Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Non-Nominated Highlight: You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940)

So last week we talked about the 1940 Oscar race which was between two MGM films and a Warner Bros. film, with MGM's The Milky Way coming out on top. Previously, I had covered that year's Oscar race as part of the History of Animation class whose responses I used during the prior hiatus from November through February. The question asked about why Disney was not nominated, and one of the reasons was that because the other studios were putting out films that eclipsed that of Disney after Disney ended the Silly Symphonies. In it I specifically cited four films from the other two major animation studios, MGM and Warner Bros. Three of those four films were the ones nominated for the Oscar and that I wrote about in my review last week. And yet the best of all four films may very well the one that was left off the final ballot: Warner Bros.'s self-referential classic You Ought to Be in Pictures.

Early pieces of animation sometimes showed the animated characters interacting with the live action world. Usually it's as simple as the animator drawing the figure that comes to life, as was the case of Emile Cohl's Fantasmagorie. Max Fleischer took the concept to the next level with his Out of the Inkwell series that feature the animated Koko the Clown prancing along in the live action as well as animated worlds. Disney got his start in California with the Alice comedies featuring a live action girl interacting in an animated world that still had scenes of animated characters in live action sequences. And in 1940, Warner Bros. came out with the pinnacle film combining live action with animation in the pre Roger Rabbit era.

Porky Pig was the reigning star of the Termite Terrace animation studio in Warner Bros., much to the displeasure of his co-star Daffy Duck. One day while the animators were at lunch, Daffy convinces Porky to go up to Warner Bros. animation head Leon Schlesinger to rip up his contract. Porky reluctantly does so, but finds that it's harder to break into live action than Daffy made it out to be. First of all the security guard at the main studio refuses to let him in, and when he finally gets into the studio he gets thrown out for creating a fracas. While all this is going on Daffy is trying to convince Leon to get Porky's old spot. What is poor Porky to do? Is Daffy going to get his way?

You Ought to Be in Pictures is most notable today for being a great example of self-referential humor. The idea of a cartoon character leaving his contract is a very extreme example, and having the film set in the live action world is a nice touch. The interesting thing is that the film was directed by Friz Freleng, the famous Termite Terrace director who actually left Warner Bros. from 1937-1939 to work in MGM for more money. Unfortunately he found himself working on the ill-fated Captain and the Kids films, and went back to Warner Bros. as soon as his contract ended. His journey as a prodigal son of sorts closely mirrors that of Porky Pig. Of course, Freleng probably didn't have the Daffy Duck character to push him towards the decision. This film was an important milestone in the development of Daffy's character, turning him from the screwball character in his early appearances to the intensely ambitious, vain, and jealous character that would be his most defining character trait under Chuck Jones in the 1950s.

The animation combining live action with animation is well done, as there are virtually no purely animated sequences unlike in some of the earlier works. It's true that many of the animated shots are done against static live action background so animators can just use the same static shot to animate, thereby saving costs. (Of course, you also get outdoor shots of Porky with trees in the background that were completely still.) Still, there are a few shots with moving live action background, such as Porky shaking hands with Leon Schlesinger. The integration is done very well. It may not be at the same level of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but you do have to consider that this film predates Roger Rabbit by almost 50 years. The film is also notable for some of its cameos. Leon Schlesinger makes his only on-screen appearance alongside over 500 films produced and is the only character to voice himself. (Everybody else was dubbed by Mel Blanc.) Other notable appearances include storyman Michael Maltese as the security guard and animator Gerry Chiniquy, who played the director.

Sadly, You Ought to Be in Pictures was left out of the Best Animated Short race from that year. It may have had too much live action to qualify. It may have been left off the submission list by Warner Bros. Or it may have been included and just not appreciated by the Academy. Whatever the reason, it did not have a chance to claim the first win in this category not by a Disney film. But when Jerry Beck polled 1,000 industry professionals to come up with the list of 50 greatest animated shorts, You Ought to Be in Pictures came in at 34, the only film from 1940 to make the list.  You Ought to Be in Pictures is a great but largely forgotten Warner Bros. film with an excellent story and backed that up with excellent animation special effects. The interesting thing is that Daffy eventually did eclipse Porky in popularity, as Porky wound up playing straight man or sidekick to the out-of-control Daffy in films like Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, but they were all secondary to Bugs Bunny.

Anyways, here is the film, courtesy of

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