Every day during October, the Department of Tangents presents a different short film for the Daily Horror Film Fest. It can be flat-out scary, funny horror, or maybe even something that wasn’t meant to terrify a child but wound up doing so nonetheless. Today’s entry is a little different from the others. It’s a Porky Pig cartoon from 1936 called Fish Tales.
I chose to include this one because when I saw it as a kid, it scared the hell out of me. The premise is simple – Porky falls asleep in his boat while fishing and finds himself running (swimming? swim running?) for his life in the underwater world.
The first thing that unsettled me was what Porky Pig looked like. He was less stylized than the version I was used to seeing in the late 70s, when I would watch cartoons in the morning before school and, of course, on Saturday mornings. He looks closer to an actual pig. And there’s something about the movement in older cartoons, a slight hitch every so often that makes the whole thing seem that much less natural. And the faces are wild. It looks like everyone is just a little coked up.
And I had so many questions. Why are the words getting into the cans? Don’t they know what’s going to happen to them? My grandmother used to take us fishing. I knew the worms did not have a good time on fishing trips. Then Porky manages to sink a battleship full of people, and just keeps fishing. Porky is a potential mass murderer now, but it doesn’t keep him from just dropping his line and going about his day.
In this world, fish hunt, or I guess, fish or pig? In any case, they verb not for Porky’s flesh, but apparently for his spirit, using a vicious sentient doughnut. And the whole fish family is thrilled when dad brings Porky in to be get cooked, dangling him by his feet. Then he “de-scaled” Porky, not just taking off his shirt, but cutting it off like some deranged abuser in a Rob Zombie film. Then he’s peppered up, put in a pan, and shoved in the oven, alive and kicking. The flames literally dance, gleefully, around him. He fights his way out, completely naked, to get back to his boat. Anyone who is willing to, or forced to, fight naked is not in a good situation. Imagine how utterly terrifying this would be if you replaced Porky with a human.
To me, as a kid in the 70s, it was terrifying enough already. I know the joke, the simple role reversal. It’s what people (and Porky) do to fish, and turnabout is fair play. Maybe if you were a kid watching this at the height of the Great Depression, when fascists were taking over Europe and everyone was living hand to mouth, it might have seemed less severe, by comparison. But I was watching it while picking all the marshmallows out of my Lucky Charms before I had to run to the bus and be with other kids all day. We only had four channels, including the UHF station, so the other kids likely were watching the same thing. No one ever spoke of it. I understand why.
There are a few versions of this out there with different music and colorization. I’m presenting the original black and white and one of the colorized versions, but I’m not sure which one I saw as a kid. Enjoy. Sleep tight.
Black & White: