Skip Navigation Bar

The Public Health Film Goes to War: The Films

The following motion pictures come from the collection of the National Library of Medicine. They represent only a small sampling of the Library's World War II-era public health films. The films presented here are in the public domain. They were digitally mastered from the best 16mm master prints available to us, but have a variety of minor defects-scratches, splices, fading and other problems due to age and handling.

Commandments for Health: The Private McGillicuddy Cartoons

Hugh Harman Productions, United States Navy; b&w, 1945

In 1942, the animation department of the Armed Forces Motion Picture Unit began producing a series of humorous animated cartoons featuring the bumbling "Private Snafu." Shown to millions of armed forces personnel, the Private Snafu series dealt with black marketeering, wartime censorship, the need for military discipline, and so on, but also malaria and venereal disease prevention and the physiological stress of combat.

In 1945 the U.S. Navy commissioned Hugh Harman Productions to create an entertaining cartoon series, patterned on Snafu, but dealing solely with health issues, for troops in the field. Harman was a veteran animator who had worked in 1920s with the (pre-Mickey Mouse) Walt Disney Laugh-O-Gram studio in Kansas City and in the 1930s in Hollywood on the Warner Brothers' Merrie Melodies series. The McGillicuddy cartoons had a smaller budget than Snafu - the producers saved time and money by using fewer drawings and less precise sound synchronization, which made for jagged animation and a greater reliance on voiceover narration - but the talent was top flight. Like Snafu, McGillicuddy featured the voice of Mel Blanc and music by Carl Stallings. While the director/animator is not identified, the artwork and direction has a definite Warner Brothers "feel."

The series is formulaic: each episode takes place on a South Pacific island where the dim-witted Marine Private McGillicuddy ignores a different "Commandment for Health," suffers the bodily consequences, and jeopardizes the war effort. The cartoons, aimed at a male audience of young soldiers and sailors, are mildly risqué. Unlike commercial films of the period, military cartoons were not subject to the dictates of the Hays Office, which censored what could be shown on civilian screens. The gags are corny; shopworn racial and social stereotypes abound. Flies that contaminate food are depicted as buck-toothed Japanese soldiers wearing thick glasses; South Sea islanders are given exaggerated African features and depicted as cannibals; doctors are sadists; and so forth.

Criminal at Large

Office of Malaria Control in War Areas, United States Public Health Service, color, 1943; 13:05

This "filmograph" (sequential drawings with a soundtrack) was part of a larger public health campaign against malaria that anthropomorphically represented the female Anopheles mosquito-Annie O. Pheles-as a deadly criminal. The plot features a young novice reporter at "Scoop Magazine" who tries to make good by getting a story on a "dangerous female killer" named "Annie O'Phele." Criminal at Large also features a lesson on mosquito entomology: diagrams of eggs, larva, and pupa; the difference between male and female adults; the role of the female mosquito in the transmission of malaria organisms; and the difference between different species of mosquito.

Health Education Against Malaria

Office of Malaria Control in War Areas, United States Public Health Service, with the South Carolina State Board of Health, b&w, 1944; 6:11

A teacher learns facts about malaria control and mosquito elimination in a seminar sponsored by local, state and federal public health officials. She then sets out to educate and mobilize hometown groups by lectures, field trips, individual instruction, putting up posters, distributing books - and screening a film - a coordinated campaign. Set in the pre-DDT era, in racially segregated South Carolina, mosquito elimination is treated as a project that requires the cooperation of the entire populace, white and black. The film is notable for its respectful depiction of black people, which represents a cautious tilt toward racial egalitarianism. Rural poor whites are shown in a less favorable light. Their poverty, ignorance, inertia, and fatalism are presented as obstacles to progress in the campaign against the mosquito and mosquito-borne diseases. (Malaria in turn is depicted as an obstacle to the improvement of poor whites because it causes fatigue and exhaustion.) The focus on the "backwardness" of the white rural poor is one of the characteristic tropes of 1930s and 40s Southern progressivism.

Soldier from the Tropics

Office of War Information, Bureau of Motion Pictures, 1943; 10:00

This film shows how malaria contracted in non-American tropical locations may accidentally spread to the mainland United States. Set in a Southern city in a subtropical region, where a "milder," "endemic kind" of malaria is often present, the film shows how a soldier who has served in the tropics becomes a vector of infection, and the local conditions that harbor mosquitoes and facilitate the spread of the disease. The goal is to document and encourage public support for measures aimed at prevention and treatment (in the era before DDT came to the fore). The ideological tone is egalitarian and progressive: malarial disease attacks all segments of the public: black and white, children and adults, soldiers and civilians; a mobilized public is the best defense. Most of the film features narration over silent footage, but a few medical scenes-the doctor's office, the county health office-include some dialogue.

