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Disney Cartoon #37: One Story about Two Versions of "Three Little Pigs...in a Polka" (May 27, 1933 / February 6, 1943) - published September 17, 2011
by Albert Gutierrez

The story of "The Three Little Pigs" can be summed up in one sentence: A wolf destroys the houses of two careless pigs, and then fails miserably at destroying the house of a smart pig. Sure, we can expand that story to include the house of straw, the house of sticks, and the house of bricks. We can even decide whether or not the wolf eats the pig of each house, or if they run away to the next house, and then the next. It's a story that's so open to change that many versions have come and gone from various sources. A favorite of mine growing up was The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (by "A. Wolf" - or Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith), in which the Wolf simply has a cold, and his great sneezes are what destroys the houses. When it comes to cartoon versions of the story, two versions that are well-known within the animation community are Disney's 1933 Silly Symphony, and Warner Bros.'s 1943 Merrie Melody. Let's take a look at both.

It would be silly to overlook the story similarities, which are expected given the lean nature of the original tale. Both shorts feature the straw/stick/brick houses, and of course, the two carefree pigs and their more-intelligent pig brother. The wolf is also present in both, as is the plot point of attempting disguises to enter the home. In addition, both shorts make sure that these are musically-inclined pigs, although the approach to music is different in both shorts. Actually, when it came to music, both shorts shared the same composer: Carl W. Stalling. Stalling created the score for Disney's "Three Little Pigs" based on Frank Churchill's "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" Later, when he worked on Warner Bros.'s "Pigs in a Polka," he adapted Brahms' Hungarian Dances Nos. 5, 6, 7, and 17. And in another slight connection both shorts have, "Pigs in a Polka" was directed by Fritz Freleng, a prominent Warner Bros. cartoon director who had also worked on the Alice Comedies and some Oswald shorts for Disney in the late 1920s.

When we look at the style of the shorts, we can see both take the same route when it comes to characterization. The straw and stick pigs would rather play than do hard work, something that is shown via Fifer and Fiddler Pig in "Three Little Pigs," while their "Pigs in a Polka" counterpart are quite adept at dancing. Their brother - Disney's Practical Pig, Warner Bros.'s self-proclaimed "smart little pig" - is shown to be more serious and cautious, though Practical Pig does partake in some light-hearted fun by the cartoon's end. The wolf is easily characterized in both shorts as The Heavy: he's just there to try and eat the pigs and destroy their houses. Interestingly enough, the wolf character gets more personality in Freleng's 1957 adaptation, the jazzy "Three Little Bops." A year before "Pigs in a Polka," MGM's Tex Avery turned the Wolf into Hitler Incarnate in his propoganda cartoon "The Blitz Wolf." Unfortunately, while I do have "Three Little Bops" in my collection, I don't own "Blitz Wolf." Even if I did, the article title would need to be extended to "One Story about Two Studios' 'Three Little Pigs' done Four Times."

That title wouldn't even include Disney's own World War II re-edit, "The Thrifty Pig," which cleverly re-animates portions of "The Three Little Pigs" to sell war bonds. Unlike "Blitz Wolf," the Wolf is only a miscellaneous Nazi there. But the focus of the article is on "Three Little Pigs" and "Pigs in a Polka." Their animation was done ten years apart, and represents two different studio styles that do share some similar qualities. Both cartoons make sure to differentiate the characters, both in wardrobe, while Warner also makes sure each pig is distinguished by a different color. This practice would see later use with Disney's own Huey, Dewey, and Louie. In addition, both feature the first two pigs as fifers and fiddlers, while the third practical pig wears practical overalls. However, when you look at the general design of the characters, Disney's pigs look more proportional to real pigs. The Warner pigs are not so shapely, and definitely more caricatured than realistic.

There's plenty of differences to both studios' approach to the story, and rather than try and discuss each one individually, it's probably best to just list four of the major ones:

The Introduction:

--Disney: We head straight into the story, with Fifer Pig first appearing.

--Warner: The Wolf appears first, introducing to us the story as "The Big Bad Wolf...and the Three Little Pigs"

Blow The House Down:

--Disney: The Wolf blows the first two houses down and attempts to blow the third house down.

