Because Walter Lantz was a producer and director of the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons at Universal, it served as a reminder that he was still yoked professionally to a 1920s carry-over from Walt Disney. In order to diversify the studio portfolio he introduced a new character, Pooch the Pup, in summer 1932. This series with Pooch was released concurrently with Oswald, at roughly an equal rate, meaning that for more than a year the distribution of The Lucky Rabbit cartoons was cut in half.
Pooch the Pup never really found his groove. He seemed interchangeable with Oswald, lacking a strong personal identity. Lantz even seemed to be tilting the tables in favor of Pooch, pushing for him to break out as a new cartoon star. For instance, the runtime for a Pooch cartoon in 1933 generally exceeded an Oswald cartoon by as much as a minute, likely used as a selling point to theater owners to imply that it was a better value.
Among my favorites from the short-lived series is the Christmas cartoon Merry Dog, which certainly has the feel of a Depression-era cartoon. It has a grim and aggressive tone that ratchets up in the climax, with more gallows humor than one expects in a holiday short. And, considering its official release date (slightly post-Christmas) on January 2, 1933, there was indeed plenty of fright in the air.
This was the worst low of the Great Depression, a period when 44 out of every 100 banks had failed, creating a ripple effect of bank panics. A quarter of Americans lost their jobs and global trade faltered as nations increasingly raised tariffs against each other. The world financial crisis led to the rise of tyrants. This was the same month that Hitler came to power in Germany.
So it seems almost fitting to watch such a cautionary Christmas cartoon, seeing within it the zeitgeist of 1933. As Pooch the Pup rides behind Santa’s sleigh in an opening number, a junkyard wolf looks at them with a predacious leer. Perhaps the lively pep of this intro would bring some holiday cheer to any gloom-be-gone moviegoer. Santa and his reindeer perform “Jingle Bells” and then Pooch follows with a jazzy scat rendition. However, the wolf sees in their good tidings the prospect of some easy victims and follows them home.
Pooch and his girlfriend share kisses next to their candlelit Christmas tree and he reads to her from “The Night Before Christmas.” As the wolf prowls the exterior of the home, the door repels him and the welcome mat flips itself over, revealing a message on the underside: “SCRAM”.
A subplot develops after Pooch reads the line, “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Immediately a mouse pops out of a hole to protest the indignation, and soon the housecat and the resident mice are at odds. I have wondered if the follow-up gag might be an in-joke. The mice ride a car fast out of the mousehole and circle around the cat, firing a tommy gun at it like they’re Chicago gangsters.
Walter Lantz was a car aficionado, and even something of a gearhead and daredevil in his younger days. Back East he owned and raced fast cars at raceways in New York State. However, he had given that up for his more serious career in cartoons. While at Universal he no longer drove around full-throttle in a roadster, but he did buy himself a classy new Auburn coupe to ride on to the studio lot each day.
Looking at the miniature car that appears around 3:50 in Merry Dog, it surely does look like a vintage Auburn with its distinct shape, running boards and whitewall tires. If I had to guess, I might even pin it as a 1932 Auburn 8-100 Sedan. This strikes me as just the sort of thing the animators would do to have a laugh with their boss, giving Lantz’s car its own cameo appearance in the cartoon.
By the end of the film, the wolf has even tied up Santa on the roof and takes his sack, suit and beard, then comes down the chimney to devour Pooch the Pup and his lady love. A toy-soldier army that springs into action from under the Christmas tree is really the only thing that saves them, repelling the wolf under a fusillade of gunfire and various clever attacks.
Santa Claus finally frees himself from his ropes up on the rooftop. He leaps down the chimney and when he confronts the wolf, he hits him with a punch so hard that it knocks the wolf all the way back to the City Dump. If only the world in 1933 could have been saved from its inexorable march toward war by some jolly hero like that. That, of course, is the poignant subtext of historical accounts that analyze and interpret the most popular and consequential cartoon of the year.
When Walt Disney released Three Little Pigs five months later on May 27, it was a box office sensation to a degree that was unusual for a short subject. Much is made of the fact that Fifer, Fiddler, and Practical Pig had strong, individuating personalities or that the song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” was so catchy, but on some deeper level the cartoon was a catharsis and an inspiration to many Americans.
Millions of average citizens had metaphorical straw homes that a Big Bad Wolf had blown away during the Depression. Probably they yearned for someone who could lead them to a safe place and then vanquish the wolf at their door. The song became an anthem for the era and the cartoon was a wish-fulfillment fable, a cartoon that offered some levity and hope to so many amid the despair.
One thing I never hear mentioned is the similarity between these two contemporaneous cartoons, Universal’s Merry Dog and Disney’s Three Little Pigs. Both start with a few characters singing a catchy jingle. Then the happy animals draw the attention of a wolf. Both cartoons have an early ‘welcome mat’ gag, with characters then retreating to avoid being eaten. In both, the wolf slides down a chimney in the climax and is finally beaten back by a hero figure.
Pinto Colvig was a writer on the Disney cartoon—as well as the voice of Practical Pig—and he had worked for Lantz as recently as a year before production began on Merry Dog, which is enough to prompt some reasonable speculation. Of course there were shared jokes that were “coin of the realm” at the studios, but is it possible that this largely forgotten Pooch the Pup cartoon offered some impetus or some ideas that made their way into the classic Three Little Pigs? Staff across both studios would still be friends, socializing after hours and likely chatting about their work, if not just remaining creatively simpatico.
On Comet, On Cupid! On Fifer and Fiddler! Was Pooch an influence on those pigs? If Pooch somehow jingled those bells and forged a path out in front of a Disney classic, loosely guiding the sleigh right ahead of the most anthemic cartoon of the Great Depression, then wouldn’t that be an achievement to sing about? At the very least, Merry Dog deserves a place as a notable companion to Three Little Pigs (and also Confidence). It is certainly watchable and it will put a macabre spin on your yuletide cheer.
When the Wolf says, “Want a slay ride?” you may be reminded how Christmas is supposed to be a sanctuary in bleak times, offering a vision of hope even when the world tilts toward war and the actions of men prove disheartening. Since this film is trapped in the amber of time, it gives us the chance to see exactly how Hollywood tried to make ‘em laugh at the movies in 1933 in the face of breadlines and bank runs.
Yet Merry Dog has a most curious and contrarian ending. The wolf may be gone and beaten, but the cartoon’s other predator serves up a whole different dish. The cat, chasing mice for the whole picture, finally pulls himself out of the mousehole and we see that he is plumped and fat, his body gorged on all the little rodents he has eaten. It ain’t always a Hollywood ending for the little guy! Have a Merry Christmas and enjoy The Merry Dog.
This cartoon has appeared before in Cartoon Research, from a 2014 Tommy Stathes “Christmas Frolics” post announcing a screening in Brooklyn in which this Pooch the Pup film was shown in 16mm. The Sunray Films transfer seen here was uploaded by Milton Knight.