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.

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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.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Wacky Wildlife Brings Late 1940 Spot-Gag 'Trifecta' to a Close

Release date: 11/9/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: 
none

You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

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Yes, we're still in spot-gag mode. That's three in a row. I just want you to realize how I must sometimes suffer for my art!

I kid the Avery spot-gag cartoons. Having to study and review them has given me a grudging respect for them. As time-capsules of the development of Hollywood studio animation, and of the film-to-film progression of one of its great directors, these cartoons have great value. Entertainment-wise, ehh. At their best, they're a well-oiled joke machine. We may be able to second-guess their every move, but they remain likable, to a point.

We are fast reaching the point of no return for the spot-gag cartoons. In 1941, this tacit series takes a prolonged nose-dive, despite a couple of forward-reaching comedic ideas.

Once I get this entry done, I can move on to Of Fox and Hounds, which is one of my favorite Avery cartoons. So there's that.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Light-Hearted Holiday Highlights: About What You'd Expect, But Amusing

Release date: 10/12/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: 
Bugs Bunny's Cupid Capers (WHV, 2010)

You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

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Yes, we're still in spot-gag mode. This cartoon sits higher on the bell curve than the teeth-gnashers the Avery unit will put out as our hero nears the end of his time with the Leon Schlesinger animation studio.

Neither terrible or ground-breaking, it's professional cartoon product, and offers some amusing bits, including its clever presentation of the title card:

Friday, May 11, 2018

Ceiling Hero: Stale Material Gets a More Sophisticated Treatment

Release date: 8/24/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: 
none

You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

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After the creative and cinematic triumph of A Wild Hare, Avery might have felt exhausted, and relied on a familiar fallback--the spot-gag cartoon. We see this pattern throughout his latter career at Leon Schlesinger's studio: masterpiece/dud/masterpiece/dud.

Despite Avery's growing confidence and finesse as a movie-maker, he had a hard time with winning streaks. Some of this was borne of his self-challenge to try new things, take risks and better what he'd done before. How the spot-gag format inspired him is a mystery. It was a familiar port to rest while he charged himself up for his next superior effort.

Ceiling Hero offers nothing new in terms of content. The gags are mostly cornball, with two shining moments of inspiration. Despite its lack of yocks, the cartoon impresses with its forthright, composed and cool-handed air. We are closer to the style that Avery will use in his best M-G-M pictures. Gone is the gawkiness of 1937/8; the show-off who practically mashes his gags in the audience's face. Avery still had a bit of that in his system, and it shows up in a few of his early M-G-M shorts. Ceiling Hero looks ahead to the spot-gag cartoons Avery will do at the end of the decade. House of Tomorrow, Car of Tomorrow and TV of Tomorrow peddle deliberately stale gags with a poker face, with a few innovative and genuinely successful vignettes here and there.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Star is Born (After Some Growing Pains): Bugs Bunny Emerges in A Wild Hare

Release date: 7/27/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: 
Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2 (available in both formats)

You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

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PREFACE: This will be the longest, most involved chapter in this blog. It marks the fifth year of this quixotic ode to one of my favorite filmmakers.

When I started this blog in 2013, I assumed I'd breeze through Tex Avery's Warner Brothers cartoons in a year or two. Life had different plans for me. With luck, I'll reach the end here by 2023, assuming the free Internet, blogs and computers still exist, and we're not talking into sentient sticks and beaming our thoughts into some shared cephalopodic mind-screen.

I have been mesmerized by animation since infancy. The first motion picture I saw was a revival of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Tallahassee, Florida in 1965. My grandmother later delighted in recalling my sheer terror at moments in the film, but I wasn't traumatized--just fascinated and compelled to see more, at a point when I might not have been able to discern live-action footage from hand-drawn animation.

Television had loads of limited-animation programming, but, as I discovered, early in the morning, local stations showed older cartoons. They looked, sounded and felt different. Like Snow White, they convinced me more of real-life movement than the mechanical walk cycles of The Flintstones, or the illustrated radio of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

The cartoons that interested me most came from a large package of Warner Brothers shorts purchased by Associated Artists Productions. This image, and not the iconic Warner Brothers rings, opened the cartoons I saw on early morning and afternoon TV broadcasts:
My family didn't get a color TV until 1976, so my earliest views of these, and the classic M-G-M cartoon library, plus Famous Studios, Terrytoons, Walter Lantz and the odd Disney short, were in grainy, low-rez black and white.

As a child, I had no clear idea how old these cartoons were. I knew they preceded my birth, and that the Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons--plus the other contemporary ventures into limited animation that dominated broadcast time--were more recent. No reference books existed, and there was no way to summon up a cartoon at a moment's notice. 

