At 44, Frank Capra was Hollywood’s richest and most successful director and a three-time Academy Award winner. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, which came a week before he was to finish shooting Arsenic and Old Lace, he had been thinking of enlisting; within five days of finishing the shoot he was a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Capra’s first assignment was the propaganda series known collectively as Why We Fight, but he also conceived and commissioned what would turn out to be by far the most popular series of training films made for servicemen during the war.
Soon after Capra arrived in Washington, he had commissioned one of the writers in his charge to draft a lighthearted script for a short called Hey, Soldier!, in which a complaining private would be made to understand the importance of various army rules and regulations. The movie was never made, but, inspired by the way draftees were responding to animation in the Why We Fight films he directed, Capra reconceived Hey, Soldier! as a series of cartoons.
Capra came up with a character called “Private SNAFU,” a grumbling, naïve, incompetent GI who would be featured in a run of short black-and-white cartoons in which—usually by catastrophically negative example that more than once ended with the GI being blown to bits—he would inform young enlistees about issues such as the importance of keeping secrets and the need for mail censorship, as well as the hazards of malaria, venereal disease, laziness, gossip, booby traps, and poison gas.
To oversee the writing and production of the series, Capra recruited an editorial cartoonist from New York City who had been doing caustic satirical work for the left-wing newspaper PM. Theodor S. Geisel—later famous as Dr. Seuss—had first gotten Capra’s attention in early 1942, when he had depicted isolationist Senator Gerald Nye, one of his favorite targets, as a literal horse’s ass. Geisel was a strongly pro-Roosevelt German American who, in his single-panel sketches, had demonstrated an unerring ability to draw blood and get laughs at the same time. With a few strokes of Geisel’s remorseless pen, Hitler became a tantrum-throwing infant and isolationism was reduced to a scrawny bird being blown to kingdom come after Pearl Harbor. In several memorable drawings, famous aviator turned isolationist leader Charles Lindbergh was transmuted into an ostrich with his head in the sand and his butt—sometimes emblazoned with a disparaging message—waving in the breeze.
Capra—who eventually moved his operation back to California where it was nicknamed “Fort Fox”—sent one of his army writers, Leonard Spigelgass, to New York to recruit Geisel, and Spigelgass sent word back to his boss that “he has a remarkably good brain, and seems to me useful infinitely beyond a cartoonist.” Geisel, who had no animation or filmmaking experience, was sworn in as a captain in New York and brought west to Fort Fox, where Capra walked him through the animation studios. They ended up at the editing bays, outfitted with Moviola editing machines. “He gave me the tour,” Geisel said, “and the last thing he said was, ‘Here, Captain, are the Moviolas.’ I said, ‘What is a Moviola?’ He looked at me rather suddenly and said, ‘You will learn.’”
Disney and Warner Bros. had both put in bids to produce the SNAFU shorts, but Disney had insisted on retaining rights to the characters and images. Warner did not, and won. In a historically felicitous pairing, Capra teamed Geisel with a 30-year- old animator named Chuck Jones. For the last few years, Jones had been developing a new character named Elmer Fudd in a handful of Merrie Melodies shorts. He refined Elmer’s appearance with each new cartoon and experimented with giving him different voices. Working with Geisel, he took some early character sketches and turned Fudd into Private SNAFU.
With voice talent Mel Blanc providing voices for the characters, Geisel writing the early scripts, and a team that included not only Jones but top-flight Warner animation directors, the Private SNAFU shorts—26 would be produced over the next 18 months—were the funniest, most original, and unquestionably the raunchiest movies ever produced by the Signal Corps. Munro Leaf, a pacifist whose popular illustrated children’s story about Ferdinand the Bull had been widely viewed as an antiwar parable, also worked on the series, and Geisel and Jones took his great contribution—the advice that if they wanted GIs to pay attention they should “make it racy”—and ran with it.
That approach began with the explanation of the title in the very first cartoon—“SNAFU means Situation Normal All…Fouled Up,” says the narrator, inserting a droll pause before “fouled” that never would have passed muster with either the Production Code or Lowell Mellett, the liaison between the government and the movie industry. Geisel and Jones used the fact that the only audience for the cartoons would be adult men as a permission slip to break every barrier in the movies, and Capra gave them his blessing.
The first SNAFU shorts, which introduced the main character, the private who was always wishing for things to be different—along with his fairy godfather, “Technical Fairy, First Class”— were made for about $2,500 ($38,000 today) each. Unfolding with proto-Seussian rhyming narration that played like an early draft of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, they included words like “hell” and “damn,” fleeting cartoon nudity, burlesque jokes, toilet humor, and sometimes lines that even the creators couldn’t believe they were getting away with. “It’s so cold it would freeze the nuts off a jeep!” Geisel wrote as a dare to Jones, who promptly storyboarded a cutaway to lug nuts falling off a shivering army vehicle.
As soon as the SNAFU shorts made their 1943 appearance in the biweekly newsreels that Capra’s team also produced, they were a hit with GIs around the world. The shorts entertained the troops until late 1945, and while a second series starring Private SNAFU’s brother, Seaman TARFU, was slated, the project ended with the war.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.