Sometimes it is hard to remember why people fight. We believe our lives are so different, so far removed from the people who lived in those times or in those places. The battles seem like nothing more than a recitation of now meaningless names and dates. We don’t understand how or why. We begin to forget.
Film is an excellent media to help remind us that those half-forgotten battles were fought by men and women. Through film we can see that those old combatants were really people just like us, with hopes and dreams and lives just like us. Their films show us how they were, how they hoped they were, and, sometimes, how they feared they were.
Animated shorts, cartoons, can show us even more about those people and their times and those battles we barely remember. These short little films show us what those people laughed about. These images are what they found amusing. These images are what helped unite people in a cause and also what helped give people some relief from the stress of their battles. People watched these cartoons and sat back and relaxed and, for a short time, forgot the danger and the bloodshed that seemed to fill their lives. They laughed.
Now, modern viewers, be warned. These animated shorts may be called “cartoons” but some of them are definitely not for children. These shorts were made for adult military service people, for the men and women who decided, for many reasons, that there was a goal, a reason, a dream that was worth the sacrifice of their lives. We all owe these people a huge thank you.
Our first two shorts were made and released during the 1930s but the characters and stories are set during World War I. These are very violent cartoons. Characters are repeatedly endangered, shot, blown up, killed. One scene even shows a grinning soldier turning his weapon on the viewing audience – on us. It is easy for even modern eyes to see how an old, barely-remembered battle has forever traumatized those who experienced it.
Bosko the Doughboy (1931)
Bosko is a very controversial character. He was created by animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. They worked for Walt Disney in the 1920s but dreamed of starting their own animation studio. Bosko, a talking dancing character, was created in part because .Harman and Ising wanted to break into the new “talkie” craze that was beginning to sweep the country. Harman registered Bosko at the copyright office in 1928 as a “Negro boy” although Ising long claimed that Bosko was just “an inkspot sort of thing” and neither an animal or human. They based Bosko’s looks on the popular animated character Felix the Cat and gave him a personality straight from the blackface characters popular in minstrel shows and vaudeville. Bosko is always happy and always singing and dancing and can play any musical instrument. He speaks with a falsetto voice and, in some cartoons, with an “exaggerated version of black speech”. ( ) Some people consider Bosko to be a racist portrayal although some historians do point out that Harman and Ising generally stayed away from negative stereotypes (gambling, watermelons) and that their Bosko was one of “the most balanced portrayal of blacks in a cartoon to that point”.
Bosko the Doughboy is actually almost a complete departure from the usual cartoon formula of the Bosko series. Bosko is not singing and dancing in this cartoon. There are many scenes of soldiers getting shot and blown up. Including one scene of a soldier being, literally, shot down to size. Bosko, at first, just wants to enjoy his food. But his girlfriend’s photograph getting shot up sparks him to want revenge. By the end of the short, Bosko is trying to rescue his injured friend from the battlefield. Bosko the Doughboy has a crisp and clear picture and the audio is excellent. It is in black-and-white and runs just short of seven minutes. There is a last in-your-face bit of racism at the very end when Bosko gets blown up and covered in black dust. He flings his arms out and yells “Mammy!” just like a blackfaced Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.
Boom Boom (1936)
Boom Boom, also set during World War I, was released on February 29, 1936 and features Beans the Cat and Porky Pig as doughboys. Beans the Cat was an early Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies character that never really panned out. However, Porky Pig, definitely the sidekick in this cartoon, was the first character created by the studio that went on to draw large audiences based on his own star power. He went on to star in a number of critically acclaimed shorts.
This is an early version of Porky Pig and, in Boom Boom, he definitely plays second fiddle to Beans the Cat. Beans is the knowledgeable friend. Porky is quaking and quivering in fear of the fighting and just wants to go home. Although he does “snap out of it” and go along with Beans to rescue General Hardtack from the enemy. This animated short has many violent scenes of fighting and soldiers getting shot. Porky is visibly distressed; sweating and shaking and desperate to hide. There is a disturbing scene featuring General Hardtack being tied up and tortured by enemy soldiers. They hold a lighted match to the bottom of his feet. There is also a racist portrayal of a Japanese soldier with stereotypical big teeth. Boom Boom is a bit blurry but still watchable and the audio is excellent. Boom Boom is in black-and-white and runs seven and a half minutes.
The next three animated shorts were all made for the United States military. They represent three series of instructional videos designed to teach US servicemen with limited literary skills what they should and should not do. Designed for adult men, all three series feature simple language but some profanity, racy illustrations with scantily clad or even semi-nude women, and subtle moralizing. The main characters sometimes end of dead and even in hell because of their own stupidity.
