Three Little Pigs (1933)
The Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film of the year was introduced in 1932, but the category was originally titled “Short Subject, Cartoon” and remained that way until 1972. The first cartoon to be so honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was Flowers and Trees; which was the first experiment in Technicolor by Walt Disney’s animation studio (which was then aligned with RKO Pictures). Not surprisingly Disney dominated this category from the very start, winning eight years straight and often having two cartoons competing against each other in the same year.
What may be surprising to some is that cartoons starring Mickey Mouse routinely lost out to Disney’s other popular line of cartoons, Silly Symphonies. Classic Mickey Mouse cartoons like Mickey’s Orphans (1932), Building a Building (1933), Brave Little Tailor (1938) and The Pointer (1939) were all bested by Disney-made Silly Symphonies. The Band Concert (1935), which is arguably Mickey’s most famous pairing with Donald Duck, wasn’t even nominated.
The Walt Disney studio won their second Oscar for Three Little Pigs, directed by legendary Disney animator Burt Gillett. At this point in his career, Gillett’s work on Flowers and Trees had be recognized with an Academy Award and he had already directed some of Mickey’s greatest adventures including The Gorilla Mystery (1930), Mickey’s Pal Pluto (1932) and Mickey’s Orphans (1932). Gillett and the Disney animators add a comedian’s sensibility to the well-known animal fable with lots of great sight gags in the background – especially in the house of bricks where we can see a hanging picture of sausage links with “Father” written underneath.
Three Little Pigs features the memorial original song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which became an international hit for composer Frank Churchill. In the decade that followed, the mocking nature of the melody was repurposed by the public to taunt various the challenges of the day from the Great Depression to the threat of German Nationalism. For many at the time, there was an emotional connection between the lyrics of the song and President Roosevelt’s famous ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ sentiment. Frank Churchill’s song is also where Edward Albee took the inspiration for the title of his 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Three Little Pigs was such a hit for Disney that the studio carried over the characters (and the song) into three Silly Symphony sequels; The Big Bad Wolf (1934), Three Little Wolves (1936) and The Practical Pig (1939). The Big Bad Wolf interlaces the stories of the Three Little Pigs with that of Little Red Riding Hood and is the only of the three sequels to be directed by Burt Gillett.
The original Three Little Pigs cartoon had such cultural currency with audiences that it was appropriated by the National Film Board of Canada to promote the sale of war bonds during World War II. Edited and re-released as “Walt Disney’s The Thrifty Pig” in 1941, the altered version uses newly added Canadian imagery like the maple leaf and the Union Jack and features a swastika-sporting Big Bad Wolf. The anti-Nazi NFB version carries a touch of irony because Disney’s original version of Three Little Pigs had the Wolf pose as a Yiddish-sounding ‘Jewish Peddler’ character – a scene which has been subsequently re-touched and re-voiced or otherwise omitted altogether.