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THE TOP TEN CARTOONS OF 1940

Well, folks, we’ve finally reached the 1940s, almost inarguably the greatest decade in animation history.

And 1940 itself may be the greatest year ever for animated features; sure, only two were released, but when those two are Pinocchio and Fantasia, that’s a lot to live up to.

Both films were considered financial disappointments after the phenomenal success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, but – needless to say – they are now hailed as towering achievements in the art of animation.

As for the shorts, 1940 was still part of the awkward phase between the cute fables of the mid-thirties and the brash slapstick comedy of the war years. Walt Disney’s focus on features meant that his shorts were no longer pushing the boundaries of animation as they once were, and the Fleischer studio was really spinning its wheels (in 1940, they initiated three new series: Stone Age, Gabby and Animated Antics… all of them duds).

That being said, 1940 saw the birth of some new characters that would dominate the industry over the next couple of decades: Woody Woodpecker at Walter Lantz, Tom & Jerry at MGM and, most importantly, Bugs Bunny at Warner Bros., all three of which appear on this list. Speaking of which, the Academy Awards made a pretty massive blunder this year, handing the Oscar to a syrupy and generally forgotten Rudolf Ising cartoon called The Milky Way over fellow nominees Puss Gets the Boot (Tom and Jerry’s debut) and A Wild Hare (Bugs Bunny’s debut). I guess we should be thankful the Academy recognized these important new characters at all, although they probably would’ve been deprived of a nomination if Disney had decided to submit any of his films to the Academy this year (as a result, this was the first year a Disney cartoon didn’t win the Oscar).

Anyway, on this list you’ll find a handful of classics from Warner Bros. and Disney, as well as a few efforts from Fleischer, MGM, Walter Lantz and even Terrytoons. Take a look:

BONE TROUBLE
Directed by Jack Kinney; Walt Disney

Although Bone Trouble is officially the start of the Pluto series, it was far from the character’s first appearance and it wasn’t even his first starring role. Pluto had been appearing in the Mickey Mouse series as far back as 1930, and he was the main focus of cartoons like Mickey’s Pal Pluto (1933) and Pluto’s Judgment Day (1935). He had also shown up in a few co-starring roles with Donald Duck (1936s Donald and Pluto, 1939’s Beach Picnic, etc.), a Silly Symphony short in 1936 (Mother Pluto) and even a special Pluto the Pup cartoon in 1937 (Pluto’s Quin-Puplets). Still, Bone Trouble marked the first attempt to create a continuing series off of the character.

Despite the fact that Pluto is a major character in the development of personality animation (specifically Norm Ferguson’s animation of the character in the 1934 classic Playful Pluto), the Disney canine’s solo series is not generally well-regarded. Throughout the ‘40s, the Pluto films settled into competent but formulaic blandness, particularly when Charles Nichols took the reins of the character in 1944. Considering the fact that the series ran for over ten years, there are precious few standouts (1951’s bizarre and thematically disturbing Plutopia is an exception).

But things started out strong, with this charming little cartoon that doesn’t break any new ground but shows the Disney animators in top form. The film features Pluto attempting to steal a bone from the gruff Butch the Bulldog (in his first appearance), and it’s a great example of an entertaining short told entirely through pantomime. Pluto’s acting is fantastic here, and the animators aren’t afraid to bend and warp his body for emphasis (check out the way his eyelids point up devilishly when he sees Butch’s bone, and the way his body twists all the way around in embarrassment when Butch confronts him). And speaking of bending and warping Pluto’s design, the animators are clearly having a blast in the second half of this film when Pluto wanders into the Hall of Mirrors. There’s a palpable sense of delirious joy as Pluto is stretched, squashed and mangled in the most visually creative ways. It’s a winning demonstration of Disney’s talent for the surreal.

