals with the need to be aware of the dangers of hidden explosive devices designed to kill the careless soldier. Snafu finds one such explosive device integrated into a shower, but his next encounter paves the way for the real booby traps of which he should be aware. In this scene, Snafu comes upon a camel with a bulging udder. A sign reads, “Free milk.” Snafu grabs a teat before realizing the udder is really a mine strapped to the camel’s belly. If this was the only reference linking booby to breast as well as explosive danger, it might be innocent enough, but Snafu next finds himself in a harem full of booby traps that are definitely of a human variety.

 

In the harem, Snafu rushes through the midst of some of the most pulchritudinous images ever seen in a cartoon before Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1972) and Heavy Traffic (1973). A score of shapely chiffon and bikini-clad beauties lounges around, and the camera pans across the shadowed but extremely explicit and pneumatically lifelike figure of a totally nude woman who almost completely fills the screen. Just to make certain the viewer did not miss her the first time, the camera pans across her again as Snafu makes his way toward a piano. If his immediate interest is the piano, booby trapped with explosives, he quickly turns his attention to a nearby buxom babe. Snafu slips his hand around her waist to cup her butt, and he marvels at the firm gluteal roundness. But the audience sees that she is a dummy with twin bombs planted in her buttocks. A second later, her flowered bra, toned in such a way as to resemble bare breasts, falls off, revealing another pair of bombs. Even a booby like Snafu now gets the message that booby traps are not only explosive devices but women, too.

 

The most self-revealing note on lust in the Snafu series occurs in “A Lecture on Camouflage.” Although the Technical Fairy, who does everything right, gains his buxom sexual reward, it is a pair of mermaids, or, women without vaginas. What becomes evident is that underlying the pandering to carnal desire and the promise of sexual reward, there is a deeper level that indicates that lust, although a useful spur to prod the soldier into action and compliance, is a gratification at best impossible and futile, and at worst deadly.

 

Women in the Snafu series are dangerous. Even if they are not outright seductive spies trading sex for death and destruction, they invariably cause fatal inattention, leading to the same devastating results. This message extends to the other pleasures in which Snafu engages. Alcohol leads to drunkenness which leads to divulging military secrets, as is shown in “Spies.” Recreation does the same, demonstrated also in “Spies” when Snafu is a dancing fool blurting out things he should not. The desire for recreation also leads, as shown in “The Goldbrick,” to laziness, laxness, and, inevitably, death. And in “A Lecture on Camouflage,” Snafu’s yen for a smoke causes him to be so totally unaware of his surroundings that he does not realize that the tree he is leaning against contains a German.

 

The subtexts of the Snafu cartoons emphasize that soldiers are, or should be, a brotherhood of dedicated, directed, and determined men who have banded together to do work that is necessary but dirty and potentially deadly. The devices that the filmmakers use to make these points are specifically engineered to gain the attention of their viewers and to lull them into complacency through humor, sympathy, and pandering to common vices. Just as clearly, however, the cartoons also psychologically reverse the imagery that they use to depict these apparently positive themes and elements. Humor becomes intimidation, for laughing at Snafu—the common soldier—quickly translates into fear of being held up to public ridicule. Sympathy for the plight of the soldier transforms into fear of death, for sympathy brings weakness and lack of attention, and these are fatal. And apparently innocent and innocuous desires, like those for sex, alcohol, tobacco, and even friendship, likewise seduce attention, foster weakness, and bring about death and destruction—an idea that blatantly trades pleasure for paranoia.

Thus, the Private Snafu cartoons wield a double-edged sword that not only incised indoctrinational and informational material but attempted to excise any attachments the soldier might have that could impair his single-minded attention to fighting and winning the war. The informational success of the series may be judged by Mel Blanc’s anecdote about the aerial gunners quoted above and by the length and regularity of the series. And the army must have felt that the Snafu series also was serving its indoctrinational purposes, because a new Snafu cartoon appeared about once a month until the end of the war.

 

If, as has been often noted, extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary means, the Private Snafu cartoons certainly provide a vivid example of extraordinary means. The kind of social engineering pioneered by the Private Snafu series has left a pervasive legacy in world culture by aptly demonstrating the effectiveness of social engineering that plays on those desires, drives, and fears that form the foundation of human thought and emotion. The same techniques pioneered in the Snafu cartoons form, in fact, the basis of modern media advertising. Unfortunately, even ostensibly beneficial manipulation and modification of thought and emotion require care and foresight to ensure that positive values are not trodden beneath self-destructive imagery. The Private Snafu cartoons should stand as a cautionary reminder of the arbitrary and often dark depths that social and behavioral conditioning can plumb beneath an apparently benign facade.

