Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Tex Avery Terrytoon? Almost--Ain't We Got Fun

RELEASE DATE:
5/1/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb claims a 7/2/1937 release date)

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
NONE

Thanks to the always-awesome Devon Baxter, you can view a mid-1990s Turner print of this cartoon HERE. You're a brick, Devon!

After the epochal effort and game-changing effect of Porky's Duck Hunt, Avery's next cartoon is an inevitable letdown.

This is a Tex Avery pattern: a masterpiece followed by a "meh." Avery's lesser cartoons still have redeeming moments, and this Merrie Melodie, which chooses the road less traveled of prudence and restraint, is a minor moment in a major filmography. By the standards of any of the other units in Leon Schlesinger's studio, this would be a good-to-average cartoon. It might have been Jack King's masterpiece.

It's also Avery's first cartoon to deviate from his way of drawing. I'll get into this topic more later, but the majority of the characters in Ain't We Got Fun don't appear to be of his design.

Perhaps this film was a trade-off for the Avery unit being allowed to make Porky's Duck Hunt, which was previously covered in depth here. "You made a cartoon your way; now you gotta make one for the front office." (This is only an educated guess.) Where Duck Hunt is infused with comedic passion, Ain't We Got Fun is phoned in with gritted teeth. One recalls Oliver Owl, from Avery's I Love To Singa, forcing out his pinched rendition of "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes."

The original title cards would tell you that the animators credited are Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. I don't see much evidence of Clampett, but Chuck, er, Charles Jones, does fine work herein. The title ditty plugs a then-17 year old pop song by Richard Whiting, Ray Egan and Gus Kahn. Why this non-Warner Brothers piece was chosen, over brand-new in-house, income-generating ditties, is a puzzler. Perhaps some current WB/First National movie featured the song. Someone out there will know.

Ain't We Got Fun is the closest Avery ever got to making a Terrytoon. There's a grumpy old man, an abused cat, and countless mice. That's all Paul Terry's studio ever needed to get a cartoon together. That Avery and unit goes through these motions with a sense of craft and good film-making adds something to the pot.

That consciousness toward craft--an allegiance to the visual verve of a live-action feature film--is felt in the opening multiplane shot. As in many of Avery's 1937-39 cartoons, there appears to be a sincere sense of appreciation for movie-making. Multiplane set ups, cutaways, montages, intertitles and other staples of live-action film are rampant in this era of Avery's cartoon work. As his comedic sensibility strengthens, after 1940, these traits vanish from his work, replaced by generally static, nonchalant staging.

Because of its multiplane layers, the opening shot proved impossible to piece together, so here it is in frame-grabs...
Truck in and dissolve to COTTAGE: INTERIOR. Nameless cat enjoys a doomed snooze in a plush armchair as Avery's version of Farmer Al Falfa enters, stage-left.
Charles Jones' capable hand is deeply felt in the animation of the elderly gent. The cat displays Avery's look-and-feel in its design.

The abusive nature of the fez-topped senior is immediately made clear. It's genuinely unpleasant to watch these scenes, well animated tho' they are.

The timing of the thrown book is razor-sharp, but painful to witness.
Here come the a-hole 1937 cartoon mice. What happens next is exactly what you expect.
Is kitty asleep? Yep!
Message prepared and sent:
Avery can't resist putting something of worth into such a rote sequence, and one of this cartoon's magic moments is this elaborate cutaway-schematic of the interwall, delivered as a vertical pan, and assembled here for your viewing pleasure, as the lead mouse sends an airborne message to his hungry comrades:
The cartoon is further distinguished by clever visual touches, each of them causing this viewer to long for something of greater substance to accompany them. 

