If you’re aged 4-99, you have a favorite Dr. Seuss book. Not that there’s anything wrong with being 100 and having one, but the point is that he’s a universally recognized figure in the world of children’s books – a figure that seems to move beyond his own fluffyuptious world to be lauded for his genius in all literary circles. Even if you’re the stuffiest of dusty book lover, you have a soft spot in your heart for the Lorax, or the Cat in the Hat, or Mulberry Street.
However, Dr. Seuss was a man. And like any man, his career has been varied, shaped by the times in which he lived and the causes that pervaded them. For Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, that cause was World War II.
It seems fitting that on this glorious Memorial Day weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing a different side of that colorful character – the side that produced training films for the War Department featuring the bumbling Private Snafu, bare-breasted animated women, and the kind of cornucopia of racial stereotypes that would be found in any Atomic Age production.
That other side came courtesy of the encyclopedic knowledge of film geek Dennis Nyback who came to The Loft Theater here in Tucson to deliver “The Dark Side of Dr. Seuss” – a collection of short films and propaganda from the WWII era. And, yes, since you were wondering: they were shown (projected by Nyback himself) in glorious 16mm, just as God intended.
The grainy, black and white square looked like it would have felt more at home on a pull-down screen at a stag party, but there was something transportational about seeing it on a screen made for modern flicks. It brought the subject matter into better focus. Plus, it was just plain cool seeing the films as they were originally made to be seen.
After a short introduction, a biography of Dr. Seuss that most don’t know about which highlighted his years at the humor magazine at Dartmouth, his work drawing advertising cartoons for Flit, and his signing up for the military, Nyback hustled back and started the show. For the next hour and a half, we were treated to half a dozen shorts featuring Private Snafu – a Goofus (un-Gallant) figure who fucks up so you won’t have to. He’s taught the valuable lessons that drinking alcohol can lead to spilling military secrets (and that it can lead to you getting killed), that there are booby traps around every corner in areas abandoned by the enemy, and that the folks back home are working just as hard as he is to support the war effort.
The cartoons can be viewed as historical distractions or as fascinating pieces of culture, but I think they are best when viewed from both perspectives. They have an undeniably entertaining quality about them. It’s clear to see why the military would have scrapped dry training lectures for them. Today, they hold the same effect as a teaching tool with the added bonus of a starkly different military situation. Unfortunately for us, the military situation isn’t nearly as clear – the homefront hasn’t been called to duty, the war isn’t against a patently evil figure that can act as an icon to magnetize disgust.
However, even without thinking too deeply, the cartoons have a Bugs Bunny-like quality about them (most likely because they were directed by Chuck Jones), and they deliver pure concentrated amusement and nostalgia.
Capping off each reel, Nyback included two short, live-action films. Your Job in Germany – which was directed by Frank Capra from Seuss’s script- and Our Job in Japan - which was written/directed by Seuss – are instructional films for troops taking over after the war, acting in guard and peacekeeping posts. The goal, according to both films, is to ensure that we never have a war with those countries again.
Granted, there is a certain irony to them with the glorious tool of hindsight (the crowd laughed heartily when the narrator announced that the United States would never use religion for political purposes or to advance a war agenda), but more so than the surface level ease of that irony, the films are poignant (especially on this Memorial Day weekend) because they include a visceral reminder of the cost of the war in both Germany and Japan. The United States could come off as hypocritical in voice over, but ultimately, the films played a pivotal role in the ultimate goal – a goal of peace with those two countries – which has not only been achieved but been surpassed considering that they are two of our strongest allies. In other words, they were certainly dated, but I was struck at just how prescient they both were.
Propaganda films got a horrible reputation (oddly enough because of Nazi Germany), but the study of them is far more complex. At the core of the Snafu shorts and the Job In movies is a simple, direct message communicated cleverly to a broad spectrum of people who all had an unthinkably difficult job to do. Plus, I have to agree with Nyback’s assertion that Capra’s Your Job in Germany is an unadulterated display of master filmmaking. It’s gorgeous, crafted with care, and it walks the near-impossible balance of characterizing the Japanese people in a way that most would find offensive while managing to deliver the message that they were human beings – a people we were at war with, but who demanded and deserved our care and aid in rebuilding a society for them. The political angle can be argued until steam pours out of your ears, but the film’s merits in message-delivery and craft are undeniable. A thoroughly remarkable work.
Whether you walk out of the theater smiling because of the joy of the movies or scratching your head at the depth of them, you should do yourself the favor of seeing the presentation by Nyback if you’re lucky enough to have him come to a theater near you. He’s a fount of knowledge, a rightfully respected film expert (read: fellow film geek), and he’s got a fascinating hour and change to offer.
Plus, if your interest has been piqued in our old friend Snafu, check out this short entitled “Booby Traps,” which includes a very literal interpretation of that term:
Editor’s Note: And if your Memorial Day interest has been piqued, we’ve been celebrating all week with war films. Check ‘em out here.