Private Snafu: The World War II Propaganda Cartoons Created by Dr. Seuss, Frank Capra & Mel Blanc

Pri­vate Sna­fu was the U.S. Army’s worst sol­dier. He was slop­py, lazy and prone to shoot­ing off his mouth to Nazi agents. And he was huge­ly pop­u­lar with his fel­low GIs.

Pri­vate Sna­fu was, of course, an ani­mat­ed car­toon char­ac­ter designed for the mil­i­tary recruits. He was an adorable dolt who sound­ed like Bugs Bun­ny and looked a bit like Elmer Fudd. And in every episode, he taught sol­diers what not to do, from blab­bing about troop move­ments to not tak­ing malar­ia med­ica­tion.

The idea for the series report­ed­ly came from Frank Capra — the Oscar-win­ning direc­tor of It’s a Won­der­ful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton and, dur­ing WWII, the chair­man of the U.S. Army Air Force First Motion Pic­ture Unit. He want­ed to cre­ate a car­toon series for new recruits, many of whom were young, unworld­ly and in some cas­es illit­er­ate. Capra gave Dis­ney first shot at devel­op­ing the idea but Warn­er Bros’ Leon Schlesinger, a man who was as famous for his hard-dri­ving busi­ness acu­men as he was for wear­ing exces­sive cologne, offered a bid that was 2/3rds below that of Dis­ney.

The tal­ent behind this series was impres­sive, fea­tur­ing a ver­i­ta­ble who’s who of non-Dis­ney ani­mat­ing tal­ent, includ­ing Chuck Jones, Bob Clam­pett, and Friz Fre­leng. Sna­fu was voiced by Mel Blanc, who famous­ly did Bun­ny Bugs, Daffy Duck and lat­er Mar­vin the Mar­t­ian. And one of the main writ­ers was none oth­er than Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

As you can see in the first Sna­fu short Com­ing (1943), direct­ed by Chuck Jones (see above), the movie dis­plays a salty sen­si­bil­i­ty intend­ed for an army camp rather than a Sun­day mati­nee. The movie opens with a dead­pan voiceover explain­ing that, in infor­mal mil­i­tary par­lance, SNAFU means “Sit­u­a­tion Nor­mal All…All Fouled Up,” hint­ing that the usu­al trans­la­tion of the acronym includes a pop­u­lar Anglo-Sax­on word. Lat­er, it shows Pri­vate Sna­fu day­dream­ing about a bur­lesque show – com­plete with a shape­ly exot­ic dancer doff­ing her duds – as he obliv­i­ous­ly wrecks a plane.

Though there were no writ­ing cred­its for each indi­vid­ual episode, just lis­ten to the voiceover for Gripes (1943), direct­ed by Friz Fre­leng. Dr. Seuss’s trade­mark singsong cadence is unmis­tak­able includ­ing lines like:

“The moral, Sna­fu, is that the hard­er you work, the soon­er we’re gonna beat Hitler, that jerk.”

Gas! (1944), direct­ed by Chuck Jones, fea­tures a cameo from Bugs Bun­ny.

And final­ly, Going Home, direct­ed by Chuck Jones, was slat­ed to come out in 1944 but the War Depart­ment kiboshed it. The ratio­nale was nev­er explained but some think that the film’s ref­er­ence to a mas­sive, top-secret weapon that was to be deployed over Japan was just a lit­tle too close to the Man­hat­tan Project.

You can watch a long list of Pri­vate Sna­fu episodes here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mem­o­ry of the Camps (1985): The Holo­caust Doc­u­men­tary that Trau­ma­tized Alfred Hitch­cock, and Remained Unseen for 40 Years

Neil Gaiman Reads Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham

Haunt­ing Unedit­ed Footage of the Bomb­ing of Nagasa­ki (1945)

Don­ald Duck’s Bad Nazi Dream and Four Oth­er Dis­ney Pro­pa­gan­da Car­toons from World War II

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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  • Scale Lily says:

    Super inter­est­ing; I sup­pose there would prob­a­bly be old pro­pa­gan­da posters of Sna­fu around today?

  • Free G. Wucher says:

    I have seen the said car­toons on YouTube recent­ly, and found them not only enter­tain­ing, because t I feel I got a small glimpse of what both of my grand­fa­thers went through dur­ing WW2. I feel for those my age who nev­er got to meet their grand­fa­thers or grand­moth­ers who joined the WAC. It is a patri­ot­ic duty to serve in the Armed Forces. I hope and pray that one day we the peo­ple of the plan­et find new ways to deal with glob­al con­flicts than killing each oth­er.

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