Silly Symphony

The Silly Symphony cartoon of the Three Little Pigs in my blog on July 17 was incredibly important to the film industry, and to the   Disney Studio.

The song, which children used while skipping rope when I was little, was considered “an anthem of the Great Depression” and was also used to warn against the rise of Nazi Germany.

And you thought I was just being frivolous! The parable and song are still significant!

But first, from Wikipedia:

 Silly Symphonies is a series of animated short subjects, 75 in total, produced by Walt Disney Productions from 1929 to 1939….

Within the animation industry, the Silly Symphonies series is most noted for its use by Walt Disney as a platform for experimenting with processes, techniques, characters, and stories in order to further the art of animation. It also provided a venue to try out techniques and technologies that would be crucial to Disney’s plans to eventually begin doing feature-length animated films. Among the innovations developed and/or improved upon in the series are Technicolor filmmaking, true and believable character animation, special effects animation, and dramatic storytelling in animation. Disney’s experiments were widely praised within the film industry, and the Silly Symphonies won seven Academy Awards for Best Short Subject (Cartoons), maintaining a six-year-hold on the category after it was first introduced….

The movie was phenomenally successful with audiences of the day, so much that theaters ran the cartoon for months after its debut, to great financial response. A number of theaters added hand-drawn “beards” to the movie posters for the cartoon as a way of indicating how long its theatrical run lasted.  The cartoon is still considered to be the most successful animated short ever made, and remained on top of animation until Disney was able to boost Mickey’s popularity further by making him a top merchandise icon by the end of 1934….

The original song… “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”, was a best-selling single, mirroring the people’s resolve against the “big bad wolf” of The Great Depression;  the song actually became something of an anthem of the Great Depression. When the Nazis began expanding the boundaries of Germany in the years preceding World War II, the song was used to represent the complacency of the Western world in allowing Adolf Hitler to make considerable acquisitions of territory without going to war, and was notably used in Disney animations for the Canadian war effort.

The Three Little Pigs, like many “fairy tales” is an ancient cautionary tale that combines stereotypical characters, a suspenseful plot, and a terrifying climax that ultimately turns out well for the protagonist because of some admirable quality of character, such as co-operation, quick thinking, courage, strength, or persistence. Indulging in light hearted silliness to reduce the terror, perhaps even replacing it with something funny or cute, seems to be a modern adaptation. When you think about it, most of the humour in animated cartoons is based on violence or surprise… or both.

I think The Three Little Pigs is still relevant. I see the pig brothers representing people who don’t care about impending danger because they are too naive or stupid or uninformed (First Little Pig); people who do know but aren’t worried because they have faith it can never happen to them (Second Little Pig has a horseshoe over his door); or people who take the threat seriously and allow it to direct their lives, who lecture and harass others for not sharing their doom and gloom ideas, who prepare very carefully and over react to the threat (Third Little Pig).

The cartoon shows an escalation of the threat and of the response. Guile, deceit, rage, repeated attempts with increasing ferocity, taunts and threats (diplomatic “negotiations”???), near escapes, accidents and miscalculations (the wolf with the tree)…

The pigs are forced into alliances as one after the other is defeated. The Third Little Pig ungraciously accepts responsibility for protecting his brothers only after they arrive in his house and self-protection must include protecting them also. While the pigs cavort inside, singing their defiant and taunting anthem, the wolf tries both guile and force. The response of the Third Little Pig with the pot of boiling water is both clever and cruel… adding the turpentine shows a “win at all costs and damn the consequences” attitude. Turpentine is corrosive and combustible… by using it as he did, the Pig is exposing his home and its occupants to noxious and perhaps deadly contaminants. The agony of the wolf is supposed to be funny, and mitigate this violence.

Now, suppose that the wolf can represent any enemy… the threat of war, global warming, overpopulation, gang violence, international terrorism, biological warfare and pandemics, natural disasters, nuclear accidents, technological failure, drug abuse, drought and famine, depletion of energy resources, global economic collapse… Choose your nightmare enemy and scenario!

Suppose that the song expresses wishful or magical thinking… or misplaced faith in divine intervention… or even just deep denial of the threat because it has never happened before or experts X and Y disagree on the prediction.

Suppose that turpentine… probably unnecessary in its use… represents nuclear, biological or chemical weapons with unforeseen or uncontrollable outcomes.

Supposing the pigs represent the poor, the middle class, the rich and powerful… or the “third world”, the emerging and developing nations, the super powers… or small business, big business, and international conglomerates… or subsistence farming, large single crop farming, or huge agribusiness.

Choose your scenario.  How does this parable and the animation from 1933 inform your thinking about it?

It’s not too late to post your comments!

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3 Responses to Silly Symphony

  1. debbierodgers says:

    Hmm… I’ve watched this countless times over my lifetime and never thought that the third little pig represented “people who (…) allow [the threat] to interfere with and direct their thinking and activity, lecture and harass others for not sharing their doom and gloom ideas, (…) and over react to the threat”. For one thing, he was too busy working to “lecture & harass others”.

    I agree that the 3rd pig took “the threat seriously” (…and) prepare[d] very carefully”. Is that a bad thing? There is a step between thinking that it can’t happen to you and over-reacting: recognizing the danger and taking steps to avert it, or at the least, to protect oneself.

    And that’s what I always thought the third pig was doing. Silly me. Silly symphonies. 🙂

    • motleydragon says:

      Yes, I think Pig3 is supposed to be a role model… prudent, hard working, sensible.

      However, he is also humorless, bossy, smug and unkind. He is so obsessive he even has a brick piano… how would that sound? His pot is far larger than necessary… greed or conspicuous consumption? The use of turpentine is reckless and unnecessary. His craftsmanship is sloppy… look at the way he is setting chimney bricks without staggering them. And by knocking on the door he deliberately scares his little brothers who have already been traumatized.

      I really don’t like Pig3. I think he would be a poor neighbour and a poor husband. I don’t think he would be a good friend.

      Did you notice that the wolf is carrying a carpetbag? Wiki says carpetbagger was used as a derogatory term, suggesting opportunism and exploitation by the outsiders. And I lovrd the different kinds of art on the walls of the three houses! Detail…

      Here we are doing a character analysis, as if this were real literature. Or perhaps it is.

      Good to hear from you!

  2. debbierodgers says:

    I did notice that the Wolf was carrying a carpet bag and realized that would have been instantly recognized, and would have spoken volumes to the viewing audiences of the ’30s about his role and character.

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