The film is animated more energetically than other Pluto cartoons, and that is most likely thanks to Jack Kinney, who earned his first director’s credit on this film. Kinney later became known for his furiously manic Goofy cartoons of the 1940s, and although characters like Goofy and Donald were a better fit for Kinney’s zany streak, in some ways its a shame he didn’t make more Plutos considering what a fine job he did on this one.

Also worth noting is Carl Barks, comic book artist extraordinaire, who showed a knack for slapstick comedy in writing this film, and the team of Frank Churchill and Paul J. Smith, who enliven the proceedings with a Spike Jones-flavored score.

CROSS COUNTRY DETOURS
Directed by Tex Avery; Warner Bros.

Travelogue parodies became something of a crutch for Tex Avery in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, providing him with a framework to create gags without having to relate them to a plot setup or characters (it’s interesting that after doing so many at Warner Bros., he almost completely abandoned the idea when he moved to MGM and entered into his directorial heyday). Still, let it be said that he got some serious comedic mileage out of the concept, and Cross Country Detours probably has the best assemblage of jokes out of any in the series.

Hilarious gags are plentiful, from a scene of a ferocious bobcat sneaking up on a baby quail to a mountain-climber unsuccessfully trying to get an echo going (both jokes are voiced with perfect desperation by the great Mel Blanc). Avery tosses in the old standby of a dog/tree gag, at least one of which appears in each of his travelogue spoofs like clockwork (this was as close as you could get to blue humor in the Hays Code days). He also reuses the “do not feed the animals” gag that scored the biggest laugh in his 1939 cartoon A Day at the Zoo, and, in a rare case of an Avery gag that didn’t originate with Avery, he lifts a polar bear joke from a 1936 New Yorker cartoon by Ed Nofziger. Still, it’s his presentation of these gags that prove his mastery. Even weaker moments like a shrug-worthy boy scout bit are sharpened by his great sense of timing (plus I’m a sucker for the little-guy-running-after-a-crowd gag that just about every Warners director ended up using).

Given that only recently Disney-style cartoons had completely dominated the animation industry, it’s interesting how adult much of the humor is here (although not surprising to anyone familiar with Avery’s oeuvre). He includes a leggy deer with a Mae West accent and a rotoscoped scene of a lizard doing a striptease. There’s also an amusingly dark gag involving a frog, which is masterfully timed and also gives Avery the opportunity to indulge in a bit of meta humor in the form of a message from “the management”.

Perhaps most amusing of all, and the clearest declaration that Avery was pitching to a more sophisticated audience, is the bit where Avery splits the screen in half so adults can look at a hideous gila monster and children can watch an adorable little girl recite Mary Had a Little Lamb. And if I need to tell you that the two halves end up interacting, you need to watch more Tex Avery cartoons.

KNOCK KNOCK
Directed by Walter Lantz [Possible Director: Alex Lovy]; Walter Lantz

Knock Knock is the first cartoon to feature Woody Woodpecker, Walter Lantz’s most famous creation, and what a strange cartoon it is. It stars Andy Panda (Lantz’s starring character at the time) and his short-tempered father, as they attempt to rid their home of an obnoxious woodpecker, and it’s the woodpecker who winds up stealing the show.

The film, for the most part, is content to toss anything at the wall to see if it sticks, and the results are exceptionally sloppy; Woody’s red coloring blinks on and off, his mouth doesn’t move to his dialogue, and his first line (“guess who”) is spoken in a plain, non-sped-up voice. Many of the gags don’t link together or pay off, and there are some odd pacing decisions, not to mention a strange, overlong closeup of Papa Panda grumbling as he turns purple with rage (?). However, the slapdash nature of the film gives it a warped eccentricity that earlier Walter Lantz shorts by the likes of Burt Gillett lacked; in terms of quality it can’t compare to even the weakest Disney shorts of the era, but a Disney cartoon could never have produced a gleefully deranged anarchist like the woodpecker.

