Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Pigs is Pigs" (Friz Freleng, 1937)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

"Pigs is Pigs" is notable for two reasons - First, it marks the final appearance of the short-lived Merrie Melodies star Piggy Hamhock. In 1931, Freleng had introduced Piggy, an ink-black character in the Mickey Mouse/Felix the Cat vein. He starred in two shorts (the jazz farce "You Don't Know What You're Doin'!" and "Hittin' the Trail for Hallelujah Land," one of the infamous Censored Eleven) before being dropped.

In 1936, Freleng brought back Piggy, who now had a last name. Rather than a free-spirited, alcohol-swigging adult, this Piggy is a little kid who lives with his parents and his many sibling. He's pink-skinned, obese, and obsessed with eating. It really is a completely different character, but it's easy to see why Freleng reused the first name - "Piggy Hamhock" is truly delightful to say or hear.

Once again, Piggy only got to star in two shorts - "At Your Service Madame" and today's feature. Porky was on the rise at the time, and Merrie Melodies certainly didn't need two pig stars. So this cartoon is Piggy's final bow.

But brother, what a way to go out!

The other reason "Pigs is Pigs" is notable is that it's one of director Friz Freleng's first non-musical cartoons. I don't know for sure that it's his very first, but most of his cartoons throughout the early 30s featured the characters breaking out into song at some point (He would continue that thread throughout his career, but never to quite the same degree.)

This cartoon is still a comedy, but the entire second half - set in the home of a mad scientist played by deep-voiced Disney veteran Billy Bletcher - has a pervasive feeling of foreboding. It's this section that the cartoon is best remembered for, with the mad scientist force-feeding Piggy in a darker version of the food machine from Chaplin's Modern Times (released the year before). It would also be reflected later in films like A Clockwork Orange and Se7en.

Those comparisons might be a bit extreme, but I think they're valid. Nothing in the film is scary, exactly - because it's too light-hearted for that - but it puts the viewer inside Piggy's mind during an experience that he clearly isn't enjoying. In addition to the content itself, everything about the sequence is just a little bit off. It has so many dream-like touches - the pie filling around Piggy's face disappears magically when he moves on to a new dish, he doesn't gain any weight until he becomes instantly obese at the end, and most of all, the strange way that the scientist says "Have some nice pies, cakes, ice cream and pickles!" (Pickles!)

And it pays off wonderfully in the final moment. That ending! Not only is it a hilarious gag, it rings completely true. I think it's exactly how I would have acted in that situation as a kid.

Speaking of which, the whole cartoon hits me pretty close to home. As an overweight child I adored this cartoon, focusing as it does on the inner life of a fat kid who eats as often as possible, and thinks about food the rest of the time. I wasn't quite as much of a glutton as Piggy (not that anyone could be, outside of a cartoon), but I definitely spent much of my time wondering when I would next be able to eat.

The first half of the cartoon captures that feeling better than just about anything else I've seen. The scene featured in the screenshot above - where Piggy ties together the spaghetti from everyone's plate so he can eat it - is a masterpiece of extending a gag for maximum effect.

"Pigs is Pigs" is only one of two excellent cartoons by that title. Come back tomorrow for the other one.


TomH said...

Your enthusiasm for these cartoons is infectious. Thanks for sharing!

BTW, when my sister and I were younger, Mom used to call us into the house with a bell like the one that the mom uses. Nowadays, I guess kids just play in the back yard. It's too unsafe to let them just run through the neighborhood.

Hamhock said...

There was a remake. I saw it twice back in the '60s. Freling did have a habit of remaking some of his cartoons as animation improved over the years. In the remake the character's name was changed to Sparky. At the end of the dream he wasn't just fat -- he was Grand Obese (ie huge); a food packed ball 7 feet in diameter. He really does look like he'd burst at any moment in this version.

Do you know anything about the remake? I've searched for it for years with no success.

BTW -- This has always been my favorite cartoon from the Warner Bros library. Thank you.

Hamhock said...

Your comment that "not that anyone could be [as much of a glutton as Piggy], outside of a cartoon" is wrong. There are many documented cases of children with such enormous appetites. Check out