 

 

 

The Private Snafu Series

 

Produced by Leon Schlesinger

Music by: Carl W. Stalling

Voice characterizations: Mel Blanc

Narration: Robert C. Bruce

Writers: Theodore Geisel, Phil Eastman, and W. Munro Leaf

 

Titles (Date, Director):

“Coming Snafu” (June 1943, Chuck Jones)

“Gripes” (July 1943, Friz Freleng)

“Spies” (August 1943, Chuck Jones)

“The Goldbrick” (September 1943, Frank Tashlin)

“The Infantry Blues” (September 1943, Chuck Jones)

“Fighting Tools” (October 1943, Bob Clampett)

“The Home Front” (November 1943, Frank Tashlin)

“Rumors” (December 1943, Friz Freleng)

“Booby Traps” (January 1944) Bob Clampett)

“Snafuperman” (March 1944, Friz Freleng)

“Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike” (March 1944, Chuck Jones)

“A Lecture on Camouflage” (April 1944, Chuck Jones)

“Gas” (May 1944, Chuck Jones)

“The Chow Hound” (1944, Frank Tashlin)

“Censored” (1944, Frank Tashlin)

“Outpost” (1944, Chuck Jones)

“Pay Day” (1944, Friz Freleng)

“Target Snafu” (1944, Friz Freleng)

“The Three Brothers” (1944, Friz Freleng)

“In the Aleutians” (1945, Chuck Jones)

“It’s Murder She Says” (1945, Chuck Jones)

“Hot Spot” (1945, Friz Freleng)

“Operation Snafu” (1945, Friz Freleng)

“No Buddy Atoll” (1945, Chuck Jones)

“Coming Home” (unreleased, Chuck Jones)

“Secrets of the Caribbean” (unreleased, Chuck Jones)

 

 

Notes

 

 

1  Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons (New York: Holt, 1989) 379.

 

2  Beck and Friedwald 379.

 

3  Beck and Friedwald 379.

 

4  Steve M. Barkin, “Fighting the Cartoon War: Information Strategies in World War II,” Journal of American Culture, Spring/Summer 1984: 114.

 

5  Barkin 114.

 

6  Barkin 115.

 

7  Barkin 117.

 

8  David Culbert, “‘Why We Fight’: Social Engineering for a Democratic Society at War,” Film and Radio Propaganda in World War II, ed. K.R.M. Short (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1983) 173.

 

9  Culbert  175.

 

10  Culbert 177.

 

11  Culbert 175.

 

12  Shamus Culhane, Talking Animals and Other People (New York: St. Martins, 1986) 267.

 

13  Culbert 181.

 

14  Culbert 182.

 

15  Culhane 269.

 

16  Steve Schneider, That’s All Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation (New York: Holt, 1988) 88.

 

17  Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic (New York: Plume Books, 1980) 254.

 

18  Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War (New York: Free Press, 1987) 28.

 

19  Koppes and Black 28.

 

20  Koppes and Black 43.

 

21  Beck and Friedwald 379.

 

22  Culhane 270.

 

23  Danny Peary and Gerald Peary, The American Animated Cartoon (New York: Dutton, 1980) 165.

 

24  Schneider 87-88.

 

25  Barkin 115.

 

26  Culhane 268.

 

27  Peary and Peary 165.

 

28  Maltin 254.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Primary Source

 

Private Snafu: Complete and Uncensored.  Compiled by Dave Butler.  (Cudahy, WI: Bosko Video. Contains fourteen Private Snafu cartoons produced by Warner Bros.):

 

Secondary Sources

 

Barkin, Steve M.  “Fighting the Cartoon War: Information Strategies in World War II.”  Journal of American Culture  Spring/Summer 1984: 113-117.

 

Beck, Jerry and Will Friedwald.  Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A complete Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons  New York: Holt, 1989.

 

Culbert, David.  “‘Why We Fight’: Social Engineering for a Democratic Society at War.”  Film and Radio Propaganda in World War II.  Ed. K.R.M. Short.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1983. 173-191.

 

Culhane, Shamus.  Talking Animals and Other People.  New York: St. Martins, 1986.

 

Koppes, Clayton R. and Gregory D. Black.  Hollywood Goes to War.  New York: Free Press, 1987.

 

Maltin, Leonard.  Of Mice and Magic.  New York: Plume Books, 1980.

 

Peary, Danny and Gerald Peary.  The American Animated Cartoon.  New York: Dutton, 1980.

 

Schneider, Steve.  That’s All Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation.  New York: Holt, 1988.

 

 

This article originally appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 42 (www.brightlightsfilm.com).

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