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THE TOP TEN CARTOONS OF 1933

In this post, I’ll be covering what I consider to be the ten greatest cartoons released in 1933.

This was the year that The Three Little Pigs was released, which went on to be the most successful short of the decade and a breakthrough in animation, winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short of the year.

Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising departed from Warner Bros. this year, and 1933 also marked the end of series like Ub Iwerks’ Flip the Frog and Van Beuren’s Tom & Jerry. But there were several other new series to fill in the gaps.

Newspaper comic strips proved to be a good source of animation ideas, resulting in Max Fleischer’s adaptation of E.C. Segar’s Popeye the Sailor and Van Beuren’s adaptation of Otto Soglow’s The Little King. Other new series in 1933 included Fanny Zilch at Terrytoons, Buddy at Warner Bros., Cubby Bear at Van Beuren and Willie Whopper and the Comicolor series at Ub Iwerks.

This year, Disney and Fleischer are still dominating, but you’ll see some Ub Iwerks on the list, a few Van Beurens and a dark, pin-screen animated French film.

Take a look:

I HEARD
Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Willard Bowsky]; Max Fleischer

Probably the most well-known cartoons in the Betty Boop series are the ones with guest appearances by jazz icons like Cab Calloway (Minnie the Moocher, Snow White, The Old Man of the Mountain) and Louis Armstrong (I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You), but one of Betty’s all-time best musical collaborations is with the relatively unknown Don Redman and his Orchestra. Although Redman’s name isn’t as instantly recognizable as Calloway’s or Armstrong’s, he was an important and highly influential musician; his jazz arrangements are among the most complex of their era, and they set the style for what would become big band Swing (Redman’s scat solo on “My Papa Doesn’t Two-Time No Time” also predates Louis Armstrong’s famous recording of “Heebie Jeebies” by several months).

The Fleischer cartoons were always full of visual invention, but Redman’s musical score seemed to fuel their fire, and extraordinary gags here are so plentiful that they practically drip from the screen. The film takes place in the Never Mine, where coal miners take a break from their work to visit Betty Boop’s Tavern. Crazy ideas are tossed out in such an offhand way that the characters seem to function under some kind of dreamlike backwards-logic (example: the coal miners strut into the tavern and walk under a shower to wash the mud off of their clothes; when they return to work, they walk under a shower that pours the mud back onto them). The film’s world is one where animals can double as people or props (a giant spider is used as an elevator) and inanimate objects come alive at random (the lunch whistle pulls out his own lunchbox once his job is completed, a rope pulling an elevator snaps and then grabs on to its upper half).

The jazzy score and absurdist gags blend nicely, particularly in the tavern sequence where Betty Boop performs the song “How’m I Doin’” and a waiter voiced by Don Redman coolly scats while serving food (hearing Mae Questel sing “now I’m not braggin’ but it’s understood, that everything I do I sho do good” is a highlight in and of itself). And the climax, where Betty and Bimbo discover a bunch of ghosts playing baseball with a bomb, takes an already strange cartoon to nutty, fast-paced extremes.

I Heard is in many ways one of Betty’s last hurrahs, as the free-wheeling creativity here would subsequently be toned down in order to compete with Disney, reinforced by the adoption of the Hays Code in July 1934. Even a bit before the code was enforced, Betty was being put in slightly more realistic situations, surrounded by mostly human counterparts (She Wronged Him Right, Betty Boop’s Trial). This meant putting her usual cartoonish sidekicks to rest, and this film actually marked Bimbo’s final appearance in a Fleischer cartoon. It’s a fitting exit, capturing all of the glorious insanity that made Fleischer one of the greatest animation studios of all time.

THE MAD DOCTOR
Directed by David Hand; Walt Disney

For those who think of Disney as a manufacturer of lighthearted princess movies like Tangled and Frozen and preteen-targeted sitcoms like Hannah Montana and Austin & Ally, the idea that the studio could’ve ever produced a film as horrific as The Mad Doctor would probably come as a great surprise. But here it is – a 1933 Mickey Mouse cartoon in which a twisted scientist kidnaps Pluto and attempts to perform unspeakable experiments on him.

