Sunday, April 14, 2013

Plane Dippy: "Get a Load Of This!"


RELEASE DATE:
January 4, 1936
DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
none at present
COMPUTER-COLORED VERSION CAN BE SEEN ON-LINE HERE

Fred Avery survived his first directorial effort for Leon Schlesinger, Gold Diggers of '49. With one "Supervision Fred Avery" credit to his name, and a reasonably good cartoon in release, he set out to do better the second time around.

His first step was to revert Porky Pig to the smaller, child-man of I Haven't Got A Hat. The grotesque hog of the prior cartoon was too harsh an exaggeration, even for Avery, who trafficked in distortion, over-statement and bigger-than-life effects.

He wisely assumed that a smaller character was automatically funnier. Of equal importance, this figure needed to be a cipher. These were Avery's favorite protagonists. Though Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Screwy Squirrel contradict this claim with their brash, aggressive personalities, Avery liked best the Porkys, Droopys and Eggheads--nobodies to whom things happened.


Avery understood that audiences needed a focus character, even if such things disinterested him. Though he had recurring star characters, most of them are playthings of comedic fate. Porky is the charter member of this elite community with Plane Daffy,

Between wars, it was a common daydream of many a young American to join one branch of the services. Memories of trench warfare and mustard gas had faded. Fascism was on the 20th century menu. The idea of going to battle, marching in military precision, dressed in a snappy uniform seemed so streamlined, so modern! At cartoon's start, Porky reflects this peacetime fascination with the military. At fade in, he examines his enlistment choices:

The Army isn't for him...
Nor is the Navy...
But the Air Force...that's right up his alley!
This established, Avery plays with Porky's differently-abled 1936 persona. His stuttering is quite severe in these early cartoons. As said in my previous post, a real-life stutterer, Joe Dougherty, supplied Porky's voice for the first few cartoons.
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SIDEBAR: One important thing to remember, in viewing Avery's first few Schlesinger cartoons, is that the key players aren't all there. Carl Stalling's scores and Mel Blanc's voice work--the most consistent, vital elements in all Warner Brothers cartoons--would begin shortly (in, respectively, the Frank Tashlin-directed Porky's Poultry Plant and Avery's Porky The Wrestler.) ##

We take Stalling and Blanc's contributions for granted. The only way to appreciate what they brought to the table is to see the cartoons that came before them.

Warners had a decent retinue of voice talent in 1936--including Billy Bletcher and Berneice Hansell (both used to good effect in this cartoon). Blanc was far more versatile, and had a gift for expressing emotions and character quirks in his voice work. He ended the notion that a high, squeaky "cute" voice was all a cartoon character needed. His Porky, heard from 1937's Porky's Duck Hunt onward, is a real character--not the exploitation of a man with a speech impediment.

The other great cartoon voice talents -- among them Stan Freberg, June Foray and Bill Scott--grokked this innovation of Blanc's, and brought a high level of acting to their work. Hollywood animation was automatically better for their involvement.

Dull musical scores were the major albatross of the 1936 Schlesinger cartoons. A reliable sound technician, Bernard Brown was a mediocre composer and scorer. His paint-by-numbers, get-'er-done score, which incessantly invokes the Harry Warren-Al Dubin number "I'd Love to Take Orders From You," limits what Avery can achieve here.
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Back to today's real topic of discussion. Avery sics Billy Bletcher's gruff desk sergeant on Dougherty's P-p-p-porky. Asked what he wants, and at a genuine loss for words, Porky imitates an early airplane--an engaging touch that charms the viewer.
Getting his name across is another matter. Here, Avery rather insensitively leans on Dougherty's disability, but redeems himself with another surprising blend of sound and visuals. Porky attempts to write his name on a blackboard, but his stutter proves intractable:
He finally blurts his name out, in a flurry of Lincolns and Aloysiuses. While this is funny, there's a certain cruelty in it all, given Dougherty's impediment.

Avery's imaginative solutions to cartoon plot cliches add to the mounting energy of Plane Dippy. Porky is accepted for service...
and put through a battery of physical tests, all cleverly introduced. "Dizziness Test" appears in propeller-spinning letters, and "Target Practice" is shot on-screen, one bullet hole at a time.
These small but thoughtful touches tell us that a new sensibility is at work here--a cartoonist who wants to assert the importance of what's seen over what's heard.

Porky fails at both tasks, spinning around the exam office like a top in the first, and destroying the building with a machine gun as he finally hits his intended target, almost as an after-thought.
Avery enjoyed a completely gullible audience for these early cartoons. Because no one else had done such aggressive reversal-of-expectation gags, their surprise factor was at its all-time high. Avery would quickly wise up American movie-goers.By the end of the 1930s, all other cartoon producers (even Disney) tried their hand at this more hip, unpredictable humor. It was lifeblood to American animation, even if it quickly became a cliche.

Other enlistees are issued rifles...
In best Buster Keaton tradition, Porky the underachiever gets a feather duster. He's put to work as a janitor/assistant for Professor Blotz, a school-of-Rube Goldberg zany inventor on the Air Force payroll.
Blotz has invented a voice-activated robot plane. Whatever is spoken into the mike will be done by the pilot-less craft. The ill-tempered scientist demonstrates to an astonished Porky:
It's clear that such a modern invention is beyond Porky. In disgust, the inventor commands the pig to make busy with the dust-mop. He places the still-live remote control box and microphone on an open windowsill. This arbitrator of fate, contained in a device or object, will happen time and again in Avery's later cartoons.
Cut to the kid gang from Friz Freleng's I Haven't Got a Hat, in their last appearance in the Avery universe. They're only here to cause trouble and tempt fate. A buck-toothed sissy-type just happens to have a dog who can do tricks--and who responds to verbal commands:
 Porky just happens to be inside the robot plane's cockpit, dusting it...
He is airborne, and as surprised as 1936 audiences must have been. Porky does not take this challenge well. He bawls with the painful voice of a betrayed child as the plane attempts to perform the lexicon of standard dog tricks.

