Monday, January 24, 2011

Private Snafu Golden Classics

Originally released by Warner Brothers as part of the Army/Navy Screen Magazine. Released to DVD by Thunderbean Animation.

Movies and cartoons that are in the public domain tend to have both blessings and curses. On the plus side, they're easy to get. Public Domain means that the creators didn't renew their copyright when they should have, or, alternately, that the copyright is now too old to stay in effect. (Less so the second now with Disney enforcing their Mickey Mouse rules.) This means that the titles are not languishing in studio vaults, waiting for someone to release them to see if they make a buck. Anyone with a print of the film can slap it on a DVD. The drawback is that that print could be a nth-generation copy that's barely viewable. And studios have no real desire to restore and remaster public domain films, as they're already competing with 9 DVDs that have it on sale for $9.99. A good example for me is the screwball comedy Nothing Sacred, a favorite of mine. It's easily available on DVD - but looks horrible. You'd think that it was colorized from black and white, the prints are that bad. What's more, in the world of animated cartoons, you can see the same things bundled over and over together. A Corny Concerto, Fresh Hare, All This and Rabbit Stew - all these are on the same countless dollar mart VHS tapes, in the same dull, washed-out (or overly dark) prints.

It is therefore a delight when you have someone like Steve Stanchfield, the man behind Thunderbean Animation and its collections of classic animation. Steve is NOT going to put out one of these collections. He researches painstakingly and gets the best prints he can find. Private Snafu, the title I'm reviewing here, has been released complete before - as 'The Uncensored Private Snafu', among others. Heck, Warner Brothers has even released a few Snafu cartoons themselves on the Golden Collections. And yet they all had flaws (WB in particular had a print of The Goldbrick with an awful audio track). This collection here is the one where you can get all the Snafu that is currently extant, in the best prints possible, restored and remastered.

Now, on to Snafu himself. As the war began, the Army developed a film unit that was dedicated to using film to promote the war - both at home and for the soldiers fighting abroad. One of the things that they did was a newsreel devoted solely for the soldier - these were newsreels not meant for public consumption. As part of them, the army (and Frank Capra, the famous director who was in charge of the whole shebang) commissioned a series of cartoons that were designed to teach the soldier lessons using amusing 'what not to do' scenarios. Originally pitched to Disney, Schlesinger's studio put in a lower bid and won the contract. And I'm pleased that they did. I love Disney (who did cartoons like this for civilians, usually starring Donald Duck), but the zanier, more anarchic humor of Warners cartoons suited the Snafu series - and the Army - better.

Snafu, of course, stands for Situation Normal - All F... Fouled Up. The cartoons starred a schlub of a private who could usually be counted on to do the wrong thing - blab secrets, spread rumors, take poor care of his equipment, and generally be a poor soldier. They were directed by the great Warner directors of the time - Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Frank Tashlin - and the first dozen or so were written by Theodore Geisel, better known to most of you as Dr. Seuss. This is easy to tell with the first cartoons on here - Snafu speaks in Seussian rhyme, and we even see a few weird Seuss-like creatures in some cartoons like Rumors. They were about 4 minutes long each, a little over half the length of a WB cartoon at the time, so none of them wore out their welcome.

The cartoons were only meant for soldiers, so the crew got away with things that wouldn't fly if they were being cleared by the Hays commission. There are some sexy-clad women, and Snafu occasionally cusses. The worst it gets is 'damn' and 'ass', though - by today's standards, this is pretty much PG-13 at most. They tease this, in fact, when they spell out the meaning of Snafu's name - but don't use the F-word. Snafu is also killed off in several of the cartoons, but that's not unusual for the period at all, and none of the deaths are incredibly gruesome. The worst thing you can say about these today is that they do contain some grotesque Japanese stereotypes - but not as many as you'd expect, as usually Snafu was his own worst enemy.

There are 25 Snafu cartoons on this disc, along with some added extras. These include the Seaman TARFU cartoon that Harman/Ising did after the war ended, and several animated instructional videos that were also part of the Army Magazine, usually taking on topics like inflation or dysentary. My favorites in this collection include The Goldbrick, where Snafu is tempted towards laziness by a fairy who later turns out to be the enemy (and which uses Tit Willow as the medley for its rhymes, despite Gilbert & Sullivan NOT being in public domain at the time!); Booby Traps, the naughtiest cartoon of the collection, featuring Snafu being lured into a harem filled with girls who are... well, the title, and which features the origin of the 'piano explodes when Those Endearing Young Charms is played' gag; Gas, a particularly well animated cartoon showing why you need to carry your gas mask at all times (and one where Snafu actually learns his lesson!); Three Brothers, where Snafu whines about his boring Army life and finds that his brothers, also in the service, have different but equally demanding jobs; and Hot Spot, a wartime cartoon devoted to the wonders of Iran (no, really) and narrated by Satan (no, REALLY).

Surprisingly for a PD collection, there are multiple commentaries on these cartoons, from most of the modern cartoon experts. Jerry Beck, Eric Goldberg, and Mark Mayerson all have great things to say (Goldberg in particular is a great speaker), and John "Ren and Stimpy" Kricfalusi is also fun once you provide for his Bob Clampett-itis. There's also some still galleries, alternative soundtracks, etc.

Basically, if you like classic cartoons at all, this is THE collection to have for Private Snafu. Complete, uncut, the prints look fantastic, and they're all just funny stuff, from the legends of the time. You can argue that a few of them go overboard in their lecturing - but that was, after all, the point. A soldier seeing Snafu drying out his wet boots on top of a stove - which, of course, destroys the shoes much faster and makes for more $$$ spent - is going to have a laugh of recognition, because hey, who wants wet shoes, and it's fast, right? Snafu may be the guy who does nothing right, but he's not too far away from us. Heck, towards the end of this series, he even gets to be the winner once or twice!

You can purchase it here, by the way:

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