When Tex Avery moved from Warner Bros. to MGM in 1941, he announced his arrival with a timely parody that not only took on current world events, but also outright challenged the predominant Walt Disney model of animation.
Blitz Wolf, released on August 22, 1942, was not the first cartoon that Avery directed for his new studio (that would be The Early Bird Dood It, a twisted take on the early-bird-gets-the-worm proverb which was filmed first but debuted in theaters a week after Wolf). A searingly funny and very loose adaptation of the Three Little Pigs tale, Blitz Wolf premiered eight months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entrance of the United States into World War II. As such, it functions not only as a satirical poke at the enemy, but also a rather effective piece of animated propaganda.
Avery was far from the first to use animation for propagandistic purposes: during the silent-film era, pioneering artist Winsor McCay used it as a tool to promote US interests during World War I with his documentary-style animated short The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). But the war effort during the early 1940s saw a notable increase in the number of animated productions designed to increase support for US efforts overseas. Some of these cartoons were developed solely for educational purposes for different branches of the military, such as the Private Snafu shorts written by children’s author Dr. Seuss and animated by some of Avery’s former colleagues at Warner Bros. Many others were released theatrically, designed to inflame public sentiment and support for the war, such as Warner’s now-controversial 1944 cartoon Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips.
Four months after Avery directed Blitz Wolf, Disney–who had formed a close partnership with the United States Army during the war, resulting in dozens of propagandistic toons–produced his own Hitler parody starring Donald Duck, called Der Fuhrer’s Face. [Both Wolf and Face were nominated for the Academy Award for the best cartoon short of the year, though Disney ultimately walked away with the prize.] However, while Disney’s nightmare scenario for Donald Duck has its own strengths, Avery’s Blitz Wolf stands apart for its sheer audacity. The imagery alone makes the cartoon a tour de force in how to construct hilarious visual gags–and in the process adds a heavy touch of American braggadocio to the action. As John Canemaker aptly points out in his book Tex Avery: The MGM Years, 1942-1955, the animators give the pigs “the most phallic weapons in the free world,” and the cartoon is rife with “our dick’s bigger than yours”-type imagery (for lack of a better term). For instance, in the screenshots below, note the contrast between the pigs’ cannon (which extends for multiple frames, leading to a typical Tex “sign” gag in the middle of the shot) and the wolf’s.
Adding to the audacious nature of the short, Avery does something quite witty and unexpected in one early scene, when Pork’s less-intelligent brothers (who believe their non-aggression pact signed by that “colossal stinker Adolf Wolf” will protect them) taunt their more worldly sibling as he digs a barrier around his already-fortified home. “You’re in the Army now/You’re not behind a plow,” they sing. As Pork continues digging, they continue, “You’re digging a ditch!” before the action pauses–total freeze-frame–for a full beat until they conclude the verse, “You’re in the Army now!” It’s a highly clever way for Avery to incorporate the popular “dirty” version of a familiar Army chant while eliminating the sticky fourth line (“You son of a bitch!”) to appease censors.
The film shies away from outright rallying war support until near the ending, when the propaganda becomes overt through two particular visuals. As the pigs retaliate against the wolf’s air raid, their ammunition becomes “defense bonds,” screeching through the sky before destroying the wolf’s plane. When the wolf then crashes down through the ground (ending up in the unnamed but blatantly obvious Hell), concluding the cartoon, a plea pops up (backed by a suspiciously Warner-esque iris-out) asking citizens to support the war effort.
The visual gags in Blitz Wolf are not quite as tightly packed in as they would be in later Avery cartoons, and as a result, this short provides a little room to breathe in between the laughs. But the humor is rich and extremely pointed, and, at times, can make some modern viewers feel a bit ill at ease. The use of the word “Jap,” for instance, found on a sign on Sergeant Pork’s home, evokes the unfortunate racial stereotyping associated with that term. But perhaps most particularly, the scene in which the pigs obliterate Tokyo by dropping a bomb on top of it feels uncomfortably and eerily prescient, considering that’s pretty much what the United States would do to Hiroshima and Nagasaki three years later.
With Blitz Wolf, not only does Avery take on the Nazis and the Japanese, but he also gets in some digs at Disney. Before being blown headlong into antic madness with the arrival of Adolf Wolf on the scene, the cartoon begins with bright colors, insipid fairy tale-type narration, gaily-singing pigs (well, two of them, at least), and the cloudy outline of a fanciful storybook page around the opening scenes. It’s a painfully obvious parody of the Disney aesthetic, and particularly of Disney’s own take on the Three Little Pigs story, which had been released almost a decade earlier. The similarities are no coincidence, and in fact, Blitz Wolf was animated, in part, by two former Disney artists: Preston Blair (brother-in-law of renowned Disney artist Mary Blair) and Ed Love, who had left the Disney studio in 1941 after a tense labor strike halved that studio’s animation staff. [Incidentally, this also marks the first cartoon that former Warner Bros. animator Irven Spence worked on, having jumped ship to MGM with Avery.] Another Disney-related curiosity: Pinto Colvig, the voiceover artist who brought to life such notable characters as Goofy and Pluto for Disney, voices a pig in Blitz Wolf–just as he had done for the Disney version of Three Little Pigs in 1933 (in which he portrays Practical Pig).
Admittedly, Blitz Wolf loses some of its bite for those unfamiliar with the parodic subject matter; for modern-day viewers, the humor of gags such as the title card touting the cartoon’s conservation of precious rubber (which was the first item to be subjected to rationing upon the start of the war) is generally lost. [This situation is common with World War II-era toons, as I discovered a couple of years ago.] But this cartoon is far from a mere relic of wartime propaganda. In context, it’s a brilliant satire of a terrible human being and a terrible conflict; out of context, it’s still a damn funny cartoon, thanks to some pretty wonderful gags from a true master of the craft.
Don’t forget to enter our awesome Tex Avery prize pack giveaway (details here)!