Helpless in the plane, Porky zooms through sky and sea, as the nerdy kid entertains a growing crowd with canine cut-ups:
Smart visual gags dominate this well-paced sequence. Here's where the absence of a Carl Stalling is felt. Though everything that occurs is funny, the overall impact is dulled by Bernard Brown's repetitive musical score.

Still, good ideas prevail. A skyscraper is shorn of floor after floor, 'til only its clock tower remains. The plane flies through a circus' big top, taking two acrobats who perform their high-wire feats in the stratosphere. When the plane hits the water, the two men become an improvised water-ski unit. One of them looks hopefully at us, as if to say, "Gee, ain't this swell, folks?"

The first great Tex Avery sight gag -- a bit of business that is his stylistic signature -- soon arrives, in the robot plane's destruction of a zeppelin:
The reduction of SMOKE ROPO CIGARS to SOS is clever. What really distinguishes this important concept is that the zep is still functional after this carve-up. It doesn't fall apart or explode. This fourth-dimensional moment is weird, in the manner of pre-1933 Fleischer Studios cartoons, but it has a modern freshness.

We will see Avery return to this physics-warp over and over in his 1940s cartoons. It's obvious that this impulse to bend time and space was in Avery's head early in his career. He will lose sight of this notion as the 1930s come to a close, but regain it with a vengeance when he moves to M-G-M.

This gag is hard to top, but Avery keeps pushing. A cartload of hay, struck by the plane, becomes a shower of straw hats; a trio of planes dip out of harm's way, in unison, and return, as one, to their original position. In another Fleischer-esque gag, a personified cloud runs from Porky into its cloud-house, and shuts its door. The plane bounces harmlessly off the cloud and careens away.

By now, the crowd has grown to a mob. They scream conflicting orders to dog (and robot plane). Porky is hurtled mercilessly through the sky before crashing back to the plane's point of origin.
Back on terra firma, Porky goes AWOL from the Air Force. In a mini-reprise of the speed sequence in Gold Diggers of '49, Porky runs like a white streak, to the accompaniment of that familiar WB cartoon sound effect of a revving turbine, to the nearest Army recruiter.

No desertion charges are pressed, and we next see Porky marching in tempo with his larger canine comrades of the Army. Like the ersatz water-skier earlier in the cartoon, Porky looks right at us, abeam with pride. Be it ever so humble, it's acceptance!
Plane Dippy is a remarkable leap forward from Avery's first cartoon. He seems to understand that he can do anything, in the context of a black and white animated cartoon, as long as it passes the Hays Code. This infusion of life--a one-man campaign to make cartoons fun again--will quickly influence the other denizens of "Termite Terrace."

Avery will go from strength to strength in the next  year. Though his progress stalls later in the 1930s, his significant contributions to animation abound in the 1936/37 releases.

Next up is Avery's first great cartoon, The Blow Out, in which young animator Charles M. Jones helps to nail the perfect Porky Pig p-p-p-persona.
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: Blanc's first actual recorded role for Schlesinger was in Picador Porky. It was released after Porky The Wrestler, just to make matters confusing for us historian types.

Thanks to Thad K. for making it possible for me to see this cartoon in black and white and offering factually correct information when it was most desperately needed.

3 comments:

  1. One of the noticeable things in each of Avery's first three cartoons is an attempt to create a faster pace for the end gags each time. But in the case of the shorts both before and after this, there's still a Disney-esque need to have a 'villain' as part of the story line. There isn't one on "Plane Dippy", so Avery doesn't have to worry about any sort of dramatic tension at the climax, and was able to go straight for the comedy (he'd take it a step further in 1937, coming up with the idea of the 'comedy villain' who was ostensibly the bad guy but presented no threat whatsoever and was just there to help the gags along).

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  2. Hey sir! I plugged this blog on Eddie Fitzgerald's website the other day and I highly appreciate the work you've done thus far to hilight Tex Avery's underrated career at Termite Terrace. In fact, as a cartoonist, Tex Avery has been my greatest influence for the longest time now and watching cartoons like "Northwest Hounded Police" as a young lad really made an impression on me.

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  3. One of my favorite cartoons. The earliest starring Porky with billing and the oldest "post-48" Warner Bros. cartoon (well, after 1968 when this was re-traced in Korea; actually, "You Were never Duckier",8/7/68), as well as the older Avery-directed one for many years till Nickelodeon showed "Gold Diggers", that has a lot going for it:
    Porky writing his name in a stutter (now, of course, a outrageous UnpC gag) a la Disney's Piglet in 1968's "Winnie The Pooh and the Blustery Day".

    That irritable wacked monkey, Prof.Blotz

    The hilariously Mickey Mouse/falsetto voice of that little dog-kid with HIS dog

    The many "sentient" airborne planes, the cloud,etc. which give Porky and the plane the right of way

    The gags involving the land/water beings and props

    Even the end gag. MARCH now!!

    Some of the voices like Prof.Blotz and that Mickey Mouse soundalike are still am ystery. Berenice Hansell is Little Kitty. Billy Bletcher is the Sarge/Recruiter and Joe Doughterty is P-P-Porky..(sorry..)

    Steve

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