Spies (1943) – Private Snafu series
Spies is the third animated short in the Private Snafu series of 27 cartoons. It was released on August 9, 1943. SNAFU is an unofficial military acronym for Situation Normal: All Fucked Up! And perfectly describes the bumbling, dim-witted Private Snafu. Warner Brothers made the Private Snafu shorts for the US military. Each short took about 6 weeks to produce and the studio had great latitude in what they could do to keep the stories entertaining. Especially since they were not subject to the Motion Picture Production Code and could get quite risque for the times. On the other hand, the US War Department had to approve the storyboards and the Private Snafu shorts were considered “classified government documents”. This meant that the studio staff had to be fingerprinted and given FBI security clearances. They had to wear ID badges at all times and were only given 10 animation cels at a time to prevent them from figuring out the story content.
The legendary Mel Blanc provides all the voices in Spies. This short, like many others in the series, was written by the fantastic Theodore Geisel aka Dr. Seuss. Just listen to the first lines of Spies as Private Snafu boasts about a secret: “I just learned a secret. It’s a honey! It’s a pip! But the enemy is listening, so I’ll never let it slip. ‘Cause when I learned a secret, boy, I zipper up my lip!” The theme of Spies, is literally “Loose Lips Sink Ships”. Enemy spies are lurking everywhere, including racist Japanese stereotypes with glasses and big teeth and super sexy female spies. Even though Private Snafu is determined to keep his big “secret”, his every little seemingly innocent comment (even a phone call to his mother) is gathered and put together by the spies until the “secret” is out of the bag. Private Snafu ends up blown up, killed, and doomed to Hell, where he angrily demands “Now, who in hell do you s’pose it was that let my secret out?” The devil, a stereotypical Nazi with thick accent, replies: “Vat vas dat I herd you zey, my little zauerkraut?” and shows the private a mirror which frames his face then morphs into (literally) a horse’s ass. Spies has a nice clear picture and excellent audio. It is in black-and-white and runs three minutes 43 seconds.
The Good Egg (1945) – Navy Seaman Mr. Hook series
The Good Egg is part of a four short series created for the US Navy during World War II. The Navy Seaman Mr. Hook cartoons were intended only for US servicemen. Since the general public was never supposed to see them, the cartoons get a bit risque, especially for the time. The series was “created exclusively as propaganda to encourage Navy personnel to purchase War Bonds”.
In The Good Egg, Navy Seaman Mr. Hook is awaken from a sound sleep by a tiny devil who urges him to spend all his money instead of “throwing dough away” on war bonds. A tiny angel appears to argue the other case and the two tiny characters quickly come to blows. Mel Blanc is the voices of the devil and the angel while Arthur Lake, best known as Dagwood Bumstead in the comedy film, radio, and television series based on the Blondie comic strip, is the voice of Mr. Hook. The Good Egg is in black and-white (although one cartoon in the series is in color) and runs just over three minutes. The images are clear and crisp and the audio excellent.
Use Your Head (1945) – Private McGillicuddy / Commandments for Health series
Use Your Head was released in December 1945 and is part of the Private McGillicuddy / Commandments for Health series. The US Navy commissioned a series of seven entertaining animated shorts, patterned after Private Snafu. The Navy films focus solely on health issues for troops in the field. The Private McGllicuddy / Commandments for Health shorts had a much smaller budget than the Private Snafu shorts. The producers tried to save both time and money but cutting down the number of drawings used. This resulted in a more jagged animation with less precise sound synchronization. Although there were also moments of full animation.
Use Your Head features a soldier who interrupts his duty peeling potatoes because he has to….go. In the whiny words of the hapless soldier: “I gotta go to the toilet!” The narrator hammers the Commandment home: “In other words, that means use your head. Avoid contaminating any area which could result in dysentery for your entire unit!” Evil racist bugs that look like stereotypical Japanese (that same old glasses, big teeth, funny accent thing) sniff around the potty chair then head off to the mess tent and the rest of the camp. Before long every soldier in camp is in the hospital tent with diarrhea and Japanese radio is boasting about the spreading sickness. The troops are not too happy with McGillicuddy’s careless ways and dump him (literally) in the head. Use Your Head is in black-and-white and runs just short of five minutes. The video is clear and the audio excellent but the cheap jerkiness of the animation is not my favorite style.
