Walt Disney’s wife Lillian and her sister Hazel Sewell, head of the studio’s inking and painting department, suggested this familiar story as a potential Silly Symphony. By mid-December, 1932, gag meetings were conducted and a three-page outline circulated around the studio. During this period, the studio’s four principal story artists were Webb Smith, Ted Sears, Pinto Colvig, and Albert Hurter.
The original source material has the wolf devour the first two pigs after blowing their houses down. After failing to blow down the diligent third pig’s brick house, the wolf climbs down the chimney, but the third pig catches and traps the wolf in a boiling cauldron, eating him in the end. Naturally, these components are omitted in the film, but the wolf’s intent to eat the pigs is still retained. In order to give these characters appeal, Disney wanted the pigs to be portrayed as human characters, dressed in clothes; they also acquired household tools and musical instruments in certain sequences. Albert Hurter, hired at the studio in June 1931, designed the giddy pigs, their costumes and their houses.
Two freelance singers, Dorothy Compton and Mary Moder, provided the voices for The Fifer Pig and Fiddler Pig, while Pinto Colvig provided the voice for the Practical Pig. Moder recalled their session on Three Little Pigs as a simple one-day assignment, in between their other recording work. Both were paid ten dollars each for their days’ work. For the deep, gruff voice of the Big Bad Wolf, Colvig advised screen comedian Billy Bletcher, whom he knew from working as a gag writer at Mack Sennett’s studio, to audition for the role.
Bletcher already was a busy comic actor, starting at the Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn, moving over to the Vim Comedy Company in the teens, appearing in several of the Plump and Runt comedies, starring Oliver Hardy and Billy Ruge. For a brief period in 1920-21, he worked under the name Billy Fletcher, acting in short comedies such as Al Christie’s Gayety Comedies, Spotlight Comedies, Universal Comedies, Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, and Columbia Pictures, among many. Bletcher’s performance of the Big Bad Wolf led to many performances of different characters, especially animated villains, for Disney and other animation studios.
Animation for Three Little Pigs was underway by mid-February, 1933. Much of the scenes are handled by two of the studio’s strongest animators, Norm Ferguson and Dick Lundy. Newer, advanced artists Fred Moore and Art Babbitt animated much of the remainder. Jack King animates a few brief sequences of the Practical Pig sitting at his piano. For this cartoon, these animators are cast by character; Lundy and Moore are assigned sequences of the pigs, while Ferguson and Babbitt animated scenes of the Big Bad Wolf. (Moore animates a small number of scenes with the wolf, as well.)
Fred Moore, who started at the studio in August, 1930 at the age of 19, rose to prominence as an animator. He developed an integral attitude of the characters’ bodies as they followed through with the actions. “Squash-and-stretch,” as it became known, meant the volume, and the curved forms, of the pigs’ bodies remained consistent as they altered shape by the force of pulling or pushing.
Moore’s introductory scenes as the Fifer, Fiddler and Practical Pig attested to these new methods of flexibility in character animation. This impressed his fellow colleagues, and Walt Disney himself; it proved so influential that other animation studios proceeded to implement “squash-and-stretch,” rendering rubber-hose animation, begun in the late teens, almost archaic. However, studios such as Max Fleischer’s and Ub Iwerks’ still continued to utilize them to their unique styles.
Art Babbitt’s drawings/animation of the Big Bad Wolf appear more sinister and wolf-like than Ferguson’s. Having arrived from Paul Terry’s studio in New York a few months before, traces from his earlier animation hadn’t withdrawn— the Wolf bears some resemblance to villainous characters in the contemporary Terrytoons. As in Moore’s animation, Babbitt’s employed fundamental aspects towards the pigs’ bodies. In one sequence, the objects in the Practical Pig’s house have real weight— he struggles to lift up the lid of a pot and bring over a can of turpentine.
Burt Gillett, the director of Three Little Pigs, previously worked in almost all of the major New York animation studios throughout the late teens and 1920s. These included Barre-Bowers (run by Raoul Barre and Charley Bowers), International Film Service, Bray Studios, Max Fleischer, Associated Animators and Pat Sullivan before being hired by Disney on April 13, 1929.
