During this holiday season, like so many before, millions of people will watch the Grinch vent his spleen on Whoville, descending like Krampus Claus with his poor dog in tow to loot the town of Christmas presents and cheer.
The classic story sprang from the imagination of Theodore Geisel, better known by his pen name Dr. Seuss. Chuck Jones, the animator who gave us Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, brought Geisel’s Grinch to life with pen and ink.
That two of the greatest great cartoonists of the 20th century should team up seems obvious given their chosen medium, but their collaboration actually began two decades before How the Grinch Stole Christmas premiered on television in 1966.
In October 1942 the First Motion Picture Unit—the FMPU—of the U.S. Army Air Force set up shop at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California.
The famous staff of Fort Roach included Clark Gable, William Holden and a B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan. Another officer of the FMPU, Maj. Frank Capra, later gained Christmas immortality with the postwar film It’s A Wonderful Life.
The FMPU created hundreds of training films and propaganda pieces during the war. Its other missions included training combat cameramen and preparing special training aids for the B-29 crews bombing Japan.
Giant highly-detailed models of Japanese cities, constructed and filmed using special-effects methods, familiarized bomber crews with their targets and observing conditions.
The FMPU relied on other Hollywood techniques to keep weary troops engaged in the subject matter. Capt. Geisel, fresh from a stint creating posters for the Treasury Department and War Production Board, became the commander of the Animation Department.
The fighting animators
Jones joined other animators working with Geisel, including fellow Warner Brothers artists Friz Freleng and Rudolph Ising and Disney artist Frank Thomas.
One young animator named Ray Harryhausen brought his stop-motion skills to bear on wartime storytelling. Chief Petty Officer Hank Ketcham, the creator of Dennis the Menace, also served in the unit.
Under Geisel’s direction, the Animation Department produced funny, lively shorts on everything from flying aircraft to avoiding venereal disease. Its most famous films featured Private Snafu, the hapless, foolish Elmer Fudd-like soldier who encouraged troops not to be “that guy” in their unit.
Snafu’s name derived from a favorite military expression—“situation normal, all fouled up.” That’s the polite version, at least.
Animation proved especially adept at conveying information. Jones observed that real soldiers could rarely act and actors playing soldiers weren’t taken seriously. Cartoons got the point across. “The 25 or 30 Snafu pictures were made to save soldiers’ lives,” Jones recalled.
One cartoon addressed the tropical diseases that took a heavy toll on American troops in the Pacific. The animators under Dr. Seuss equated mosquitoes with camp-followers.
Anopheles Annie, voiced by a husky-toned actress, took aim at Pvt. Snafu as he bathed naked in an open pond. She dive-bombed him and missed, but the palm tree she hit underwent all the symptoms of yellow fever—and soldiers got the point about open bathing, atropine and mosquito nets.
Just as the troops of Fort Roach were allowed some latitude in military discipline, so the cartoons of the Animation Department were permitted to use language verboten in other films.
In one film about the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands, the animators threw in a risque joke to keep the viewers engaged. “We opened up with the wind blowing and the narrator saying, ‘Cold—cold enough to freeze the nuts off a jeep.’ And we had a jeep and a couple nuts fell off it. But we had their attention, right?”
After the war, the men of the FMPU returned to their entertainment careers. Several films made by the unit were either nominated or won Academy Awards. Geisel received the Legion of Merit for his service.
While Jones and other Warner Brothers animators educated the public on the superiority of wit over bullying through the antics of Bugs Bunny and friends, Dr. Seuss attacked the problem of childhood literacy. In The Cat in the Hat, he used only 220 words any first grader should know—and made them memorably easy to learn.
By the early 1960s, both Dr. Seuss and Jones had achieved great success and were ready for new projects. Jones left Warner Brothers to strike out on his own and Geisel—famously protective of his properties—wanted the right person to bring his stories to life. He and Jones connected.
In one of those magical occasions when the stars align and good things come to pass, the two cartoonists found backing for their Christmas project … and a market in television.
Like the star on the top of Cindy-Lou’s Christmas tree, Geisel and Jones obtained the services of the star Boris Karloff to voice the Grinch and narrate the film—his last movie performance before he died.
Just as they did during the war, in How The Grinch Stole Christmas Geisel and Jones applied the magic of animation to save lives—at least metaphorically.
For by teaching anew in a funny fashion how the spirit of giving lets us keep on living, the two masters of the lively art keep fighting the good fight for the good in us all.