Local TV stations randomly ran their 16 millimeter prints of these films, three to four in a half-hour time slot. Cartoon endings were regularly cut off if the show went into overtime (i.e., exceeded the time alloted to ads). More than once, film broke during a live broadcast. Said cartoon would often next be seen missing a hunk of footage, causing an interruption like a skip on a vinyl record. 

These cartoons were time-fillers to pad out afternoon and wee-hour programming, sell advertising space to (usually) local merchants and give children something to stare at, and thus keep out of trouble/their parents' lives. 

Few people, aside from kids, cared about these broadcasts. The television stations cared about the ads that they packed in-between these shorts. A passing adult might chuckle in remembrance of seeing such cartoon fare in their childhood. And there must have been older animation enthusiasts who had some inkling of knowledge of the art form's history, and who watched these crummy broadcasts as a means to see these elusive films.

That's what I became in my latter years of high school. The golden hours of 3 to 5 PM offered a chance to see x number of cartoons daily--at this time, a mix of Warners, M-G-M and Walter Lantz material, programmed with no rhyme or reason. By then. I'd gleaned first insights behind how these remarkable films came to be--mostly misinformation, but at this time (circa 1978) any info was welcome (if later refuted by proven fact). 

It became easier to connect the dots: William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, producers of so much TV dreck, did those beautifully-animated Tom and Jerry shorts of the 1940s! Animators who worked for Disney also worked for M-G-M, Lantz and Warner Brothers!

One early godsend was the January-February 1975 issue of Film Comment with a large section on classic Hollywood cartoons--a suite of articles that coalesced with the critical thinking I'd begun about these films. The discovery of this issue, in 1979, gave me a sense of purpose in my interest in animation. These were films worth thinking about and studying. They weren't expressly made for children. They had value as containers of American popular culture and history.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Circus Today: Okay, okay! (with guest commentator Devon Baxter)

Release date: 6/22/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: NONE


You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE. It has some audio garbage at the start; apologies for the watermarks.

Dailymotion has been acting up lately, but this is the only extant online version I could find (that didn't seem suspicious)...

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It may come as a shock to some of you to see a new post here. People have been inquiring about about when I'll be doing the next post on this blog. I'm flattered to know there are folks out there who anticipate reading my two cents on the early works of Tex Avery. Thank you.

Well, since I have a reward in the next cartoon after this, and since my old chum Devon Baxter (whose weekly column on the Cartoon Research website you are reading, aren't you? Hmmm?) offered some guest-commentator notes, I'll saddle up the old bronc and get through yet another Avery unit spot-gag cartoon.

Circus Today is one of the better efforts in this vein--there aren't many spots where I gag--and has some compelling in-jokes. Well, leave us get started...    

No narrator! This cartoon opens with an effective use of sound and visuals to convey the setting and mood. Don Brodie* gets us in the proper festive spirit as a carnival barker, spiels over this lovely circus artwork...
...and dissolves to the barker drawing a crowd. This is a significant step up from the prior spot-gag cartoons. Though Robert C. Bruce's tolerant, bemused narrative voice works well in the earlier cartoons, it's refreshing to see Avery and his writers having enough confidence to let go of that crutch.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Gander at Mother Goose Is Fine in Small Doses


Release date: 5/25/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 5 DVD set, Disc 2


You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

Life has kept me away from this blog, and my quixotic goal of completing it. At the rate I'm going, it may be 2025 before I'm finished--assuming that blogs, the free Internet and my sanity still exist at that future date.

A Gander at Mother Goose and its successor, Circus Today, are the calm before the creative storm for Mr. Avery. After these spot-gag efforts, his next work will change the rules of Hollywood animation--to the extent that the film, seen out of context, might not pass as anything special to the casual viewer. And you're not the casual viewer, or else you'd be looking for expensive sneakers on eBay instead of visiting this blog. So welcome to this obscure, toasty corner of the world.

A jolly swing-tinged arrangement of "Mutiny in the Nursery," the Harry Warren/Johnny Mercer collaboration that first showed up in the 1938 film Going Places, leads us into the cartoon proper--after, of course, a rare appearance by the rainbow-rings WB logo:
A thing of beauty.
 Avery tosses his first spitball into the balcony.
Robert C. Bruce, the long-suffering, ever-patient father figure who chaperones us for most of Avery's spot-gag pictures, chimes in with some warm, reassuring twaddle about turning back the pages of time and reliving cherished memories of our collective childhood days. Lovely but deceptive images back up this bogus introduction, as do Stalling's syrupy strings.