The Disney animators, having already proven adept at slapstick comedy (Touchdown Mickey), adventure (The Klondike Kid), fantasy (Babes in the Woods) and pathos (Mickey’s Good Deed), decided to play with a different set of emotions on this one, using all of the tricks in their arsenal to create the most frightening Mickey Mouse cartoon of all time. And in many ways the short is one of the most effectively hair-raising films of the 1930s – while many cartoon studios played with dark imagery to create an eerie mood (including Disney’s own The Skeleton Dance and Hell’s Bells), this short puts beloved cartoon stars Mickey Mouse and Pluto in the midst of the terror, giving the short a rooting interest that didn’t exist with Bimbo in Swing, You Sinners (1930) and Tom & Jerry in Wot a Night (1931).

The film wastes no time in getting started, brutally opening up the film in a thunderstorm where a cloaked figure steals Pluto from out of his doghouse and takes him to a nearby castle perched on a giant skull. The lack of any buildup or context immediately gives the short the feeling of a nightmare. The sequences with Mickey encountering skeletons and bats while wandering through a haunted castle are spooky in typical ‘30s fashion, but the atmosphere is remarkable, rivaling the best such gothic imagery in live-action horror films of the day. The impressive perspective in the scene where Mickey wanders through a crumbling tomb comes from a similar scene in Disney’s Egyptian Melodies (1931), but the effect is still startling, and the Disney animators show increasing skill in creating mood through the use of shadows.

Still, the bits with Pluto really push the film over the line in terms of horror, as the deranged Dr. XXX hooks Pluto up to some kind of electric chair and describes his sick plan of splicing Pluto’s genes with a chicken’s. Whatever the film’s flaws (the timing on the scene where a bridge collapses beneath Mickey’s feet is too slow and the music in the sequence featuring the skeleton spider is more lighthearted than the visuals suggest), this is extremely effective filmmaking.

THE MAGIC MUMMY
Directed by John Foster & George Stallings; Van Beuren

Van Beuren’s Tom & Jerry series is a veritable cesspool of weird ideas and crazy gags. In Piano Tooners (1932), an opera singer hits a note so high that she crashes through the top of a building. In Trouble (1931), a man lands gracefully after falling off of a skyscraper, revealing himself to be “Joe Spoof – World’s Champion Slow Motion Actor”. And in A Swiss Trick (1931), Tom and Jerry sprout holes after eating too much swiss cheese. Still, The Magic Mummy is one of the duo’s strangest, seeing them return to the creepy humor of their debut film Wot a Night (1931). Unlike the earlier short, Tom and Jerry are hardly differentiated as characters here, mostly functioning as bland upholders of the law, but The Magic Mummy boasts a better soundtrack and higher quality animation than its predecessor.

The plot: Tom and Jerry, working the night shift as policemen, are informed that someone is stealing mummies from a museum and they attempt to catch the thief in the act. The skeletal thief in the dark cloak leads the two policemen into a grave, where he brings the mummy to life and forces her to perform for him and his cronies. The film is a delightful burst of dark imagination in the Fleischer tradition, and although the production values don’t quite warrant the comparison, the animation is exceptionally good for a Van Beuren short. The Greta Garbo-esque design of the mummy is more attractive than usual, and there’s some excellent rubberhose animation of a cop’s gloved hands gliding across some piano keys (trivia: this standout scene was animated by a young Frank Tashlin).

The macabre atmosphere and off-kilter humor really put this one over the edge, although the wackiness reaches its zenith in the musical numbers. The two cops’ ultra-effeminate rendition of “The Cop On the Beat, the Man in the Moon and Me” is outrageously funny, mercilessly letting the air out of the police force’s machismo. And things just keep getting sillier as the criminals strum their prison bars like harps and cops and jailbirds waltz together. Equally entertaining is the mummy with the Helen Kane voice performing “Sing Your Cares Away” while doing a hilariously stilted Egyptian dance.

This film was the final Tom & Jerry short directed by series creator John Foster, who was fired shortly after finishing the film. Without Foster, the series lost much of its eccentric edge, leading to bland time-wasters like Happy Hoboes and In the Park. Still, no one can say he didn’t go out with a bang, directing one of the finest (and strangest) cartoons to ever emerge from the studio.

MICKEY’S GALA PREMIER
Directed by Burt Gillett; Walt Disney

Cartoons featuring celebrity caricatures were all the rage in the early ‘30s, and films like Walter Lantz’s Merry Old Soul (1933), Warner Bros.’s I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song (1933) and MGM’s Toyland Premiere (1934) are a who’s who of classic Hollywood stars. However, this delightful Mickey Mouse short (the first where he interacts with humans rather than animals) manages to cram in as many cameos as possible, and has an extra layer of fun in portraying all of the stars going gaga over Mickey Mouse (and given Mickey’s popularity in this era, portraying him as the king of Hollywood was probably not too far from the truth).

Among the stars seen here are Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler (hot off of hits like Min and Bill and Tugboat Annie), John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore (all in their costumes from 1932’s Rasputin and the Empress), Eddie Cantor (in his The Kid From Spain getup), Joan Crawford (in her costume from Rain) and Greta Garbo (who recently starred in 1932’s Oscar winner Grand Hotel). Despite the fact that silent films were considered old hat in the early talkie era, animators caricatured silent stars quite liberally, and this short features appearances by The Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin (who had released City Lights two years earlier), Buster Keaton (who was currently starring in comedies alongside Jimmy Durante like Speak Easily and What! No Beer?), Harold Lloyd (who had ventured into talkies with Feet First in 1930 and Movie Crazy in 1932) and Douglas Fairbanks (who was a year away from retirement after the poorly received The Private Life of Don Juan in 1934).

The animators make great use of comedians like the Marx Brothers (who were four months away from releasing their masterpiece Duck Soup), Laurel & Hardy (who were five months away from releasing their masterpiece Sons of the Desert), Wheeler & Woolsey (a forgotten comedy team who were appearing in films like So This is Africa and Diplomaniacs), Jimmy Durante (who had a hit song the following year with his signature tune Inka Dinka Doo), Joe E. Brown (who was appearing in comedies like The Tenderfoot and Son of a Sailor) and Ed Wynn (who was known for his Fire Chief character on radio and film, and would later voice the Mad Hatter in the Disney feature Alice in Wonderland, along with various other Disney projects). One amusing gag features Bela Lugosi (from 1931’s Dracula), Fredric March (from 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Boris Karloff (from 1931’s Frankenstein) emitting an evil laugh at Mickey’s antics onscreen. Mae West shows up here, right at the height of her popularity before the Hays Code forced her to tone down her schtick in 1934. And speaking of the Hays Code, a particularly vicious caricature of Will H. Hays appears here in a king’s outfit, mocking his “rule” over Hollywood.

Other stars to look out for include Jean Harlow, Maurice Chevalier, Janet Gaynor, Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson, Adolphe Menjou, Sid Grauman, George Arliss, Helen Hayes, William Powell, Chester Morris, Gloria Swanson, Rudy Vallee, Constance Bennett, Warren Baxter, Will Rogers… and even Walt Disney and animator Fred Moore.

Still, even beyond all of the stargazing, perhaps the funniest aspect of the cartoon is the film-within-a-film, Galloping Romance, which is a Mickey cartoon stripped of any subtlety, and perhaps the earliest example of self-satire from the Disney studio (the short begins with Mickey and Minnie playing music with no context given, and the tone abruptly changes when Peg-Leg Pete pops out of the piano and kidnaps Minnie). Beyond the setup, Galloping Romance has no plot, and instead the chase just keeps getting more and more ridiculous, with Mickey riding on octopuses and kangaroos while firing pistols and then machine-guns and then cannons at Pete. It makes a great background to shots of actors falling off of their chairs from laughter.

And if you aren’t already overloaded with trivia, here’s a bit more: this cartoon was the last thing shown on the BBC Television Service (on September 1st, 1939) before the station shut down during World War II. When the war ended, and they resumed broadcast in 1946, they started right back up and showed this cartoon again.

NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN / UNE NUIT SUR LE MONT CHAUVE
Directed by Alexander Alexeieff & Claire Parker

For most of us, any association we have between the titular Modest Mussorgsky piece and animation comes from the classic sequence in Disney’s Fantasia (1940), but there was an earlier attempt to marry the piece with visuals, and it is a similarly brilliant work of art in its own way. The film was created by Russian artist Alexander Alexeieff, who was working in France where he and his wife Alexandrovna Grinevskya built a pinscreen device on which to animate. The device allowed movement through the manipulation of hundreds of pins that could be pushed in and out of a grid to create forms, and the device gave Alexeieff’s works a unique and exciting look.

Alexeieff collaborated on this film with American art student Claire Parker, who came into his home as a boarder and soon developed an affair with him. The two worked so collaboratively on this film that it’s difficult to say who did what, but it has been said that Alexeieff came up with the ideas and designed the visuals, while Parker helped out a lot on the movements.

The end result is a haunting, misty work of dark surrealism. Images like the closeup of a child’s face and a dead horse lying on the ground are remarkably realistic and powerful, and the use of smearing and transformation is excellent. Although Walt Disney’s proposed intention in creating Fantasia was to animate the types of images one might visualize when listening to classical pieces, his Night on Bald Mountain sequence is too bold and attention-grabbing to be imaginable as something that might float through your mind while drifting off to music. This short is much closer to a product of your subconscious, with its vague forms, general inconsistency and repeated imagery. The ending is particularly creative, as a cloud of smoke unfolds like a rip in the paper.

Due to the restraints of the pinscreen process, it was impossible to erase frames and Alexeieff and Parker had no way of correcting their work. Despite this imposing restriction, however, Alexeieff never made any sketches for the film, instead preferring to come up with the visuals as he went along. Unfortunately, the time-consuming pinscreen process didn’t prove to be very profitable for Alexeieff and Parker, despite the short gaining some critical attention, and the two worked primarily as commercial artists for many years, often using different animation processes. They are perhaps best known in the states for creating the title sequence for the Orson Welles film The Trial (1962).

THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN
Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Bernard Wolf]; Max Fleischer

The third and final team-up between Betty Boop and Cab Calloway, this one is perhaps the most underrated of the three, with Minnie the Moocher being known for employing Calloway’s most famous song and Snow White being hailed as the Fleischers’ masterpiece. But The Old Man of the Mountain is an outstanding short, even better than Minnie the Moocher and perhaps second only to Snow White as Betty’s finest hour.

Unlike Minnie, which plays out like a typical Betty Boop cartoon and then launches into a sequence featuring Cab Calloway, this entire film is guided by Calloway’s jazzy orchestrations, with birds blowing their beaks like trumpets and characters bursting into scat sessions at random. In many ways, this short makes the best use of Calloway out of any of the films in the trilogy; it gives him a real character to play (as opposed to a ghostly walrus and the singing voice of Ko-Ko the Clown), and it builds up suspense to his arrival. Also unlike the other two shorts, the film allows for some interaction between the guest star and leading lady, even treating us to a duet between the Old Man of the Mountain and Betty Boop (“You Gotta Hi-De-Ho”).

As expected from a Betty Boop cartoon, clever visual gags are plentiful (a lion using a couple of rabbits as roller skates, two bugs popping out of the Old Man’s beard to pour a mug of beer into his mouth) and some racy jokes pop up as well (an old man regains his ability to walk after checking Betty out, a fish gets scolded by his wife for looking at Betty’s legs). As in the earlier Betty Boop cartoon Mysterious Mose (1930), the titular character is established as a reality-bending man of mystery, capable of provoking both interest and fear. And as in several other Betty Boop cartoons, the threat of rape is not very far below the surface. The Old Man’s intentions are pretty clear as he chases Betty down a hill (even pulling her clothes off at one point), and the crying hippo lady with three bearded children is hard to interpret any other way. The Old Man’s despicableness makes his violent comeuppance at the hands of the forest animals that much more satisfying, particularly when matched up with Calloway’s vocal riffing on “The Scat Song”.

