Sunday, June 25, 2006


A train hurtles towards us at breathtaking speed, zipping past the telephone poles that lie on either side of its engine without a care, dust from the tracks kicking up beneath its iron frame, and black smoke oozing out of its stack in a relentless wave of sickening exhaust. We see this streaming smoke from the side as the train's whistle announces its approach to any who would be unlucky enough to pause upon said tracks, and then we see a full side view of the engine as it runs along the top of a small incline. Quick cuts reveal to us the steam escaping from the pumping of the wheels just above the track; a front-side closeup of the engine's face; the golden bell clanging urgently on the engine's top; the cowcatcher and front wheels scraping along at the front of the train's ceaseless assault across the plains of America. A final burst of cuts further define the engine's power and energy, including one where the train runs straight up into and through the camera's eye.

As beautifully edited and heart-pumping as any similar scene of locomotive prowess in any number of Hollywood pictures, but this scene is at the very beginning of a Looney Tunes cartoon. The picture is Porky's Railroad from Warner Bros. in 1937, and the director is Frank (Tish Tash) Tashlin, whose signature, apart from the style of gags that he developed and employed in his few short years with the studio, was his ability to bring a feature-film eye for cutting and visuals to his animated films. That he would go on to master feature-film comedies in the late 40's and through the 60's is further proof of his talent, equally at home in two very different media, but similar enough where he could bring elements of either to the other.

In the case of Porky's Railroad, this train sequence, had it been shot in live-action form, could easily have formed a remarkable montage piece in just about any western of the day. Instead, it is used to set up a mere gag involving Porky Pig's slice of the locomotive business. The train that we have been introduced to is Number 515, the 30th Century Limited, which a superimposed title tells us is "The Railroad's Crack Train". We are then shown Number 13-1⁄2 - The 15th Century Unlimited, which we are told is "also a crack train" and then followed up with "Everything cracked, including the engineer". The train putts along as if in slow-motion, and each puff of its smokestack or pull of its whistle causes the engine (and tiny coal car) to leap up into the air apart from its wheels. With the name "Toots" painted on its housing and with engineer Porky Pig at the controls, the engine inches its way up the incredibly steep Piker's Peak, and its almost total lack of thrust allows a snail to lap it on the way up.

Why Porky is surprised by this, I don't know; but it is enough to cause him to spring into action when the train slows almost to a stop. After he pulls some pepper out of his pocket, we see that the furnace is only burning a single candle for its fire. Porky sprinkles the pepper on the candle, and the engine starts to sneeze. As it continues to build up more and more power in its sneezes, the engine starts to speed up and flies up the side of Piker's Peak, zooming down the other side and through a tunnel. Still speeding along, when it hits a section with numerous switches, all of the cars come apart from the engine (in an overhead view) and meet up with it again where the switches meet up farther down the line. However, the 515 is heading straight towards them at even greater speed, and Porky has to pull the train onto a side track to avoid collision. His caboose is left hanging on the track, though (the train's caboose, not Porky's at-this-time prodigious one), but Number 13-1/2 manages to scrunch up at the last second, much to Porky's brow-wiping relief.

He gets his engine's speed back up and heads off again, but he has to put the brakes on when he almost runs into a cow lounging about on the tracks ahead. She chews her cud lazily as she ignores Porky's calls for her to move, so he has to resort to pushing her rear end and forward to get the desired result. "Am-scray, you m-mess of t-t-t-T-bones!", he orders, and as he makes his way back to the engine, he muses that "It's c-cows like that that g-g-give m-milk a b-b-bad n-name. I b-bet she can't g-give sweet milk, an old s-s-sourpuss like that!" Unbeknownst to Porky, a huge bull, easily twice the size of the cow, crosses the tracks and sits down by some bushes adjacent to them, his body hidden by the shrubs and his tail flapping about on the track. Porky, still thinking it's the cow, vows to show the "four-legged piece of hamburger!" When he tugs on the tail, he swiftly realizes that he has gotten more than he bargained for, and the next thing we see is his train flying along at supersonic speed, flying around several S-curves before disappearing out of sight.

At a dispatch office far away, a telegram is received reading "STOP PORKY'S TRAIN STOP". Indeed, his train is called in, and Porky is handed an Official Dispatch from the humorously monickered president of the railway, I. Fuller Cinders. It tells Porky to "Roll Up Your Tracks and Go Home - The Streamline Train is Here to Stay!" A postscript asks Porky nicely to "Please Return Spikes". The camera darkens the screen around most of the note except for the words "Streamline Train" and then the camera cuts to the latest word in high-speed continental travel, The Silver Fish, which is indeed streamlined and looks for all the world like a bullet-shaped spaceship. It's engineer tips his hat to us and blows his whistle proudly. Ah, boys and their stupid toys...