The mouse-exodus begins in earnest.
Avery's staging, at this point, accentuates depth and dimension, quite unlike the proscenium-esque look of many of his Schlesinger peers. This attention to detail seems to have rubbed off onto Chuck Jones, when he graduated to a director position in 1938.
 Exaggerated expressionist shadows are an Avery favorite in the late 1930s. He will soon do humorous things with them, but here they're just eye candy.
 A cuckoo clock's bleating wreaks havoc on the mice-in-transit:
 A chorus of "shhhh"s makes the point clear to the dull cuckoo, who does the right thing...
 ...in one of the few only-in-an-Avery-cartoon moments we'll see today.
They make it past the cat, running with the exaggerated speed that proved Avery's everlasting gift to the Warner Brothers cartoons.
Cartoon Rule #337: Clearly label important rooms.
A mildly clever elevator bit, capped by a bit of gallows humor (watch the cartoon to see what occurs), delays the inevitable about as well as it's ever been stalled.
 And now for some garden-variety gorging gags...
From one sports metaphor to another:
(not shown here: clever scene ending, in which one of the sentient "pockets" moves to gobble a poorly aimed pea)


A nod to current gangster flicks, with one small mouse assigned lookout status for rodent wrongdoers:
And back to more procurement-of-food gags:
Irony in action:
That's life; that's what people say...

Little-known-fact: mice apparently enjoy Genoa salami.
Our lookout is tempted by a quick carbo-load...
 This noisy nibbling is nigh noticed...
 Mouse panics...
 POV shot adds to the mounting tension...
Whistling with a mouthful of cracker crumbs never seems to work in cartoons. 
More proof that mice are carnivores--although these choose the more heart-healthy option of turkey.
 Can you intuit the sight gag that has been set up here?
 Sure you can!
 Righteous anger, I'd say.
 Didn't this happen in a "Herman and Katnip" cartoon, at least once?
Cut to different POV (and a different animator) to witness the cat's serial humiliation by various sated mice...
This is a moment that William Hanna and Joe Barbera would revisit in their "Tom and Jerry" cartoons of the 1940s. Cat pwned by mice; human confrontation figure discovers wreckage; blames (and abuses) cat, despite cat's visible protestations.
Some fine animated acting here, as we cut from long to medium shot. Notice freakishly realistic five-fingered hand.
 Cat does a "Larry"...
 Then the classic Stan Laurel denial/pointing routine...
 As the hand of doom grabs him, cat strikes "what ya gonna do?" shrug pose.
This set-up would provide the backbone for many of Friz Freleng's "Tweety and Sylvester" cartoons, at least early on...
 Old man now not animated by Charles M. Jones...
That Avery staple: the seeming final comment, followed by a door slam, a quick re-open, and a restatement of the obvious ultimatum. Slam. Done.
 The cat shows some cojones in this moment, which is beautifully posed.
 This double-exposure dissolve seems to contain the heart of the cartoon. It's a portrait of a highly flawed dysfunctional relationship.
Old man rants by fireside; lead mouse sends "all clear" airmail message to friends; ransacking resumes.
Now begins the cartoon's brief musical portion. Here's an assembled pan shot of the musical "fun," which is quite Caucasian and full of pep, if nothing else.

