NEEDLE DROP NOTES
October 27, 2020 posted by James Parten

Snafu Special: For the Boys

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.

12 Comments

  • What a nice surprise! I had no idea that so many of the familiar Warner Bros. musical tropes (I hesitate to call them clichés, though I probably should) originated in the Private Snafu cartoons.

    I don’t know where you got the idea that Hitler-Satan “speaks a fluent German” at the end of “Spies”. I’m sure he could, of course, but what he says is “What was that I heard you say, my little sauerkraut?” To which the chorus of damned souls replies, “He wonders who in Hell it was that let his secret out!” Granted, “sauerkraut” is German, but it’s also an English word, which is more than you can say for “contraptive”. (Don’t think I didn’t notice that. It’s all well and good to embiggen your vocabulary with new words, but only if they’re perfectly cromulent!)

    More significant is that when Snafu is descending into Hitler’s Hell, the orchestra plays a passage from the Rienzi Overture. “Rienzi, the last of the Tribunes”, Wagner’s first successful opera, is the story of a populist political leader in medieval Rome who rises to power on the promise of returning the realm to its former greatness. Hitler first saw it when he was in his teens, and he found it, to say the least, inspiring. The overture was played at the opening of all Nazi party rallies and became, in the words of Professor Hans Rudolf Vaget, a “signature tune of the Hitler movement.” Hitler was given Wagner’s autograph manuscript of the Rienzi score as a fiftieth birthday present in 1939, and it was apparently destroyed in his bunker at the end of the war. Stalling made use of the Rienzi Overture many times during his tenure at Warners, but never as fittingly as in “Spies”.

    “The Infantry Blues” contains a variant on “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” (“Hinky Dinky Parlez-vous”), a ribald favourite of the troops during the previous World War.

    “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” comes from “The U.S. Field Artillery March” by John Philip Sousa. Years ago I played it in an all-Sousa concert, and since the lyrics were printed in the orchestral parts, the conductor decided to have the string players sing the chorus the first time through. I enjoyed that very much, though the patriotic martial effect was somewhat compromised by that fact that so many of us were women, or had foreign accents.

    Finally, I’ve very pleased that you concluded this examination of wartime music with a recording by Vera Lynn, “the Forces’ Sweetheart”, who passed away this year at the age of 103.

  • Interestingly, “Rienzi” was disavowed by Wagner during his lifetime as an “immature” composition and herefused to have it performed at Bayreuth. And despite HItler’s championing of it, even during his regime the Wagner family did not permit it to be staged there, either. So far as I know, the “ban” was only lifted in 2013 for the Wagner birthday bicentennial year. The opera has been rarely staged elsewhere as the title role is reportedly extremely difficult to sing, even by Wagner standards, and while its six-hour running length is comparable to “Gotterdammerung” and “Parsifal,” it is not particularly compelling as drama and feels even longer.

  • For my money, the best Snafu soundtrack was for “Pay Day”. Because it was nearly dialogue-free, the soundtrack had to carry the film, and Stalling knocks it out of the park with a ton of song cues: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0155005/soundtrack

  • At TV Tropes.org, the “Those Endearing Young Charms” routine is known as the Xylophone Gag, after probably its most iconic appearance in “Show Biz Bugs”, even though most versions of the gag use a piano. One of my favorite versions is on Animaniacs, when one of Slappy Squirrel’s foes tries to use it on her. Instead of missing the notes on purpose, Slappy plays it correctly, but the explosions somehow hit the villain instead. (“Old gag, new twist.”) The gag also came up on a series of ad bumpers on the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) during the baseball players strike in 1997 or so. The bumpers showed an empty stadium with organ music playing, presumably the organ player passing the time until the games start again. When the season was cancelled, the last bumper is the organ playing “Those Endearing Young Charms”, followed by an atomic explosion.
    Not to be that guy, but “Rushin’ Roulette” wasn’t one of the Larriva Roadrunners; it was directed by Bob McKimson for DePathie-Freleng; it and McKimson’s other Roadrunner “Sugar and Spies”, while coming up short of the greatness of Chuck’s originals, were still several notches above Larriva’s.

  • Actually “Rushing Roulette” was directed by McKimson (who was a bit better at doing Road Runner than Larrvia).

    Regarding “Tit Willow”, it was performed later on “The Muppet Show” by Rowlf and Sam the Eagle (who seemed a bit embarrassed doing the song, cultural or not) . Despite being a UK segment, it was included in the first “Muppet Show” album in the U.S.

  • Harvard’s alma mater “Fair Harvard” borrowed the melody from “Those Endearing Young Charms” — and the opening notes began “Come On, Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

  • Regarding the “bomb in the piano” gag, I once saw a U.S. Army engineers’ manual from World War II that included a chapter on setting booby traps, and one of them actually was setting up a bomb in a piano to go off when a certain key was hit. There was even an illustration of a German soldier sitting at an upright piano with a cutaway showing how it would work.

  • (1) I absolutely agree with the comment above regarding “Pay Day.” It’s certainly an outstanding performance by Stalling, and one of Freleng’s finest as well.

    (2) “Strip Polka” was published by Edwin H. Morris & Company, judging from the sheet music, and that’s well out of the WB publishing group of Harms/Witmark/Remick.

    (3) It probably should be noted that “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground” was generally *Union* soldier’s song, not one sung by Johnny Reb. While a definite Civil War song, it would be not particularly welcome in the South (though not nearly as rankle-inducing to Colonel Shuffle types as “Marching Through Georgia.”

  • Russell, you’ve correctly identified some of the problems with “Rienzi”, and it’s true that it has never been part of the Bayreuth canon. But the fact remains that the opera was a success during Wagner’s lifetime and opened a lot of doors for him professionally. It also brought his music to the attention of his future father-in-law Franz Liszt, who composed a “Fantasy on Themes from Rienzi” for solo piano (now also seldom heard). In Dresden, where “Rienzi” was premiered in 1842, the 100th performance took place by 1880, and the 200th by 1910. It was only after the second decade of the 20th century that performances fell off, and it’s not even mentioned in my mother’s old Opera Guide, published in 1940. To date the only performance of “Rienzi” in Australia has been a concert version, with substantive cuts, put on in Melbourne in 2013 for the Wagner bicentenary; it has never been staged here and probably never will be.

  • I’d surmise that music rights issues rather than Hays Office prudishness are what kept “Strip Polka” out of the regular Warner cartoons. Daffy did a striptease in “The Wise Quacking Duck”, released to general audiences just a month prior to “Coming: Snafu”, so it was hardly verboten. The military cartoons were seemingly the animation equivalent of the contemporary V-Discs and could be a bit looser in regard to song copyrights, and there are several other tunes which Stalling used in the Snafu and Hook films that similarly never reappeared.

  • Paul G:
    If the comments section of the Washington Post was as informative and life-affirming as the comments section of Cartoon Research, the world would be a much more user-friendly place. Wish I could have been at that Sousa concert…. 🙂

  • You’d have loved it, Don! It was great fun! But Jerry Beck and the contributors deserve the credit for maintaining a high level of discourse. Washington Post? You know that’s another Sousa march, right?

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