A decade ago Warner Home Video released a series of handsomely packaged DVDs, and later Blu-rays, of cartoons from its vast library. Nowadays the big news comes from the company’s little-engine-that-could division, Warner Archive: a spectacular 5-disc DVD set called Porky Pig 101. This catchy title takes advantage of the fact that there are, in fact, 101 Porky cartoons from his heyday—99 in black & white, two in color! A handful of finicky folks online have complained that not every short has been restored. Please! The cartoons all look good (some better than others), and I am not inclined to complain: it’s a miracle this set exists at all.
If there’s one thing a studio avoids in children’s entertainment, it’s black & white material. If there’s another thing to be dodged, it’s politically incorrect humor. Porky Pig 101 is a feast of black & white shorts and it’s wisely being marketed for adult fans and collectors. Nothing has been cut or censored, and while some of the racial and ethnic gags make even me wince, I’m glad they are intact. That’s how the cartoons were originally released and that’s the only way I want to see them.
Porky Pig’s career from 1935 to 1942 mirrors the evolution of Warner Bros. cartoons overall; that’s why it’s useful to watch them chronologically. Friz Freleng directed the lone color entry, I Haven’t Got a Hat in which the studio tested an Our Gang-like ensemble of kiddie characters including a duo named Porky and Beans. “Beans” hung around for a little while but never took off, while Porky became a star.
It took time for Porky to evolve. At first, he was an oversized pig and his voice was provided by a man who really stuttered. Everything changed when three inexhaustibly creative people arrived at the studio in 1937: music director Carl W. Stalling, sound editor Treg Brown, and voice artist Mel Blanc. They brightened every aspect of these seven-minute gems along with the men who wrote and directed them.
Fred Avery—better known as Tex—was the first to attack the “cute” quotient in these cartoons. Watch how he approaches the stock finale to Porky the Rain-Maker and subverts it, using the iris-out ending to insert one more gag. This would become one of his trademarks, along with having characters address the audience.
Frank Tashlin, who billed himself at first as Tish Tash, had a different style, treating each cartoon as a piece of cinema. He made ingenious use of rapid-fire editing, unusual camera angles, speed lines, and other devices to give each cartoon his inimitable stamp.
Then Bob Clampett was promoted to the director’s chair and went to town with his uniquely wacky, often manic, sense of humor. I love his cartoons and especially enjoy his woo-woo take on Daffy Duck, who’s at his nutty best in these Porky cartoons.
The Porkys also provide a time capsule of 1930s pop culture, with endearingly dated references to Eddie Cantor’s all-female offspring, Bing Crosby’s horse, and the wobbly voice of Guy Lombardo’s brother Carmen, to cite just a few examples. Carl Stalling makes generous use of songs from Warner Bros. features. “With Plenty of Money and You,” “Jeepers Creepers” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” are heard more than once, to great effect.
A handful of the shorts are accompanied by commentaries (recorded for earlier DVD releases) by such experts as Jerry Beck, Mark Kausler, Greg Ford, Mike Barrier, and Daniel Goldmark. Their savvy remarks make the films all the more enjoyable.
I first saw these shorts when I was a kid. They played daily on New York television and it got to the point where I knew many of them by heart. Revisiting them has not only been a treat but a mind-blowing reminder of gags and lines of dialogue I haven’t thought about in years. I remember being spooked by the repeated cry of “The camels are coming! The camels are coming!” in Porky in Egypt, and I found the phrase “The Rains Came (from the picture of the same name)” to be very funny even though I had no idea there was an actual movie called The Rains Came.
Not every entry in Porky Pig 101 is a gem, but the batting average is pretty high. I’ve been taking in a handful every day for the past two weeks and look forward to seeing them all. I’m so glad Warner Archive has given us this cornucopia of cartoons; they’ve made me very happy indeed.
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