With Frankenstein, in 1931, an instant icon was created. The film’s extraordinary Monster was quickly adopted by animation studios as imminently caricaturable, his impossible flat head, neck bolts, dead man’s stare and morbid mobility used as shorthand for all that is otherworldly and menacing.
By the time Porky’s Movie Mystery was released in March 1939, the writers and artists at Leon Schlesinger’s studio, producing animated shorts for Warner Brothers, had already featured The Monster as a Karloffian menace in Porky’s Road Race (1937) and as an improbable Hollywood star in Have You Got Any Castles? (1938). He would appear again, as a frightening robot, in Sniffles and the Bookworm, in December ‘39. In Porky’s Movie Mystery, interestingly, The Monster plays against type.
As the cartoon opens, a newspaper headline announces that movie villains (curiously misspelled on screen) are being quizzed over mysterious goings-on in Hollywood. A chained Frankenstein Monster is grilled by a tough-talking cop. Despite his sporting a row of pointy teeth and enormous, hairy and clawed hands, this Monster is terrified, gnawing his fingernails by running them through his mouth like a typewriter carriage, complete with the sound of a return bell. I wonder how the joke plays today. How old do you have to be to remember typewriters, or to have ever heard a typewriter bell?
The sequence is quickly over, the policeman barking, “Come clean, you blankity-blank monster! Are you The Phantom?” The Phantom in question is glimpsed as a cackling, cloaked figure who, according to a radio bulletin by “Walter Windshield” is “haunting studios in Hollywood, panicking actors, ruining pictures and creating havoc in the film capital!”
Borrowing again from Universal pictures, the mysterious figure is soon revealed to be… The Invisible Man! “They starred me in one picture,” he complains. “Then dropped me!”
Expert help is needed, and the police call on “Mr. Motto” — Porky Pig in Oriental guise — this time lampooning the detective character, Mr. Moto, played by Peter Lorre at 20th Century Fox. Confronting The Phantom, Porky is pinned to a wall and, just as he is about to be hacked with an axe, he pulls out and consults his Ju-Jitsu manual. In the ensuing fight, The Phantom is knocked out, sprayed with “anti-invisible juice” and revealed to be… Well, you’ll have to watch it yourself and see if you can identify the character. The problem with topical humor is that it rarely outlives its specific time frame.
Porky’s Movie Mystery is pretty pedestrian, nowhere near as imaginative and explosively funny as so many of the other Warner cartoons that came out of the run-down bungalow known as Termite Terrace. There’s only one really ingenious gag, a nice visual achieved when the Invisible Man hides by standing in front of movie poster, dressing a swimsuit beauty with the hat, gloves and shoes that he is wearing. Otherwise, the script by Robert Gee is thin on jokes and the action is unmemorable.
Head animator John Carey would move on to comic books, where he made his name drawing Warner, Disney and Hanna-Barbera characters. Producer Robert “Bob” Clampett, who originally designed the Porky Pig character, enjoyed an illustrious if sometimes controversial career in animation, supervising some of Warner’s most crazily inspired cartoons through the Forties and eventually creating Beanie and Cecil for early television in both puppet and animated versions.
Porky’s Movie Mystery may have drawn a few chuckles when it was new, but it hasn’t held up very well. Its last, enduring distinction is a cool cameo by the Frankenstein Monster.
Watch Porky’s Movie Mystery on YouTube.