Russell Merritt, PhD, is adjunct professor of film studies at University of California, Berkeley; among his research interests are silent film, animation, and Disney's 1930s work.
Canine animation 101
We need to be dogmatic here.
Jean-Luc Godard once said that any discussion of cinema must begin with D.W. Griffith. Good enough. Any article on the animated dog must start with Pluto.
He was the gentle pup who started a revolution. For film historians, he’s remembered as a breakthrough in character animation, the first cartoon personality actually to register thoughts and share inner feelings. But for dog partisans, he is (or should be) the canonical cartoon canine, the first animated character to move and breathe like an actual dog.
During Pluto’s long heyday in the 1930s and early 1940s, he redefined the way cartoon animals could be portrayed. His famous predecessors, whether Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, were never meant to represent actual creatures. Their behavior and situational gags had nothing to do with the way mice, cats or rabbits actually behaved. But Pluto not only moved like a dog—four paws on the ground, his only sounds barks and growls, his main preoccupations sniffing, scratching and exploring—he actually seemed to think and react like a dog.
To watch Pluto battle a magnetized plate in Donald and Pluto or contemplate a gaggle of chicks in Pluto’s Quinpuplets is to see an animal go from dumb curiosity and mild surprise to anger and panic, and to understand all the while what is going on in the dog’s head.
Even more than that, Pluto made the cartoon world safe for dogs. Before Pluto, dogs kept getting the short end of the brush. In a feline-friendly world led by Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat and all their many clones, then turned upside down by Mickey Mouse and all his imitators, the animated dog was the stigmatized Other—doomed to play either the bullying villain or the bland two-legged sidekick when he wasn’t banished to bit parts as a nondescript member of the barnyard repertory company. As a personality, the canine ranked somewhere between the cow, the pig and the horse.
Not that animators didn’t try to make him a star. As early as 1928, with the arrival of talkies and Mickey Mouse mania, rival studios recognized that they needed strong characters to compete, and turned to dogs as a logical alternative to the overused celebrity cat of the silent era. So, for instance, the Fleischer studio, already famous for Koko the Clown, decided to upgrade Koko’s sidekick Bimbo, a generic cartoon puppy, and star him in a series of his own. Nothing worked. Then Fleischer started over with another kind of dog—a sexy French poodle with long ears, huge dewlap jowls and canine teeth that were joined to the bosomy body of a femme fatale. Damned odd and damned ugly. Only when Fleischer animator Grim Natwick started losing the dog parts, turning the ears into earrings, making the mouth girlish and giving her a button nose did a classic emerge: animation’s first bombshell, Betty Boop.
If anything, the dog trials at Disney got even weirder. In the wake of Mickey’s stardom, the studio had been creating friends to flesh out Mickey’s barnyard universe. And in 1932, they experimented with a cartoon hound named Dippy Dawg. Dippy started as a country hick buried under whiskers and spectacles who ate peanuts and laughed a distinctive hiccup guffaw. Weak and (except for the laugh) nondescript as a dog, Dippy was eventually redesigned by master animator Art Babbitt, who worked from a more compelling model: Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.
Jo-Jo was a famous Barnum and Bailey circus freak attraction whose keepers thought he looked like a Basset. And, as historian Mark Langer was the first to notice, Dippy became a Jo-Jo caricature. He acquired Jo-Jo’s two widely spaced buck teeth, his harelip and his hang-drop jaw, which, combined with ex-circus clown Pinto Colvig’s chortling voice, turned him into a bashful, guffawing dimwit. Thus emerged Goofy: Dog as sideshow mutant.
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.
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.
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