Stutterly Amazing

Animation fans can end the year on a high that’s guaranteed to carry them into 2018 and beyond.  And, for that, y’all can thank the gang at the Warner Archive Collection for their outstanding 5-disc DVD-R made-to-order collection, PORKY PIG 101.

The clever title reveals that there are indeed 101 vintage Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, spanning the crucial years 1933-1943.  But that’s only half of the charm of their moniker.  As the title implies, there is great educational worth in the 101 collection.  It’s a mini-history of Golden Age Hollywood animation, as realized by some of its greatest practitioners and masters.

Porky was the WB cartoon unit’s first bona fide star.  And it wasn’t an overnight success.  The character went through many changes, ages, physical appearances and personality quirks before they arrived at the iconic pig we all know and love.

The 101 set is in chronological order, and every one of the cartoons featured is a rarity.  All are in the original black and white, with two exceptions, 1933’s pre-Code two-tone Technicolor I Haven’t Got a Hat and the 1939 clouds-of-war rousing Old Glory.  The reason is that, prior to early 1943, the Warners Merrie Melodies were Technicolored, while the Looney Tunes were monochrome.  This differentiation became obsolete when, by 1943, any black and white cartoon was considered bigger box-office poison than an El Brendel-starring comedy.

The Looney Tunes were essentially a no-holds-barred experimental lab for talented writers, animators and directors to hone their crafts.  Indeed, for me 101 is a major release, as it shows not only the evolution of a key WB “star,” but, more importantly, chronicles the advancement of the artistry of animation geniuses Robert Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, each of whom cut their teeth on Porky’s development.  Many attributes were combined to create the character – and all of that is evident in these riotous and, admittedly, occasionally offensive one-reelers.  Clampett tended to go literally hog-wild with his input; early Jones went for a Disney approach; Tashlin liked a more corpulent Porky; Avery, a farm-boy yoot, rather than an adult; Freleng, a happy-go-lucky pig ‘n’ a whistle.  All this stuff would eventually culminate in the stuttering everypig specimen of middle-class Americana that millions have come to know and love.

At first, the character was billed with as “Porky ‘n’ Beans,” in a series of schoolroom romps that attempted to introduce a roster of stars in the Roach Our Gang tradition.  Certain animals were continuously presented, refined and (mostly) dropped by the mid-1930s.  While Porky remained, it was generally agreed early-on that he was best when teamed with another more ballistic half.  Lulu, a goofy ostrich, was an embryonic start to the eventual concoction (and sex change) known as Daffy Duck (Porky’s Pet).  The pair would be teamed throughout the WB toon heyday, shining best when Jones became the Warners maven of sophistication, via PP’s sly takes and asides to the camera (darewesay “ham on wry”?) during Daffy’s out-of-control histrionics.  But that would be decades from the 7-minute gems contained in this set.

Each platter is forworded by a disclaimer explaining the racist content of many of the shorts.  And it’s well-founded.  These cartoons (often the reason that I have never seen most of them, as, even in the 1960s, New York TV stations refused to run them) do tend to shamelessly stereotype blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans; on the flip side, they also do the same for politicians, contemporary movie stars, bullies, business executives, pompous religious leaders, salesmen and educators.  It must be said that the Warners toon unit was among the first in tinsel Town to kick Hitler in the ass (What Price, Porky?), years before the studio’s feature productions attempted the same.  Our hero even proves himself a champion animal activist, going after non-oinking swine fur trappers in Tashlin’s Porky in the North Woods. Of course, this doesn’t justify any of the PI content, but, as the disclaimer states, they are products of their time (Disney never had that kind of gutsy home-video mojo; they simply edited what they perceived to be offensive out, making the censored celluloid historically inaccurate).

The only way I could see many of the titles in this collection was in the late 1960s-early 1970s when a UA subsidiary (United Artists then owned the pre-Warners output) colorized a slew of their black-and-whites.  These embryonic computerized atrocities looked awful and tended to compromise movement.  I used to turn the color off, but, even then the dull, smeary black and white looked weird, as if the images were transferred with Silly Putty.

Happy to state that the 101 cartoons are, for the most part, in remarkably excellent shape.  Certainly, some are only very good, but many are pristine (and virtually all from 35mm) and, best of all, at last in true black-and-white.

