It was into this world that Pluto evolved. He was the brainchild of Disney animator Norm Ferguson, and Ferguson’s first great success at Disney. The master of broad staging and comic facial expression, Ferguson would later draw several of Disney’s most indelible characters—the Big Bad Wolf in The Three Little Pigs, the hag witch in Snow White and Gideon the cat in Pinocchio. Sharp-eyed Plutologists who watch early Pluto shorts like Just Dogs (1932) and Mickey’s Pal Pluto (1933) can, in fact, see in Pluto’s furrowed eyebrows, leering glances and wicked grins the harbingers for several of the Wolfs and Witch’s most famous routines.
Ferguson first brought Pluto into the world as a zealous Bloodhound in a 1930 Mickey Mouse short called The Chain Gang, and the dog soon became, along with Minnie, the Mouse’s most important sidekick. But Pluto was at his best when left to his own devices. The sad truth is that Mickey was a rather dull-witted dog owner. Well-meaning but unobservant and excruciatingly paternalistic, Mickey never seemed to know how to play with Pluto or give him opportunities to show his stuff. Pluto truly shone only when he was by himself, a solo act tangling with the inanimate.
The textbook classic came in Playful Pluto (1934), where he is stuck to a piece of flypaper and we get to see all the ways he assesses his predicament. In Mickey’s Grand Opera (1936), he is even funnier, playing off a magician’s hat that keeps spewing out rabbits, doves and flowers. And then, in a sequence in Bone Trouble (1940) worthy of Harpo Marx, Pluto contemplates himself in a funhouse hall of mirrors.
It cannot be said that Pluto inspired many imitators. He was never as popular as Donald Duck or even Goofy, but in the world of the cartoon short, he became the definitive Disney dog. The great canine alternative didn’t appear until 10 years later, a product of the Second World War.
Tex Avery’s Droopy was less a reaction to Pluto than a reconceptualization of how a dog could be funny. A sad-eyed Basset with the shock of red hair and long dishrag ears, Droopy was as improbable a cartoon hero as an IRS accountant. Dog lovers are already indebted to Avery for his Bulldogs. They were comic villains, it is true, but villains who set the gold standard for canine menace. They gave new meaning to delight as they terrorized cats and canaries. Anyone who has heard the Bulldog in Bad Luck Blackie go into his mellow chuckle as he contemplates the extermination of a precious kitty or seen him as big as Godzilla in King Size Canary has felt the delight of guilt-free thuggery.
But Droopy was infinitely stranger. There was something otherworldly about him: Dog as fate. He was the relentless, Kafkaesque tracker who, seemingly without effort, knew where you were going before you stepped it down. Underlying the bored deadpan delivery and his direct-to-audience asides (“Hello, all you happy taxpayers.”), Droopy had a tenacity unrivaled in cartoon shorts. Unlike Pluto, he arrived fully formed in his first and arguably best cartoon, Dumb-Hounded (1943), where the formula was set. Droopy was the Tortoise who beat the Hare—in this case Woolfie, the drooling con artist on the lam. Woolfie races all over the planet to escape the police, only to find Droopy inevitably waiting.
Droopy was always more a cult figure than superstar, and he held the fort for cartoon dogs tired of being man’s best friend and the perennial eager beavers. If Pluto became the first superstar recognizable as a dog, Droopy gave dogs license to be as inscrutable and finicky as any cat, and much smarter.