Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Porky The Rainmaker: Cause-and-effect Comedy in Stark Black and White

RELEASE DATE:
8/1/1936

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
None

You can watch a 1990s-era colorized print of this cartoon HERE. If you're not familiar with this cartoon, please watch before you read--thanks!

After the status symbol of having directed three color cartoons in a row, the Fred Avery unit went back to black-and-white for the Avery unit.

This is not one of Avery's greatest cartoons. It does introduce a couple of important comedic tools to its maker's belt.


The first is noticed right away, as the camera pans over a simmering, sun-battered rural landscape (glued together here for a sorta-panorama):
In best high-anxiety newsreel style, the announcer paints a grim picture of failure and starvation for this farm: "Drought hits midwest farmland! Valuable crops scorched by blistering heat wave!" This gives way to another pet Avery motif: comedic cause and effect.

As the voice drones on, we see the before-and-after scenarios for this farm's once-abundant crops:





Five of these gags, in quick succession, drive the sad facts home: this farm is failing. The announcer, joined by dissonant singing voices, makes a snide comment to accompany the dwindling-down of the apple tree.

This was the first major surprise this cartoon held for its 1936 audience. Ominous, self-satisfied narrators were a staple of the American film-going experience. It was something else for that omniscient voice, once so serious, to turn arch.

This suggests the influence of Pete Smith, who was, by 1936, already known to M-G-M audiences as the detached, blase commentator on a series of live-action short subjects. Smith always sounded ironic, even when he played it more-or-less straight. The idea that the film's reliable narrator could switch, on a dime, from The March of Time-seriousness to Smithian snark, was likely a large carpet-tug to this audience.

Norman Spencer's musical score has some standout moments early in this cartoon. As we cut to Porky Pig and his king-size poppa, the music evokes an odd elegance. Voiced (I believe) by Joe Dougherty, Poppa pig surveys his charred acreage with a woeful "W-w-worry, w-w-worry." Mark Kausler offers this speculation about the artist on this scene: "Bob Clampett didn't seem to have many scenes in this cartoon, but it looks like he animated the scenes where Papa is pacing back and forth saying "'Worry, W-w-worry.'"
The farming pigs' attention is quickly diverted by ruckus from the barnyard...
the livestock has gone on strike!
Poppa pig instructs his offspring to spend their last dollar on some feed for the animals.
Off toddles Porky to "town," where a distraction is in action.
Porky joins the wayward agrarians who are spellbound by the spiel of Dr. Quack. As subtly and impressively animated by young Charles M. Jones (and Mark Kausler agrees that this looks like his handiwork), Quack's performance is unusually rich and layered, as he breathlessly peddles his rain pills:
Avery is primarily regarded as a master of comedy, but it's important to notice the high amount of good animated acting in his Warner Brothers films. It reaches its apex in the "death scene" of 1940's A Wild Hare, which is as convincing and expressive as anything the Disney studio ever produced, only far more engaging and entertaining.

Jones' scenes in this cartoon are a bold step towards strong acting in WB cartoons. He invests each movement, each overlap of action, with a lot of thought and care. It's quite amusing, in the context of the cartoon, but striking when studied for its own sake.

It works its spell on Porky, who's asked not to lean on the stage by the allegedly good doc...
For the mere price of one dollar, the lucky buyer receives a bevy of weather-altering capsules, including the truly expendable one on the bottom...
Knowing the likelihood for chaos in the Avery universe, this is a modern Pandora's Box of potential ills and mishaps. Especially true, this, when the item is held in loving close-up, its contents clearly labeled and compartmentalized. Something will happen because of these pills. It may not be good for Porky and his father, but it will prove amusing.

Dr. Quack demonstrates the oomph of the rain pills, to the delight of the parched farmers. He first hands out umbrellas to the rubes, in some more nuanced Jones animation that features a masterful use of foreshortening. In the crowd scene that follows (animated by someone who is not Charles M. Jones), the staggered opening of umbrellas shows a level of TLC not prior seen in Schlesinger screen product.
Live-action rain is double-exposed over the animation. This clever, time-saving idea somehow never caught on in Hollywood animation. The effect works well in this cartoon.
But rain is what Porky's poppa needs--much more than feed for the livestock.
"R-r-r-real r-r-r-rain!" Sold to an American!

Home rushes Porky, to a hostile reception from pater.

 "I t-t-t-t-told y' t' get f-f-f-feed... n-n-n-n-not p-p-p-pills!"
The pills, with Porky's approval rating, are dashed to the ground. But the pellets attract the striking livestock.

This is the moment Avery has waited for. He's been more than patient with the set-up... now for some causal comedy, with sight gags a-plenty...
That looks painful! In fact, many of these transformation gags have a bit of a sour edge because they look physically brutal.

The horse suffers a much kinder fate...
 "Altitude, 10,000 feet... no visibility... ceiling zero..."

 A gluttonous goose gets a double-header of gastric distress...
Porky notes to his father that one of the discarded pills will produce "r-r-r-real r-r-rain." Pater almost suffers epilepsy in his excited response. They comb the grounds for this panacea capsule...
Avery's not through torturing the livestock. Porky spots the fallen cyclone pill--but not before an avaricious fowl beats him to it.
 The bird stripped bare! But its indignities aren't at an end...
"Well! Imagine that!" 

