By Michael Rhode, with Michael Sappol
Essay originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011. Watch the films now on NLM’s Medical Movies on the Web.
Inspired by the U.S. Army’s popular “Private Snafu” animated cartoon series, late in World War II the Navy hired Hugh Harman (1908–82) to do a similar series, focused on health. Harman’s Commandments for Health may have consisted of ten short black-and-white cartoons (mirroring the Ten Commandments), but was never widely shown or distributed. Today it is extremely rare. The National Library of Medicine holds five titles; only two others are known to exist.
Harman began animating in the 1920s with Walt Disney, and moved to Warner Brothers in the 1930s. For the Navy’s McGillicuddy series he hired top talent Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny) to voice both the dimwitted Private McGillicuddy and the off-screen intelligent-regular-guy narrator. Composer Carl Stallings, another Warner Brothers stalwart, did the music. Unlike the Snafu series, the animation is jerky and backgrounds are static, sure signs that the cartoons were made quickly and cheaply. (Animation in the 1940s was labor-intensive: the more drawings the smoother the action.)
The stories all have tropical South Pacific island settings and each film follows the same formula: the main character, the hapless U.S. Marine private McGillicuddy (a Snafu clone), violates a health commandment, endangering himself (and sometimes his fellow soldiers), shortcomings that the narrator takes a bit of schadenfreude pleasure in pointing out.
In Drinking Water, Mac ignores the third commandment: “Thou shall not drink water from any source other than that designated.” Instead, unwisely using up his water and nearly baked to death under a scorching sun (drawn as a caricature of the Japanese wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo), the parched Mac jumps into a stream contaminated with a gorilla, “dead Japs,” and a native village’s latrine. (McGillicuddy cartoons contain a dose of anti-Japanese propaganda that goes over the edge into racism.) In the end Mac has to make so many urgent trips to the “head” (a toilet) that his feet dig a trench.
Personal Cleanliness also has a third commandment—another sign that the cartoons were rushed through production—“Thou shall keep thy personal habits clean.” Mac, predictably, refuses to bathe. His socks walk off by themselves, his skin itches, and slant-eyed athlete’s-foot “germs” attack his toes with saws and jackhammers. The film concludes with another set of racial stereotypes: natives who appear to be cannibals and speak in minstrel-show dialect pick him up and dump him into a kettle, but (spoiler alert) only to give him a bath.
Cleaning Mess Gear’s fifth commandment is “Thou shalt faithfully wash thy mess gear…for verily if thou become negligent in this habit thy guts shall be like knots in a wet rope.” Once again, Mac doesn’t comply. He licks his plate clean instead of sterilizing it in scalding water. Later, an x-ray view shows his intestines literally tied in knots. In the next scene, sadistic doctors subject him to a stomach pump, a huge dose of castor oil, and a 50-gallon enema.
In Use Your Head the seventh commandment is “Thou shalt not use any spots except chosen ones for the deposition of your excrement.” But Mac makes own private toilet, attracting a swarm of Japanese-featured flies that gives the whole camp dysentery. When a Japanese radio announcer thanks Mac by name, the Marines use a steam shovel to dump him and his latrine into a pit.
The McGillicuddy cartoons, designed for a male audience of sailors and marines, are mildly risqué and even descend into toilet humor (which was forbidden by censors in contemporary civilian films). Like many films of the era, shopworn racial and social stereotypes abound: Japanese figures (both insect and human) are equipped with buck-teeth and thick glasses; South Sea islanders have exaggerated African features and are depicted as cannibals; doctors are sadists; and so forth.
Michael Rhode is Archivist in the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine’s Office of Medical History and was for many years Chief Archivist of the National Museum of Health and Medicine. He is the editor of Harvey Pekar: Conversations and an editor of the International Journal of Comic Art. He is an author of the book Walter Reed Army Medical Center Centennial: A Pictorial History 1909–2009 and the exhibit catalogues Battlefield Surgery 101: From the Civil War to Vietnam and “American Angels of Mercy”: Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee’s Pictorial Record of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904.
Michael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, editor of Hidden Treasure and the author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies and How to Get Modern with Scientific Illustration (forthcoming, University of Minnesota Press, 2016).