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.

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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.

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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.

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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.