DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY: Porky Pig 101 (WHV 5-DVD set)
Thanks to the official #1 pal of this blog, Devon Baxter, you can see a decent-enuf version of this cartoon HERE.
Apologies for the long delay in new postings. This is the only Avery-Warners cartoon that is really hard to see. Thanks to the modern day conglomo-monster that owns Warner Brothers, these black and white shorts have pretty much been chased off YouTube. Since they're actual cartoons, they're no longer shown on the Cartoon Network, save for rare relapses of taste and sanity by their programming directors.
With vintage cartoons on DVD pretty much dead in the mainstream, and the Blu-Ray format more inclined to serve up the latest slop from Hollywood, those early WB shorts that haven't been restored/reissued are not likely to be given such prestigious treatment in the foreseeable future.
End of screed. Let's get down to brass tacks...
The Fred Avery unit at Leon Schlesinger's cartoon studio has survived its first full year of movie-making. The unit has turned out anarchic, wildly inventive black-and-white cartoons, and a few less thrilling but auspicious Technicolor items. The look and feel of Avery's cartoons is now well-defined, with strong traces of the director's inimitable drawing style embedded in the work of his ambitious, talented animators.
The unit has not yet made a masterpiece, but one is close. In the meantime, Avery and Co. are once again content to attack movie genres. Hmmm; we just did a wrestling picture... how's about a bullfight? That's always funny.
Picador Porky was conceived with no greater ambitions than to evoke laughter from its late-Depression audience. That it takes greater steps towards the full-blown, baroque screwball humor that defines the Avery style, to so many animation fans, is frosting on the cake.
Avery loves to thwart expectations. If you know nothing else about his work, you know this. The rug is always ready to be yanked, hard, from 'neath the viewer's feet. Avery did this so well that, alas, the jokes of this type have long lost their impact. In 1937, some audience members were still falsely lulled by the soothing Tex-Mex strains that accompany this 20-second introduction:
The village of La Rosita is all-consumed in a Spike Jones-school rendition of "La Cucaracha," in which everyone and everything is part of the song. Gunfire accents the beat; a cross-eyed foursome's heads double as maracas; a toweling bather provides a guaro sound as he dries off; a bartender's cocktail shaker subs for castanets.
The sign on the palm tree at far stage left catches the hobo trio's attention:
A bullet-proof piece of stock sitcom is underway. What could possibly go wrong?
The estadio fills to capacity in a stock transitional scene that somehow merits a double exposure:
The hind end of the partnership imbibes, and suffers the kind of rapid-fire freakout that we associate with the cartoons of Bob Clampett (hiccups courtesy of Mel Blanc):
(druggily:) "Oh, yah... whoa, yah."
But that task is yet to come, and we're still having fun here...
The missing hobo-bull is discovered, and, as the comedy situation demands, the PO'd for-real bull is substituted...
pig learns the awful truth!
There's been almost no dialogue, so far. Avery saves it for the essential moments, such as Porky's exasperated plea to the bull:
"Take it easy, b-b-b-boys! That was a l-little... close!"
It's easy to imagine such a scene in a 1930 Van Beuren cartoon, a silent Felix the Cat, or even a Bill Nolan Oswald the Rabbit. This type of physics-wrecking gag, once a staple of the American animated cartoon, was frowned upon by West Coast animators, who were in sway to the restrictive (and patently false) realism of the Disney studio.
Avery can be seen as the savior of this utterly cartoony sensibility. His gift--the thing that makes this more than imitation--is his keen timing. This early on, Avery has it in spades. The uncanny sense to know when to shift from key pose to key pose is at the core of Avery's worth as a film-maker.
By the 1940s, Avery would be the master of this school of comedy. Further experience would give him the confidence to make these moves faster and sharper. Even in hindsight, this is a bravura moment--something film-makers weren't able to predict.
The bull is dazed in the wake of this time-space shift. Porky summons a caddy, and makes an utter mockery of the potentially-horrid climax of any successful bullfight... with plumber's helpers instead of spears. The matter-of-factness of this sequence is also something fresh for cartoons.
Distracted by this divine musical treat, Porky feels the cold bracing waves of reality slap him upside the head:
Just because they can...
"Hallo, Ma? Hallo, Pa?"
(in unconvincing falsetto): "Moo-hoo!"
The real thing dispatched, the decoy moves into position for an easy win.
"Well! Eemahgin' that!"
Picador Porky, like its predecessor, makes hay with a routinely unappealing topic that, nonetheless, inspired a handful of great cartoons. The Fleischers' 1931 The Cow's Husband may be my favorite bullfighting cartoon, for its delightful music and its beyond-brilliant one way street routine. Their later Popeye entry, Bulldozing the Bull, is perhaps the most charming cartoon on this bloodthirsty sport. Other notable early bullfight cartoons include the Bill Nolan Oswald Rabbit slice-fest, Chilly Con Carmen (thanks to David Gerstein for reminding me about this one) and the surprisingly rowdy and enjoyable 1929 Disney Silly Symphony El Terrible Toreador.
Avery would return to bullfighting in his sublime, barrier-bursting 1949 gem Senor Droopy. (There's the bullfighting cartoon festival you didn't ask for!)
Avery and staff are still finding their way towards the light, but the increasing acuity and rapid pace of their gags and scenes continues to impress. Only Frank Tashlin, with his ultra-fast cutting and attention to detail, was making more cinematic cartoons than Avery in 1937.
The most significant moments in Picador Porky allow screwball humor to push everything else aside. Porky's nameless, boozer pals, though never to be seen again, give Avery the means to go completely wild for the first time in his stay at the Schlesinger studio. Their unpredictable rogue actions, and the blend of cliches from other sports pictures, distinguish a moderately good film.
This first flash of anarchy will be completely suppressed in Avery's next cartoon, but will return--with a bloody vengeance--immediately thereafter.
I will endeavor to make more regular postings on this blog in the new year. This will be a four-year haul, at the rate I'm going, but I hope you'll stay with me.
* -- be sure to read Mark Kausler's informative comments below. His insights are always a gift!
NEXT: Crooney tunes--I Only Have Eyes For You