Story-man Ben Hardaway imbues Woody with the same type of lunatic energy seen in early cartoons with Bugs and Daffy, with Hardaway even recycling the men-in-white-coats ending he wrote for Daffy Duck and Egghead. As a result, the unbalanced woodpecker wears a deranged cross-eyed grin all the time, honks people’s noses at any opportunity, blasts through a bunch of trees in a spurt of sexual frustration and, after going through an emotional breakdown, completely snaps out of it to pull a mug of beer out of nowhere to get salted by Andy Panda. He truly seems dangerously insane. He even appears to have magical powers, growing to double his own size in a hilariously disturbing moment and causing Papa Panda’s rifle to come alive and kick the panda in the nose. Say what you will about the film itself – and Woody starred in many better ones once he had a great director to work with (James Culhane, who arrived at the studio in 1943) – but Knock Knock makes a nice showcase for this unpredictable lightning-bolt of a character.

His characterization is nailed down in his design, which is raw cartooning at its most appealingly crude. With his crossed eyes, long pointed beak, big goofy teeth and stubby legs, he is about as far from cute as he could possibly be (Woody’s softened design of the ‘50s and ‘60s would run away screaming from this character). Mel Blanc’s brilliantly energetic voicework as Woody is the icing on the cake, and he lends the film some professionalism, but the cartoon can only be described as a hilarious mixed bag.

Apologies for the poor print of the film linked below (if you want a nicely restored version, buy or rent The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection).

THE MAGIC PENCIL
Directed by Volney White; Terrytoons

The Terrytoons Studio was more or less the bottom of the barrel when it came to animation studios of the golden age. Paul Terry insisted on cranking out his films quickly and cheaply, hardly giving his directors / animators a chance to develop original ideas or a point of view. They came up with some successful series, spawning memorable characters like Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle, but most of their films are punishingly repetitive, save for spurts of wild animation from Jim Tyer, who didn’t arrive at the studio until 1947.

This particular film features Gandy Goose and Sourpuss, two characters that aren’t particularly well-known outside of animation buff circles but nevertheless starred in dozens films throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s. Both characters first appeared separately (Gandy in the 1938 film The Gandy Goose and Sourpuss in the 1939 film The Owl and the Pussycat), and The Magic Pencil was one of the first films to team them up and pit them as friendly rivals.

It’s also one of the most creative and unconventional shorts the studio released. The clever premise was not completely new, of course; earlier films like Pat Sullivan’s Comicalamities (1928) and Van Beuren’s Pencil Mania (1932) had played with the idea of a pencil that can draw objects out of thin air, but the concept adds a bit of interest and eccentricity to a studio that typically thrived on the obvious and predictable.

The gags in this film (such as a group of music notes that turn into swans and a squiggle that serves as a spring) are enjoyably inventive, and even before Gandy is given the pencil there’s an above-average level of cleverness to the story. The way Gandy enters the contest and receives his prize directly through the radio is enjoyable cartoony and impossible, while at the same time being admirably straightforward (stopping the show to have Gandy submit his box tops through the mail would’ve unnecessarily slowed the picture down).

It would be hard to make the case that Gandy and Sourpuss are strong characters (they certainly weren’t original, as Sourpuss borrowed Jimmy Durante’s voice and Gandy borrowed Ed Wynn’s laugh), but they make a likable pair all the same. Gandy in particular, with his scrawny design and fluttery attitude, has a goofy, offbeat appeal that tends to enliven otherwise banal stories.

The Magic Pencil is far from spectacular. Much more could’ve been done with this idea, and as the film enters its second half, it settles into a more conventional parody of 1890s melodrama (the type of stuff Terry had already been satirizing in the Fanny Zilch series and would later use as a framework for several Mighty Mouse cartoons). The animation is also pretty uninteresting, and some of the lip syncs are particularly bad. Still, the short is a breath of fresh air in the Terrytoons canon and it makes for a very entertaining watch.

