BOOTLEG FILES 531: “The Isle of Pingo Pongo” (1938 animated short directed by Tex Avery).
LAST SEEN: The film is on several online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: One of the infamous “Censored 11” Warner Bros. cartoons.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
The recent controversy surrounding comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling kicked off another storm about racist attitudes in today’s America. However, there was a time – back when Donald Sterling was a kid, to be precise – when the nation was not interested in having a conversation on race. And thanks in large part to the film industry, negative attitudes against racial minorities were served up under the guise of entertainment.
In some ways, Hollywood was an equal opportunity offender: the endless repeating of horrible stereotypes about Asians, American Indians, Mexicans and Arabs persisted in films for decades. But the targeting of African-Americans was particularly vituperative – it often seemed that filmmakers were too eager to go out of their way to thoroughly dehumanize this demographic.
Typical of these efforts was a 1938 Warner Bros. cartoon titled “The Isle of Pingo Pongo.” Today, the film is recalled primarily for two reasons: it is among the so-called “Censored 11” Warner Bros. cartoons that have been kept out of television and home entertainment release because of racially-tinged content and it is one of the earlier efforts by legendary animation director Tex Avery. The film’s place among the Censored 11 is easy to understand. But the Avery connection is rather sad, because it is one of the great filmmaker’s lesser works.
“The Isle of Pingo Pongo” is a parody of travelogue shorts that were common in film exhibitions in the years prior to television. In this case, the film offers viewers the chance to cruise the oceans for an odyssey to a South Seas island rich with mysterious fauna and flora.
Avery uses this travelogue format as an excuse to unreel a skein of zany and surreal gags. The film gets off to a promising start, with the cruise ship “Queen Minnie” (a riff on the then-popular ship Queen Mary) from the “Half Dollar Lines” leaving New York City in search of adventure. New York’s harbor is so badly overcrowded with nautical commotion that the Statue of Liberty doubles as a traffic cop.
The film then indulges in corny (but not funny) sight gags about the various ports of call along the way. We see the Canary Islands (a tiny speck of land where all of the inhabitants are caged birds), the Sandwich Islands (which is occupied by a gigantic hot dog – the soundtrack includes a dog’s bark) and the Thousand Islands (consisting of a massive jar of salad dressing). One tiny island is home to Egghead, a Warner Bros. character that served as a quasi-forerunner of Elmer Fudd – he is holding a violin case and eagerly looks into the camera while asking the off-screen narrator, “Now, boss?” The narrator tells Egghead, “No, not now!” This is repeated several times in the short, with Egghead becoming more agitated with each inquiry and the narrator becoming slightly more frustrated with his persistent questioning.
At Pingo Pongo, the cruise ship comes into dock and one of the passengers indulges in a tradition of tossing a coin overboard for the natives to retrieve from the waters. But when the coin goes overboard, the passengers eagerly dive after it. Hey, the Great Depression was still lingering and this joke offered a cruel reminder on the value of the smallest of coins.
The short then offers an overview of the island’s wildlife. We see a hummingbird (he stands around on a leaf, humming to himself), a mocking bird (he offers a sarcastic echo to the narrator’s dialogue) and a baby canary calling his mother (in a ridiculously oversized scream, of course). A drunken elephant turns up – British film historian Steven Hartley says that the elephant’s demeanor and speech is a riff on comic actor Tony Labriola, who served as a sidekick to funnyman Ken Murray on the latter’s radio program.
The film attempts to show Pingo Pongo’s speedy gazelles, but the animals are too fast to be seen. When the narrator asks a gazelle to slow down, the creature stops, looks at the camera, gets up on its hind-legs and does a playful vamp routine to show off its feminine body. A polar bear and Eskimo also turn up – they explain their unlikely tropical appearance by claiming that they are on vacation.
Except for a two-second glimpse of a Pingo Pongo native at the coin-toss joke, the film is absent of racial humor up until now. At this point, sadly, things get out of hand. The island’s natives are depicted in egregious minstrel show-style caricatures, with oversized lips, extra-large feet and misshapen heads. Most of the men have bones on their head, though one has a derby and smokes a cigar.
A few gags that are offered are mildly funny, if one can overlook the depiction of the natives. In one segment, a spear-carrying native chases a pair of deer into the bushes. A loud fight occurs in the bushes, and the deer emerge carrying the native tied to his spear. Elsewhere, the narrator tells us that we have “come upon a group of native musicians beating out the savage rhythm that let us all primitive as the jungle itself.” The scowling natives bang on their oversized drums, and then abruptly stand up and join in a hillbilly-style rendition of “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain.” One native opens a coconut with a can opener, others indulge in a jazzy rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and there is even an irrelevant bit of horse racing newsreel footage thrown in (the narrator expresses bewilderment at its inclusion).
By the end of the short, the narrator informs us that the sun is starting to set in the western sky. When it appears that the sun is not moving in response to the narration, Egghead emerges and eagerly asks, “Now, boss?” The narrator finally relents and Egghead removes a rifle from his violin case and shoots at the sun, causing the fiery sky orb to deflate and sink below the horizon.
In the realm of Tex Avery, “The Isle of Pingo Pongo” is nothing special. The travelogue-inspired jokes are, at best, mild – though too many of them are flat. And beyond the problematic racial humor, there is also the matter of Egghead, an Avery creation that turned up in a number of Warner Bros. cartoons in the late 1930s. I have no clue why Avery thought Egghead was funny – the character is charmless (and was often just plain obnoxious in other cartoons), and his morphing into the less strident Elmer Fudd helped to improve the comic caliber of the Warner Bros. output.
“The Isle of Pingo Pongo” was theatrically released in 1938 and re-released under Warner Bros. Blue Ribbon series in 1944. This film, along with the other Censored 11 shorts, was withdrawn from TV circulation in 1968. There has never been an official home entertainment release of this title, although it has turned up on bootleg videos. But Warner Bros. has been diligent in chasing online bootleggers. At the moment, the film is not available on YouTube (at least not under its title – I am sure some clever searcher will find it on that site). However, a few minor sites offer video copies for curious viewers with Donald Sterling-style senses of humor.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!