The Dawn of Porky and the Birth of the WB Style (1935-1938)
Starting in 1935, several milestone cartoons were released that pointed toward the recognizable Warner Bros. style. 1935’s I Haven’t Got a Hat introduced the first enduring WB character, Porky Pig. Gold Diggers of ‘49 (1936) was director Tex Avery’s debut (with Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones as lead animators) and shows the sense of pace, timing and humor that was to come. The 1936 Jazz Singer spoof I Love to Singa is beloved, and later in 1936 Porky’s Poultry Plant marked the debut of both director Frank Tashlin and music supervisor Carl Stalling. 1937 brought 3 major milestones in quick succession. Picador Porky started Mel Blanc’s WB career in voice characterization, and a few cartoons later he would take over as Porky Pig. She Was An Acrobat’s Daughter is, in my opinion, the first WB cartoon that is pure, uncut Warner Bros. energy and humor from start to finish. Then in the very next release, Porky’s Duck Hunt, the comedic hunter character is established in Porky (which is later taken up by Elmer Fudd) and Daffy Duck as his nemesis makes an indelible debut.
Porky had a recurring sidekick (Gabby Goat) and pet (Lulu the Ostrich) for a few films in his early days; that no one remembers this is a testament to how memorable these characters are. Porky was originally voiced by Joe Dougherty, who actually did stutter and whose vocal recording sessions were reportedly endless and problematic as a result. The story of how Dougherty went from attending the University of Nebraska medical school to serving as the voice of a stuttering cartoon pig in southern California seems to be undocumented, but might make interesting reading. Porky lost a lot of weight when he changed voice actors, so Blanc’s Porky is the one we are familiar with, while Dougherty’s Porky elicits more sympathy and irritation than humor.
Endless (pointless?) debate continues about whether Egghead, who made his debut in 1937’s Egghead Rides Again, is Elmer Fudd, Elmer Fudd’s brother (at one time an official WB publicity claim), or a different character altogether. Upon viewing the debut cartoon again, I was struck by Egghead hinting at not only Elmer’s origins, but also those of Yosemite Sam. As with discussions of prenatal Bugs Bunny appearances, a full-blown origin story seems for some to require the complete confluence of character design, behavior and voice. For others the appearance of one or two out of three will suffice.
What to Look For
Questions emerge when one views cartoons from this era. Is the fact that hens sit on unhatched eggs to keep them warm the wellspring of all comedy? If minor Hollywood comedians such as Joe Penner, Lew Lehr and (later) Jerry Colonna live on merely in their WB animated versions but not their actual body of work, are they nevertheless successful? How does it become so normal to watch naked quadrupeds depicted as clothed, English-speaking bipeds? The appearance of a normal human character in any of these films is genuinely disorienting.
The famous Censored Eleven cartoons banned from broadcast in the late 1960s are, of course, not the only examples of racially / ethnically sensitive stereotypes in the WB canon. A good example is the 1937 short Sweet Sioux. A modern viewer may well decide that the title itself is sufficient deterrent, but upon viewing the cartoon, which is pretty funny, one finds the satiric targets are not generally the indigenous nations.
I am emphatically not maintaining that the Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies cartoons from 1930s – 1960s are devoid of harmful racist depictions of indigenous North American nations; there is plenty of evidence to the contrary (although, interestingly, not represented extensively in the Censored Eleven).
Most of the gags in Sweet Sioux are pretty mild, such as the mother / papoose flipping over so the baby can do some of the walking, and the attacking braves encircling the lone covered wagon forming a functional merry-go-round complete with brass ring. The actual satirical targets of Sweet Sioux are the conventions of two Hollywood genres, the western and the college sports comedy / musical. A very funny gag cuts from the attacking braves to the bench, where the second string, wearing numbered warm-ups, sits behind the nervous, pacing coach / chief.
The strangest section of Sweet Sioux involves, of all people, singer / comedienne Martha Raye. Raye was a big-mouthed, brassy and loud supporting presence in b-pictures. She served in the 1930s a similar function to what Eve Arden and Thelma Ritter did to the 1940s and 1950s, in that frequently she was the best (or only) thing a motion picture had to offer. Anyway, in mid-cartoon a Raye impersonator depicted as a shapely Indian maiden hijacks the picture, just as the real Raye usually did. The effect is much like the Clutch Cargo series of ultra-cheap cartoons which used a live-action human mouth superimposed on a cartoon body.
The most insensitive and nonsensical aspect of Sweet Sioux may come from comparing its weak-punned title with its weak ending; the Sioux and Mohican tribes are different nations, distinct in many geographical and historical details, but the comedy conventions of the day (as elucidated in several cartoons) involved being “The Last of” the latter. Thanks a bunch, James Fenimore Cooper.
Other interesting cartoons of this period include Streamlined Greta Green, a take on anthropomorphic automobiles that predates Tex Avery’s later MGM efforts and Pixar’s Cars films; A Sunbonnet Blue, whose cute mice are familiar but the overnight setting of a millinery shop is unique (and which would make a good double bill with Bugs’ Bonnets from 1956); and the terrific The Case of the Stuttering Pig, which manages to serve as both Porky’s genealogy and a fully-functioning mystery thriller.
One cartoon from late 1937, Little Red Walking Hood, features a classic Tex Avery fairy tale parody but also a very unique look. Instead of solidly painted backgrounds, the surrounding scenes and settings (and even moving details like the automobiles) are rendered in beautiful colored pencil. The effect is so striking it’s surprising the technique wasn’t used more often.
It’s strange how in February 1938, the studio could produce the bright and funny Porky at the Crocadero, two weeks later release something as offensive, unfunny and dull as Jungle Jitters, then bounce right back the next week with the breathlessly fleet-footed What Price Porky. There were different units under different directors, but it’s still the same production studio. Sometimes it makes sense that Warner Bros. is selective about what it makes currently available.
Cartoon #198, 1938’s Porky’s Hare Hunt, features the first appearance of the rabbit character that is considered to be proto-Bugs Bunny. These continuing evolutions into the greatest cartoon character of all time make an interesting study; here the bunny has Woody Woodpecker’s voice, helicopter ears and an aptitude for jumping around in a Daffy manner. Those who (rightfully) equate Warner Bros. cartoons with Bugs Bunny might be surprised to learn that nearly 200 cartoons went by before he showed up, and even then he wasn’t yet quite himself.
If time travel were an option, landing somewhere in a movie theater on September 24, 1938 just to watch a group of people encounter Porky in Wackyland for the first time would be a revelation. Even now its power to turn the human brain inside out is undiminished.
Watching the films in order, one can see Bob Clampett gearing up for his surreal trip to Wackyland; the previous Clampett cartoon, Porky and Daffy, features a pelican climbing out of his own mouth. Before that, Porky’s Party depicts an incredibly productive silkworm working in birthday party ice cream. Still, nothing prepares the viewer for the overwhelming adventure of Wackyland. It takes a minimum of 3 viewings just to take it all in. To date Porky in Wackyland is the earliest WB cartoon in the Library of Congress National Film Registry, and is a regular inhabitant of every list of animation’s masterpieces.
The end of 1938 had the studio operating in high gear, as the Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin units were creating cartoons that are as funny and creative in their own way as Clampett’s. And at the tail end of the year, another animator, Chuck Jones, was promoted to director when Tashlin left the studio for a few years.