Released on May 27th, 1933, the short film was such a hit with audiences that some theaters held it over for weeks after it was scheduled to run (in fact, some theaters drew beards on the characters’ faces on the poster, to illustrate how long it was playing).
Additionally, Three Little Pigs gave the country a song that provided hope during the difficult Depression, and the short has become one of Walt Disney and animation’s most iconic films.
Ninety years later, the impact of this eight-minute film still resonates.
The famous fable dates back to the 1840s and was first suggested as the basis of a “Silly Symphony” by Walt’s wife, Lillian, and her sister, Hazel Sewell (head of the ink and paint department at the Studio).
The Disney story team removed the fable’s darker elements focusing on the titular characters, the Fifer Pig, who plays the flute; the Fiddler Pig, who fiddles the day away; and the Practical Pig, who is focused on building a sturdy house of brick to protect him when the Wolf comes to the door.
And, the Big Bad Wolf (one of Disney’s first indelible villains) does arrive, huffing and puffing at the houses of straw and stick built by the Fifer and Fiddler Pig. He does indeed blow them both down, and they seek refuge at the brick house of the Practical Pig.
The Wolf tries to huff and puff here but to no avail. He then attempts to come down the chimney but slides into a boiling pot, shooting back up the chimney and leaving the Pigs victorious and safe inside the sturdy house.
Directed by the legendary Burt Gillett, with animation by other legends Norm Ferguson, Dick Lundy, Fred Moore, and Art Babbit, Three Little Pigs crafted indelible personalities for its main characters that not only connected with audiences but also made others in the animation industry take notice.
In his book, Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, author Charles Solomon writes about the reaction from another legend of the medium, who was working at a competing Studio:
“’I’m not sure I saw Three Little Pigs right away,’ comments Warners cartoon director Chuck Jones. ‘But when I did see it, I realized something was happening there that hadn’t happened before. During the twenties, all you needed in animation was action, and a good character just had to look pretty. ‘Three Pigs’ changed that by proving it wasn’t how a character looked but how he moved that determined his personality. All we animators were dealing with after ‘Three Pigs’ was acting.’”
This concept of animated characters who were acting wasn’t all about Three Little Pigs that audiences enjoyed. The film’s song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” written by composer Frank Churchill and story man Ted Sears was such a hit it became an anthem during the Depression, at a time when everyone felt “the Wolf,” in so many ways, was at their door.
In Three Little Pigs, the song is sung by Mary Moder and Dorothy Compton, who voiced Fiddler and Fifer Pig respectively. Also adding their voices to the short are two Disney stalwarts who would contribute to other famous Disney characters: Pinto Colving (the voice of Goofy, and later several of the Dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and Billy Bletcher (also the voice of Pete) as The Big Bad Wolf
The short was not without its controversy. A scene featuring the Wolf as a caricature of a Jewish peddler attempting to get into the pigs’ houses was removed when the short was re-issued in 1948. The sequence was changed to feature the Wolf as a less ethnic Fuller Brush Salesman.
Despite this, Three Little Pigs was and remained popular through the years. Walt and his studio spent $22,000 to produce it, and it grossed $250,000 at the box office. It also won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.
So popular was Three Little Pigs that the Disney Studio produced three sequels: The Big Bad Wolf (1934), Three Little Wolves (1936), and The Practical Pig (1939). When none of them matched the original’s success, it led to one of Walt’s most famous remarks: “You can’t top pigs with pigs.”
The Pigs also appeared via clever reuse of animation in a war bond selling short, for The National Film Board of Canada, The Thirfty Pig (1941). To see that film, click here.
While pigs couldn’t top pigs, they did top so much else, and nine decades later, Three Little Pigs remains one of the most popular short films of all time, as well as a milestone in Disney and animation history.
The short’s ability to create a memorable story and personalities laid the groundwork for Walt Disney and other studios to craft animated shorts and features that would continue to connect with audiences as never before.
Three Little Pigs really blew the house in.
Devon Baxter did a masterful Animation Breakdown of this classic short here, in 2016. Click Here.