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You Ought to Be in Pictures
Porky and Leon Schlesinger strike a deal

You Ought To Be In Pictures

1940. Warner Brothers. Directed by Friz Freleng. With Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Leon Schlesinger.


Chris Maxfield mentioned this cartoon early in the List's existence, and I want to second the motion. You Ought To Be in Pictures revives the silent-era tradition of combining animation with live action and having all kinds of frame-breaking fun at the points where the two worlds meet.

In 1914, a filmed Winsor McCay reprimanded an animated Gertie the Dinosaur. In the 20s, the Fleischer Brothers traded practical jokes with their creation, Koko the Clown, and Walter Lantz used his animator's pen to play tricks on Pete the Pup. In You Ought To Be in Pictures, made well into the era of production-line animation, the human involved is not the animator/creator, but "the Boss," Leon Schlesinger, the real-life head of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies unit at Warner Brothers.

Porky Pig, Daffy, and Porky's little car are the only drawn elements in this short. Porky materializes before our eyes as an animator's hand moves over a drawing pad. When the animator leaves for lunch, Porky and Daffy Duck (seen in a tacked-up drawing on the wall) come to life and have a classic Hollywood conversation. Daffy tells Porky that he's too good to spend his life in cartoons; he should get into features and "earn three grand a week as Bette Davis's leading man." Goaded by Daffy, Porky marches into Leon Schlesinger's office and asks to be released from his "cartoon contract." Schlesinger (a big, sweaty chain-smoker who looks like Huey Long) agrees to let Porky go, gives him a good-luck handshake (nice matte work here), and confides to us, "He'll be back."

Porky has trouble getting onto the Warner's lot (he finally sneaks past the guard disguised as Oliver Hardy). Predictably, he disrupts filming on a sound stage, gets chased by the angry guard,and ends up caught in a stampede of horses that starts on the lot's main street and ends up, two shots later, in the middle of the desert. Meanwhile, Daffy is lobbying "Leon" to give him Porky's old job. Schlesinger, unimpressed, says "Yeah, yeah, I'll think it over." Porky returns, gets his job back, and beats Daffy up. At the end, both cartoon characters turn back into ink-on-paper.

You Ought To Be in Pictures is a mutant version of the studio comedy (like Ella Cinders, Movie Crazy, and Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, to name just a few). You've got the remorseless guard at the gate, the hustle and bustle on the sound stages, the director yelling "Action!", the interloper accidentally ruining a take, the chase around the lot, etc. But this is only one of this cartoon's "behind-the-scenes" strategies.

What's more interesting is how animated and real characters co-exist, an interaction treated matter-of-factly within the film but quite astounding to the viewer. There's no forgetting that artifice is at hand. When, for example, the studio guard picks up Porky and his roadster and tosses them through the gate, we in the audience see not a plot development but an impressive visual trick.

You Ought To Be in Pictures plays both ends against the middle. On the one hand, Porky is revealed as a completely constructed character--we see him being drawn and colored in. On the other hand, he's presented as a working actor, negotiating with the studio and worrying about his career. (Personal aside: long before Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, my daughter was watching Disney's Sleeping Beauty and told me, "That guy always plays the prince.") Neither is the Porky we're accustomed to seeing in Merrie Melodies shorts, where he lives in all-cartoon world interacting with other characters according to the physical laws of cartoondom.

You Ought To Be in Pictures probably amused Hollywood insiders more than the general public. The notion of getting Leon Schlesinger to appear in a cartoon must have tickled the gag writers no end, and it's really funny to hear Daffy and Porky echoing thousands of disgruntled contract players as they kvetch about their careers and angle for that one big break. This little film holds a crazy mirror up to life at Warner Brothers, but what gets reflected back are some of the central paradoxes of animation in particular and motion pictures in general.

(9/27/1996)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein