Archive for January 24, 2012

Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Pain

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2012 by dcairns

Man oh man! — or pig oh pig! — there’s plenty to enjoy in Disney’s THREE LITTLE PIGS.

What I Knew Going In:

Well, I’d seen the film two or three times, probably on Wonderful World of Disney TV specials as a kid. Then I’d seen, more recently, Tex Avery’s savage take-down, BLITZ WOLF, a WWII propaganda short made a decade later, which arguably does more violence to Disney than it does to Hitler. Being the product of more sophisticated animation (techniques really had advanced, in part thanks to Disney himself), and being the product of a more sophisticated sensibility, it made the earlier film look crude and childish, and it mercilessly ripped the piss out of Disney’s fairytale world-view.

I’d also heard Chuck Jones speak about the history of animation, and he credited this particular cartoon with a far-reaching innovation. Being a relatively early sound cartoon, he reckoned it was the first to truly exploit the possibilities of speech, characterizing the pigs, who all look alike, by their voices. In fact, their contrasting preferences in construction material are their main traits, and this is conveyed visually, but they also talk about it.

The pigs are all differently uniformed, with the two foolish pigs dressed somewhat like schoolkids. They also have a fife and a fiddle and high, feminine voices, whereas Practical Pig pounds a piano and has a rasping, hectoring adult voice provided by Pinto Colvig, the voice of Goofy. So much for characterization.

But beyond this crude stereotyping, Jones claimed the film pointed towards a new possibility — if voices could reinforce behavioral differences, then it was no longer necessary to use character design so crudely. “Previously, bad characters were ugly and good characters were cute,” he observed. Well, this still holds true in 3LP —

The wolf is grotesque, black, slavering and, most strikingly, attired as a hobo. This seems like Disney’s familiar social conservatism in full swing. I guess I see the logic: the wolf is an itinerant, rapacious character (whereas the pigs are domestic, middle-class homeowners) and so in anthropomorphizing him one looks for a human equivalent. For Tex Avery, it had to be Hitler, the brutal invader, for Disney it was the peripatetic outsider.

But I guess I take the point — once the idea of characterization by voice took hold, possibilities opened up. Chuck Jones’s villains tend to look somewhat grotesque and ragged (Yosemite Sam, the coyote) but so do his heroes (Bugs, the roadrunner). Cuteness and lovability were modulated into more abrasive virtues like pluck and defiance. And Disney’s SNOW WHITE could have a heroine and a villainess who were competitors in beauty (even though it’s pretty clear which one’s evil, even without speech… even without movement).

But moving beyond Jones’ analysis… THREE LITTLE PIGS offers still more interest…

Extremely twisted humour. Note the family portrait on the wall. Unexpected! As is the brick piano, which must surely have a magnificent timbre.

A few shots which go beyond the flat, theatrical staging, where characters break out of traveling a straight line from screen left to screen right… and…

Racial stereotyping! In order to pad the story out, uncredited writer Boris V. Morkovin and director Burt Gillett have the Big Bad Wolf disguise himself, first as a little lamb, then as “the fuller brush man,” a blatant Jewish caricature. What this is about, I’m not sure. Since the lamb is an innocent disguise, we can’t be sure Disney is equating Jews with wolfishness. Or saying anything bad about traveling salesmen. Probably the connection is simply “People who come to the door.” And possibly somebody was amused by the idea of the wolf assuming semitic guise to pursue his secret goal of eating pork. But it’s certainly a highly questionable image, much more shocking if not actually worse, to my way of thinking, than the African-American crows in DUMBO. (The crows tease Dumbo, but they’re actually quite appealing characters, and they unintentionally inspire him with self-belief and set him on the road to victory. The first “magic negroes”?)

Anyhow, the Jewolf took me completely by surprise — I’m sure some commentators must have spoken of it, but I’d obviously missed the debate. And again, as a kid, it would’ve meant nothing to me, as I never read Die Sturmer as a lad.

And then there’s the song, “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which has its own discrete hold on the culture. Again, the author is uncredited, but the IMDb tells us that Frank Churchill scored the film and Carl Stalling, later of Loony Toon fame, arranged the music. Or did the song already exist as part of the story?

Finally, the story allows Disney to explore a favourite theme — arse abuse. From the spanking automaton in Gepetto’s workshop, to the many gags about injury to the buttocks in his films, it’s an unending and obsessional motif. One wonders about Disney’s own upbringing. Here, the BBW (Big Bad Wolf) is dropped into boiling turpentine (I don’t have a clear idea of what that would DO, apart from the obvious scalding, but I’m sure it’s unpleasant). This leads to this image —

Behaviour we have seen in dogs, and which would convulse little kids with laughter if they were familiar with how a hound rids itself of a particularly tenacious poop. This kind of vulgarity isn’t commonly thought of as a Disney quality. But then, this is pre-code Disney.