The lyrics are rewritten to reflect the cartoon's storyline (as we've seen in Avery's earlier musicals), and the short scene is peppered with a couple of light sight gags and some atmospheric and thoughtful illusion-of-depth stuff with painstakingly animated shadows.
It's important to note how much attention Avery paid to these filmic touches, early in his career. Animating those shadows was, no doubt, a pain in the tookus for whomever had to do them. Lack of planning led to those shadows passing flatly over a richly-rendered teapot, which creates a visual blemish that shakes us out of our enjoyment for a moment.
Too much fun has been had, and the old coot awakes to the ruckus, and (surprise) flies off the handle again. But before he can make a move, he discovers that these mice... are... anarchists! This food-throwing scene is worthy of Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct (1933). This, and every moment from here to the end, has Avery's investment as a humorist, ironist and satirist.
 Various cute ways of food-fighting are demonstrated by these hardy outsiders.
 The old f#%&!r deserves this 3-D comeuppance.
 Of course, he runs for the cat.
The old man's change-of-heart, which does not quite convince, is given some strong posing and animated acting.
Never was feline defiance so beautifully posed in an animated cartoon. That's almost pure Avery drawing.
The rebellious mice turn the tide with their playground taunts.
A quick-cut montage effectively shows the rodent exodus, in the manner of many of Warner Brothers' 1937 live-action dramas:
Here's an early instance of another Avery pet gag: A large character's panic, followed by a mini-me version.
 Cat's first moment of triumph/redemption.
 Another killer Avery pose.
Only now does Ain't We Got Fun truly redeem itself, with a beautiful, subversive ending that Avery would revisit throughout his film-making career...
 Cat reclaims chair, dignity and status. All richly deserved.
 Duffer has not broken hips; wobbles back to comfort by the fire.
 Animation from earlier in the cartoon is re-used, up to this critical moment of conscious-change.
 The old man realizes what he has to do. He is no longer the master of this household.
 His place is on the carpet, by the window...
The poses of the old man doing the feline bedding-down circles are beautifully achieved. No small part of its success is due to the wall-eyed, stunned facial expression, which speaks volumes about how a life is suddenly changed.
 "I ain't such a mean old man after all... am I?"
 Bing!
 The book speaks volumes, if you'll pardon the pun.

Not a terrible cartoon, Ain't We Got Fun is a letdown in context. Avery and his unit still brim with enthusiasm and ambition. It is hard to imagine them making a genuinely poor cartoon. Until the unit becomes derailed with a series of topical spot-gag cartoons, in 1939 and 1940, it was arguably the most influential group of animators besides the Disney studio.

A lesser film like this sheds more light on the Avery's unit's craft and technique, since there is less killer comedy material to digest. As such, Ain't We... has value to those compelled to study how Avery did what he did.

In his more engaged, funnier films, we're often so distracted by what happens that we seldom take note of how or why it happens. Avery will make more so-so cartoons, in between major triumphs, for the duration of his Schlesinger employment. As his visual vocabulary grows in 1938-39, Avery's cartoons become richer, even as their content and intent wildly varies.

By the time of this cartoon, Frank Tashlin's unit offered Avery's a genuine challenge. Tashlin was even more obsessed with live-action technique, ultra-fast cutting and matched shots.

The Avery and Tashlin cartoons of 1937/38 are a series of competitive-yet-friendly volleys. Both men explored a union of modern film technique and cutting-edge comedy. As Mark Kausler mentioned to me, there's a strong resemblance, throughout this cartoon, to the look of the contemporary Tashlin cartoons--most strongly in the design of the mice characters.

Avery's hand is all over the design of the cat and, to a lesser extent, the elderly man. The rodents have almost nothing of his look and feel to them. Kausler noted, in an e-mail to me:

I wonder who did the scenes throughout the cartoon of the mice that have graceful arcs and super large pie-cut eyes? This animator did the first scene in the song sequence at 6:28, and did the scene where the tough mouse tells the little mouse to whistle if he sees the cat, and the scene where the little mouse tries to whistle with cracker crumbs in his mouth. It looks a lot like Volney White's style of design used in the Tashlin Porky Pigs, but I can't say for sure.

It's an interesting thought, and it's conceivable that one unit's character designs might have been used by another's, in the interest of visual consistency. The variance of style in this cartoon is unusual for Avery and his animators. The eccentricity of his drawings, and his animators' allegiance to them throughout his career, is as deeply embedded in his work as it is in Chuck Jones' or Robert McKimson's.

The Avery unit will be allowed to fly its collective freak-flag tall and proud in their next Schlesinger effort, which is also one of its creator's most controversial cartoons. I look forward to exploring this important film with you next time around.

NEXT TIME: A true game-changer, from the Censored 11: Uncle Tom's Bungalow.