Speaking of which, Porky bids a sad farewell to his beloved Toots, but the Silver Fish pulls up on the track parallel to Porky. The engineer rudely shakes Porky's hand and drops him on the ground after the pig offers him the best of luck, and then the engineer adds insult to injury by asking "Say, what is that? A percolator on a roller skate?" Porky muses that Toots could be "his ol' Silver Fish" and the engineer picks Porky up by the tail, pokes him in the eyes, and takes up the challenge to race the decrepit engine. A gun is fired, and when the Silver Fish takes off, its massive speed leaves Toots' cars all knotted up with each other. The Silver Fish bolts past a woodpile, and when all the logs fly away, there sits the proverbial Negro that is stereotyped as living in it. The train goes through a small tunnel and completely turns the structure inside out. It does stop as a bridge is raised over a river, but only long enough for a Mae West-style fish to pop out of the water, stroke her side seductively, and say "Oh, boy! What a man!"

Porky, meanwhile, is doing his best to keep up, and when he reaches the same bridge, when it is raised to allow to allow the S.S. Leon (named for WB producer Schlesinger) to pass, Porky goes so fast that he goes up and over the raised bridge. Toots ends up carrying off a life preserver with the name of the ship on it, but that's not all, folks! Hanging from one of Porky's freight cars is a lifeboat with full hanging tackle, and inside is a sailor who rows along singing, "They stand together! Give up the ship!" As Porky makes his way back to the spot where he had all the cow problems, the bull sits atop a hill and recognizes the engine. He runs down to the tracks and charges full-speed after Porky and Toots! He plows through each of Porky's cars and headbutts the engine so that it flies through the air, straight over the top of the Silver Fish, and down onto the tracks to cross the finish line first! The crowd goes crazy, and the scene switches to a closeup of the Silver Fish with Porky installed as its new engineer. Poor ol' Toots, trashed and laying in a broken heap on a flatcar pulled by the Silver Fish, bears a sign reading "Headin' for the Last Roundhouse!" Iris out.

Aside from the quick racial gag, Porky's Railroad is a most enjoyable and satisfying film (except for the retirement of poor ol' Toots, a good train that deserved a better end). Tashlin's version of Porky is completely charming, sort of halfway in-between his initial immensely rotund self and his later streamlined and most popular version. Despite his stuttering, Porky's attitude here is truly one of "can-do" self-application, and his railroad is proof of his DIY spirit. Much of that spunk probably came from the general spirit of the times, where everyone was still struggling with the lingering effects of the Great Depression (which really didn't go away until WWII rolled into view). Porky was a perfect hero for the times; I think more so than Popeye, whose powers relied on a specialized diet (and, let's admit it, he began each adventure with astounding strength already) or than Superman, who was soon to be unleashed onto the world, but whose powers were literally unearthly. Porky is an Everypig who has to use the only weapons that he has in his arsenal: his pluck and his gumption.

Would that we were all possessed of such drive. Sure, most of us, myself included, in this MySpace age of massive ego, talk a thunderous game. But when confronted with a challenge like that which the Silver Fish presents to Porky's Toots, with every odd coming out against us, how many of us have the gumption to at least buckle down and give it our best shot?

You're right. Neither did I, until the day that I discovered that I could give my life a new burst of energy and start over fresh somewhere new. You have to swallow your fears, make that move, find that new job, and pour everything you can into replanting your happiness so that it can flourish like it never has before.

And you have to reach up and clang that engine bell as loud and as proud as you can. Let the world know that you are coming down the tracks and you've taken the catcher off the front. All aboard!!

Porky's Railroad (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, 1937)
Director: Frank Tashlin
Animators: Robert Bentley and Joe D'Igalo
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Voices: Mel Blanc and Billy Bletcher
Cel Bloc Rating: 7


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Rik Tod Johnson said...

Wow, Yuriy!

I wrote a piece about Frank Tashlin, Porky Pig and railroading, and yet, you, genius Yuriy (with the weirdly spelled fake name), were able to cut through to the subtext of what I was really talking about: Playboy and Penthouse centerfolds!

Sorry, Yuriy... I haven't been interested in boring, airbrushed Playboy photos since I was 13 years old , and Penthouse has been out the door for about 20 years since I developed astigmatism from the soft-focus b.s. that passes for "art" in that crap-a-zine. Plus, most of the letters are fake. That's no fun...

If you find something else, like the cure for cancer or AIDS, a reverse for global warming, a cheap alternative fuel source, or a warp drive for interplanetary travel, please inform me. If not, stayed locked in the basement of your mother's house, tighten the belt a little bit more around your neck, and enjoy all the free Playboy and Penthouse (which are spelled as full words without extra capitals inserted) until you can no longer breath.

Moron. Go leave this crap at a porno blog.

Anonymous said...

waaay late to this party but I just wanted to say that I absolutely LOVE this cartoon! and the fact that you pointed out a message in it truly a brilliant piece of animation!