Dec. 11 – One Ham’s Family (1943)

Original release August 14, 1943

Tex Avery is one of the most influential animators in cartoon history. Beginning his career at Universal, he would make the jump to Warner Bros. when he famously convinced producer Leon Schlesinger he was an animation director when he actually had little or no experience at such. While working under Schlesinger, Avery was influential in creating many of the famous Looney Tunes stars and is credited with bestowing Bugs Bunny with his catchphrase, “What’s up, Doc?” Avery worked at the famous Termite Terrace until 1941 when a spat with Schlesinger over the ending to The Heckling Hare lead to his suspension from the studio and eventual departure. After a very brief stint with Paramount, Avery would resurface with MGM quickly becoming their lead director on cartoon shorts where he further cemented his legacy by assisting in the creation of other famous characters like Droopy Dog and the duo of George and Junior.

Avery was famous enough that he even had his own show on Cartoon Network spotlighting his work. The Tex Avery Show began airing in 1997, and in a pre-Adult Swim world, I recall catching it during the late night hours when Cartoon Network would air other Golden Age cartoons and lesser, forgotten, shows like Sealab 2020. The show would also pop up during morning blocks, specifically weekends, and it was an interesting program because it blended Avery’s work with both Warner and MGM since Cartoon Network’s parent company came to own it all.

It was during Avery’s time at MGM that he directed the short One Ham’s Family, a Christmas cartoon about a wolf trying to get into a house to eat a pig. One of Avery’s most famous character creations is the unnamed wolf from Red Hot Riding Hood famously depicted in The Mask, for you 90’s babies. The wolf here isn’t necessarily the same character, though he does look pretty similar. His design with an elongated face and curved posture makes him an ideal foil for an Avery cartoon as the director is probably most known for really playing with the animated form. Characters stretch and squish and make outlandish facial gestures when doing something like screaming or expressing pain. And having a wolf go after a pig makes this one basically an offshoot of The Three Little Pigs, an often revisited story by animators (including Avery himself).

This wolf was apparently too tired to go down the chimney and wind-up in the pot of turnips or whatever, but he will eventually go down the chimney!

The cartoon begins like it’s going to be yet another retelling of The Three Little Pigs. There’s a book motif going on with a narrator reciting the story, until he gets sped up and the screen just blasts on by the story and ends with the Big Bad Wolf trying to blow down the brick house. He’s out of breath and on the verge of giving up, but as a pig smiles at him from behind a big, wooden, door he vows to return and get in some how, even if it takes until Christmas! This is the cue for the passage of time, as we see the mailbox that reads Mr. Pig change to read Mr. and Mrs. Pig. As the seasons rapidly change further and snow covers the landscape, a second, little, mailbox sprouts up that reads “Jr.”

Looks like Papa Pig is enjoying the view.

Inside the home, Mama (Sara Berner) and Poppy Pig (Pinto Colvig, using the same voice he utilized previously for Practical Pig in the Silly Symphonies shorts based on The Three Little Pigs) are putting little Jr. (Kent Rogers) to bed on Christmas Eve. It’s his first Christmas, and Poppy Pig is explaining to his son how Santa Claus works while Mama lets her heaving bosom rest on the edge of the crib. This is the moment where I remind you that Tex Avery was also a fan of buxom women and apparently pigs qualify. Once their explainer is complete, the parents quickly jump into bed and commence with the snoring. Meanwhile, little Jr., who had sprouted a halo at the mere mention of being a good little boy for Santa, turns a dark red and the halo is replaced with horns. He moves over to the bedside of his parents and starts smacking a wash basin and fires a shotgun just to make sure his parents are sound asleep. Now, he informs us, he can go check out what this Santa business is all about. This is also setting up how Jr. is going to break the fourth wall over and over in this one.

I will say, he wears the suit well.

Jr. slides down an impossibly long banister given the outside dimensions of the house and comes to a screeching halt before he can crash into a vase placed at the end. He remarks how he has good brakes, then heads over to the fireplace (which must have about thirty stockings on it) to look for Santa. Outside, the wolf (credited to Rogers in some places, but he sure sounds like he’s voiced by Pinto Colvig to me) has returned and is peering through the window and admiring the hams on Jr.’s posterior. He’s drooling profusely and his tongue hangs out to reveal a welcome mat at the end of it as he’s clearly fantasizing about devouring this little pork loin. He then tiptoes towards a tree and disappears behind it, despite how thin it is, and then reappears dressed as Santa Claus. He ascends the house and plunges down the chimney.

A bit Grinch-like, wouldn’t you say? Well, technically, I should say the Grinch looks a bit wolf-like when doing the same.

