Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Armed Forces
By Ken Zurski
Beginning in 1943, U.S. Army recruits serving in World War II were introduced to a cartoon character named Private Snafu, a rubbery-faced simpleton with a knack for trouble that one writer described as “a model of everything that a model soldier isn’t.”
The cartoon was the mastermind of movie director Frank Capra, head of the Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Armed Forces at the time, which produced highly stylized propaganda and training films that starred top Hollywood actors like Clark Gable and Ronald Reagan.
But by far the most popular attraction, especially among the rank-n-file, was the bumbling Snafu. Designed to teach proper etiquette in the Army, the Snafu cartoons turned the tables on military protocol by humorously showing what not to do as a soldier.
Capra originally rejected a contract offer from Walt Disney who reportedly wanted merchandise rights and chose Warner Brothers studios instead to make the films and animator Chuck Jones to produce it.
Although it was clearly ridiculous, Snafu seemed oblivious, therefore making the point that a lack of concentration and absentmindedness can often lead to unwanted – oftentimes deadly – consequences.
The shorts, all about 10 minutes long, were exclusively the Army’s and not subject to standard motion picture codes. So Jones and his writers, including Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, were limitless in content, although they kept it mostly educational and entertaining at first. In Spies, for example, Snafu forgets to take his malaria medication and gets it in the end – quite literally – by a pesky mosquito.
But that’s only part of the lesson. Snafu, who talks in rhymes, is seen on a pay phone: “Hello Mom, I’ve got a secret, I can only drop a tip. Don’t breathe a word to no one, but I’m going on a trip.” Eavesdropping nearby are the so-called “spies” in the short.
Soon an unsuspecting Snafu is blabbering his secret to anyone within earshot.
Most of the shorts end with Snafu being killed by his own stupidity. Later as the war neared an end, the shorts got edgier and Snafu got smarter. Even the content became racier, with scantily clad girls with body parts cleverly disguised.
About the only restraint remained in the explanation of the acronym, an unofficial military term: “Situation Normal All Fouled Up.”