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LENGTH: 9 min
CATEGORY: Educational & Instructional, Sound, Black & White
DIRECTOR: Owen Murphy
PRODUCER/PUBLISHER: Sound Masters with United States Public Health Service
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 into avoiding sexual contact that could lead to infection, and to consult a legitimate physician for diagnosis and treatment of existing problems.
Stills from Fight Syphilis
Other Films Featured in the Essay
Explore thirteen films considered in the “Public Health Films Go to War” essay.
In the Collections of the National Library of Medicine
Prints & Photographs Collection
These posters, produced by or for the U.S. military in conjunction with campaigns that also employed films, come from the Prints and Photographs collection of the National Library. Explore these and more from the NLM’s Images in the History of Medicine.
Historical Audiovisuals Collection
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.
Disclaimer: These films depict ethnic, gender and racial stereotypes that were once commonplace in American society. We present them here as historical artifacts, valuable documents of the cultural practices of their time. Viewer discretion advised.
Read the Essay “The Five Commandments“
Guide to Tropical Disease Motion Pictures and Audiovisuals
The Tropical Disease Motion Picture and Audiovisual Collection is comprised of films, videorecordings, and digital videocasts produced from the 1920s through 2009, with the majority shot prior to the 1960s. All are devoted to health concerns and include material on medicine and public health. Materials range from ideological, documentary, educational, and training films to American war propaganda. The intended audience is diverse and includes military personnel, health professionals, and the general public. The collection will be of particular interest to scholars concerned with the social, economic, and political implications of health disparities in a world where epidemics travel with great rapidity across national and regional borders. Explore the Guide.
Explore first aid manuals, pamphlets, and other documents in this digitized set of World War II materials held at NLM.
View digitized films on tropical disease.
Related Resources from the National Library of Medicine
Read blog posts on topics related to World War II based on research in the NLM collections.
See current information from MedlinePlus on tropical disease and military health topics.
Articles and Websites
See World War II: A Resource Guide from the US Library of Congress.
Watch these World War I and World War II films from the US National Archives and Records Administration.