Our final three animated shorts feature some very popular cartoon characters. But these shorts are very rarely seen any more. Most of the wartime cartoons were shelved after the conflict ended because the studios worried that changing times meant the stereotypes common during war were now offensive to viewers.
Spinach Fer Britain (1943) – Popeye the Sailor
Spinach Fer Britain was a Popeye the Sailor “anti-Nazi propaganda cartoon”. It was produced by Famous Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures. The cartoon was released on January 22, 1943. Directed by Izzy Sparber, Jack Mercer was the voice of Popeye. Mercer was the voice of Popeye from 1935 until 1984.
Spinach Fer Britain has Popeye sailing a ship loaded with crates of spinach for the relief of Great Britain. A Nazi submarine is rampaging about, blowing up a houseboat, a sea bird, and even another Nazi sub. The Nazi sub (with two stereotyped Nazis who keep jumping up and yelling “Heil Hitler!”) repeatedly attacks poor Popeye but Popeye keeps salvaging some kind of sea worthy craft and the cans of spinach. Finally, Popeye’s luck runs out and the sub shoots him. Our favorite sailor slowly sinks to the bottom of the sea. But all is not lost: Popeye has one last can of spinach in his shirt. Spinach Fer Britain is in black-and-white and runs six minutes 18 seconds. Video is clear but a bit faint I thought. Audio is excellent.
Daffy – The Commando (1943) – Daffy Duck
Daffy – The Commando stars Daffy Duck, a hugely popular “screwball” from Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. ( ) Daffy starred in 133 animated shorts during the Golden Age of American Animation putting him in second place after bugs Bunny (166 shorts) and Porky Pig (159). Daffy starred in several World War II cartoons. In Daffy – The Commando, the screwy black duck, takes on a Nazi officer in the form of a hulking bird named Von Vultur. Von Vultur also has a short sidekick named Schulz who bares the brunt of Von Vultur’s temper tantrums. Daffy parachutes behind enemy lines and makes life miserable for the enemy by pulling all kinds of tricks on them. Characters get bopped on the head with a hammer repeatedly and Daffy even manages to take a hammer to Hitler himself.
Daffy – The Commando is in color and was released on November 20, 1943. There are two particularly clever scenes. First, is a scene where Daffy, on a pay phone, speaks in “semi-correct German” to Von Vulture while holding cue cards with English translations. In one conversation, Daffy says: “Bitte, mein Herr, haben Sie ein Pfennigstuck?” (“Please, my lord, have you a one pfennig coin?”) while waving a cue card proclaiming: “Got a nickel. Bud?” In a cute switch, Daffy finishes the scene by speaking in English while holding a cue card with the German translation. Second, at the very end, Adolf Hitler is illustrated by rotoscoping for a very nice realistic effect. Daffy – The Commando is in color and runs seven minutes and 22 seconds. The images are crisp, clear, and bright and the audio is excellent.
Herr Meets Hare (1945) – Bugs Bunny
Herr Meets Hare was released on January 13, 1945 and stars the Bugs Bunny, most popular character from the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series. Bugs is literally an American cultural icon. He has “appeared in more films then any other cartoon character”, starred in cartoons, feature films, TV series, comic books, and more and even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Herr Meets Hare was one of the last of Warner Brother’s wartime cartoons. It was released just four months and 27 days before Adolf Hitler committed suicide.
Herr Meets Hare features “Fatso” Hermann Göring prancing around the Black Forest in lederhosen. Enter Bugs Bunny who is completely lost. Bugs says one of his funniest catch phrases for the first time: “I KNEW I shoulda made dat left toin in Albakoikie!” (Albuquerque, New Mexico). The chase is on and the insults fly. There is a big change of pace midway as Bugs, disguised as a Valkyrie, rides a huge horse into the forest. Fatso, overcome with a love of opera, tears off his clothes to reveal a skimpy Viking costume and the two enemies prance and dance around a forest clearing. Eventually, Fatso manages to stuff Bugs in a bag and deliver him to Hitler (love this quote – Fatso: “Heil him!” Hitler: “Heil me!”) But Bugs scares the two top Nazis by disguising himself as Stalin. Herr Meets Hare is in color and runs seven minutes 14 seconds. The images are crisp, clear, and bright and the audio excellent.
These shorts, and many more World War II animated shorts, are available FREE on the Internet Archive just click each link and watch online or download:
Bosko the Doughboy
Spies – Version #1 and Version #2
The Good Egg
Use Your Head
Spinach Fer Britain
Daffy – The Commando
Herr Meets Hare – Version #1 and Version #2