Here's another Avery staple--the matter-of-fact understatement. He will get much mileage from this concept in years to come, and fashion series characters around this blase reactive attitude.

(An aside: Devon Baxter reminds me that this archetypal Avery gag shows up in the 1933 Lantz Oswald cartoon At The Zoo... it occurs about 2:20 into the thing.)

Many great Avery drawings are evident in this cartoon's key poses and extremes. His sorta-Deco, rounded style of cartooning really dominates this section of the film.

Just as there are five examples of the impotence of the Pig farm's crops, there are five instances of pill-related catastrophe, as the earthquake capsule is gulped down by another chicken, with predictable results...
At last! Porky espies the rain pill. The goose is a glutton for punishment, and decides to add a third level of ailment to its innards...
This is, literally, too bitter a pill to swallow, and the addled goose becomes a sentient cannon. It shoots the pill into the sky, where it belongs...
The crops are saved! In a reprise of a scene from the Avery-involved Oswald the Rabbit cartoon Five and Dime (1934), everyone gets into the act of singin' and dancin' in the rain (well, only a couple of ducks are into the rain in the Oswald cartoon, truth told...)
Back to Porky the Rainmaker... Avery indulges his humor of causal transformation with scenes of sere crops returning to full flower.
A chicken reacts by laying several thousand eggs in two seconds flat. She whistles out a "whew" afterwards... as would I, faced with the same situation.
Joy continues...
Everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief. Porky, pater and poultry acknowledge the end of the cartoon by doing that "show's over, folks!" pose, with arms outstretched and cheeks aglow...
But, lest we forget, this is not a Disney cartoon. Avery's happy endings almost always have a price tag. The pill-gulping poultry is made to suffer in a danse macabre that slightly dampens the already-humid mood...
The greedy goose violates the closing of the iris, and is trapped in the post-cartoon void. It panics and pounds on the "door" of the cartoon, demanding to be readmitted...
and that's all, folks...
Avery played with the notion of the iris-out in his previous effort, I Love To Singa, but the stakes are higher with this ending. There's a touch of anxiety to this finale. It suggests that an existence outside of cartoons is not a pleasant prospect--basically, that void represents our world!

Porky the Rainmaker lays the groundwork for much formal innovation that will impact Avery's output of the rest of 1936 and '37. Though the content of this cartoon is slight, the way it presents its material is highly inventive, and would prove influential to the very spirit of Hollywood animation.

Avery did all these tricks better in subsequent cartoons, but it's a thrill to see him achieve some of these signature effects for the first time here. Watching these cartoons in sequence, the freshness and daring of them becomes newly impressive. Avery's cartoons challenged the audience--they demanded that the viewer drop their passive relationship to cinema and be jolted into self-awareness.

Certainly, other film-makers had violated the fourth wall, and shattered the tacit contract of the suspension of disbelief, many times by 1936. Many of these film-makers were outside the standard studio system, and their work was largely preaching to the choir, rather than assimilating into the norm.

Avery brought this still-avant garde idea into the American mainstream with these early cartoons. He made it possible for the average film-goer to buy into the fact that there was more to movies than just sitting back, eating and watching. Whether the summer, 1936 audience for this cartoon fully understood this or not, their approach to viewing movies was being changed.

It wouldn't be long before live-action films would adopt some of this self-awareness, and forever jostle the solipsism of early movie-going.

NEXT TIME: The Village Smithy.

4 comments:

  1. We're still early in the game here, so just getting crazy gags into the cartoon is an end unto itself for Avery. Outside of the "Well imagine that!" line, we're not asked to care how the animals feel about eating the weather pills, just the results of eating them (compare it, say, to "Magical Maestro" 15 years later, where it's not just the wand and what the wand turns Spike into that's funny; it's Spike's reactions to the changes that puts the gags completely over the top).

    Even so, the cartoon must have gone over well with 1936 audiences, because Ben Hardaway and Cal Dalton basically remade it in color (minus Porky) three years later as "Sioux Me". Better animation by then, but a weaker ending, again due to personality -- we're dealing entirely with one-shot characters we're not supposed to care about in the remake, so we get a perfunctory 'rain on-rain off-rain on' bit with an implied stabbing death threat; in Avery's effort, Porky being a continuing cartoon series star at a time when the star is supposed to have a Disneyesque happy ending sets up the final reactions to the pills and the iris out gag.

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  2. Read this post a while back. Great insights. I'm learning a lot and I look forward to the next one!

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  3. When this was recolored (read: "traced") in Korea in 1962(?), the one scene of Porky FINALLY grabbing the storm pill from the ostrich was traced in a way that the cels actually accidentally got overlayed so it looked like Porky was getting close to the ostrich and they'd turned into ghost!

    Thank God that the other prints without that error are what are seen now.....SC

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  4. Yes, those traced color versions are abominations. I recognized this as a kid. I felt there was something... wrong... with the Korean versions. They looked so much more horrible and careless than the other WB cartoons on TV. (I watched a black and white set until 1976, but even in b&w, the Korean butchery was evident.)

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