Jr. is pretty elated to see Santa pop out of his fireplace, which takes on the appearance of an elevator. He assures the wolf in Santa’s clothing that he’s been a good boy and requests he be provided a present. The wolf Santa is happy to oblige and implores the young porker to look in his sack for his present. Jr. heads inside and the wolf quickly snaps the sack shut, tosses it over his shoulder, and tiptoes across the room towards the door. As he does so, I can’t help but wonder if this little piece of animation influenced Chuck Jones some 20 years later when it came time to animate the Grinch doing the same thing. Anyway, he tiptoes towards the door, and it’s actually Jr. who opens it for him and lets him out. He even acknowledges the kid before leaving because he’s your typical stupid antagonist. When the wolf gets outside, he opens the bag in hopes of finding a snack, but instead he finds a giant sucker while Jr. looks on from inside the home.

The “sucker” insult will occur multiple times in this one like it’s some sort of sick burn.

Pissed off, the wolf tares off the beard and coat and barrels through the door. Jr., with his bum now hanging out of his little jammies, turns and runs away by climbing up the Christmas tree. The wolf gives chase up the impossibly large tree only to find a sign placed at the top that reads, “You’re still a sucker!” The unmistakable sound of an axe striking a tree trunk can be heard, and of course Jr. is chopping down the tree with the wolf on top of it. He gives out a cry of, “Timber,” which is required in a cartoon, and the wolf plunges into a bunch of Christmas stuff and looks the part of a punch-drunk tree when all is said and done.

It’s a Christmas catastrophe!

The wolf comes to his senses and gives chase as Jr. races into the kitchen. There, he moves at an impossible speed as he prepares a pie of some kind (possibly pumpkin) and bakes it incredibly fast so that he’s able to meet the wolf’s face with it when he comes bursting into the room. He taunts the wolf by asking if he enjoyed the pie he baked all by himself, and then runs off leading to maybe my favorite gag of the short. The wolf, rather than give chase, pulls out a large butcher’s knife from a drawer and sharpens it on his tongue before tossing it. Jr, standing casually on the other side of the room, pulls out a large revolver which is enough to scare the sentient knife in mid-flight, causing it to turn around and dive back into the drawer instead.

This, I like.

The wolf is flabbergasted at the sight and decides to give chase, but Jr. apparently possesses the ability to teleport as he appears behind him, grabs his suspenders, and when they stretch out as the wolf runs he slips a vase inside them. The wolf spins around to see the vase coming right for him and ducks into his trousers to avoid it. He pops up and spits his tongue out at Jr, just as the vase rebounds in his suspenders and crashes into the back of his head sending him flying into the living room. Jr, casually leaning against the doorframe, informs the audience that he’s going to bang the wolf around all through this picture, which only has about 2 minutes left anyway.

I’m sure most saw this one coming.

The wolf comes to beside the front door just as someone starts knocking from the outside. He opens the door and it’s Jr. in an oversized postal worker hat informing the wolf he has a telegram for him. The wolf takes it and it reads: Dear Mr. Wolf, don’t look now – but your tail is on fire. Love, Jr. P.S. Sucker! The image stays on the screen long enough for most people to read it two or three times. The wolf then turns to look at his tail and it is indeed in flames. He screams and runs to the kitchen where he fills a bucket with water in-between his howls. As he goes to sit in the bucket, Jr. yanks it away and replaces it with a bucket of gasoline. Just as a contented expression crosses his face, the wolf explodes and crashes through the ceiling.

Jr. looks up at the wolf-shaped hole in the ceiling and then remarks that since he can’t heckle the wolf right now, he might as well heckle the audience. Because we’re apparently supposed to hate this character, he pulls out a large chalkboard and scratches an X onto it. It’s intended to be pretty annoying since the scratching chalkboard sound lasts nearly 10 full seconds. When he’s done, Jr. seems pretty satisfied with himself and proudly remarks, “Boy, I sure am a mean little kid!”

It is not recommended to kick an anvil.

The wolf then returns as he sneaks up behind Jr. His tail is wrapped in bandages, which is a rare example of cartoon continuity. His body coils around as he prepares to level Jr. with a giant, roundhouse, kick, but Jr. disappears under the chalkboard replacing himself with a staple of cartoon violence: the anvil. The wolf howls in pain after striking the anvil and we see an X-Ray image of his boot which reveals his foot has been crushed. It also reveals that his foot looks like a human one and it’s very similar to a shot in the Goofy short The Art of Skiing. I only mention this because the voice of Goofy is Pinto Colvig who is featured in this cartoon.