MR. MOUSE TAKES A TRIP
Directed by Clyde Geronimi; Walt Disney

In this engaging and funny short, Mickey attempts to sneak Pluto onto a train that doesn’t allow dogs, but Conductor Pete is on the lookout for any funny business. The cartoon isn’t a virtuoso display of cutting-edge animation, nor is it particularly groundbreaking or unusual, but it is a well-written, well-animated film that shows the chase cartoon at its best.

Peg-Leg Pete, who has miraculously regained his leg, is the main show stealer here, thanks largely to typically top-notch voicework from Billy Bletcher (his incoherent babbling as he lists off the stops is a highlight). Pete’s uncompromising meanness is hilariously overplayed, particularly in one scene where he very angrily yells for tickets at what appear to be empty chairs. He also takes an unhealthy amount of pleasure in busting Mickey for rule-breaking, hammily launching into a story about his pet cat in an effort to make Pluto jump out and expose himself (why, you ask, did Peg-Leg Pete own a pet cat when he is supposed to be a cat? Why anything?).

Mickey is also enjoyable in the film, and his nervous attempts to cover up Pluto’s barking recall his career-best performance in the previous year’s classic The Pointer. Pluto isn’t especially active in the film, but there is a fun piece of animation as Mickey tries to stretch Pluto out after he’s been crammed into a suitcase. Not to mention that both Mickey and Pluto are forced to show some acting range as they don various disguises in their efforts to dodge the conductor, which adds to the film’s screwball charm.

The short is full of funny little visual gags, and the story is perfectly constructed. Apparently Frank Tashlin did some story work on the cartoon, although it doesn’t really show any signs of his influence. Then again, there’s an unusually suggestive gag where Pete grabs at a figure behind a curtain thinking it’s Mickey, only to find that he’s pinched the rear end of a very angry woman, so maybe that was Tashlin’s contribution. Who’s to say?

PUSS GETS THE BOOT
Directed by William Hanna & Joseph Barbera; MGM

In this wonderful cartoon, a master threatens her cat by saying that if he breaks one more thing he’s getting thrown out, and a mouse the cat picked on decides to take advantage of this precarious position. This film marked the first appearance of one of the most famous comedy teams in film history: Tom and Jerry.

The cartoon was also the first directorial collaboration of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who were working under Rudolf Ising at the time and didn’t receive screen credit on this film. Stories about cats chasing mice were hardly original even in 1940, and Hanna & Barbera had moved on to other cartoons like Swing Social and Gallopin’ Gals when they got word that their cat and mouse cartoon was a hit with audiences (in addition to being nominated for an Academy Award). From there on out, Hanna and Barbera were assigned to direct Tom and Jerry cartoons, and they did that and hardly anything else for seventeen years, resulting in 114 cat and mouse chases.

On the face of it, Puss Gets the Boot bears a strong resemblance to the type of cartoons Rudolf Ising had been making; the character designs (by Bob Allen) are generally realistic, the animation is lush and the pace is slow, allowing the audience to drink in every nuance. However, even in this early short, Hanna and Barbera display a greater skill at comedy than Ising could ever claim. They establish the film not as a cute little fable about animals (The Little Goldfish, The Milky Way), or a measured comedy of frustration (The Bear That Couldn’t Sleep, The Fishing Bear), but instead a battle of wits between two characters who get no greater joy than inflicting harm on each other.

Sure, the pace is slow when compared to later Tom & Jerry shorts that move a mile a minute, but Hanna and Barbera use the pace to their advantage by building comic momentum; they really milk Tom’s desperation as he tries to make sure nothing breaks, and they give us ample time to enjoy Jerry’s unrestrained glee at having something to hold over Tom’s head. It has a foot in Disney-style cuteness, but it’s masterful comedy all the same. There’s also an element of slapstick violence here that Harman and Ising would’ve turned their noses up at; scenes like Jerry running into a painted mousehole and Jerry jabbing his finger in Tom’s eye give the film a much-needed punch (although jokes like that are just a hint of the kind of cartoon violence Hanna and Barbera would be dishing out in a few year’s time).

