Thursday, June 29, 2006

PORKY'S MIDNIGHT MATINEE (1941)

Now, where was I? Oh, that's right...

I was interrupted at the beginning of a middling Porky pig cartoon by a political plea to turn a Senatorial vote. Returning to Porky Pig as he shakes his curly tail singing and dancing about the backstage of his theatre in preparation for a special evening hour performance, itself the target of the film's title, Porky's Midnight Matinee, from Chuck Jones and Warner Bros. in 1941, we find the pig's attention drawn by a small "Psst!" emanating from a wire cage hidden amongst the backstage trappings. Inside the cage, Porky discovers a tiny ant with a bone wrapped about some hairs on its head, giving it the supposed look of an African native. The ant motions with his finger to get Porky to come over for a closer look. He gives the swine a cautioning "Shhh..." and points to the cage door, adding an imploring look to get Porky to free him, to which the pig happily obliges. The ant tiptoes forward out of his prison, and when he reaches Porky, the ant bolts through the pig's legs, knocking him down and causing him to overturn the cage. On its bottom, Porky reads these words: "PROF. McGURK'S TRAINED AFRICAN PYGMY ANT - VALUE $162,422,503.51 (plus sales tax)."

Surprised, Porky reads aloud the outrageous sum of money, and lets loose an astonished "Yipe!" when he realizes the can of worms he has opened, or rather, the cage of ant. Porky looks over at a rope hanging from the rigging and follows it up to where the ant is sitting, waving and smiling tauntingly. Porky keeps his eye on the little fellow as he runs towards it, but he runs smack dab into an open trunk and falls in. The trunk shuts and tumbles over and over, and when it stops and reopens, Porky is wearing a magician's top hat. He lifts the hat, and a white bunny is sitting atop his head. The ant gives Porky another "Psst!" and motions his fingers on his head like bunny ears, following this with a giggle at the slow-burning pig.

Porky takes off after the ant, but the pygmy bug swings off on a string and lands at the top of a ladder across the stage. Used to performing, the ant lands and holds his arms upraised, the music striking a bit of fanfare at his derring-do. Porky is not applauding this, though; determined to catch the troublemaker, he stealthily climbs the ladder and tiptoes after the ant on the high-wire to which the ladder is attached. The ant points out to Porky how high off the ground he is standing, and Porky looks down at the stage far below and makes an exaggerated gulp towards the camera. The ant calmly trots to the other end of the wire, steps off, and then shakes the wire wildly, harder and harder, until Porky is wobbling like crazy on top of it and then ends up hanging desperately from it for his very life. The ant finally gives up on picking on Porky and slides down a rope to the ground below. He again makes a big show of his landing, before spinning about dizzily from his winding trip around the rope.

The ant makes the happy discovery of a table full of food hovering just above him, so he ascends the ornamentally carved leg of the table and greets the grand banquet before him. He bounces three times off the top of a sandwich as though it were a trampoline, but then he dives through the bread, causing a small splash as he swims to the middle of its deliciousness. He climbs out from between the two slices of bread, climbs back up on the top, and tears out a huge chunk of bread, downing it in one bite. The pygmy ant looks up to see a very perturbed Porky staring down, the pig's chubby fingers tapping impatiently on his chin. Porky slaps a hand clear through the sandwich, leaving an imprint of his fingers in the bread. The ant, however, has leapt aside, and when Porky hears another "Psst!", he looks over to see the ant waving from a jar of mustard. Porky slaps at the jar and gets his hand stuck inside. He struggles to remove his hand, and sitting on top of a nearby soda bottle, the ant suggests to Porky that he smash the jar against something to free himself. Porky does so lightly on the table, and the ant insists he do it harder. Porky obliges, the jar shatters and mustard pours down the aching hand of the pig, as do tears of pain. The ant pushes a bottle to Porky, who chugs down the liquid, but at the last second he pulls the bottle back to inspect it, and reads the label: "TURPENTINE". As Porky starts to panic and sweat, the ant "Psst"'s again, and the little fiend tries to hand Porky a lit match. The pig dives at the ant on the table, but only ends up getting covered in the plethora of food items that toss about with his landing.

"Here, Anty, Anty, Anty! I've got some nice candy for ya!", Porky shouts as he crawls along the backstage floor. Indeed, Porky is holding a delicious peppermint stick in his hand, but the ant marches along beneath the pig, and eventually switches the candy for a lit stick of TNT. The insect trots off with his prize and starts to happily devour small pieces of it as Porky slowly realizes that he has been duped. Porky tosses the dynamite away, but it slides along the floor and bumps into the candy, replacing it behind the ant's back. Porky, worried for the ant, goes "Psst!" over and over, but the ant ignores him, and shows off by lying on the stick of TNT, thinking it is the candy. As he places another bite into his maw, there is a huge explosion. Porky ducks behind the curtain, but when he emerges, he is overjoyed to see that the blast has blown the ant back into his cage and shut the door behind him. The ant sits dazed and slightly charred on the bottom of the cage, and when he opens his mouth to smile, he at last betrays the traditional sign of Afrocentric cartoon ethnicity: an oversized set of lips, their white shade brought about by the sugar in the candy. Iris out.

The ant in this picture shows signs of certainty on Jones' part that he would be beloved by audiences, when in fact, he comes off as merely annoying. He actually has very little charisma, and much of this is due to the fact that the act thinks very highly of himself, and relies too much on his show-bizzy cuteness. (He also seems to be designed rather sketchily, like one of the characters in Jones' later films - this is not a demerit, merely something I noticed; he doesn't seem as smoothly defined as Jones' other characters in the 40's). Much of the film is actually silent, and there are only a handful of lines delivered by Porky, and really, only in three segments. I personally love it when Porky speaks; whether he stutters or not, I enjoy his voice and wish this film had a little bit more of it. It would go a little way to helping a few scenes where the action seems to be rote and under-developed. I would have liked to see more of the ant trying out the food on the table, and maybe some more gags built around this, instead of the weak bit of Porky crashing into it. In fact, several of the bits seem to not come off, including the high-wire, which just ends; the magic hat, which just ends; and the match-and-turpentine bit, which also just ends. And perhaps the ant could have been developed more if they had shown more of the things he was trained to do. Overall, a disappointing and very minor effort, which could have been far better with just a couple of zigzags in direction.

But, how disappointing is it to see a film turn out like this after I have yelled and screamed about its interruption yesterday? Not very -- I have seen this film quite a lot, actually; it's not like I didn't know what I was up against. And as I have mentioned lightly before, even the most boring cartoon of this era has much to recommend its being seen. I happen to like the backgrounds and art direction of this film, even if I don't care for the pygmy ant concept. A by-the-numbers Aesop's Fable from the 30's still has great enjoyment to be had; you just have treasure small character moments or a smidgen of music that might illuminate an otherwise dull effort. It's why I enjoy watching these films and writing about them, and hopefully get others interested in them.

For me, they are worth far more than
$162,422,503.51 (plus sales tax). And that is why I don't like to have them interrupted with someone's outside political leanings, no matter how much I might or might not agree with them. When I watch a cartoon, I'm all in, baby...

Porky's Midnight Matinee (1941)
Director: Charles A. (Chuck) Jones
Animators: Robert Cannon
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

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