As recounted in Stefan Kanfer’s fantastic history of animation, Serious Business (1997), early in 1933, Walt Disney gave a personal tour of the Disney animation studio to movie star Mary Pickford. Disney was considering making a live-action version of Alice in Wonderland with Pickford in the title role, and in fact shot some test footage of the actress in costume in Technicolor (this footage is now considered to be lost, though a couple of stills remain).
A big fan of Pickford’s, Walt sought to impress her with something new, so in the middle of the tour, he prevailed upon composer Frank Churchill to play the “pig thing” for Mary. Churchill obligingly sat down at the piano and launched into a rendition of his newest song, which he had written for the studio’s in-production adaptation of the classic fairy tale about three little pigs–a production that Walt had been considering shutting down before completion. Accompanied by story department head Ted Sears and voice actor Pinto Colvig (who would later stumble into immortality voicing Goofy), Churchill sang “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and, at the end, all of the men waited anxiously for Pickford’s reaction.
“If you don’t make this cartoon about the pigs, I’ll never speak to you again,” she replied.
That was all it took–production resumed in earnest, and the cartoon was released in May at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Three Little Pigs is a relatively simple fable about the importance of hard work in keeping the “big bad wolf” away from your door. Fifer Pig and Fiddler Pig would rather build their houses hastily so they can continue to play their instruments (the flute and the fiddle, respectively) all day long. But the Big Bad Wolf has other plans–he blows down Fifer’s straw house, and does the same to Fiddler’s house of sticks. The two seek refuge in the solid brick home of their brother, Practical Pig, whom they had earlier made fun of for spending his day building the house, and the Wolf, unable to blow down the sturdy structure, is ultimately stymied in his attempt to have pork chops for dinner.
Produced in glorious three-strip Technicolor (Disney had a temporary monopoly on the process, which prevented other animation studios from using the full potential of color in their own cartoons), the film was released under the banner of Disney’s Silly Symphony series. Indeed, the success of the film owes a great deal to its musical score; Three Little Pigs became a smash hit in large part due to Churchill’s theme song. “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”–with some encouragement from United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called the cartoon his “favorite” film–became the unofficial anthem of the Great Depression, a way for people to thumb their noses at the dire state of the economy. When the sheet music for the song was produced, “Big Bad Wolf” became the top-selling song of the year. And as the United States entered World War II in the next decade, “Big Bad Wolf” found new life as a musical “screw you” to Nazi Germany.
The importance of Three Little Pigs to the history of animation is in its characterization of the four figures in the cartoon. Though “personality animation” had its roots in Winsor McCay’s Gertie, who had taken her first bow almost two decades before, Pigs had four individual characters with different personalities, interacting together in a way that had yet to be seen in animated features. As legendary animator Chuck Jones later put it: “Until [Pigs], animated films followed the form of the silent comedies. Small creature, good guy. Big creature, villain. Cute was enough to get you by. Personality animation–characters who may look alike, but who react and move very differently from each other–begins with this little movie.” Whether the Disney animators intended to break new ground or not, Pigs nonetheless set the standard for future cartoons, as strong storytelling and believable, engaging characters became ever more vital to the genre’s success. Beyond the animation of the characters, Pigs also demonstrates the importance of voice casting in bringing the characters to life. Colvig voices Practical Pig as sturdy and no-nonsense, like his beloved brick house, while Practical’s more fanciful brothers are given higher-pitched voices by Mary Moder and Dorothy Compton. And Billy Bletcher’s gruff, booming baritone (used so effectively in crafting the character of Mickey’s nemesis, Pete) is a perfect fit for the blustering Wolf.
Popular as it was (and still is), Pigs is not without its controversy, which has led to latter-day censorship of one particularly insensitive sequence. Walt Disney’s notoriously ingrained antisemitism (yes, the man was antisemitic, whether you want to believe it or not–there are multiple instances of his having made horrible comments about the “Jew studios” in Hollywood over the years) was reflected in a scene in the original cartoon in which the Wolf disguises himself as a stereotypical Jewish peddler, complete with a long beard, bulbous nose, and exaggerated Yiddish accent. The film has undergone several edits over the years to alter this: initially, it was reanimated to portray the Wolf as a Fuller Brush salesman (though the original vocals nonsensically remained), and later the soundtrack was re-dubbed to remove the accent altogether.
The phenomenal success of Three Little Pigs ultimately surprised everyone, especially Walt Disney himself. In the wake of the pigs’ popularity, Disney commissioned three sequels: The Big Bad Wolf (1934), Three Little Wolves (1936), and The Practical Pig (1939). A fourth, unofficial sequel, The Thrifty Pig, was produced in 1941 by the National Film Board of Canada as propaganda for the war effort–it is little more than a shortened re-figuring of the original intended to encourage the purchase of war bonds. None of the sequels matched Three Little Pigs in popularity, and Walt finally retired the trio of oinkers, philosophically concluding, “You can’t top pigs with pigs.” Still, the original remains one of the most well-regarded cartoon shorts of all time: it won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject in 1934 and placed at #11 on the storied list of the 50 Greatest Cartoons. Five years ago, the National Film Registry added Pigs to its preservation roster. Even today, the Pigs and the Wolf haven’t lost their luster: they remain popular Disney characters, popping up around the theme parks and in various films and television shows produced by the company.