Shortly after his arrival, Gillett became the main director of the Mickey Mouse cartoons. Disney and Ub Iwerks took on supervisory roles, as the staff and production schedule increased. He directed several Silly Symphonies after Iwerks left the studio, including the early Technicolor entries. According to some accounts, Gillett was an energetic director, using his entire body— even jumping from his desk down to the floor—to explain different actions to his animators, with a musical composer accompanying him on piano.
In the outline for Three Little Pigs, Disney suggested the film could be depicted as an operetta, with singing and rhyming dialogue. This, along with the musical score by composer Frank Churchill, each integrated successfully with the action. The score is underscored with Churchill’s original song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which is never played fully intact throughout the cartoon— it is often fragmented or obstructed by the narrative. Carl Stalling, Disney’s first musical composer, who suggested the notion of the Silly Symphonies, left Iwerks’ studio for a brief period, and returned to Disney as a freelance arranger and pianist. Stalling can be heard as the Practical Pig plays a mocking, dramatic piano vamp after each of the Wolf’s failed attempts to blow down his brick house.
Three Little Pigs premiered at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on May 27, 1933. It received a sensational public response as it was shown in neighborhood theaters, becoming the most phenomenal short cartoon of its time.
Some venues ran the film for such long runs that hand-drawn beards were added to marquees and one-sheet posters. Released during the middle of the Great Depression, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” became a national symbol for Americans to rally against the fear and threat of poverty.
The success of Disney’s first smash hit surprised him—customers in music stores clamored for sheet music of the song, but none had been prepared. Disney sent his musicians to the theater to copy the words and music from the screen to rectify these demands. The popularity of Pigs generated a large amount of merchandising, which included storybooks, figurines soap, watches, sand buckets, and sprinkling cans, among countless others. It became the first film to return a higher gross in merchandising royalties than its box office reception.
Three Little Pigs received the Academy Award for Best Animated Short.
Theater owners asked Disney if he would make another short with the Three Little Pigs; he reportedly answered, “You can’t top pigs with pigs.” However, three sequels were produced after: The Big Bad Wolf (1934), Three Little Wolves (1936), and The Practical Pig (1939).
Pigs inspired animators who arrived at Disney’s after its release; Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl and Marc Davis were among the few intrigued by the film when they saw it in theaters. Chuck Jones, an animator at Warners at the time, recalled in an interview during Pigs’ success: “Most of us felt that, there was Disney and here were the rest of us, just hacking away at the edges. We didn’t consider ourselves in the same league.”
In the wake of this cartoon’s success, Burt Gillett couldn’t create a suitable follow-up for the studio, which brought harsh criticism from Disney. The Van Beuren studio needed an upgrade in the quality of their cartoons, which were receiving tepid reviews—its distributor, RKO, sought box office appeal. Due to the popularity of Pigs, the studio induced Gillett to take charge of the operation. He left Disney’s by April, 1934.
Whatever success Pigs had in its release, social attitudes changed by the time the film was to be re-issued in the late ‘40s. The Hayes Office demanded the sequence where the Wolf is disguised as a Jewish door-to-door brush salesman, be revised to omit the stereotypical aspects of his voice and disguise. The first revision was made in September 1947, by director Jack Hannah, and kept the original dialogue track. Later, the soundtrack was also revised, with the Wolf’s second line of dialogue changed to, “I’m working my way through college.” Home video releases have different versions—the videocassette and laserdisc releases retain the original animation, but kept the revised dialogue track. The American DVD release of Walt Disney Treasures uses the revised version, with the alternate dialogue. (The European release of the same set uses the same version as the earlier home video copies.) The correct dialogue track from the original 1933 release, sourced from a CD compilation of Disney songs, is reinstated here in the breakdown video.
(Thanks to Mark Kausler, Michael Barrier, J.B. Kaufman and Steve Massa for their help.)