Friday, September 25, 2015

Believe it or Else: The Spot-Gag Syndrome

Release date: 6/3/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:

You may view this cartoon HERE.

We now enter a troubling period of Mr. Avery's cartoon career. For the next three years, he and his unit will hopscotch between inspired, sometimes-brilliant narrative comedies and topical spot-gag revues.

Many of the latter have not aged well. The best of them (Detouring America and Cross Country Detours) transcend the format's limits with solid comedy and formal experimentation. Too many of the spot-gag pictures are simply lazy work. It's not a matter of elderly gags and worn-out punchlines--it's a lack of dedication that makes these cartoons among the lowest points of Tex Avery's career.

He still had great passion and enthusiasm in his work--as seen in nearly all the non-spot gag cartoons from here on. The shifts from these cartoons--such as our last study, Thugs with Dirty Mugs--to the largely mediocre spot-gag entries is jarring.

Why Avery chose to do these pictures is obvious: they were easy. Having spent himself on a cartoon like Thugs or A Wild Hare (1940), these spot-gaggers were a way to recharge his batteries while keeping product on-schedule. None of the directors at Leon Schlesinger's studio had time to stop and reflect. A set number of cartoons had to be delivered to theaters in every year's schedule.

The format was an innovation of the Avery unit, and perhaps they felt close to it. With most of these cartoons, the best one can hope for are islands of inspiration in a dull grey sea.

A familiar-yet-unidentifiable* voice greets us, in a soft impression of the panel cartoonist Robert Ripley. Ripley began to make live-action short subjects in 1930. You can see the first one HERE.

Faux-Ripley promises highlights of "many odd and interesting facts from around the world." He encounters an immediate critic:
Elmerhead is more Fudd than Egg at this point. Avery abandoned him as a narrative protagonist after 1938's Johnny Smith and Poker-Huntas. In his growing obsolescence, he, as in A Day at the Zoo, is little more than a straw man. He has little reason to be on-screen.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Thugs With Dirty Mugs: An Avery Masterpiece-- And a Staggering Strangulation of the Gangster Genre

Release date: 5/6/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:
 Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. Three (WHV)

You may view this cartoon HERE. (Warning--the volume control on Critical Commons videos is hidden--it's on the right side of the screen. It only appears if your mouse/finger lingers over it. Take a moment to find the volume slider:this one is LOUD!)

A stellar example of what the Fred Avery unit could produce, when inspiration and skill intersected, this cartoon is one of the director's early masterpieces. It's also a study in economy, with sequences that avoid animation and thus allow its new footage to shine with special effects and expressive, elaborate draftsmanship.

A parody of Warner Brothers' genre-defining gangster and crime movies--a staple of the late-Depression movie-going experience--was a solid idea. By spring of 1939, audiences had viewed over a decade's worth of talkie crime movies. Warners had a big one coming in the fall of 1939--The Roaring Twenties, which co-starred established James Cagney and brink-of-stardom Humphrey Bogart.

Some of these films, like Rouben Mamoulian's City Streets and Edward L. Cahn's Afraid To Talk, are impressive, moody and still of great interest. Much of the Warners/First National efforts are solid entertainments, although given to formula by the middle of the 1930s.

Long story short: this genre demanded a meta-spoof, and Avery gave it to his audience. From music to montage to atmosphere, Thugs With Dirty Mugs is both an effective satire of the gangster film and a formal romp through the biases of Hollywood movie-making.

As would a typical WB picture, we begin with "credits" that show the main characters, culled from apropos footage seen again later in the film. Other cartoons had done this gag, including Avery's, but the device sets up a delicious anticipation--and leaves no doubts as to its coming attractions:*
The screen shots are from the gorgeous restored version seen on the second disc of Warner Home Video's Looney Tunes Golden Collection III. The vibrancy of these restorations makes the viewer wish all the important early Avery cartoons had been given this royal treatment.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"What Makes Me Wild?.... What Makes Me Wild?" A Day at the Zoo, Perhaps Not

Release date: 3/11/1939 (according to BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:
 on various PD bargain DVDs and VHS tapes

You may view this cartoon HERE.

Good-natured yet tepid, this second topical spot-gag cartoon (released almost a year after the first, The Isle of Pingo Pongo) showcases all that was good--and lacking--in this genre.

In the spring of 1939, such a cartoon was fresher and far funnier. Though imitations of Avery's first spot-gag film (as influential to other animators as A Wild Hare and Porky's Duck Hunt) would show up in rival studios' product, their sheer, overwhelming dreadfulness makes Avery's half-strength efforts seem more amiable.

This is Avery Lite--on a break between two superb cartoons, he coasts on a handful of pleasant-to-painful puns, blackout gags, mass media references and the strength of Carl Stalling's bullet-proof musical score.Whenever inspiration flagged, though contracts demanded X amount of cartoons, Avery had this format to fall back on for the rest of his career.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Hamateur Night: "It's A Killer... It's A Killer!"

