Thursday, 7 January 2016

394. Pigs in a Polka (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 393.
Release date: February 6, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Wolf narrator, 3rd pig), Sara Berner (1st and 2nd pig).
Story credit unknown.
Animation credit unknown.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
(based on the Brahms Hungarian Dances).
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Hilarious parody of the infamous "Three Little Pigs" tale told by the "Hungarian Dances" piece.

Original cartoon titles.
A quote repeated several times before, but worth another mention to fit with the theme of today's review. Friz Freleng explains his love for music in animated cartoons, and why he uses it regularly in Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Magic:

"I love music. I can't read it, but I can feel it. When I hear it, I see things in my mind. Music inspires my visual thinking. I time my cartoons to music, and I find it helps me. Everything is done rhythmically." After a successful feat in Rhapsody in Rivets (which earned the Studio an Oscar nomination); Friz leaps at another chance in tackling classical Eastern European music: Joannes Brahm's Hungarian Dances - telling it in a form of a well-known fairy tale (and in the public domain). One challenge after the other; Friz's incredible vision takes the opportunity to parody Disney; primarily The Three Little Pigs and not forgetting the then fairly recent Fantasia.

Animation by Dick Bickenbach.
The opening sequence is a direct parody of Fantasia itself - with the staging and art direction similar to the Deems Taylor footage. Replacing Taylor, is a wolf narrator - depicted with a Brooklynese accent. Mel Blanc gives the wolf some added character as he has struggles pronouncing "interpretation" during his narration. It's a clever parody indicating how establishes critics can make mistakes.

Some scenes during the musical show direct references to the popular Silly Symphony short. Released only a decade earlier, Disney's Three Little Pigs was very popular in cinema during the Great Depression as it helped raise spirits during dark times while it revolutionised the standards of character animation.

Friz Freleng takes some iconic moments from the short and pays homage to it as featured the two procrastinating pigs dancing merrily, whilst the smart pig takes no chances by continuing work on his bricked home. It's a funny little parody where it perfectly harmonises with Brahm's musical piece. It recurs a second time later in the cartoon; becoming a motif for the two pigs who ignore the potential peril they're in.

The Hungarian Dance No. 5 perfectly indicates each pig's personality during their introductory scenes. For the first two pigs they have the same theme. Their actions are a cutting match to the music; as their construction of their homes is rushed and inadequate, as depicted within the music. The rushed quality of the house results in the second pig having to reconstruct his collapsed matchstick home.

Friz Freleng nails the timing right down to every frame; as the timing of the rushed construction is conveyed beautifully in animation - such as the first pig frantically raking the hay. It's the only sequence where the rules are violated within the musical classic standards. Each pig has a simple line of dialogue only intended as exposition.

For the practical pig - the pig is given a different theme compared to the first two. The music is much slower and steady; compared to the previous energetic theme, thanks to Friz's remarkable vision. This conveys the pig's meticulous nature wonderfully; as carefully he spreads the cement on layer and stacks the bricks in an assembly line, one-by-one.

It's a fitting motif for the third pig, as it  distinguishes his own personality from the previous two pigs. To close the sequence with a gag - a nested crane oversees the construction of the house roof. Seeking an opportunity of a new residence, unexpectedly he plants his nest on top of it and resides there; much to the annoyance of the smart pig.

The wolf's introduction is a bizarre yet still suitable dance as the dance number goes into a different theme. To capture the dance believably while synchronised accurately to the music; Freleng has the wolf perform a Cossack dance as he travels through the woodlands.

The wolf, who is caricatured and illustrated as a villain; appears to be law-abiding enough to signal a left-turn in traffic - which is a decent, spontaneous touch. To keep with budget constraints; Freleng cuts down on animation footage while maintaining the accurate synchronisation to the piece.

Phil Monroe, the animator on the sequence animates only two poses of the wolf discreetly sneaking up on the tree; and using those poses for consistency. A difficult feat to meet with Freleng's high standards. The gag itself pays off as the wolf unknowingly falls into a pond; but crosses his way through underwater and back onto soil.

Friz never loses focus on the narrative as he builds further on zanier ideas to have the pigs in peril. Spontaneously, the wolf leaps from the rock disguised as a gypsy dancer playing a tambourine, whilst dancing in rhythm to Brahm's dance number. The wolf entices the two pigs to the point where they rotate their bodies; turning their legs in a knot - a very subtle gag thanks to the convincing charade of the wolf.

Enticing the pigs once more with his tambourine, they walk into a trap - creating an obstacle in the story whilst still perfectly blended with the music. Freleng's delivery and timing couldn't be topped any further when he pigs unexpectedly beat up the wolf off-screen and leap out the rock in gypsy costumes and dancing to the music; the faster it becomes.

A very unpredictable move by the pigs, making the sequence itself more entertaining - indicating they were bluffing the entire time. Gerry Chiniquy's animation of the pig dancers features great staging skills and hilarious caricature on their faces. Their fun is almost over when the wolf reveals his true, sinister nature - making the pigs more vulnerable. Cornered, they run from the wolf to hide in the straw home.

