Monday, October 21, 2019

The Heckling Hare: "Cartoon Man Walks Out"

Release date: 7/5/41 (according to BCDB); 7/12/41 (according to Michael Barrier's Hollywood Cartoons)

DVD/BR AVAILABILITY: Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 2; as a part of the film What's Up, Doc? A Salute to Bugs Bunny, Pt.1 on LTGC Vol. 3; Looney Tunes Spotlight Collection Vol. 8  (all Warners Home Video DVDs)

You may view a crisp correct-ratio print of this cartoon HERE. The screen grabs are provided by our great pal Devon Baxter, and make this frequency of posting possible. Please check out and support Devon's Patreon page. He's doing superb work in determining who did what in these classic cartoons, where the film credits usually bely the artists who worked on them.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Hollywood Steps Out and les films maudits of '41

Release date: 5/24/41 (according to BCDB); the version we have is the edited Blue Ribbon reissue of 10/2/48

DVD/BR AVAILABILITY: Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 2LT Platinum Collection, Vol. 2; LT Spotlight Collection Vol. 2 (all Warners Home Video DVDs)

You may view a crisp correct-ratio print of this cartoon HERE. The screen grabs are provided by our great pal Devon Baxter, and make this frequency of posting possible. 

<><><><><><><><>

Tex Avery's remaining Warner Brothers cartoons often suffer from tampering or the presence of another director's hand. Some were cartoons left unfinished when Avery parted ways with Leon Schlesinger; others had cuts demanded by the front office.

Hollywood Steps Out is an example of how certain cartoons were altered for their reissue--in this case, seven years after its director had moved on to M-G-M. In this window of time, a war was fought, times changed and some celebrities lost their mass appeal; others matured and no longer resembled their caricatured selves. As wartime gags were scissored from post-war reissues, cultural references that no longer made sense got 86d. None of this mattered to the average moviegoer. The cartoon was not the reason they came to the theater. 

Bundled with other short subjects and coming attractions, they were the prelude to the main features--extras that, if missed, weren't a problem for most viewers. Cartoons came and went; some became word-of-mouth favorites and the good ones built a gradual fan-base that blossomed in the age of television.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Avery's Final Black-and-White Cartoon: The Massive In-Joke of Porky's Preview

Release date: 4/19/41 (according to BCDB)

DVD/BR AVAILABILITY: Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 5 (DVD); Porky Pig 101 (both from Warners Home Video)

You may view a crisp correct-ratio print of this cartoon HERE. The screen grabs are provided by our great pal Devon Baxter, and make this frequency of posting possible. Thank you, Devon, for this and all the great work you do in exploring and documenting animation history.

<><><><><><><><>

Black-and-white theatrical animation was dying off in 1941. Warner Brothers, Terrytoons and Paramount dropped their monochrome series by 1943, in the wake of Disney going all-color in 1935. The Screen Gems studios hung onto the less costly process through 1946, giving messed-up anti-classics like Kongo-Roo and Giddy-Yapping an additional layer of WTF.

Porky's Preview is significant as Tex Avery's final black-and-white effort (barring the aborted Speaking of Animals series for Paramount and his commercials of the 1950s). As with Famous Studios' last monochrome, Cartoons Ain't Human (1943), it's a cartoon about making a cartoon, with faux-primitive artwork. (The Famous film fares worse at creating "bad" animation, and cuts from Popeye's home-made cartoon to its real-life projection, as if to assure the audience that it's okay to see this stuff.)

In both cartoons, the arguable opportunity lost is that the "bad" artwork must still be professional-looking. The squiggles and naive drawing of Jack Mendelsohn's Jackys Diary, which was successfully translated to animation in the 1960s, or the UPA cartoon Baby Boogie (1955), were not feasible in the '40s, to judge from these two similar cartoons. The stick figure drawings are still slick and professional-looking, which somewhat dampens their intended humor. The animation is minimalist,  but it's the obvious work of skilled craftsmen who know what they're doing. Both cartoons would work much better with lumpen, scraggly animation, but it wasn't in the cards for either studio. Higher-ups and exhibitors might have complained (and not gotten the essential idea of either film). 

These are compromised cartoons to the modern eye, and much uglier, more carelessly primitive animation has since appeared on TV and the Internet, which further waters down their impact. 

Porky's Preview is narratively slight and gentler than usual for Avery. It may have been devised as a cheater cartoon, from the viewpoint of Avery and his team. Though there is a degree of nuanced movement in these stick-figures (which, at times, resemble the more stylized figures of a mid-'30s Van Beuren cartoon), the animation was likely easier to accomplish, and the simplicity of the film may have kept it under budget. If this spate of black and white films was an attempt to economize, such streamlined animation and minimal backgrounds did the trick.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Tortoise Beats Hare: Protagonist Loses; Shreds Opening Credits

Release date: 3/15/1941

Available on Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 2 (WHV DVD); Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 2 (WHV BR)

You may download a copy of the cartoon HERE.

<><><><>

The second Bugs Bunny cartoon under the Avery aegis, Tortoise Beats Hare adds another influential ripple to animation: the notion that the hero can be a loser. Or, more precisely. that the protagonist (who is also an antagonist) is prone to a different outcome than we're used to in conventional storytelling. It furthers the strong impression that Bugs Bunny is a compelling individual.

Another animation historian noted (and I paraphrase) that Bugs is the one animated character most of us would enjoy hanging out with. He is smart, world-wise, has a great sense of humor and never wants for amusement in life. If he heckles his adversaries, it's more to enlighten them of their lack of self-awareness and smarts. Bugs could be doing anything, but since he's a cartoon animal, he makes do with the options of this painted and penciled world, and enjoys his existence. Mickey Mouse is a cipher; Bugs has a genuine personality.

Characters such as Donald Duck and Andy Panda had frustration scenarios built into their series. Donald's screen persona is wholly based on vexing outcomes to simple tasks and the aggravation this brings him. But neither character is one you'd care to pal around with. (Andy Panda's passive-aggressive hostility might be a bit much to contend with for long.)

This winner-as-loser concept could be misused, as in the Famous Studios Popeye short Wood Peckin' (1943), which shows how tiresome this routine can become if not handled with finesse. The Warners cartoon directors and writers learned that Bugs had to maintain his cool and shrug off events that would ruffle other animated characters. He could not be another limb-flailing kook. Once they understood that basic truth, Bugs' character became the unflustered being we recognize as the "classic" version.

Other Schlesinger studio directors would further Bugs' persona through the 1940s, in alliance with Mel Blanc's voicing, which defines the character alongside his personality traits. The Bugs of this film is still larval. He looks less like the Bugs we know and love than in his prior film A Wild Hare. Some of the animation here looks like character designs from the Friz Freleng unit (who created a nadir of the early character in Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt later in this year).

Tortoise Beats Hare has one of Avery's most alarming and innovative openings. Still-frame captures can't do it justice. Its effect is a culmination of Avery's direction, Carl Stallings' musical score, Mel Blanc's vocal and the combined might of the animation, ink and paint and background departments. The effect remains shocking and fresh. Avery returned to this set-up in his M-G-M cartoons, but the shock of the new renders this maiden voyage the best of them all.

Bugs struts stage-left into the title frame. Chewing on his characteristic carrot, he almost doesn't notice the credits.

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Crackpot Quail: A Repressed Razz-berry and a Screwball Experiment

Release date: 2/15/41 (according to BCDB)

This cartoon is in the public domain, and has no official DVD or BR release. It may be on some PD releases, but I don't know of any specific discs. Despite its PD status, it was quasi-remastered in the 1990s and shows up on Boomerang.

You may view a crisp Boomerang-sourced print of this cartoon HERE.

<><><><><><><><>

Fred Avery's time at the Leon Schlesinger studio was growing short. By the final months of 1940, he had made significant innovations to studio animation: faster pace and timing, breaking the fourth wall in a more intimate way, harder-hitting humor (much of it sourced from radio shows, movies and other popular culture of the day) and the development of the screwball character. Add to that Avery's debut of the topical spot-gag cartoon, which used deliberately corny humor as a weapon, and, via a sardonic narrator, bridged the experience between filmmaker and spectator, and his body of work is as game-changing as the Walt Disney studio's.

