Saturday 25 February 2012

Trigger Joe

You can probably divide the cartoons of the Golden Age of Animation into two categories—theatrical and non-theatrical. Theatricals are, of course, Looney Tunes, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye and so on, seen on TV by several generations. Non-theatricals are more obscure because, conversely, they have never been seen on TV by several generations. Some are industrial films, like some of the lovely and amusing cartoons from the John Sutherland studio paid for by companies or institutions to push their particular point of view. And then there are cartoons designed strictly for military use, especially during World War Two.

The ‘Snafu’ series is probably the best-known, brought to light by fans of the great Warner Bros. cartoons who wanted to see how their favourite directors and animators handled instructional subjects for a military audience. But there were others, some of which were made by the military itself in the First Motion Picture Unit studio at the old Hal Roach studio.

One series of these starred Mel Blanc as “Trigger Joe”. At least some were directed by Frank Thomas of the Disney studio and the animation staff included John Hubley, Bill Hurtz and Willis Pyle. Hurtz describes Joe as “kind of based on Bill Bendix, a heavy Brooklyn type” (Enchanted Drawings, Charles Solomon); Bendix was best known as the star of “Life of Riley” on radio.

Interestingly, “Trigger Joe” was featured in the Hollywood column in papers subscribing to the National Enterprise Association. It was a bit of wartime propaganda itself, with a message to people who felt that if you weren’t a G.I., you were an unpatriotic slacker.

In Hollywood
By Erskine Johnson
(NEA Staff Corespondent)
Hollywood—The screen has a new feminine star—a streamlined, glamorous lady called the B-29.
We’ve just seen her first starring picture, “Target Tokyo,” and she’s a killer-diller.
You fly with her on the world’s longest bombing mission — 10,000 miles—from Grand Island, Neb., to Tokyo. You see how men are trained to fly her and to man her guns.
No other wartime motion picture has seen quite as exciting, or timely, with wonderful scenes of these giant Superfortresses in formation flight, landing on Saipan’s airstrip, flying over Iwo Jima and dropping bombs on the heart of Tokyo.
History of the first B-29 group to bomb the Jap capital, the film is another Army Air Force documentary filmed in the manner of “The Memphis Belle.” Eight Army cameramen and two writers made the 10,000-mile trip to get the celluloid story, which you’ll be seeing soon in your neighborhood theater.
We saw the picture after signing our life away at a guarded gate and putting on a big “VISITOR” badge at the 18th Army Air Forces Base Unit (Motion Picture Unit) at Culver City, Calif.
Comedy Center
Before the war this base unit was the Hal Roach studio, home of slapstick comedy. Last time we sat in a projection room there we saw Stan Laurel throwing a custard pie at Oliver Hardy. There were photographs of girls in bathing suits on office walls and members of the “Our Gang” comedy studied in a little red schoolhouse next to Stage 3.
Now the Army boys there have produced 230 training and documentary pictures since October of 1942—more than any other Hollywood studio. The bathing suit photographs on office walls have been replaced with photographs of guys wearing oxygen suits and of airplane wings and motors and machine guns.
The B-29 is the current big star of the lot. She just completed another role in a movie a half hour longer than “Gone With the Wind.” You will never see it, though. It’s a maintenance-instruction film for B-29 mechanics and crew members only. There’s so much to learn from the picture that it is being shown as a six-part serial.
But speaking of stars, the studio boys won’t let you overlook “Trigger Joe,” an animated cartoon character dreamed up by the studio for “position firing” training films. “Position Firing” is the latest wrinkle in air combat, but it is so intricate that Army instructors were taking 14 days to teach its finer points.
Time Slashed
The Air Corps brass hats said this was much too slow, so the Motion Picture Unit dreamed up “Trigger Joe” and starred him in a 12-minute instruction film. What took 14 days to learn is now learned in 12 minutes.
Naturally, most of the work done by the Motion Picture Unit is secret. Some of the Hollywood lads have taken a ribbing for fighting the war on a sound stage in Culver City. But brother, when a little thing like “Trigger Joe” can cut a training schedule from 14 days to 12 minutes, the boys behind the camera are helping win the war, too.

We can’t postulate how entertaining Joe was, but he certainly was effective. A study was done in 1947 comparing instruction using the Trigger Joe cartoon, a 50-page pocket-sized manual and a half-hour lecture with 19 slides made from illustrations in the manual. Tests on cadets showed Trigger Joe was far superior in teaching position firing than the other two media. And, to quote one source:

Amusingly enough, when Trigger Joe was put in the ten-cent viewing machines in the Fort Meyers commissary, soldiers preferred watching it to the Dinah Shore films that were also available.

A shame it isn’t readily available for animation fans to see.


  1. Actually Jim, this Turtle has one of the original Trigger Joe model sheets lurking about. The staff also included Norm McCabe and Berny Wolf (late of the Schlesinger and MGM studios).

    Now if the Trigger Joe shorts were just readily available...