I am indebted to Jeet Heer, senior editor at The New Republic, because this essay grew from this post on Twitter:
I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea. I’m not enough of a historian to delve into the conversations that were going on in post-war America, but widen the lens a bit and provide a bit of context, not only relevant to the black experience but also the experience of many immigrants.
Trying to read messages into things can be tricky, and risks distorting the source material. I am always annoyed when someone cites the theory that The Wizard of Oz is a parable about William Jennings Bryan and the gold standard. That was an idea dreamt up in the 1960s by Henry Littlefield, a teacher and historian, as a classroom tool, and nothing more. Much to his and many other Oz fan’s dismay, it has been adopted as fact by…let’s call them the “less learned.” I don’t have any reason to suspect that Three Little Bops was meant as a story on black or immigrant experience, merely that parallels can be drawn. So let’s go:
In some ways the first change to the original story is the most important in terms of a possible underlying message: the wolf wants to join the pigs in their band. That change completely transforms the story, from one of predation to one of the overeager outsider, wanting hard to fit in. Yes, the wolf does some standard cartoon menacing – I think cartoon characters are issued sticks of dynamite as soon as they graduate from kindergarten – but all he wants is to be one of the guys. He’s an immigrant, or more broadly, a fanboy: inept, enthusiastic, clueless. The wolf’s bad trumpet playing is symbolic of his inability to fit in, his clumsy attempts at assimilation.
The pigs no longer offer a moral through their choices; they are undifferentiated (unless you count their hats) and generic. The wood/straw/brick triad is there only for laughs. In a way, there’s no need to connect this story to The 3 Little Pigs folktale at all. They and the wolf are drawn in a rounded, older style, whereas the patrons at the venues where the Bops play are more angular, more in keeping with the 1950s style of backgrounds. And while we’re there: the patrons are human, whereas the primary characters are animals. Sometimes, in real life, the only way certain people – a black person, in some cases a Jew – could get into a club was if they were onstage. The House of Bricks club is clearly labelled “No Wolves Allowed.” By 1956, when this cartoon was in production, some racial barriers were beginning to fall – the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a pivotal event of that year. It wasn’t always safe for performers, either: Nat “King” Cole was attacked onstage while performing in Birmingham, Alabama in April, 1956, but in November NBC gave him his own television show.
Do I have to mention that the wolf is brown and the pigs are white? You noticed that already, I hope. But, then, Mickey Mouse is black. There is the danger of overinterpretation – which is the real theme of this post.
Movies had begun dealing more directly with social issues, albeit slowly. UPA produced Brotherhood of Man (1946), which not only presented a message of tolerance for all people (based on the pamphlet “Races of Mankind” by Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish), but did so through ground-breaking, stylized design. Twentieth Century-Fox released one of the best known such films, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), which dealt with anti-Semitism. Dory Schary advocated for “message pictures,” and, as head of MGM from 1951-56, brought more social commentary to the studio.Animated films, even at UPA, only sporadically tackled social issues, and usually lightly.
As I wrote earlier, I’m not convinced that sermonizing was the intent of writer Warren Foster or director Friz Freleng. The emphasis is not sharp enough for satire, and the ending is too weak – perhaps because there were no clear endings in real life to draw on. Let me stretch a bit. The wolf dies, but his spirit lives on to complement the band. Perhaps as black performers were gradually marginalized in the growing field of rock-n-roll, with pioneers like Louis Jordan eclipsed by white performers like Elvis. A few hung on, but others survived as influences, ghosts. No, this might be stretching a point too far, and the cartoon makes no attempt to offer a moral. “You have to get real hot to be real cool” is catchy but is nothing more than a gag.
I wish I could conclude this with some sort of tribute to the cartoon, but instead I’ll give you a confession: I don’t like Three Little Bops all that much. The jokes feel a bit tired; the music, by Shorty Rogers (and, according to this site, Stan Freberg) is slightly repetitive in that 1950s rock fashion; the discontinuity between design styles is jarring. Rogers was a more inventive musician than the film allows. There are some nice backgrounds, and Stan Freberg’s lyrics and voice acting are good for a laugh or two. I can’t help but wonder what a more consistent design sense, or a real jazz score, might have brought to it. Warner Brothers was not at its peak by the late 1950s – Three Little Bops was released in January, 1957 – and some of the cracks were starting to show.
The cartoon is a favorite with a lot of people, and I won’t begrudge them that – hey, I’m glad when anyone enjoys a piece of animation. Animation is the cinematic medium (is that the right term?) with the greatest potential, and I think we’ve only scratched the surface in the last hundred years or so. Through animation we can entertain, educate, reshape reality in its physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects. That’s all folks? That will never be all.