There are certainly differences between the Tom and Jerry seen here and their more familiar incarnations. Tom is referred to as “Jasper”, and his design is much closer to that of a real cat than in later appearances. Jerry looks more familiar, although he has a slightly bigger snout than he would later on. But what’s amazing is how much Hanna and Barbera got right on the first try: their antagonistic relationship is already intact (here, as always, Tom seems more interested in tormenting Jerry than actually eating him), and we have an appearance from Mammy Two-Shoes, the black housekeeper voiced by Lillian Randolph. This film’s setup would be revised and improved in later Tom & Jerry classics like Quiet Please! (1945) and Mouse Cleaning (1948), but this remains a heck of a start.


TARANTELLA
Directed by Mary Ellen Bute

While Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Oskar Fischinger are probably the most well-known avant-garde animators working in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Texas native Mary Ellen Bute was doing equally fantastic work and blazing a trail as one of the earliest female abstract animators. She produced animated shorts from the early ‘30s up until the early ‘50s, but 1940’s Tarantella may be her finest film.

Similar to Len Lye’s film of the previous year Swinging the Lambeth Walk, Mary Ellen Bute sought to visualize music (in this case a piano piece by Edwin Gerschefski) through the use of shapes and lines. The titles define “tarantella” as “a rapid Neapolitan dance in triplets; so called because it was popularly thought to be a remedy for the supposed poisonous bites of the tarantula”. Bute was a self-described “designer of kinetic abstractions” and her mission was to “bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding with the… rhythmic cadences of music”.

The results are striking and hypnotic, looking at times as if one of Kandinsky’s paintings started moving around. The stylized, jagged lines and triangles certainly bring Kandinsky to mind (and also seem to anticipate the look that Saul Bass would bring to many pre-titles sequences in live-action movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s), but Bute is equally proficient at animating the looser, more squiggly lines, which bring an element of good-natured fun to the short. The color is fairly limited (mostly blues and reds) but boldly applied, making use of a lot of stark patches of color. Even the use of text is inventive; the credits pop onto the screen in time to the music, and the word “end” at the finale has an appealing Art Moderne look. The film was deservedly selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2010.

A WILD HARE
Directed by Tex Avery; Warner Bros.

In this landmark film, Elmer Fudd is sneaking through the forest with a gun, and he imparts to the audience for the very first time, “shh… be vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits.” And from there we are introduced to the greatest cartoon character ever created: Bugs Bunny.

Now, A Wild Hare is not officially Bugs Bunny’s first appearance. He made his debut in the 1938 film Porky’s Hare Hunt, where he was more or less unrecognizable in design (he was a short white rabbit with an oval for a head) and personality (he was portrayed as an out-of-control lunatic in the Woody Woodpecker vein). The film established his penchant for outsmarting hunters, as well as his occasional catchphrase “of course you know this means war” (adapted from Groucho Marx in Duck Soup), but there are precious few similarities beyond that. Chuck Jones used the character as a pantomime magician in the 1939 film Presto Changeo before Ben Hardaway returned to the character with Hare-um Scare-um, where Charles Thornton redesigned him as a pudgy little grey rabbit. Jones used the updated design in his 1940 film Elmer’s Candid Camera, the first film to pair Bugs and Elmer. But despite this historic meeting, the Bugs in that short was not really Bugs at all, but an obnoxious lunatic with a hayseed laugh.

A Wild Hare completely revamps the character, changing him from deranged nutjob to a cool, street-smart heckler. All of the elements are in place here: his classic design (based on a model sheet by Bob Givens), his Brooklyn/Bronx accent (provided by Mel Blanc) and his immortal catchphrase “what’s up, doc?” (apparently taken from something kids used to say at Tex Avery’s high school). Not to mention that Bugs also chomps on a carrot, wears white gloves, plants a wacky kiss on Elmer and fakes his own death. In 1937, Avery broke new ground by introducing a character that was completely insane (Daffy Duck).

