It Started With a Pig
More than just cartoons, the early Porky Pig one-reelers signify a major shift in the history of animation.
Porky Pig in 1939’s ‘The Film Fan,’ directed by Bob Clampett PHOTO: WARNER BROS. HOME ENTERTAINMENT
By Will Friedwald
Sept. 12, 2017 4:21 p.m. ET
‘I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing,” Walt Disney famously said, “that it was all started by a mouse.” True enough. But in 1937, just when Disney was about to release the first of the classic features that would establish his dominance over the animated film industry, an underpaid, ragtag group of cartoonists on the other side of Hollywood was beginning to challenge Uncle Walt by formulating the style that would represent the first viable, enduring alternative to Disney.
And for the Warner Bros. cartoon studio, it all started with a pig.
Those groundbreaking results—the Looney Tunes starring Porky Pig, produced between 1935 and 1943—have just been released as “Porky Pig 101,” a five-DVD package from the Warner Archive Collection featuring 101 black-and-white one-reelers (as well as three bonus films and numerous commentary tracks). It is the last significant group of Warners cartoons never to have been comprehensively released before on home video.
Apart from being very funny and highly entertaining cartoons, these rarely shown one-reelers signify a major shift in the history of animation, film and the larger culture. They also show how three of the greatest directors in the history of comedy—Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin and Bob Clampett —all jump started their careers with Porky Pig.
The cartoons are also a time capsule of the late Depression and early wartime years, with the period’s vintage songs, references to cultural figures from radio, the movies and even politics—and also, alas, long-outdated racial attitudes.
There were essentially two modes of expression in the Hollywood studio cartoon: the Disney style and that of Warner Bros. Disney strove for believable narrative and overwhelming naturalism—even in a fantasy like his 1937 milestone, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Conversely, the Warners style, which is often conflated with that of Avery, its most innovative director, came to mean uproarious, fast-paced and often transgressively violent humor in which characters frequently violate the fourth wall and confront you with their artificiality.
When Warners began releasing cartoon shorts in 1930, its earliest efforts were understandably in the Disney mold, primarily because they were the work of two of Disney’s former key collaborators, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. By 1935 a new team was in place, only loosely supervised by studio owner Leon Schlesinger, a laissez-faire capitalist who was inclined to give his creative staff a free hand. That year, Warners released a cartoon called “I Haven’t Got a Hat” introducing a group of animal schoolchildren, and the one who began to attract notice was a certain pig with a speech impediment. Within a year, he was starring in his own series of shorts, and before 1936 was over, Porky Pig was rapidly becoming the embodiment of a whole new kind of animated film.
Avery rightfully gets most of the credit for this “second wave” of Hollywood animation, and his innovations are unmistakable even in his first film—Porky’s second appearance—“Gold Diggers of ’49” (1935): There’s already a much faster tempo and a heightened, wise-guy attitude.
Still, the first major director to guide Porky to greatness was Tashlin, later a respected director of live-action feature films (“Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter”). His Porky vehicles were ingeniously patterned on genre tropes like wilderness adventure (“Porky in the North Woods”), mystery (“The Case of the Stuttering Pig”), musical (“Porky at the Crocadero”), and love story (“Porky’s Romance”), the last giving the series its first masterpiece. Tashlin uses super-fast cross-cutting and positions his “camera” like a director of live-action films. “Porky’s Romance” is a heightened romantic comedy that introduces Porky’s love interest, Petunia Pig, and tells its story more effectively in eight minutes than could be done in two or three times that length in any other medium.
By 1938-39, Clampett had become the dominant directorial influence in Porky’s career. On his watch, Porky became considerably cuter, thanks equally to Mel Blanc, who now provided the pig’s voice and made the stutter more adorable than grotesque. Clampett’s characters are like cuddly, bouncy balloons being manipulated by a maniacal genius. Such surrealist epics as “Porky in Wackyland” and “The Daffy Doc” revel in absurdity in a unique form of Looney Tune-ist Dada. In “Naughty Neighbors” and “Wise Quacks,” Clampett seems determined to contrast exaggerated cuteness with even more extreme violence, as if throwing a hand grenade in the middle of a Disney Silly Symphony.
The final disc includes “Porky’s Preview,” Avery’s meta-masterpiece cartoon-within-a-cartoon. We reach a finale with Tashlin’s “Porky Pig’s Feat,” which combines screwball comedy with high slapstick, as if Preston Sturges were directing Chaplin and Keaton. This concluding 1943 episode also includes the two characters who had already succeeded Porky as the studio’s biggest breadwinners, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. As popular as Porky had been a few years earlier, he was essentially a passive character—like Laurel & Hardy, things happened to him. He couldn’t compete with the brash, aggressive stars of the World War II era, like Bugs and Daffy, who belonged to the age of Abbott & Costello. “Porky Pig 101” is not only a 13-hour pig-out of classic cartoons but a significant document of cultural change.
Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.