Having recently crested with the impeccable A Wild Hare, Avery had no further heights to reach with Schlesinger. His cartoons of the 1941 season maintain a high technical quality. The worst ones have some nugget to be be mined later in his career (e.g. the hair-in-projector-gate gag of Aviation Vacation). Avery was ready and willing for a more rewarding berth in the world of animation. He would reach that goal by 1941's end, after a brief stint at Paramount, with M-G-M--the glossiest movie factory in Tinseltown. Known for their frothy musicals, "important" big-budget literary adaptations and costume dramas, feather-light comedies and their early championing of movie franchises (Calling Dr. Kildare!!!), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer first released Ub Iwerks' Flip the Frog cartoons and then lured Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising from the early Warners animation studio.

M-G-M cartoons didn't shake the Harman-Ising influence til the mid-'40s. Though the mawkish sentiment went out the window first, the lush, ponderous animation techniques weighed these cartoons down--including Hanna and Barbera's popular "Tom and Jerry" series. Harman and Ising weren't all slush. Swing Wedding, released in 1937, was more frenzied than anything Avery had yet done.

A revival of their WB Bosko series, with the main character now clearly an adorable li'l stereotyped African-American tot, had a non-PC but amusing run of films in which the star, assigned to take fresh-baked cookies to his grandmother's house, runs afoul of larcenous frogs who want, need, lust for and covet those cookies, which must have been incredibly tasty.

Avery-esque exaggeration in The Lonesome Stranger (1940)
Once it was evident that cutesy cartoons were out of vogue, Harman and Ising tried to make their films funnier. faster-paced and harder-edged. Such comedy wasn't in their DNA, and the results sometimes feel like someone's grandparents trying to be hip. There's a valiant spirit of chaos in such films as The Alley Cat and The Lonesome Stranger, even when the antics are overdone and confounded by the elaborate visuals.

To become faster and funnier, animation had to shed its layers of storybook detail and old European visual influence. A spartan playing field with crisp, expressive characters was ground zero for Hollywood cartoons by the mid-'40s. This would be Avery's most lasting influence as a filmmaker.

At 1940's end, Avery wasn't there yet--no one was. Most of the moldy-fig stylings of the 1930s were gone from the work of Avery, Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett, with Chuck Jones soon to follow, once he realized he was capable of making his audience laugh instead of ooh and aah. 1941 is an important but troubled year for the Warners cartoons. All the units are at a turning point; Avery is at a crossroads. After delivering a masterpiece with Wild Hare, and having perfected the spot-gag format with Cross Country Detours, what was left for him but to repeat himself?

It can't have been a comfortable place for him. He pushed forward. There are a handful of high-quality cartoons yet to come in his Schlesinger period. But there are films that aren't worthy of him, and films that he made not from inspiration but because he had to. 

From an appendix to the MPAA Production Code
Avery began to run into trouble with the front office at this time. The Crackpot Quail is the first instance. In its original form (a print exists in the UCLA archives) the quail's "whistle" was originally a "razz-berry" (or farting) noise. I consulted with the eminent animation and popular culture historian Jerry Beck, who confirmed the existence of the UCLA print, and that it did have the "razz" throughout.

Here's where a stack of inter-office memos would be welcome, but they're all buried somewhere in the California desert. The razzberry--as gesture and sound effect--was banned by the Hays Code. (It was deemed a no-no by 1930, although Hollywood ignored this earlier edict and went on razzing.)

This was the streetwise vulgarity, so recently rife in movies, that Hollywood wanted out of his product. Warner Brothers was among the studios hardest-hit by the Code. They had a reputation for being earthy, coarse and snappy, and to their credit, they did figure out ways to sustain that style post-Code.

Anyone making animated cartoons in 1940 would have known the sound effect was taboo. Watch a string of cartoons from, say, 1932 to 1936 and you'll notice its sudden demise as part of a concerted effort to make animation cuter, cuddlier and more puerile. This was, in part, an influence of Walt Disney's films (which were already smoothing over their rowdy edges during the early years of the Depression). It also shows how the Code curtailed the vitality of studio cartoons.