Given that this is a Fleischer cartoon, it probably isn’t even worth pointing out that the animation is fantastic, but I will, anyway: the drawings are both hilarious and technically impressive (there’s some nice perspective in the early scene when the lion rolls down the hill), and Betty’s design is especially appealing here. The Old Man of the Mountain’s design varies a bit from shot to shot, but he looks great in every incarnation. The rotoscoped footage of Calloway dancing is handled expertly, and some of the closeups of his face are grotesquely detailed in the funniest ways imaginable. And there’s a great matchup of music and visuals when the Old Man stalks Betty and licks his fingers in time with the trumpet “licks”, so to speak (watch how his eyes flip from side to side – that kind of brilliant insanity would never fly in today’s more restrictive animation world).

Also worth noting: the Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas was partially based on the Old Man of the Mountain here, and Danny Elfman even borrowed some dialogue from this film (BETTY: “Whatchu gonna do now?” OLD MAN: “Gonna do the best I can”). It’s a pretty obscure reference to make, but not a surprising one, as the darkly surreal dreamscapes the Fleischers came up with in the ‘30s form a direct line to animators like Tim Burton and Henry Selick.

PALS
Animated by Jim Tyer [Director Uncredited] Van Beuren

Otto Soglow’s charming Little King character started life in The New Yorker in 1931, reappearing constantly in the magazine before finally scoring his own comic strip for King Features in 1934. The gentle, mostly-pantomime strip featured the Little King indulging in incongruously childish whims and pranks, surrounded by multitudes of servants and a lavish art deco-flavored castle. The comic strip lasted up until Soglow’s death in 1975, but even after all that time the humor mostly stemmed from the basic joke of contrasting the King’s youthfulness with the pomposity of the ruling class. The character was popular enough even in the early ‘30s to be adapted into animation by Van Beuren, and the studio took unusual care in capturing Soglow’s minimalist drawing style and signature brand of visual humor.

The Little King’s first animated film, The Fatal Note (1933), was far more polished than any Van Beuren short that came before it, featuring appealing, consistent animation and a generally coherent story. This level of craftsmanship wound up sacrificing some of the madcap unpredictability of the studio, but as the Little King cartoons progressed, they settled into an enjoyable balance of unusual professionalism and offbeat humor. This led to some delightful cartoons like the absurdist prison short Jolly Good Felons (1934) and the amusingly risqué Sultan Pepper (1934), but probably the best use of the Little King on the screen is Pals (also known by the title Christmas Night) which is somewhere between being a charming Christmas cartoon and a ribald comedy about grubby homeless guys behaving like infants.

The story involves the Little King inviting two hobos off the street to spend Christmas with him in his castle, and the deft blend of the cute and the disturbing is perhaps best emphasized in one scene when the hobos and the King get ready to take a bath together, and no one seems to notice how disgusting it is that the hobo’s clothes simply crumble off and moths fly out from between their toes. The fact that these bearded men sleep together and bathe together is never called into question, and one of the men is even wearing a bra for reasons that are never explained (he also has an NRA tattoo, which refers not to the Rifle Association, but to Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act, which was the focus of the Little King’s previous cartoon, Marching Along).

This weird humor fits well within the oeuvre of Jim Tyer, who scored one of his earliest screen credits on this cartoon. Tyer, whose twitchy, zany animation is the sole bright spot of many a Terrytoon, hadn’t quite settled on his ingenious style yet, but there is some marvelously exaggerated animation of our three heroes’ noses pressing up against the glass as they watch a dancing Sambo doll.

Speaking of the animation, there’s a great visual of the Little King driving his toy car down a winding staircase (an effect reused from The Fatal Note) and there’s even some top-notch character animation in spots (the Little King waving goodbye to Santa immediately suggests a shy toddler). The gleefully destructive climax is also enjoyable, as the characters fly around and destroy all of their new gadgets, finally collapsing into a heap of junk. Best of all, the final gag would seem to suggest that the King swallowed one of his pals (if not both). Merry Christmas, everybody!