--Warner: The Wolf simply lights the first house on fire, knocks down the second house, and then tries to blow down the third house.

Disguises:

--Disney: The Wolf dons a sheep disguise, then that of a fuller brush man.

--Warner: The Wolf dresses as a dancing gypsy, then as a poor woman.

The Wolf's Comeuppance:

--Disney: The Wolf gets on the roof, jumps into the chimney, falls into a cauldron, and runs away.

--Warner: The Wolf chases them through the house, then falls down an elevator shaft, where he faints when he emerges.

When first comparing the two cartoons, "Pigs in a Polka" immediately looks like a rip-off of "The Three Little Pigs." From the color-differentiated pigs, to the fife and fiddle, to the general story, one would assume Warner Bros. was mocking Disney with their more outlandish version. However, if such a rip-off were indeed being done, surely the studio would have done one closer to the original film's release, when the short was at the height of its popularity. In addition, the cartoon looks decidedly "Warner" and the approach to music is markedly different from Disney. Thus, the ten-year gap between the two shorts, as well as the different approaches both take, make it hard for me to consider "Pigs in a Polka" a rip-off of "The Three Little Pigs."

I can imagine Warner Bros. and Disney's animation studios openly mocking each other at the time, at least in my limited knowledge of Warner Bros. animation. But here, the mocking appears more as a friendly rivalry with no malicious intent, and I see the short more as a sly parody than a direct imitation. Fans partial to either studio will still have their preferences. If I had to pick one to take as a "desert island" cartoon, it would likely be "Pigs in a Polka." The rough and tumble nature of the short always made it more enjoyable for me, even if the animation feels slightly standard and derivative when compared to the more-detailed style of Disney's short.

However, even if I would pick "Pigs in a Polka" over "The Three Little Pigs," both shorts would always lose to my favorite version of the three little pigs story: 1985's "Faerie Tale Theatre" episode. It starred Stephen Furst, Fred Willard, and Billy Crystal as the pigs Peter, Paul, and Larry, respectively. In addition, the show made a very genius casting decision: Jeff Goldblum as Buck Wolf. He gives some of the best bits of dialogue in the entire episode, which is rife with snazzy one-liners and hilarious jokes. Also, since the story can be told across 40-odd minutes rather than limited to 8, we get to see additional characters and scenes. The pigs are seen in their childhood home with their mother (Doris Roberts), and Peter even throws a housewarming party before the place gets blown down. Some love even gets thrown towards Paul and Larry by way of a sassy pig named Tina (Valerie Perrine), and the always-amusing Larry Hankin has a small but important role as Mr. Man, who sells straw, sticks, and bricks, among other things at his junkyard.

The DVDs pictured above show the latest DVDs released, thus making them the most accessible, as there are various releases to consider for all the "Three Little Pigs" adaptations discussed in this article.

Disney's "The Three Little Pigs" appeared on no less than three DVDs between 2001 and 2009. Naturally, it can be found in "Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies" (2001), the best representation of the cartoon. It resurfaced in 2005's "Timeless Tales, Volume One," and then again in 2009's "Walt Disney Animation Collection: Three Little Pigs." The latter actually includes two of its sequels, 1934's "Big Bad Wolf" and 1936's "Three Little Wolves," but doesn't include 1939's "The Practical Pig." In addition, if you want the wartime version of "Three Little Pigs," check out 2004's "Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines."

Warner Bros.'s "Pigs in a Polka" is in the public domain, so it can be found on a variety of budget DVDs. However, it also received two official releases. It was among the cartoons featured in 2005's "Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Volume Three" as well as 2008's "Academy Awards Animation Collection: 15 Winners, 26 Nominees." The latter also includes 1942's "The Blitz Wolf." 1957's jazzy adaptation "Three Little Bops" is a part of 2004's "Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Volume Two."

Finally, the "Faerie Tale Theatre" version of the tale saw an individual release and as part of "Faerie Tale Theatre: The Complete Collection" in 2004, both by Starmaker II and now out of print. Koch Vision then re-released the entire series in 2008, and a year later, included "Three Little Pigs" in a single-disc compilation entitled "Faerie Tale Theatre: Funny Tales."

 

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