The United States was at war, and every person (including corporations, which have the legal definition of a person), was out to “do their bit”. This included the studios that produced animated cartoons. In addition to propagandistic shorts aimed at the home front, they sought to entertain, amuse…and educate, the soldiers in the camps and in far flung venues. For some reason, we haven’t heard much of what the Eastern studios (Terrytoons and Famous) got to do for the war effort, but we do know that the Western studios (Disney, Walter Lantz, and Warner Brothers) seemed to get the lion’s share of this kind of war work. We do know in particular that Warner would contribute a substantial and popular series seen only by the soldiers and sailors (and possibly airmen), offering education, but with a good deal of entertainment, and a goodly share of what MGM’s Fred Quimby would have called “that Warner Brothers rowdyism”. The result was included in the monthly “Army-Navy Screen Magazine” – Private Snafu, the quintessential Army screw-up. The idea may have mined some of the same terrain as a Spike Jones recording of about the same period, “Little Bo Peep Has Lost Her Jeep”, with a similar deriliction of duty by a private Jackson who allows his girlfriend to drive said vehicle. Snafu’s similar bumbles would generate laughter among the troops for several seasons to come.
Coming: SNAFU (June, 1943) – Essentially a teaser, letting the soldiers who saw it know what they were in for. The term “SNAFU” is explained – an acronym signifying “Situation Normal – All F(ouled) Up” (with appropriate hesitancy by the narrator (I believe Frank Graham) when he reaches the “F” word). The film shows Snafu in a variety of usual settings and activities, enduring the petty drudgeries that every private knew – and always finding some way to live up (or down?) to his name. Snafu himself is voiced differently than in other installments of the series – Mel Blanc, speeded up. The film finishes with Snafu in an appropriate environment – the guard house. Songs: “You’re in the Army Now”; and “Strip Polka”, a composition of Johnny Mercer, which was recorded by the composer (with a spoken assist by Phil Silvers) for Mercer’s newly formed Capitol records label as one of its first releases, and covered by Kay Kyser on Columbia and Alvino Rey on Bluebird. The song made no parallel appearance in commercial Warner releases, possibly not part of their music publishing library, and being perhaps a bit too risque for junior tastes, dealing with the world of Burlesque, which by this time was strictly inhibited by the “peelers”. The arrangement on the Mercer recording also parodies the “Swing and Sway” style of bandleader Sammy Kaye (though more gently than a later parody by Charlie Barnet, “The Wrong Idea”, which would get the bandleader’s goat). The song further claims its title as a variant of the similarly named card game, which was already becoming “popular” in some circles.
Gripes (July, 1943) – All the little drudgeries of the Private last class get the treatment in this cartoon, right down to the little guy who wants to “get the hun” facing the more daunting enemy of an endless pile of potatoes to peel. Technical Fairy First Class (a sort of fairy godfather who became a regular part of the series to grant Snafu’s fantasy wishes, always with the intent of teaching him a valuable lesson from his inevirable failures), grants Snafu a promotion to see what he could do if he ran the show. Snafu converts the camp into a woman-chasing harem – until a German aerial barrage looms above. Having no training or morale, Snafu’s troops respond to his call to battle with “Aw, Nuts”, leaving Snafu to take the bomb where it hurts the most. It of course is all a dream, and Technical Fairy returns a happy Snafu to the potato peeling pile. Songs again use “You’re in the Army Now”, plus “The Girl Friend of the Whirlig Dervish”, “The Old Oaken Bucket”, and “Powerhouse”.
Spies (August, 1943) – A script definitely contributed by Theodore Seuss Geisel (Dr. Suess), delivered entirely in rhyming dialogue and narration. Snafu carries a pip of a secret in his brain, allegedly guarded with a “chain and padlock.” A bevy of enemy spies is determined that Snafu’s brain be “picked” to loosen such locks in a hurry. A parable to the enlisted man, paralleling the popular military phrase of the day, “Loose lips sink ships.” An entry that also definitely demonstrates that the Warner boys were determined not to be bothered by the standards of censorship on these projects, and were willing to give the boys a great deal of “cheese cake” – by featuring a female enemy spy who carries radio transmitting equipment concealed within her well-endowed bosom. After a well “lubricated” Snafu downs a whole bottle of booze, the padlocks are off and the lip is unzipped. He is surrounded at sea and blasted to kingdom come, winding up in the boiling pot of Satan himself – who speaks a fluent German. Songs: “How Dry I Am”, and the “B” theme from Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse”.
The Goldbrick (September, 1943) – Snafu receives personal lessons in a pastime near and dear to his heart (and to most privates ) – goofing off – from a pot-bellied fairy named Goldie the Goldbrick”. Goldie’s tips on wastefulness and sloth ultimately leave Snafu with his tail end high and visible in a foxhole he’s too lazy to dig deep enough – and converted by enemy tank attack into an early grave. Goldie removes a face mask, revealing a Japanese countenance and oriental accent, stating his intention to “now go find more” of Snafu’s kind, so that “Japan might win war!”