Release date: 1/28/1939 (according to BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:

You may view this cartoon HERE.

One of Avery's finest works of cartoon art, this film has an egalitarian approach to animated humor. Everyone has the same chance to sink or swim, to shine or nosedive.

It is a shame that this important and delightful cartoon has not been restored. All available prints look washed-out and VHS-y. Many WB cartoons suffer from this (or other) neglect, and I hope work will be done to make them look at least something like they did in their heyday.

It's a tribute to Hamateur Night that its comedy transcends its current state of disrepair. The neglect may be due to this cartoon's public domain status. That said, several PD Warners cartoons were restored for the now-defunct Golden Collection DVD series.

We iris in on an obvious-but-funny sign gag. The lack of bad puns reassures us that "Bugs" Hardaway is far away.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Mice Will Play: A Jaunty, Peppy Non-Entity To End 1938

Release date: 12/31/1938 (according to BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:
 Jezebel (WHV DVD); Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles (also WHV)

You may view this cartoon HERE.

My last post here displeased a number of animation people. So it goes. My goal here is to present my take on these often-overlooked cartoons in Tex Avery's career. How I view them will, of course, differ from how others see them. It's bound to cause friction, but that's the way it is.

I believe everyone can comfortably agree that The Mice Will Play, released on the last day of 1938, is not a major film in Avery's q.v. It is one of the last of its kind--an insincere "cutie" cartoon that unsteadily straddles front-office expectations and filmmakers' needs. Those factions tend to cancel each other out and produce compromised work.

The Leon Schlesinger cartoon studio is such a well-oiled, jaunty unit, in late 1938, that it can gloss over weaknesses with an affable, scrappy attitude. This doesn't make the lesser films any better, but it helps them go down easier.

This cartoon was shorn of its original credit sequence in 1949. The theme music for the titles was eight seconds of "Three Blind Mice."

Let the insignificance... begin!
When a cartoon begins with this shot, you know the next scene will be of a darkened interior, moving in multiplane fashion towards the film's alleged protagonist(s).
And, indeed, that's what occurs.
 Anonymous 1938 mice emerge from knothole.
 Lead mouse Johnny declares coast clear.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Daffy Duck in Hollywood: A Mixed Bag of Miscarried Madness

Release date: 12/3/1938 (according to IMDb*; no release date given on BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:
 Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. III (Warners Home Video)

You may view this cartoon HERE.

Avery's third and final cartoon with Daffy Duck is a regressive affair that abandons the formal advances made in his unit's previous three pictures.

Tho' amusing, it operates at a much lower level than Avery & Co. have performed in recent work. Daffy Duck in Hollywood feels more like a 1937 Avery effort, with its barrage of screwball gags, nose-biting and broad comedic strokes.

By this time, Daffy was used by director Robert Clampett in two memorable, anarchic black-and-white shorts, Porky and Daffy and The Daffy Doc. Daffy was ideal for Clampett's tense, explosive brand of comedic film-making. (Black ducks appear in his What Price Porky? but, contrary to popular belief, they are NOT Daffy.)

Such loose-limbed zanies were no longer vital to Avery's sense of comedy. His 1938 cartoons (of which this is the last) bookend with Technicolor Daffy Ducks. The first, Daffy Duck and Egghead, is over-full of crazy-kooky moments--many of them a bit forced. This last Daffy, less frenzied and formless, can be seen as Avery's farewell to the kablooey school of cartoon comedy. A cool has entered Avery's worldview in this year. Playing it deadpan, with cards close to his chest, is now his way of working.

Avery would never make another cartoon like DDiH. That task was left to his many imitators, who continued in this vein through the 1940s. At the dark end of the tunnel is the Screen Gems cartoon Wacky Quacky (1948), which represents the last forlorn outpost of this school of comedy.

This cartoon was restored to breath-taking brightness in the 2000s, and our screen captures will prove much more pleasant going than recent posts.

We iris in on a joke that seemed the shared property of every theatrical cartoon studio:
 No time is wasted getting down to cases:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Johnny Smith and Poker-Huntas: Hoary History in a Post-Modern Playground

Release date: 10/22/1938 (according to BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:

You may view this cartoon HERE.

The third forward-reaching, formally playful cartoon in a row from the Fred Avery unit, Johnny Smith and Poker-Huntas further accelerates Avery's often radical study of the relationship between the pre-existing (the 7:52 of this animated film, projected on celluloid) and the unpredictable (the paying audience who took this cartoon in as part of a typical evening's movie fare).

This is the first of Avery's Schlesinger cartoons that really feels like his M-G-M work. Two films from wartime bear an obvious resemblance to JSaPH (I refuse to re-type that title)--the regrettable 1944 Screwy Squirrel cartoon Big Heel-Watha and 1945's Jerky Turkey, By no means is this cartoon as technically adroit, nor sophisticated in its timing, as those later works. A general vibe, familiar to his M-G-M masterpieces of the 1940s, comes to the forefront of Avery's work here.