Since Robert Clampett is one of my favorite directors (live action or animation), it’s sensational to have such a treasure trove of his work.  I was lucky enough to have met him in the 1970s, and we became pals.  He told me tons of great stuff about the Warners days, all of it proved valid by these awesome Porky adventures.  For example, he told me that they were so tight with a dollar that after a cartoon was shot, they would wipe clean (the best they could) all the cells, and re-use them.  This actually shows up in these shorts via digs, draw-lines, squiggles, obviously left over from a previous endeavor.  He also was known as the Termite Terrace (the nickname for the animation department) scavenger, and, fortunately, was able to sneak out surviving cells, storyboards and props – many of which are showcased here as supplements.  This is extremely valuable, since when one examines the specific cartoon, viewers will be stunned to notice gags that didn’t make it to the final cut, and even characters that were excised or changed (Porky’s Party, Porky’s Poor Fish).  Several of these cartoons also have commentary, which buffs may find interesting (Porky’s Poultry Plant, The Case of the Stuttering Pig, Porky at the Crocadero, Porky’s Party, Unholy Smoke, You Ought to be in Pictures, Porky’s Review, etc.).  Hey, this collection has Clampett’s Porky in Wackyland, perhaps my favorite all-time cartoon.  To own that in mint condition alone (for me) is worth the entire collection (which, BTW, comes down to less than 48 cents per title!).

Bob told me that “Tash [Frank Tashlin] found a rundown theater that showed only silent comedies.  He would go there almost every night after work.  The next day, he would enthrall us with what he saw – stuff that matched the craziest gags we could come up with.  He drove us nuts, trying to get us to go with him.  We chided Frank for it, but, obviously he had the last laugh.”  Tashlin’s Porky masterpiece (Porky’s Pig Feat) is the final official entry in the set (the last segment of film is the notorious Porky’s Breakdowns – the cursing pig’s year-end gift to the Warners staff at their annual Christmas party. “Sonofa b-b-b-b-b-bitch!”), a perfect way to start any tribute to prologue any of his Bob Hope, Jayne Mansfield or Jerry Lewis live-action feature-length cartoons.

There are other animators whose Porky antics are on view, but tend to not have been as fondly remembered, some for good reason.  By the slick early 1940s, when Clampett, Tashlin, Avery, Jones and Freleng were really getting into the groove, these guys were still stuck in the Depression-era early 1930s.  Side-by-side compare Porky and Teasbiscuit with The Daffy Doc, and you’ll see what I mean.

A lot of these toons tend to end abruptly, don’t satisfactorily resolve a viable conclusion, have gags that fall flat (or repeat themselves subsequently, sometimes over years, until they work), but that’s part of the fascination of this package.  Sometimes entire cartoons were remade in Technicolor (Clampett’s Scalp Trouble became Freleng’s Slightly Daffy;  Freleng’s Notes to You became his Back Alley Oproar).  Ben Hardaway had Porky (before there was an Elmer Fudd) hunting a rabbit (Porky’s Hare Hunt).  The lepus was abrasive and obnoxious, and not at all likeable.  Clampett, Avery and Tashlin took respective cracks at the character until they came up with a workable composite, christening their result after its originator (Hardaway’s nickname was “Bugs,” and so was dubbed the wascally wabbit).  Clampett told me that they derived a lot of their characters’ attributes from The Movies.  “Bugs is really Groucho Marx, and [as indicated above] the first Porkys were the Hal Roach Our Gang kids.”

Of course, a turning point in the series comes with the arrival of Mel Blanc (who does not get any credit for his work in these shorts) and the brilliant musical director Carl W. Stallings (who does get a credit).  It’s the last topping on what would from then on be a nearly flawless barrage of hilarious animated masterpieces.  PORKY PIG 101 is classic collection essential; to miss it is to deprive yourself and your friends an awesome viewing experience.  Whether you choose to precede a feature with one or two of these, or program an entire evening of milestone animation (some not seen properly in over seventy years), PORKY PIG 101 is a Warner Archive jewel in their crown and will undoubtedly be likewise in your library.

PORKY PIG 101.  Black-and-white (and two color selections).  Full frame [1.33:1]; 2.0 mono audio. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. CAT # 100064529. SRP: $47.99.

porkypig101_COVER

 

 

 

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

 

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