Songs: “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In the Morning” composed and originally performed by Irving Berlin for the WWI all-soldier revue, “Yip Yip Yaphank”, and revived by him again for the new revue composed for WWII, “This Is the Army”. This second revus would make its way into an all-Technicolor extravaganza by Warner’s live action units, for one of the top-grossing films of the year, with proceeds going to the soldiers’ relief fund. Arthur Fields recorded the piece during WW1 for Victor records, and the song also appeared instrumentally on Paramount records by Walter Rogers’ Band. It also issued anonymously as a “Baritone Solo” on Columbia’s short-lived “Little Wonder” series of miniature discs. Berlin himself would also commercially record the number during its WWII revival for the Decca Records’ Broadway Cast set from the second show. Dick Robertson also recorded the tune during its revival for Decca, as did Tommy Dorsey on Victor, Chick Bullock and his All-Star Orchestra for Okeh, and Abe Lyman on Bluebird. Between ward, the song would also play the central theme for a Betty Boop Screen Song, and long after both wars remained in the children’s catalogue of Little Golden Records for decades.
Also in the cartoon’s score, Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Tit Willow” from “The Mikado” provides a central theme to the musical narration throughout, as Goldie’s lectures Snafu with special lyrics (use of this song alone should have been an advance tip-off to audiences that Goldie was In league with Japan!). The piece received many recordings by the renowned D’oyle Carte opera company, a troups long devoted to performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan library, on HMV and London records. It also received popular recordings, in part due to a Broadway revival, “The Hot Mikado”, giving the old story a jazzed-up treatment. Popular versions included Mildred Bailey on Vocalion, Bob Crosby on Decca, the Hoosier Hot Shots on Columbia, and a European version by Harold Williams on Columbia. Additional songs include “Song of the Volga Boatmen” and “Trade Winds”.
Infantry Blues (Oct., 1943) -Snafu complains about all the marching he has to do as a foot soldier – until Technical Fairy shows him that other branches of the service don’t necessarily offer any Nirvana either. An original title song is sung by Snafu. Other numbers include Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song’, “The Caissons Go Rolling Along”, and “The Army Air Corps (Wild Blue Yonder)”, the latter of which received commercial releases for the war effort by, among others, Alvino Rey on Bluebird, and Bob Crosby on Decca, and John Charles Thomas on Victor, as well as a V-Disc release by Glenn Miller’s service band.
Fighting Tools (Nov., 1943) – This great one by Clampett has Snafu learning the hazards of leaving his guns and weapons unattended, to rust, rot, and fill with mud – and ends the episode naked in a concentration camp cell. Songs include Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”, well recorded since the earliest days of recording by Sousa’s band on both Berliner and Victor.
The Home Front (Dec., 1943) – Snafu finds out how the civilians back home are coping with the war – and how they’re contributing. Songs include “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground”, a classic civil war ditty which seems to appear here for the first time in a Warner cartoon (oddly missed in the score of Confederate Honey). Various recorded versions were offered to the public in early recordings, including the Haydn Quartet on Victor, the Columbia Stellar Quartet on Columbia, Alan Turner (again with the Hayfn Quartet) on Victor, and later electrically by the Mount Vernon Quartet on Columbia. Also included, the “Chicken Reel”, and “Spring Song”.
Rumors (Jan., 1944) – An interestingly surreal and spooky entry, as the power of a rumor (visualized in balloon-like form for their hot air) is examined, multiplying and metastisizing, Ultimately, the entire camp is quarantined for “Rumoritis.” Songs: “Powerhouse” again, and “A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You”, possibly appearing here for the first time. This song would become a favorite standard of Stalling – his go-to number for anything involving food, similar to Scott Bradley’s use of his own signature cue, “Sing Before Breakfast” for the same purpose in MGM cartoons. “Coffee” was originated in a Broadway revue, “Charlot’s Revie of 1926″. For dancing, it was cut by Roger Wolfe Kahn on Victor, Leo Reisman on Columbia, and as a vocal record by Nick Lucas on Brunswick, the duet of Franklyn Baur and Gladys Rice ib Victor, and another duet – Frank Wright and Frank Bessinger (the Radio Franks) on Pathe, as well as dance versions by almost all the other companies (including Sam Lanin on Banner and other dime store labels, and Vincent Lopez on Okeh Truetone).
Booby Traps (Feb., 1944) – A contraptive world of enemy ingenuity presents itself to Snafu, as Snafu learns (the hard way) that even seemingly harmless items left behind by the enemy might serve a nefarious and destructive purpose. The first use of the famous, “(Believe Me If All) Those Endearing Young Charms” rigged musical-instrument gag (booby trapped with dynamite when a certain note is hit) appears here. The gag would be frequently revived in later civilian cartoons, including Ballot Box Bunny, Show Biz Bugs, and even a Rudy Larriva Road Runner (Rushing Roulette). Actually, the concept of the trap was nothing new to cartoons, as it had provided the central plot point for Van Buren’s first Installment of The Little King – The Fatal Note. But Warners’ embellishment of the idea with its characters constantly missing the key note by hitting clinkers was just the touch needed to make the gag pay off. The song received wide recording in the accoustic period, including by classical artists such as Nellie Melba and John McCormack on red lavel Victor derivatives, George Alexander on Columbia’s “Marconi Velvet Tone” series (reputedly playable only with a gold-tipped needle), Christopher Lynch on Columbia opera series, William Place Jr. on Victor, Florence Hinkle on Victor, Pablo Casals on Columbia, Elizabeth Wheeler on Victor, and even anonymously on Columbia’s “Little Wonder” series. It would be occasionally remembered electrically, including bu Lawrence Tibbett on Victor, and a revival recording by Christopher Lynch on RCA Victor. Also in the score appears “You’re in the Army Now”, “The Campbells are Coming”, “Streets of Cairo”, and the William Tell Overture – the Chase.
More military madness next time. And a reminder – for the best copies, beautifully restored of all the Private Snafu cartoons on blu-ray – get them from Thunderbean Animation.