Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Plutopia Part 2

There's always been a streak of outrageousness in animation. It goes back at least as far as the 1920's, when N.Y. animators from different studios collaborated on a porno cartoon called Buried Treasure that screened at a testimonial dinner for Winsor McCay. In the early talkie period, before the Hays Code clamped down, there was no shortage of sex gags, ethnic gags and gay gags in cartoons.

Once the Hays Code kicked in around 1934, all Hollywood movies including cartoons got tamer. Sex was particularly taboo. While there were performers with gay personas like Franklin Pangborn, their gayness was portrayed as fussiness and affectation. It was out of the question that they could interact with other men on a romantic or sexual basis.

Under the Hays Code, animated lust turned into exhuberance. Avery's wolf is the best example of this. The gags were built on visual variations of arousal, but consummation was out of the question. It's doubtful that Avery could have gotten away with even this except that there was a war on and the Hays office loosened up for the sake of national morale.

After the war, things got even tamer than before. Racial caricatures pretty much disappeared except for Speedy Gonzales. Bugs Bunny cross dressed, but that was done to showcase his antagonist's stupidity or neediness. Avery moved from sex to other topics.

The Disney studio's position was probably tamer than most. While there were some sexy girls in Disney films in the 1940's (Sluefoot Sue in Pecos Bill; the girl in Duck Pimples; Donald chasing live girls in The Three Caballeros), by the '50's it was back to classic stories and talking animals.

So where did Plutopia come from? And how did it escape without anybody seeming to notice? If you're not familiar with this cartoon (and I hate to spoil it for you), in Pluto's dream the cat is portrayed as a gay masochist who gets off when Pluto bites his tail. Pluto is happy to oblige as he's rewarded with bones (the phallic imagery is inescapable). Pluto and the cat are both receiving the oral gratification they crave.

Was the Hays office asleep at the switch? They never would have let a live actor portray masochism in anything other than a film set in an asylum. Did Walt Disney understand what this cartoon was really about? And where did the idea come from? It's completely atypical in Charles Nichols' directing career. It doesn't appear that there was anybody new on the crew who might be responsible.

Was it the result of somebody's repressed life surfacing or did somebody decide to see how much they could get away with? How much did Jim Backus, the voice of the cat, add to the characterization? And was the crew laughing hysterically while they made this cartoon or did they just not get it?

What about animation fans? While they search out pre-code cartoons from Fleischer, Iwerks, Harman-Ising and Van Beuren for their outrageousness, pine for the WB censored 11, and dream of John K. cartoons created without censorship, do they realize what's in Plutopia and that it's available in a pristine copy?

Maybe it's because nobody pays attention to Pluto. That's the only answer I can offer for how this cartoon got out in the first place and for how little attention it gets. But I sure wish I knew who dreamed this one up and how they got it into production.


Kevin Langley said...

The first time I saw this cartoon I was surprised by the cat's reaction to getting bit by Pluto. I couldn't believe this was a Disney cartoon. Thanks for breaking this one down.

Anonymous said...

What the ...?

Anonymous said...

I worked at Disney in the fifties, and in my opinion these things went over Walt's head. He simply didn't get it.

And yes, we did discribe Franklin Pangborn as "fussy."

Phil ROD said...

LOL i can't believe they did that.

Anonymous said...

My guess is, given Disney's reputation, the Hays censors weren't really paying particularly close attention to sexual imagry coming from one of the studio's cartoons (now if MGM had submitted the same cartoon involving a dog and cat that was directed by Avery, the censors might have had their editing pencils and scissors out as fast as possible).

Thad said...

"Bite me... Bite me... BITE ME!"

This one totally took me by surprise when I bought the MM in Living Color Vol. 2 set.

Raunchiness seemed to be seaming its way at Disney later than other studios. The Goofys of the time period are full of innuendous gags (Goofy tearing up his sex lesson after hearing the boys tell a dirty joke in "Teachers are People"; The fact that Goofy's wife is having an affair going over his pointed head in "Father's Day Off"). "Peter Pan" 'stumbles' with prepubescent themes.

... Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it. Now 'scuse me while I bite my cat's tail...

- Thad

Anonymous said...

Or maybe this is all just a symptom of a tendency to read much more into these things than anyone ever intended.

Anonymous said...

Jack said...

"Or maybe this is all just a symptom of a tendency to read much more into these things than anyone ever intended."

When correctly viewed,
Everything is lewd.
I could tell you things about Peter Pan ! And the Wizard of Oz - there's a dirty old man!

- Tom Lehrer "Smut" from his album "That Was the Week That Was" .

Anonymous said...

Any chance of this short getting posted on any of these blogs in its entirety?

Mark Mayerson said...

As this short is available legally for purchase and rental, I think posting it would be a very bad idea. I have no desire to tangle with Disney's lawyers. Instead, I think you should find yourself a legal copy.

Disney has been one of the better studios for making their short cartoons available. We need to applaud that and encourage people to buy/rent their product rather than bootleg it.

Thad said...

Yeah, buy the MM in Living Color Vol. 2 DVD! It's still available and has a lot of great shorts on it, like "Symphony Hour" (my favorite Disney cartoon), "Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip", "Little Whirlwind", and "Plutopia".

On the other hand, it also has the Anti-Christ, "Mickey and the Seal"...

- Thad

Nancy said...

Red Riding hood, a flapper in a short dress, meets a Wolf in a top hat and clawhammer coat. He's driving a big car and doesn't want her cookies. Red outwits the Wolf and steals his car, driving off at the film's end.

Tex Avery cartoon? No, DISNEY! (and it was largely animated by Walt himself.)