SNOW WHITE
Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Roland C. Crandall]; Max Fleischer

Betty Boop’s magnum opus and possibly the greatest cartoon to emerge from the Fleischer studio, Snow White was animated entirely by studio veteran Roland Crandall over a six-month period. He was most likely given the job as a reward for his loyalty to the studio, at a time when many Fleischer animators were heading off to the greener pastures of Disney. His hard work really paid off, and the film maintains a visual unity and consistency of vision that no other Betty Boop cartoon can boast.

Unlike the Disney animated feature released four years later, this version of Snow White has no interest in telling a coherent story or generating any real sympathy for the characters, and it becomes increasingly clear that the fairy tale being adapted is simply a backdrop for a series of bizarre gags and crazy ideas. The characters more or less float through the plot as Crandall keeps the screen loaded up with strange sights, and the short almost seems to be razzing Disney-style narratives by purposefully offsetting moments that could’ve been poignant (Betty’s execution), frightening (the queen’s transformation into a witch) and exciting (the dragon chase at the film’s end). Compare the tragic treatment of Snow White’s death in the Disney movie to the absurdly undramatic one presented here: Betty gets encased in a block of snow and plopped down into the ice, only to emerge in a clear glass coffin that slides through the seven dwarfs’ house and down to the Mystery Cave in one single motion (the dwarfs remain totally expressionless, following their duty as plot functions and nothing else).

The film is loaded with visual ornament and arbitrary transformations, and gags like the queen’s head turning into a frying pan and the ducks’ musical quacking on the dragon’s scalp are beautifully pointless. The film reaches its pinnacle of imagination with Cab Calloway’s rendition of “The St. James Infirmary Blues” which is sung by a rotoscoped Ko-Ko the Clown strutting through a haunted cave. The witch transforms Ko-Ko into a long-legged ghost halfway through the song, and he begins to morph fittingly to the lyrics (he becomes a twenty-dollar gold piece with his legs twisting around like a chain, and his head turns into a bottle when he requests another shot of booze).

There’s more than enough visual invention in Ko-Ko’s movements to keep viewers entertained on multiple viewings, but the short isn’t content to leave well enough alone, and the camera pans across a painted background so full of amusingly-depicted decadence that it feels like a cross between Hieronymus Bosch and underground comics of the 1960s. Not to mention the fish bones, winged skeletons and crazy-looking owls that are constantly flapping around the screen, leading to the most absorbing kind of sensory overload. Snow White remains not only one of the greatest cartoons ever made, but also one of the finest works of surrealism in any medium.


STRATOS-FEAR
Directed by Ub Iwerks; Ub Iwerks

With the Flip the Frog series coming to a close, Ub Iwerks decided to try a new series with a character who had more of a gimmick. He arrived at Willie Whopper, a young human boy who told outrageous stories and tall tales. His early appearances portrayed him as a plucky, skinny child, but beginning with Stratos Fear, Willie gained his more familiar beach ball-style pudginess. Stratos Fear also holds the distinction of being Willie Whopper’s best film, and an incredible work of sci-fi insanity.

The plot involves Willie getting loaded up on helium gas while at the dentist (Dr. A. King, Painless Dentist, as a matter of fact), and he floats up into outer space, where he visits a creepy planet with numerous bizarre creatures and strange inventions. Other than cartoons where characters build a robot like Mickey’s Mechanical Man (1933) and Techno Cracked (1933), science fiction was underused in 1930s animation, and the unparalleled imagination on display here certainly makes you wish Iwerks had delved further into the genre. The visuals here expertly balance the amusingly kooky and the disturbingly bizarre, with backgrounds that toss Futurism and Surrealism in a blender, resulting in ultra-modernized architecture with strange symbols and giant eyeballs plastered on them. The comically strange creatures here serve as a kind of precursor to Bob Clampett’s brilliant 1938 cartoon Porky in Wackyland, and the birds with nails for heads look like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

As in many of the best ‘30s cartoons, the film feels like an extremely creative dream; the leader of the planet speaks in an impenetrably vague backwards-speak, and the botched escape attempts and various temptations (friendly music, shapely Mae West-style mummies) resemble a nightmare very strongly. The film’s imagination never subsides and the short avoids cliché, designing characters that might’ve been generic cartoon robots as hunched-over goblin-like creatures with a smooth, grey sheen. Musical instruments come alive and play themselves, doors shrink as you try to exit them and characters can peer through one alien’s telescopic eye by looking into his ears.

