January 4, 1936
Porky Pig 101 (WHV 5-disc set)
COMPUTER-COLORED VERSION CAN BE SEEN ON-LINE HERE
Fred Avery survived his first directorial effort for Leon Schlesinger, Gold Diggers of '49. With one "Supervision Fred Avery" credit to his name, and a reasonably good cartoon in release, he set out to do better the second time around.
His first step was to revert Porky Pig to the smaller, child-man of I Haven't Got A Hat. The grotesque hog of the prior cartoon was too harsh an exaggeration, even for Avery, who trafficked in distortion, over-statement and bigger-than-life effects.
He wisely assumed that a smaller character was automatically funnier. Of equal importance, this figure needed to be a cipher. These were Avery's favorite protagonists. Though Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Screwy Squirrel contradict this claim with their brash, aggressive personalities, Avery liked best the Porkys, Droopys and Eggheads--nobodies to whom things happened.
Avery understood that audiences needed a focus character, even if such things disinterested him. Though he had recurring star characters, most of them are playthings of comedic fate. Porky is the charter member of this elite community with Plane Daffy,
Between wars, it was a common daydream of many a young American to join one branch of the services. Memories of trench warfare and mustard gas had faded. Fascism was on the 20th century menu. The idea of going to battle, marching in military precision, dressed in a snappy uniform seemed so streamlined, so modern! At cartoon's start, Porky reflects this peacetime fascination with the military. At fade in, he examines his enlistment choices:
The Army isn't for him...
SIDEBAR: One important thing to remember, in viewing Avery's first few Schlesinger cartoons, is that the key players aren't all there. Carl Stalling's scores and Mel Blanc's voice work--the most consistent, vital elements in all Warner Brothers cartoons--would begin shortly (in, respectively, the Frank Tashlin-directed Porky's Poultry Plant and Avery's Porky The Wrestler.) ##
We take Stalling and Blanc's contributions for granted. The only way to appreciate what they brought to the table is to see the cartoons that came before them.
Warners had a decent retinue of voice talent in 1936--including Billy Bletcher and Berneice Hansell (both used to good effect in this cartoon). Blanc was far more versatile, and had a gift for expressing emotions and character quirks in his voice work. He ended the notion that a high, squeaky "cute" voice was all a cartoon character needed. His Porky, heard from 1937's Porky's Duck Hunt onward, is a real character--not the exploitation of a man with a speech impediment.
The other great cartoon voice talents -- among them Stan Freberg, June Foray and Bill Scott--grokked this innovation of Blanc's, and brought a high level of acting to their work. Hollywood animation was automatically better for their involvement.
Dull musical scores were the major albatross of the 1936 Schlesinger cartoons. A reliable sound technician, Bernard Brown was a mediocre composer and scorer. His paint-by-numbers, get-'er-done score, which incessantly invokes the Harry Warren-Al Dubin number "I'd Love to Take Orders From You," limits what Avery can achieve here.
Back to today's real topic of discussion. Avery sics Billy Bletcher's gruff desk sergeant on Dougherty's P-p-p-porky. Asked what he wants, and at a genuine loss for words, Porky imitates an early airplane--an engaging touch that charms the viewer.
Avery's imaginative solutions to cartoon plot cliches add to the mounting energy of Plane Dippy. Porky is accepted for service...
Porky fails at both tasks, spinning around the exam office like a top in the first, and destroying the building with a machine gun as he finally hits his intended target, almost as an after-thought.
Avery enjoyed a completely gullible audience for these early cartoons. Because no one else had done such aggressive reversal-of-expectation gags, their surprise factor was at its all-time high. Avery would quickly wise up American movie-goers.By the end of the 1930s, all other cartoon producers (even Disney) tried their hand at this more hip, unpredictable humor. It was lifeblood to American animation, even if it quickly became a cliche.
Other enlistees are issued rifles...
Helpless in the plane, Porky zooms through sky and sea, as the nerdy kid entertains a growing crowd with canine cut-ups:
Still, good ideas prevail. A skyscraper is shorn of floor after floor, 'til only its clock tower remains. The plane flies through a circus' big top, taking two acrobats who perform their high-wire feats in the stratosphere. When the plane hits the water, the two men become an improvised water-ski unit. One of them looks hopefully at us, as if to say, "Gee, ain't this swell, folks?"
The first great Tex Avery sight gag -- a bit of business that is his stylistic signature -- soon arrives, in the robot plane's destruction of a zeppelin:
We will see Avery return to this physics-warp over and over in his 1940s cartoons. It's obvious that this impulse to bend time and space was in Avery's head early in his career. He will lose sight of this notion as the 1930s come to a close, but regain it with a vengeance when he moves to M-G-M.
This gag is hard to top, but Avery keeps pushing. A cartload of hay, struck by the plane, becomes a shower of straw hats; a trio of planes dip out of harm's way, in unison, and return, as one, to their original position. In another Fleischer-esque gag, a personified cloud runs from Porky into its cloud-house, and shuts its door. The plane bounces harmlessly off the cloud and careens away.
By now, the crowd has grown to a mob. They scream conflicting orders to dog (and robot plane). Porky is hurtled mercilessly through the sky before crashing back to the plane's point of origin.
No desertion charges are pressed, and we next see Porky marching in tempo with his larger canine comrades of the Army. Like the ersatz water-skier earlier in the cartoon, Porky looks right at us, abeam with pride. Be it ever so humble, it's acceptance!
Avery will go from strength to strength in the next year. Though his progress stalls later in the 1930s, his significant contributions to animation abound in the 1936/37 releases.
Next up is Avery's first great cartoon, The Blow Out, in which young animator Charles M. Jones helps to nail the perfect Porky Pig p-p-p-persona.
##: Blanc's first actual recorded role for Schlesinger was in Picador Porky. It was released after Porky The Wrestler, just to make matters confusing for us historian types.
Thanks to Thad K. for making it possible for me to see this cartoon in black and white and offering factually correct information when it was most desperately needed.