DDT: Weapon Against Disease

United States War Dept., Army Pictorial Service, U.S. Signal Corps, b&w, 1945; 14:37

During World War II, the U.S. military began using DDT, the first effective industrially-produced insecticide. This film publicizes its discovery, its effectiveness against disease-carrying lice, mosquitoes, and flies, and its first applications. DDT was regarded as a revolutionary discovery that would not only help the allies win the war against "the fascists," but also a larger "war against disease." This film is marked by an exuberant technological optimism: DDT would usher in a new era in which disease would be eradicated. The film is also notable for its representation of global biopolitics: disease is identified with the teeming overpopulated Asiatic East; the conquest of disease is identified with Europe and America (without acknowledging that historically European colonialism did much to spread disease among subject peoples). Film footage of masses of Muslims at prayer and other Asian scenes are taken from much older, probably silent, movies, a good example of the way in which many public health films often recycled footage.

The Silent War: Colombia’s Fight against Yellow Fever

Documentary Film Productions; Willard Van Dyke and Ben Maddow; New York, 1943; 10:00

Willard Van Dyke and Ben Maddow, acclaimed documentary filmmakers, shot this film on location in the Colombian jungle and highlands. In the genre of Robert Flaherty-style ethnographic documentary (an idiosyncratic choice for a public health film), The Silent War focuses on the heroic measures taken by the U.S. and Colombian governments to eradicate yellow fever. The campaign is described as part of a larger war-time effort to prevent disease in tropical regions around the world-even though Latin America was not a battleground in World War II. The anti-yellow fever effort involves both laboratory research and a vaccination program that reaches into remote jungle and mountain areas. The film ends with a patriotic flourish: "now safe from yellow fever, our men are free to fight the most deadly disease of all-fascism."

It's Up to You: Dengue-Yellow Fever Control

Office of Malaria Control in War Areas, United States Public Health Service, color, 1945; 17:20

This film shows how community public health mobilization can control Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to prevent dengue and yellow fever. Although Tampa, Florida is used as a representative Southern city, a troop of black Boy Scouts are the only African-Americans shown. The multimedia campaign against mosquitoes features film screenings in movie theatres and schools ("the children are impressed…they are the citizens of tomorrow"), mass distribution of pamphlets, radio public service announcements ("most effective in reaching the housewife"), shop window exhibits, continuous newspaper coverage, and awards to citizens who comply. The film promotes voluntary campaigns over government-mandated action as more suited to a democratic society. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts act as volunteer visitors to homes and other areas where mosquitoes breed. Containers that collect stagnant water are overturned, punctured, and then collected for recycling. Ponds and other small bodies of water are stocked with mosquito larva-eating minnows (no insecticides are used). Implicitly, war mobilization is the model for the anti-mosquito mobilization.

Local Health Problems in a War Industry Area

New York State Dept. of Health, b&w, 1942; 12:57

Sanitary problems occur when 9,000 people in search of employment descend on a tiny town in Seneca County, New York, where a war industry plant is established. Local Health Problems documents the problems and the efforts of local and state public health officers to solve them. This low-budget, state-funded production, is essentially a silent film with narrator and generic music added. It serves as an example of how progressive state bureaucracies also adopted the activist mode of New Deal/war-time government. The film includes some evocative "Grapes of Wrath"-like moments, which show the Great Depression lingering on into the 1940s.

Save a Day

Federal Security Agency, U.S. Public Health Service; b&w, 1941; 12:00

In this film industrial health hazards, and the illnesses, accidents and deaths caused by them, are treated as both a public health problem and a threat to the war effort. Save a Day is a typical low-budget film, outfitted with a "March of Time" stentorian narrator and canned music, and makes liberal use of stock silent footage. The emphasis is on the need for preventive measures and for medical research-the film has many scenes of workers on assembly lines and other workplaces, along with shots of National Institutes of Health scientists in their laboratories, x-rays, and industrial hygiene engineers.

Strictly Personal

Army Pictorial Service Corps, b&w, 1945; 35:00

This film instructs Army enlisted women on how to remain in the best physical condition for performing assigned duties. Advice is given on diet, sleep, exercise, posture, girdles, shoes and stockings, foot care, bodily cleanliness, hair care, skin diseases, head and body lice, dental hygiene, constipation, the female reproductive system, menstruation, and other topics. Short segments of animated cartoons and animated diagrams illustrate anatomical structures and functions, and contemporary ideals of feminine beauty. The film features mainly onscreen female narrators, who adopt a commonsensical but humorous tone.