All of this visual ingenuity is portrayed in a comic vein, and the short is quite funny in addition to being creepy and imaginative (Willie’s cry of “WHOA” after discovering the true identity of his Cleopatra-esque squeeze always gets me). Willie Whopper didn’t last long as a character, concluding his run with Viva Willie in 1934, but he produced many entertaining cartoons and one flat-out masterpiece.

THE THREE LITTLE PIGS
Directed by Burt Gillett; Walt Disney

By far the most popular animated short of the 1930s and one of the most important cartoons ever made, seeing The Three Little Pigs might cause modern audiences to wonder what all the fuss is about. It is, of course, a well-made cartoon, with charming music, nice animation and plenty of amusing gags, but it’s a fairly straight retelling of the old fairy tale and hardly seems groundbreaking. However, its fame comes from a few different sources.

The film is frequently hailed as a breakthrough in character animation, but there tends to be some confusion about what exactly was new about it. It has been said that the film distinguishes the pigs as personalities through their movements rather than their identical designs, but this is only partly true; the first and second pigs are no different in personality, and even the smart little pig is a fairly simple character, defined his perpetually grumpy expressions as much as his movements. Still, the pigs do emerge as living, breathing characters in a way that other early ‘30s characters do not, and this is largely responsible to young animator Fred Moore, who animated the early scenes where the pigs introduce themselves. Rubberhose animated characters like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Flip the Frog frequently squash and stretch at will, but in impossible ways that reinforce their artificiality. Disney had tried to do away with such abstractions in a move towards believability, but in doing so the characters in his films like King Neptune and Father Noah’s Ark simply came off as stiff. In The Three Little Pigs, Moore used squash & stretch in a way that suggested real flesh and blood, giving the pigs’ flabby cheeks and jowls real weight, and as a result, the pigs behave not like cartoon abstractions but living characters who happen to exist in an animated world.

This breakthrough lead to further developments at the Disney studio, finally culminating in animated characters who existed as strongly on the screen as any live-action actors. The film was also notable at the studio for a variety of other reasons; the film was one of the first where Walt Disney started casting animators by character, with Fred Moore and Dick Lundy handling the pigs (Lundy animated all of the dance sequences) and Norm Ferguson supervising the vicious wolf. The short was also instrumental in the development of a separate story department at the studio, with heavy amounts of storyboarding and fine-tuning to ensure solid storytelling.

As for its widespread popularity, it’s doubtful audiences at the time were fully aware of the artistic breakthroughs Walt Disney was making, but the well-told story and likable characters struck a chord, and theater-goers took Frank Churchill’s sprightly tune “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” as a theme song for the times, with the wolf serving as a metaphor for the Depression. The short may not stir up the same kind of feelings today, but this film changed the world of animation forever, and how many cartoons can make that claim?

A note on the links below: in the original release of The Three Little Pigs, the wolf disguised himself as a Jewish peddler in order to gain entrance to the pigs’ home. Shortly after the film’s release, this film was altered to portray the wolf as a fuller brush man with a Yiddish accent. For TV airings, this was altered further, with a non-stereotypical voice declaring “I’m the fuller brush man – I’m working my way through college” instead of “I’m the fuller brush man – I’m giving a free sample”. Although the original version is unavailable, the second link features the audio of the “free sample” line with the Yiddish accent.

Many have cited this scene as “proof” of the urban legend that Walt Disney was an anti-semite, but all cartoon studios at the time used racial caricatures like this (the Fleischer cartoons contain far more frequent Jewish stereotypes than the Disney shorts and Max and Dave Fleischer were Jewish) and there were many Jewish animators on Disney’s staff at the time of this film’s release.

Furthermore, all of the censorship has obscured the original joke, which was that the wolf thought he could fool the pigs with a Jewish guise because orthodox Jews don’t eat pig.


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