Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Pain

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.

26 Responses to “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Pain”

  1. Walt Disney was a foaming-at-the-mouth anti-semite.

    Never forget he was the only filmmaker to greet Leni Reifenstahl on her sojourn to Tinseltown.

  2. Hm. I wonder if Bob Clampett could have been referring to Disney’s arse abuse in An Itch In Time, where the result of it is very different. Spoofing Disney seemed to be a sport at Termite Terrace.

  3. There’s another great picture of “Father” in the basement: a ham hock! But I think we need to rescue the Big Bad Wolf’s bad reputation–who wants to sleep in a brick bed anyways? I write more about “Three Little Pigs” in a recent Camera Obscura: cameraobscura.dukejournals.org/content/26/2_77/33.abstract

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    Sometimes, Walt’s beloved ass gags didn’t get into the movie. This, from story notes on proposed characters from SNOW WHITE. One of the Dwarves, or Dwarfs, or whatever.

    “JUMPY: He is in constant twitchy fear of being goosed, but is not goosed until the last scene. Whenever he hears a noise behind him, he starts, and his hand automatically protects his fanny”

    No. I’m not making that up. And I wonder how that last scene would’ve played out.

  5. Thanks, Kevin!

    Maybe in a belated sequel Fifer and Fiddler Pigs can soften Practical Pig’s zero tolerance approach to non-brick materials, adding a wood-and-straw bed and other furnishings to his fortress-like domicile.

    Jumpy is a fantastic character idea. Needs to be augmented by Goosy, or possibly Gropey, the ass-fondling dwarf who molests all the other characters, all the time. It’d add some interesting extra beats to the musical numbers.

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    On video releases of vintage Warner Bros. animation here in the US, Leonard Maltin has had to appear before the show starts to “explain” the racism (anti-black, anti-Japanese, anti-Semitic) to contemporary kidz and their anxious, overprotective parents.

    And Fleischerland was, even by mid-20th century standards, jaw-droppingly racist, even after the Code. But then, it isn’t quite as simple as that . . .

  7. I’m basically glad they put Maltin there, bulging his eyes and twitching his head, to make things clear for us. They could instead have censored the toons, the way they’ve painted out smoking materials in some films, or they could suppress them like they have Song of the South in the US. This seems better.

    Has anybody ever made a case for the Seven Dwarfs as semitic caricatures? Short, bearded, big-nosed sub-humans who sleep seven to a room and deal in diamonds?

  8. Thanks. Hadn’t you heard, it’s International Think Like a Racist Day.

    Actually, I’ve become insanely curious to see what Maltin says. “Hey, it was the 1930s, racism was just harmless fun!” I’m sure it’s more nuanced than that. Waitaminute, I’ll find out.

  9. Full-on apologia from Maltin! Fair enough to say that such images were widely accepted at the time, but I haven’t seen anything like that in live-action cinema of the time, even though there was certainly an abundance of caricature in pre-codes.

    The accusation of personal anti-semitism on Uncle Walt’s part is dismissed as outrageous, with the testimony of his Jewish employees cited.

  10. Oh really? Did they ask David Swift?

    People are always trying to find excuses for Walt. He was a talented producer who for several decades had the pulse of the public. But he was a LOATHESOME individual.

    Just ask Tommy Kirk.

    Go ahead — I’ll wait.

  11. I don’t see where the code had much to do with ending or attenuating racist caricatures. Slurs may have been abated, but that was more a side effect of language restrictions.

    Those Maltin intros are what fast forward were made for! Watch once and then never be patronized again.

  12. Maltin points out that Jewish studio heads allowed or encouraged dodgy ethnic humour in their films, which rather misses the point: they had a right. Jews making jokes about Jews seems a lot less suspect than Irish-Canadian-German-Americans making jokes about Jews.

  13. Louis B. Mayer would NEVER have permitted the Jewish stereotypes that Disney used. Likewise Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck — whose studio made Gentleman’s Agreement.

  14. La Faustin Says:

    There is the touching tendency, in the early 1930s, to cast as Nice Jewish Boys, when such are called for, the likes of Franchot Tone (Benny Horowitz, STRAIGHT IS THE WAY, 1934) or William Collier Jr. (Sam Kaplan, STREET SCENE, 1931).

  15. Warner liked a bit of Yiddisher humour in the early days, but that was representation, not ridicule.

    I’m reminded of Paul Muni turning down Counsellor At Law because he didn’t want to play Jewish, thus giving the part to Barrymore (who was magnificent).

  16. He certainly was, and he didn’t “play Jewish” in the role — which would have been grotesque on a number of l;evels. Elmer Rice wrote about a Jewish man who had risen to the dizzying heights of legal success, wiht very mixed personal results.

    It’s the film that put Wyler on the map and it’s a masterpiece.

  17. That’s a pretty atavistic jewolf. Even assuming that Jews in early 20th century America were often itinerant salesmen of odds and ends (as was the case in Eastern Europe), I doubt that they wore hasidic caftans and beards out on the Great Plains.

    If Maltin thinks that the bona fides of Jewish employees are evidence against antisemitism, he’s unclear on the whole antisemitism schtick. Nixon liked to keep his smart Jewboys close. Racism isn’t generic “hated;” it’s a specific attitude set applied to a specific group.

  18. […] Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Pain « shadowplay from shadowplay on January 24, 2012 at 12:28AM […]

  19. Beautifully put.

    It’s good that somebody’s there to say “We know! You saw what you saw!” for the sake of startled parents, but explaining it away as merely the kind of thing everybody was doing in the 30s isn’t what’s required. And I’m still perturbed that they suppress Song of the South in America (while allowing it to play on TV here) but put this monstrosity out there with just a mild health warning from a man with googly eyes.

  20. La Faustin Says:

    Ever-cogent Katya: There definitely were door-to-door Jewish peddlars in early twentieth century America – that was my great-grandfather’s first job, fresh off the boat. One of my father’s favorite jokes: An itinerant Jewish peddlar in the Deep South – no kaftan, but black suit and hat, sticking out like a sore thumb – arrives in a small town and is followed by gaping little barefoot tow-headed boys. Annoyed by his entourage, he snaps, “Vot’s de matteh? You never seen a Yenkee before?”

  21. Now THAT, I submit, is true ethnic humour.

  22. Ha!

    My parents lit out from Brooklyn to Kettle Falls, Washington. When my mom asked a grocer if he had sour cream, he said, “I hope not.”

  23. chris schneider Says:

    Re: “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”

    The sources I’ve seen all confirm that Frank Churchill was the composer, which is what I always assumed. What I didn’t realize was that it had extra lyrics by Ann Ronnell the woman who wrote “Willow, Weep For Me.”
    Which makes for an odd bit of connection between, say, the female-voiced pigs and Jeanne Moreau in EVA.

  24. At least we now know what KIND of sticks the second pig’s house was built from.

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