And with Bugs Bunny, he was breaking new ground again: audiences at the time would never have expected a character to act so nonchalant in the face of death. Bugs was a comic hero of the type the animation world had never seen, and audiences were floored.

The Warner Bros. staff always maintained that in making A Wild Hare they only intended to create a funny cartoon and they had no idea they were launching an iconic character. Still, given the assurance with which they handle Bugs, you would swear they knew they had a star on their hands. Look at the way they build up his arrival, crafting an entire comedy sequence out of his hand reaching for a carrot. And throughout the film, Bugs’ personality is flawlessly established. He has the perfect balance of cool self-assurance and wacky unpredictability; he isn’t scared of his attacker or angry at him, he is simply smarter than him and gets a kick out of heckling him. And speaking of Elmer, his personality was also refined for this film. Jones’ Elmer’s Candid Camera gave him his Arthur Q. Bryan voice, but A Wild Hare establishes him as a hunter and gives him his more familiar design.

The film is full of wonderful sequences. The bit where Bugs asks Elmer to describe what a rabbit looks like has been reused in numerous cartoons and it’s always funny. There’s also an amusing scene where Bugs plays “guess who” with Elmer, and Fudd guesses several famous actresses before he lands on Bugs (trivia: the name Carole Lombard was changed to Barbra Stanwyck in reissue prints after Lombard’s death in a plane crash). Then there’s that classic death scene, which is so brilliantly done (thanks to Robert McKimson’s marvelous animation and Mel Blanc’s committed voicework) that it would be quite affecting were it not so funny. And that leads into the ending, where Elmer goes mad and starts screaming about rabbits. It’s a variation on a similar ending in Elmer’s Candid Camera, but it works better in this short, particularly when punctuated by a closing scene where Bugs plays The Girl I Left Behind Me on his carrot, marching down his rabbit hole with a stiff leg, much like the fifer in the The Spirit of ’76 painting.

As with Tom and Jerry in Puss Gets the Boot, Bugs’ maiden voyage has a more leisurely pace than later entries and gags aren’t as plentiful. Avery rewatched the film in later years and exclaimed that there was “hardly a gag in it”. Not quite true, as the film has plenty of laughs, but later Bugs Bunny cartoons have more. What the film does splendidly, however, is establish a fantastic character and set the blueprint for all of his later appearances. For giving us one of the great screen characters of all time, A Wild Hare deserves recognition as a masterpiece of cinema.

WITH POOPDECK PAPPY
Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Bill Nolan]; Max Fleischer

The genius of the Popeye series had mostly been diluted by 1940, with Popeye well on his way to playing the dull straight man in tiresome films like Flies Ain’t Human (1941) and I’ll Never Crow Again (1941). Still, somehow this little gem slipped through the cracks. In the short, Popeye attempts to get his 99-year-old father to settle down and go to sleep, but he keeps sneaking out of his bed and raising hell. Popeye is still stuck playing a straight man of sorts, but the difference is that this film is actually funny.

The Popeye series had adapted with the times, and by the end of the ‘30s the films had smoother animation and relied less on bizarre gags and mumbled non sequiturs. Compared to a film like Popeye meets William Tell (1940), which resembles the feature film Gulliver’s Travels more than a typical Popeye short, Poopdeck Pappy looks positively primitive. The drawings are charmingly off-kilter and characters bob up and down while ambling through gritty, run-down locales. The gang of ruffians at the nightclub are drawn in a funny but crude fashion, and the stick figure of a girl that Pappy dances with looks like she stepped out of an early Van Beuren cartoon. There are several weird transformations and in some scenes, the characters practically seem to float.

This retro vibe was most likely thanks to supervising animator Bill Nolan, who wrote the book on rubberhose animation back in the late 1920s. He is best known for his loopy, offbeat Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons of the early ‘30s, and although a cartoon like this doesn’t allow him to go as crazy as he did back in the pre-code era, he still gives the animation in the film an appealingly eccentric look. It’s too bad that Nolan only directed this film and one other (Child Psykolojiky in 1941), as it seems he had the potential to keep Popeye’s golden age of the 1930s going for a few more years.