This was Disney's first animated fairy tale, LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD (1923.)It is excerpted for only a few seconds in the DISNEY RARITIES timeline. You can see Red and the Wolf with his car (he's a man who's called the Wolf, not the animal, but the intention is obvious. Red is also about nine years old, not the nubile beauty of the Avery cartoons.) I was able to see this short several times (the Studio ran it for us and I know the man who found the sole surviving print in a London garage sale.

The short is actually still funny despite too much time being devoted to Julius the cat and a bunch of cycles.

Was Disney naive? I don't believe this for a minute. What I do believe is that he and his studio were young men, full of beans and interested in girls (and Mickey's attitude in those black and white cartoons is a bit vulgar. He has a fixation with her panties and she sometimes has to slap him.)

As the men aged and raised families their attitudes became more conservative. The 'sexy' stuff in Forties Disney cartoons is, I think, the artists' response to Tex Avery's work--they were of course aware of it and wanted to to something similar. DUCK PIMPLES could be seen as their answer to WHO KILLED WHO and RED HOT RIDING HOOD.

Ward Kimball was shocked when Disney insisted that Pecos Bill's guns fire when Sluefoot Sue kissed him. Kimball insisted Walt could not have known what 'get your gun off' meant. I did not work with Walt, but I do not believe the man was an ignoramus. He knew precisely what it meant; it was the characters that made it Okay. You didn't do that sort of gag with Mickey Mouse but it was okay for Pecos Bill and Sluefoot Sue.

Anonymous said...

You expect a 20 year old to walk into a store and pick up a Disney DVD/video? No way! Post it up!

...just kidding. :)

Thad, were you bitten by a seal as a kid or something?

Anonymous said...

I think Thad dislikes MICKEY AND THE SEAL for the same reasons I do. It symbolizes several post-classic Disney short cartoon tendencies at their worst.
• The story crew is forever in love with Pluto, apparently because to them he symbolizes a watershed in pantomime personality animation. They love him so much that they'll let him walk off with the lion's share of the footage in cartoons that nominally belong to Mickey or Donald, who are capable of being far more interesting characters and end up wasted under the circumstances. It might not be so bad if Pluto was given something really original to do in their stead; but instead it's just the same schtick of fighting with a smaller, supposedly cuter (but actually rather annoying) animal. Again and again and again.
• The post-classic Mickey is borderline schizophrenic. He's a cute, bashful naif 50% of the time and then a tyrannical, unfair parent to Pluto the rest of the time. Did anyone at Disney even realize what a disservice they were doing to their star character? The two sides of this personality are unpleasant enough on their own; but when you combine them, the sweetness becomes insincere in light of the bad parenting, and the bad parenting looks like an ill-thought-out release of unexplainable angst. If it had been done on purpose it might be easier to forgive. But no, it's just sloppy, which makes it even worse. "Ha-ha! Gosh!" Ick.
• Somehow, Walt Disney Consumer Products long ago decided that MICKEY AND THE SEAL was "marketer-friendly" like no other cartoon, seemingly because it includes (A) the fully-dressed postwar Mickey that Consumer Products was then pimping; (B) Mickey portrayed in a parental role, its unpleasantness notwithstanding; and (C) a story about befriending a cute animal. Thus MICKEY AND THE SEAL is the only vintage Mickey cartoon to have seen a heavily advertised theatrical rerelease in modern times; it's one of fewer than five vintage cartoons to be included in a HOUSE OF MOUSE episode; and it's been released on home video more than any other Mickey cartoon. In one 1998 VHS compilation, it was plugged in as a last-minute replacement for RUNAWAY BRAIN when the latter was deemed "too scary." Is it any wonder we're sick of it?
Oh, and...
• MICKEY AND THE SEAL led to a rule in the Standard Characters style guide that Mickey must wear gloves at all times, even in the tub -- entirely because he does so in the overexposed MICKEY AND THE SEAL. Other vintage cartoons and comics do nothing so ludicrous, but nobody working on the style guide had seen them. But you can't avoid MICKEY AND THE SEAL.

Kevin W. Martinez said...

I have to wholeheartedly agree with Anonymous' analysis on Mickey and the Seal.

And the subejct of Mickey and the Seal, I Think the fact that it was nominated for an Oscar is a great example of how an Academy Award nod is totally irrelevant when gouging a short's quality or artistic merit.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I happen to like Mikey and the Seal and as for this silly "I hate this cartoon" some people just think humor "should" be the only trait in a cartoon (anti-Crist, my foot).

Yeldarb86 said...

I've seen Plutopia many times from my early childhood, and it IS different from the Pluto/Mickey toons they were making at the time.

But I NEVER saw any sexual undertones here at all. All I've seen was a dog dreaming of a world where everything works in his favor, because his real-world trip weighs the law down on dogs for some reason. Only in such a dream would a cat ENJOY getting mauled by a dog.

Other than its questionable Oscar nomination (Did those guys have poor taste when it came to animation?), Mickey and the Seal, in contrast, is indistinguishible from the other Mickey/Pluto shorts of the time.

Anonymous said...

I have a copy of the final draft from Peter Pan and Fergie did the scenes of Nana. If you can get a copy of Harry Tytle's book, "one of Walt's boys." He kept a diary throughout his years at Disney and by this time every cartoon at Disney's was ARI'd at various stages of production. The poor rating that Plutopia and other shorts by the same director got in the ARI's more or less got him the sack! Harry also mentions that by this time Fred Moore and Fergie were expensive animators, with alot of their stuff having to be fixed or trimmed down because they'd animated far more than was needed. Animating 300ft in some cases.