Winky the Watchman

Hugh Harman Productions, Tennessee Dept. of Public Health, with the United States Public Health Service, color, 1945; 9:53

This wartime dental film, produced by Hugh Harman, with uncredited animators, probably Shamus Culhane), uses industrial warfare as a metaphor for the battle between tooth decay and dentistry. In live action, a dentist seats four children in his waiting room and tells a story about a city defended by beautiful white walls that look like teeth. The film then shifts to animation. The walls/teeth are guarded by Winky, a careless watchman. While Winky dozes, demonic dark blobs (the "bad uns") storm the walls, attack the teeth with picks, catapults, dynamite, battering rams, etc. Winky wakes up and races to summon the "good uns," benign-looking orange blobs who ride white horses, drive white tanks, and fly white airplanes. A mammoth battle ensues. The "bad uns" are routed, but the walls have been devastated - the mouth looks like the ruined cities of Europe after aerial and artillery bombardment. The "good uns" then repair the walls, setting up scaffolding, hauling in supplies. When the walls are fixed (the cavities filled in), they are turned back over to Winky with instructions to guard the city vigilantly. The film then returns to live action. The dentist identifies himself as a "good un" and urges early and regular visits to the dentist to insure dental health. (Unusually, for a dental film, there is no mention of the role of regular brushing in preventing tooth decay.)

The Inside Story

Paramount Pictures for the U.S. Coast Guard, b&w, 1944; 26:00

This film deals with the typical emotional problems suffered by men entering the military service and how they should be treated. A sailor suffers from knee pain. He goes to the base doctor who finds nothing wrong and refers him to the base psychiatrist. The psychiatrist reassures the sailor and explains how psychosomatic disease arises - in a charming cartoon sequence that gives a Freudian interpretation of how repression and anxiety work in the mental structure and body of an individual. (The individual animators are uncredited.) Moving from animation back to live action, the seaman realizes that his symptoms are caused by trauma suffered when he was a child, anxiety due to isolation from family and familiar circumstances, the pressures of military training, lack of privacy in barracks life, inability to make friends with peers, and worry about his job performance. The psychiatrist gives him reading material to guide him in his recovery. The seaman shares his reading material and new self-knowledge with his buddies. They too suffer from the effects of anxiety, which are depicted in a series of clumsy day-dream sequences.

Fight Syphilis

Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, U.S. Public Health Service, Federal Security Agency; written by Oscar Saul; photography, James Lillis; music, Tom Bennett; directed by Owen Murphy; b&w, 1942; 9:00

Fight Syphilis was designed to educate military personnel and the civilian public about the problem of syphilis, as a part of the war mobilization effort. Idiosyncratic, but fairly well-produced, the film tries to orchestrate the emotions of viewers, beginning with a tale of a syphilis-ravaged World War I veteran "struck by an enemy in the blood," a darkly moody score, and over-the-top scenes that try to scare the viewer to avoid sexual contact that could lead to infection, and to consult a legitimate physician for diagnosis and treatment of existing problems. Ostensibly aimed at a male viewership, the focus is on the individual's responsibility to avoid bars, dance floors and dark parts of the city where temptations lurk and, failing that, to get reliable medical tests and treatment. The film emphasizes the dangers of believing in the false promises of "quack" practitioners. Shots include views of laboratory testing, a brief animated film showing how the disease can spread over the city, and a montage of quack remedies for venereal disease. Unlike many other VD films, Fight Syphilis omits any depiction of diseased male genitals. (Note: Fight Syphilis also exists in a longer version, which includes a section on the problem of fetal and infant infection.)

To the People of the United States

Walter Wanger, California Dept. of Public Health, U.S. Public Health Service, b&w, 1944; 20:00

In the 1920s, '30s and '40s, Walter Wanger (1894-1968) produced films for Paramount, MGM, United Artists and other studios, including the Marx Brothers' Cocoanuts (1929), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Stagecoach (1939), and Foreign Correspondent (1940). When the United States entered the war in 1941, Wanger recognized there would be an increasing need for well-produced educational and propaganda films. To the People of the United States, unlike most other VD films, was intended for a general audience, and omits any depiction of diseased genitals or deliberately eschews visual sensationalism. The film takes the form of a reasoned argument for governmental, social and individual action to prevent and treat VD, and attributes American inaction to irrational stigmatization and embarrassment. The enlightened approach of Scandinavian countries is contrasted to the unenlightened American approach. Danish actor Jean Hersholt stars; actor Robert Mitchum and U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran (1892-1968) also make appearances.