You can watch a 1990s-era colorized print of this cartoon HERE. If you're not familiar with this cartoon, please watch before you read--thanks!
After the status symbol of having directed three color cartoons in a row, the Fred Avery unit went back to black-and-white for the Avery unit.
This is not one of Avery's greatest cartoons. It does introduce a couple of important comedic tools to its maker's belt.
The first is noticed right away, as the camera pans over a simmering, sun-battered rural landscape (glued together here for a sorta-panorama):
As the voice drones on, we see the before-and-after scenarios for this farm's once-abundant crops:
Five of these gags, in quick succession, drive the sad facts home: this farm is failing. The announcer, joined by dissonant singing voices, makes a snide comment to accompany the dwindling-down of the apple tree.
This was the first major surprise this cartoon held for its 1936 audience. Ominous, self-satisfied narrators were a staple of the American film-going experience. It was something else for that omniscient voice, once so serious, to turn arch.
This suggests the influence of Pete Smith, who was, by 1936, already known to M-G-M audiences as the detached, blase commentator on a series of live-action short subjects. Smith always sounded ironic, even when he played it more-or-less straight. The idea that the film's reliable narrator could switch, on a dime, from The March of Time-seriousness to Smithian snark, was likely a large carpet-tug to this audience.
Norman Spencer's musical score has some standout moments early in this cartoon. As we cut to Porky Pig and his king-size poppa, the music evokes an odd elegance. Voiced (I believe) by Joe Dougherty, Poppa pig surveys his charred acreage with a woeful "W-w-worry, w-w-worry." Mark Kausler offers this speculation about the artist on this scene: "Bob Clampett didn't seem to have many scenes in this cartoon, but it looks like he animated the scenes where Papa is pacing back and forth saying "'Worry, W-w-worry.'"
Jones' scenes in this cartoon are a bold step towards strong acting in WB cartoons. He invests each movement, each overlap of action, with a lot of thought and care. It's quite amusing, in the context of the cartoon, but striking when studied for its own sake.
It works its spell on Porky, who's asked not to lean on the stage by the allegedly good doc...
Dr. Quack demonstrates the oomph of the rain pills, to the delight of the parched farmers. He first hands out umbrellas to the rubes, in some more nuanced Jones animation that features a masterful use of foreshortening. In the crowd scene that follows (animated by someone who is not Charles M. Jones), the staggered opening of umbrellas shows a level of TLC not prior seen in Schlesinger screen product.
But rain is what Porky's poppa needs--much more than feed for the livestock.
"R-r-r-real r-r-r-rain!" Sold to an American!
Home rushes Porky, to a hostile reception from pater.
"I t-t-t-t-told y' t' get f-f-f-feed... n-n-n-n-not p-p-p-pills!"
This is the moment Avery has waited for. He's been more than patient with the set-up... now for some causal comedy, with sight gags a-plenty...
The horse suffers a much kinder fate...
"Altitude, 10,000 feet... no visibility... ceiling zero..."
A gluttonous goose gets a double-header of gastric distress...
The bird stripped bare! But its indignities aren't at an end...
"Well! Imagine that!"
Here's another Avery staple--the matter-of-fact understatement. He will get much mileage from this concept in years to come, and fashion series characters around this blase reactive attitude.
(An aside: Devon Baxter reminds me that this archetypal Avery gag shows up in the 1933 Lantz Oswald cartoon At The Zoo... it occurs about 2:20 into the thing.)
Many great Avery drawings are evident in this cartoon's key poses and extremes. His sorta-Deco, rounded style of cartooning really dominates this section of the film.
Just as there are five examples of the impotence of the Pig farm's crops, there are five instances of pill-related catastrophe, as the earthquake capsule is gulped down by another chicken, with predictable results...
and that's all, folks...
Porky the Rainmaker lays the groundwork for much formal innovation that will impact Avery's output of the rest of 1936 and '37. Though the content of this cartoon is slight, the way it presents its material is highly inventive, and would prove influential to the very spirit of Hollywood animation.
Avery did all these tricks better in subsequent cartoons, but it's a thrill to see him achieve some of these signature effects for the first time here. Watching these cartoons in sequence, the freshness and daring of them becomes newly impressive. Avery's cartoons challenged the audience--they demanded that the viewer drop their passive relationship to cinema and be jolted into self-awareness.
Certainly, other film-makers had violated the fourth wall, and shattered the tacit contract of the suspension of disbelief, many times by 1936. Many of these film-makers were outside the standard studio system, and their work was largely preaching to the choir, rather than assimilating into the norm.
Avery brought this still-avant garde idea into the American mainstream with these early cartoons. He made it possible for the average film-goer to buy into the fact that there was more to movies than just sitting back, eating and watching. Whether the summer, 1936 audience for this cartoon fully understood this or not, their approach to viewing movies was being changed.
It wouldn't be long before live-action films would adopt some of this self-awareness, and forever jostle the solipsism of early movie-going.
NEXT TIME: The Village Smithy.