The film’s story also has an edge that other Popeye cartoons of this period lack. The Fleischer staff is pretty uncompromising here about Pappy’s utter hatefulness, and it’s a hoot to see him infuriate just about everyone in a local nightclub. Popeye is also put in an amusing position as he attempts to be patient with Pappy but can’t help getting frustrated. Dysfunctional families are hardly out of the ordinary in classic cartoons (check out Chuck Jones’ Three Bears series for clarification), but ending the film by having Popeye yell about how he hates himself for being Pappy’s son is amusingly dark.

Not to mention that Popeye’s little “goodnight, pappy” routine that serves as the film’s running gag is one of the most memorable bits in Popeye’s filmography.

YOU OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES
Directed by Friz Freleng; Warner Bros.

Released 48 years before the acclaimed Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), this novel little short sets Warner cartoon stars Porky Pig and Daffy Duck loose in the live-action world, as they crawl off of the drawing board and interact with human co-stars. Earlier films had combined animation and live-action, most notably Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell series in the 1920s, but this cartoon used the process more extensively than any of its predecessors and it paved the way for Walt Disney’s later live-action/animation films like The Three Caballeros (1944) and Song of the South (1946).

In the short, Daffy Duck convinces Porky that he’s too good for cartoons and he should get into feature films. Porky is pushed into getting Looney Tunes producer Leon Schlesinger to rip up his contract, but he finds that the live-action world isn’t as pleasant as he expected. The film was released shortly after Friz Freleng returned to Warner Bros. following a brief stint at MGM, and it’s hard not to read the cartoon as autobiographical. Like Porky, Freleng was convinced to stray to the greener pastures of a more prestigious studio with higher budgets, but he found the environment creatively limiting. You Ought to be in Pictures is pretty clearly Freleng’s way of thanking Schlesinger for giving him another shot. Given the virtual anonymity of animation directors in 1940, it’s interesting to see Freleng incorporating elements of his own life and career into his art.

And despite the fact that Freleng was no longer playing with MGM-level budgets, what the animators pull off here is extraordinary. Many of the scenes simply feature the characters drawn overtop of still photographs, but there are some tricky yet flawlessly executed moments of interaction between humans and cartoons, such as a studio guard throwing Porky off of a film set, and Porky shaking hands with Leon Schlesinger. The bit where Porky is driving through heavy traffic is effectively nail-biting, and never at any point do you doubt that Porky and Daffy are living, breathing beings.

This is largely due to Freleng’s expert handling of the characters; Porky is ingratiatingly timid and unsure of himself, and he makes an affable leading man. In fact, this may be his greatest starring role (in films like Porky in Wackyland, our pig hero is clearly upstaged). As for Daffy, this was Freleng’s first crack at the character and he instantly nails him. Whereas earlier films portrayed the duck as an unbridled lunatic, Freleng here plays him as a jealous, greedy egotist, a startling precursor to Daffy’s persona of the late ‘40s and ‘50s. Daffy’s song in this film about what a great leading man he would make is one of the greatest musical numbers in Looney Tunes history.

The story is told well, and the short is wonderfully funny and creative. Moreover, the film gives us a delightful glimpse at Hollywood in its heyday. It’s great fun to see appearances by key Warner Bros. personnel like writer Michael Maltese (as the security guard) and animator Gerry Chiniquy (as the movie director), whose voices were all overdubbed by Mel Blanc (the live-action was shot with a silent film camera). The only actor to dub his own lines was Leon Schlesinger, who is enjoyably hammy playing himself. There’s also a great shot of the animators zooming out of the studio for lunch, which was lifted from a screamingly funny film made for the animation studio’s Christmas party. You Ought to be in Pictures deserves recognition as one of the best behind-the-scenes films made in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Any comments or suggestions for this post? What are your favorite cartoons of 1940? Let me know in the comments below.

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