Avery was a revolutionary agent in the return of rowdiness to the animated film. His success by 1940 was evident in all studios getting faster-paced, more topical and rough-and-tumble and making asides to the audience. Avery, the Che Guevara of animation, hit a wall with The Crackpot Quail.

The cartoon was rejected by the Hays office. "The print at UCLA could be Warners' first answer print," Beck told me. "It's otherwise a mystery as to why it exists." Before the cartoon could find general release, every instance of the "razz" had to be redubbed with a new, Code-friendly sound. This was an expensive folly for Avery--one that likely didn't sit well with Leon Schlesinger and the front office.

Why would a film-maker who had been in the business through the transition to the Code, and had over 50 films to his credit, commit such a reckless and potentially career-damaging move? We can only guess. Something happened to spur this behavior, which will rise up again a few films from now.

Its backstory aside, The Crackpot Quail is an average-quality work--leagues above the abyss of The Haunted Mouse, which may or may not have preceded this film in production (both cartoons shared the release date of February 15). Loaded with handsome animation by Robert McKimson, Virgil Ross and other Avery unit stalwarts, it's visually pleasant and has a few prime moments.

We start with an idealized image of doghood, then truck back to show its relationship to the cartoon's reality:
The owner of these lofty expectations is Willoughby. Voiced by the director, Will is not a paragon of pointer-hood, but this anonymous billboard image inspires an attempt at self-improvement.
(after a deep sigh)
"Heh heh... oh... boy... heh heh...that's the--that's the life.... I'm gonna be a pointer an' catch me a quail!"
"...and I will, too!"
The dullness of the 1939/1940 animation style is just about gone here. Warner Brothers cartoons will not look fully beautiful until 1943's season, but the worst of the symmetrical moldy fig designs and contours are gone. At M-G-M, Avery will eventually iron out all superfluous details to his character designs and stress a clean, streamlined chassis--figures that could move faster, since they had less detail to weigh them down on-screen. Willoughby has heft, wrinkles, tufts and is handsomely put together. He is fun to watch and fun to hear, thanks to Avery's stellar voice work.
Willoughby model sheet from this cartoon

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Haunted Mouse: Return to Monochrome Has Mixed Results for Avery Unit (with guest commentator Devon Baxter)

Release date: 2/15/1941 (according to BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: none


You may view or download the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

<><><><><><><><><><>

A big thank-you to Devon Baxter, Cartoon Research columnist and budding film restoration person, who kept on me to finally get this post, started far too long ago, finished. His comments pepper this look at a troubled production.

1941 begins with the Avery unit's first black and white cartoon since 1937's Porky's Garden. In this period, all of Leon Schlesinger's directors took turns making monochrome Looney Tunes.

This was apparently to help the studio meet its release requirements for the year. As well, less Technicolor footage lowered the outlay of money. Most of these '41 cartoons are in the public domain. When they came up for copyright renewal, the powers-that-were possibly passed on the trouble. What could black and white cartoons do for them in the late 1960s?

There are some fine cartoons in this batch. Friz Freleng helmed some high-quality Porky Pig episodes. As my friend Thad K. has noted, they're substantially better than the late black and whites of Bob Clampett, who let Porky become a mindless figurehead. Freleng's black and whites are highly amusing and well-made.

These would be the only black-and-white cartoons of Chuck Jones' directorial career. He made a few outstanding Looney Tunes, including Joe Glow the Firefly and some Porkys. Avery served a hitch in the Looney Tunes trenches, and had been away from the series since 1937. His two B&W shorts of '41 gave us the transcendental Porky's Preview and this beautifully animated, problematic one-shot.

The Haunted Mouse is a failure as a cartoon; a fatal flaw in its storyline, plus unsympathetic characters, leads nowhere. This isn't the first time Avery has made do with a sub-par storyline. It's a surprise to see Michael Maltese's name as storyman. His scenarios for Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones are among the most solid of the mature-period WB cartoons. Maltese's scenarios are usually bullet-proof. This cartoon seems like an experiment--doing something without insurance of its success. Such risks could be better taken in a lower-budget black and white cartoon.