Animation by Gerry Chiniquy.
After encountering with the pigs with a plan flawed - the wolf sticks to a different strategy; to mercilessly trap and kill the pigs without further ado. The suspense blends well to the music as the action of the wolf advancing further helps build up the pace to the score.

Freleng takes an alternate approach by finding different ways for the wolf to destroy their homes. Instead of "blowing the house down" as typically told in the story; the gags are much wittier and broad.

For the house full of straw; the wolf lights a match and has the home destroyed in seconds. For the house of matchsticks, the wolf observes the delicate balance it stands and adds another matchstick on top to make it collapse. The gags work greatly even for economical reasons; as the wolf's intensive blow wouldn't have fitted with the music synchronisation; so different strategies make the scenes funnier that way. During the chase; the pigs safely make it into the bricked house.

Friz's extroadinary vision of music and storytelling combine a great result where a string of recurring gags fit appropriately during the No. 6 dance; which features the wolf constantly slamming onto a door, with his head triggering as he faints.

The following scene is a great tour-de-force of Friz's timing and Chiniquy's animation. The wolf attempts to strike the house down with his puffing, but to no avail. Milt Franklyn's orchestration fits the right atmosphere of the wolf's action.

The heavy, suspenseful music adds to the determination and struggles of the wolf. There is even enough time for a hilarious mouthwash gag (in a lame pun known as Lusterine), a subtle insult on the wolf's bad breath. Following that, the wolf stands back quite a distance in hopes of breaking down the door - it couldn't have been timed and synchronised any better, As he makes a run for it; the pigs cunningly open the door to let him in - so he can fall for the old gag routine. The practical pig shuts the back door in time so the wolf smacks right into it; and then gets dumped at the backyard,

Safe inside the bricked house, the two pigs dance and celebrate to Hungarian Dance No. 7 (repeated animation from earlier). The practical pig is annoyed at their own presence as he watches them frustratingly.

The following sequence is a great showcase at where Freleng wisely selects the nature of the music to create a suspenseful sequence. Outside, the pigs hear sad violin music (Hungarian Dance No. 17) and look out the window to find the wolf disguised as a poor, old babushka.

The wolf's disguise is evidently revealing as he is supposedly covered in a storm of fake snow (seen from the pig's POV); when really he has talcum powder dispensed from a contraption attached to his back. Animator on the sequence Phil Monroe gives some added character to the wolf as he shakes the powder to make his disguise more convincing; whilst still successfully timed to the music.

It's a clever scenario choice as the music helps emphasise the pigs' sympathy for the disguised wolf. Ignoring the protest warning of the practical pig; the two pigs push him aside from the door and let the disguised wolf inside for some shelter. The following shot is very ironic for its gag pay-off. The wise brother is suspicious of the disguise; and discreetly lifts the cloak up from back to discover a record player - implying that Brahm's music is being played within the actual dance number. The pig turns the record to the other side to the wolf's motif. The wolf can't help himself but perform the Cossack; which unveils his disguise.

For the final climax; Friz Freleng wisely selects the Hungarian Dance No. 6 to sync with the action scenes, which he uses as a motif for the short. The classical music is played so inventively in the final sequence to the point where the music overlaps the contradiction of the house's architecture.

Seen from the exterior as a one-story house. The action shots of the pigs upstairs indicate the house is somehow larger than it looks. The music and action are synchronised so brilliantly and innovative that one would completely overlook the idea that the house has an elevator; causing the wolf to fall down several floors; leading him supposedly down to the basement.

Once again, Friz Freleng exceeds in mastering in synchronising classical music into gag animation which he achieved in Rhapsody in Rivets - and earning the Schlesinger studio another Oscar nomination. Whereas Rhapsody focused on a construction site followed by a string of gags to blend in with Franz List's Hungarian Rhapsody; this is the first where Friz blends classical music while telling a story altogether. The character personalities are wonderfully depicted with the various choices of music in the dance number. It's a pity the story credit today is now a mystery; due to the cartoon being "Blue Ribboned" and no credits recorded in the copyright category. It's a safe bet that either Ted Pierce or Mike Maltese wrote the short; leaning more towards Maltese. Whoever wrote it deserves praise for an incredible vision in conceiving the appropriate gags and material to the Brahms piece. All in all, a Freleng masterpiece.

Rating: 5/5.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, over a decade later Friz would provide a jazzier take on the same story in "The Three Little Bops."

    Why Warner cartoons utilized classical music so well is because the studio had a large enough orchestra to do the music justice (and of course, the talents of Stalling and Franklyn). One can distinguish the sound of a vintage WB movie or cartoon by the music - the acoustics of the Warner music-recording stage tended to emphasize the bass notes somehow. Alas, Jack Warner disbanded the studio orchestra around 1962-63.