Vicious.

Jr. then confronts the wolf who is still in obvious pain. He tells him he has something for him, but he needs to guess which hand it’s in. The wolf picks the left one, which is a bad move since that’s the evil side and this kid is clearly evil, and sure enough a tiny mallet is revealed to be in Jr.’s left which immediately grows to cartoonish proportions. He smashes the wolf over the head with surprising vigor and then runs off into another room. The wolf recovers and gives chase armed with an axe and once he disappears into the room, Jr. pops out to tell the audience we can’t see what’s about to transpire in there because it would be too gruesome. The wolf’s hand emerges to grab Jr. by the tuft of red hair on his head and pulls him into the room as raucous sounds fill the air and items like pots and pans mingle with stars and come firing out of the darkness.

Now there’s an idyllic Christmas image.

This is finally enough noise to wake the parents and Mr. and Mrs. Pig race down the stairs to survey the carnage in their home. The camera pans across the destroyed Christmas display to find Jr. waving at his parents from across the room. He wishes them a merry Christmas, but it’s not a nice enough gesture to appease his mother who stomps over promising a beating. Jr. then yanks out a present for his mother, and this softens her mood. She unwraps it to find a brown, fur, coat which she happily puts on. As she models the garment, we see it features a bandaged wolf tail on the rear so we know where this came from. As Mr. Pig looks on holding Jr., mama Pig remarks that this is just what she needed. The wolf then appears and announces, “You and me both, sister!” He’s naked, but still wearing his Santa hat and boots, as he holds a towel to cover himself with one hand and snatches the coat with the other. He appears surprisingly happy as he dances out the door. It slams shut behind him revealing a sign that reads: Corny ending, isn’t it? Not really, but it’s an ending!

What’s he so happy about?

One Ham’s Family is a zany, violent, manic, cartoon short that features Christmas, though is fairly light on Christmas spirit. That’s not to say I’m arguing that it’s not a bonafide Christmas cartoon for it surely is, it just uses the holiday as a setup for the macabre to follow. Jr. is a bit of a screwball protagonist in the same vein as Bugs Bunny and early Daffy Duck. I read him as more sinister than either and he almost possesses supernatural abilities to avoid danger and harm beyond what his more famous predecessors can even attest to. There are a lot of clear cheats where Jr. just magically appears somewhere, which isn’t unusual for this style of cartoon, but it’s relied on a bit too heavily in this one to the point that it’s not really funny. Jr. is also intentionally unlikable, or at least it had to have been intentional, because he certainly does suck. It’s not unusual for the audience to root for the villain in some of these shorts, but I definitely can’t say I’ve ever felt for Bugs the same way I do about Jr. I would have been perfectly content to see him get some sort of comeuppance in the end and I feel like my feelings are justified, as opposed to how I sometimes feel about the Road Runner who really isn’t guilty of anything in his cartoons.

So how do we feel about sweet, innocent, Jr.?

In the Road Runner shorts, some of that feeling of rooting for the coyote comes from him being at least a touch sympathetic. After all, he’s a scrawny coyote who needs to eat something to survive and nature decrees it be a road runner. When it comes to the wolf in this short, I feel no such sympathy. He’s breaking and entering to try and eat a kid. He could have conceivably ignored Jr. and gone for the parents, though Jr. is so “powerful” that he probably would have foiled that as well. Unless he truly is evil and cares not for the wellbeing of his parents. Some of the gags utilized to inflict misery upon the wolf don’t read as particularly original, but some of that is made up for by the sheer violence with which that misery befalls the wolf. The mallet shot in particular is delivered with such force that it’s a touch surprising, while the gag with the gun and knife is just plain clever and amusing.

Ultimately, I feel like this short tries a bit too hard to be a signature Tex Avery-directed cartoon. It’s wacky and violent, but a lot of it feels conventional which probably isn’t aided by the framing device of The Three Little Pigs. It also feels like it’s forcing Jr. upon the audience as some sort of omniscient screwball and he’s force-fed a few too many fourth-wall-breaking lines in the process. Still, this style of Christmas cartoon is hard to come by, and since it’s only a little over 7 minutes in length it’s hardly a waste of time to check it out. And checking it out is both easy and difficult. Officially, this short appears to have received one, physical, release and it was a laserdisc of Avery cartoons. Because of that though, there’s no real oversight for the short online so it’s easily found with a simple Google search. It aired as part of the Tex Avery Show on Cartoon Network and Boomerang, so viewers had plenty of opportunities over the years to acquire a good copy. It’s not one of Avery’s best, but it also possesses some charm of its own.

I guess?

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