Cancer treatment and this guy (at left) have kept me pre-occupied. I'm in the middle of restoring Cecil Jensen's classic absurdist comic strip Elmo, which I intend to self-publish by the end of this year.

I am on the home-stretch of this blog project. It makes sense to finish it. When I decided to examine each one of Tex Avery's Warner Brothers cartoons--to establish some kind of critical exploration of a neglected and mis-judged body of films--I knew there would be some rough going. It's more pleasurable to write about films I admire and consider successful. But we learn from mistakes--our own and others'--and there is value in examining why something doesn't work.

With the sound off, The Haunted Mouse is a thing of beauty. Lush, atmospheric backgrounds and nuanced animation from such talents as Robert McKimson, Virgil Ross and Rod Scribner are state-of-the-art 1940 work. We do miss Carl Stalling's moody score if we omit the audio track--an essential component of these cartoons.

We'll go through it with sight and sound, warts and all. Ready?

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Steinbeck Literary and Screen Classic Inspires Black Comedy; Of Fox and Hounds Celebrates the Dark Comedy of Short-Term Memory

Release date: 12/7/1940 (according to BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: none


You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

If you would like to see a nice print of Lewis Milestone's 1939 film (discussed in-depth here), click HERE to download it. Thanks to Devon Baxter for supplying this unusually nice version of a film lost in PD limbo.

<><><><><><><><><><>

The Avery unit's last cartoon of 1940 was inspired by the 1939 Hal Roach-produced film of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Directed by Lewis Milestone, who helmed films as dissimilar as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Ocean's 11 (1960), the movie, for its pastoral settings, is a fore-runner to the film noir sensibility. Its main characters, George and Lennie, are pre-destined to suffering, trouble and tragedy. They first appear in Milestone's version two steps ahead of a lynch mob, running for their lives and hopping a freight train to temporarily escape death.

Lon Chaney, Jr. and Burgess Meredith in roles of a lifetime
We next see them aboard a bus, and the characters and their relationship are deftly established. George Milton (played by Burgess Meredith) is a confident, world-weary know-it-all. Had his life circumstances been better, George might have been a wheeler-dealer. Instead, he's an itenerant laborer saddled with Lennie Small (Lon Chaney, in a breakout role that should have led to bigger things, but never really did).

Lennie was described by a junior high school classmate, c. 1975, as a "ree-tard." He was sent to the principal's office for this outburst, which was too much by '70s standards [altho' racial and cultural epithets were still alive and well in American pop culture] and, I presume, chastened for this statement.

Lennie has issues; due to a traumatic head injury, he lacks the ability to reason and remember. He's eerily reminiscent of a person with Alzheimer's. Save a few strong memories, Lennie can't hang onto to any event for more than a few minutes. We see him have a distressing moment. He reaches in his front shirt pocket for his work permit, can't find it, and panics. Easygoing George reassures him; he's got both their permits. Would he, for a minute, entrust Lennie with such an important slip of paper?

George and Lennie are 86d from the bus by a vexed driver (played, uncredited, by Eddie Dunn, a veteran actor and a familiar face from Hollywood Westerns and occasional classic films like The Great Dictator and The Bank Dick) and face a 10-mile walk, under the merciless California desert sun, to the ranch where they'll strain their bodies hoisting bags of grain in exchange for three hots and a cot.

They decide to camp out in a wooded area. There, George forces Lennie to hand over a dead bird, which he heaves away in disgust. Lennie likes to pet small animals--it obviously calms his general sense of ill-being. George complains about having had to take away a dead mouse a few days earlier.

After their meal of canned beans, Lennie exhorts George to repeat a favorite fantasy: that, someday, the two of them will settle down, and be well-off. They'll have a small farm of their own, and Lennie will have the job of taking care of the rabbits. "Tell me about the rabbits, George," Chaney's Lennie says, with all the hope in the world showing in his glazed, innocent eyes.