It's been called the most popular cartoon in history.
But -- to be honest -- when Disney's "Three Little Pigs" premiered at Radio City Music Hall on May 27, 1933, in New York, the initial reponse to this animated short was somewhat underwhelming. I'm told that the 36th "Silly Symphony" really didn't become a hit 'til it got out of NYC and began playing at local theaters. Out where the Depression had hit hardest, out where the people could use a real pig-me-up ... er ... "pick-me-up."
Why is exactly that the "Three Little Pigs" did so well? What was it about this short that spoke so strongly to audiences in the 1930s? The Disney history books are full of stories about how this animated cartoon was often advertised more prominently on theater marquees than the features that this short would accompany. More importantly, that the "Three Little Pigs" would stay at some theaters and run for weeks at a time, While the features that would be shown after this Disney short would come and go.
Looking back on the cultural phenomenon from over 70 years in the future, it's really hard to explain why Disney's "Three Little Pigs" hit as big as it did. But -- Gold help me -- I'm going to try.
What follows are what I call the "Three Little Keys" (Aren't I clever?). As in: The three key elements that (I think) added immeasurably to the "Three Little Pigs" 's ability to connect with audiences back in the 1930s.
Back in 1932, when Herbert Kalmus first approached Walt Disney about possibly trying his new 3-color film dye transfer process ... Kalmus had been to just about every studio in Hollywood. Only four years earlier (after years of struggle), Herbert's company -- Technicolor -- was finally in the black with close to 40 films being made in color. The only problem was: Technicolor's old 2-color process wasn't really all that reliable. Which is why all the studios eventually backed off.
Needing to prove to the industry that Technicolor's new 3-color process was much more reliable than the old 2-color process, Kalmus went to Disney. And Walt agreed to help Herbert out. But for a price.
In order to get Walt Disney Studios to produce animated cartoons that used Technicolor's 3-color process, Kalmus had to agree to give Disney a two year exclusive on the film dyeing system. Meaning that no other animation studio in Hollywood could produce shorts that made use of the Technicolor process.
With that lucrative little agreement tucked away in his back pocket, Walt actually stopped production on the studio's next "Silly Symphony." He then had his animators redo "Flowers & Trees." Only this time as a color cartoon.
Roy -- as usual -- thought that his brother had lost his mind. But Sid Grauman (I.E. The owner / operator of two of Hollywood's most prestigious theaters, the Chinese and the Egyptian) heard about this color cartoon and insisted that Walt allow him to premiere this short at his theater.
The end result was ... "Flowers and Trees" debuted at the Chinese Theater on July 30, 1932. This Silly Symphony went on to win an Academy Award for best animated short (Which -- FYI -- was the very first Oscar that Walt Disney Studios ever won). More importantly (At least from Herbert Kalmus' point of view), Hollywood began to think of Technicolor as a viable form of color film processing.
So "Flowers & Trees" -- with its brilliant use of the Technicolor 3-color process -- effectively primed the pump for the "Three Little Pigs." Making audiences believe that Disney's "Silly Symphony" short were really something special. Of course, what this 1933 release had over its 1932 predecessor was ...
By 1933, the days of a single animator cranking out an entire cartoon were long gone. The Mouse Factory was beginning to separate the jobs in animation according to an animator's specialty. For the "Three Little Pigs," Norm Fergusen was given the task of animating the Big Bad Wolf, *** Lundy animated the film's dance sequences and talented newcomer Fred Moore was given the pigs.
Over the last few years, Walt had been hiring art instructors to teach night classes to his animators. With the hope that this would then give these artists the advanced skills & drawing techniques that they would need to move this still-evolving-artform to the next level. Which (as Disney saw it) was animated characters that had definitive personalities.
To make a long story short, the "Three Little Pigs" is the picture where all this extra effort finally paid off. Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Pig may have all looked the same. But they certainly didn't act the same. And -- for audiences in the early 1930s -- to see this level of sophistication in an animated short was really nothing short of amazing.
Years after this Disney cartoon was made, Warner Brothers animation legend Chuck Jones said that the"Three Little Pigs" was " ... the first time anybody brought characters to life."
Wow. If that isn't affirmation enough for the this film's animation, I don't know what is.
Catchy Tune (Sorry. I ran out of clever words that started with 'P')
At the same time that Walt Disney Studio was separating artists according to their animation specialty, you were still expected to be a jack of all trades. So, if you worked in the mail room and joked around making silly voices ... Sooner or later, someone was going to get you to record that voice in a cartoon.
That early sense of fraternity was what fostered the creation of the "Three Little Pigs" ' anthem, "Who's Afraid Of the Big Bad Wolf." To explain: Walt had hired Frank Churchill to write scores dor his cartoons while Ted Sears was a writer & gag man who worked on staff at Disney Studios. One afternoon, these two guys are playing around at the piano, when they hit upon the phrase "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf."
As Sears started to work on some lyrics, Churchill noodled out a tune. But neither of the men could figure out how to cap off the song's verse. In the end, it was veteran Disney gag man (and the original voice of Goofy) Pinto Colvig who came up with the "fa-la-la-la-la" close.
When the "Three Little Pigs" finally released to theaters in May of 1933, that song almost became a second national anthem for Depression-era audiences. Almost overnight, Americans stopped singing "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" in favor of the far more optimistic "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf."
That song was Walt Disney Studios' first hit single and it took the company entirely by surprise. In an era where sheet music sold as well as CDs sell today, it was an important revenue stream for all of the major studios. Disney wasn't prepared for what was going to happen with "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf." Which is why Walt had to make a quick deal with Irving Berlin's music company. That song not only made the company some extra cash, it also changed the studio's approach to music.
The "Three Little Pigs" played in some theaters for nearly two years. As I said at the top of this story, this animated short often got top billing on some marquees. Its success made it that much easier for Walt Disney Studios to secure bookings for its "Silly Symphony" cartoons, not to mention spawning the creation of 3 "Three Little Pigs" sequels: 1934's "The Big Bad Wolf," 1936's "Three Little Wolves" and 1939's "The Practical Pig."
The "Three Little Pigs" was also the picture that proved that colored movies were more than just a fad. It also changed forever the way Walt Disney Studios viewed music.
In other words, this one animated short kept the wolf from Walt's door and really brought home the bacon. And you can't ask for much more than that from pigs.
Gotta love all of Walt's magic. All the way back to when he was animating here in Kansas City down on 31st st in 1922.