Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Screwball Football: Cavorting Sports Retorts

Release date: 12/16/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: none

You may view the uncensored version of this cartoon HERE.

More spot gags? As if we have a choice. This one has a welcome looseness, and is less reliant on deliberately stinky puns and other verbal-humor quips.

Thanks to this not being reissued, and thus shorn of its elaborate original titles, we can enjoy an unusual approach, via animated silhouettes. There's a funny gag, and everything:

These credits have more laughs than the entirety of, say, A Day at the Zoo, so this is off to a promising start--despite its being a sports cartoon. Not being a sports person, and finding sports, as-is, already funny, I am prone to groan when an athletic theme dominates an animated film.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Smile When You Say 'Flounder:' Fresh Fish

Release date: 11/4/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: nada

You may view a nice-looking copy of this cartoon (with an embedded logo) HERE.

Perhaps I'm softening, or weakening under the spell of these Avery spot-gag cartoons, but they don't seem as egregious as I anticipated. They can be stale, but it's a deliberate staleness, a reveling in the joy of telling a bad or corny joke.

These aren't Avery's most enjoyable or memorable cartoons, but they do offer evidence of the shreds of progress in his path to becoming the most innovative and well-known non-Disney director of Hollywood cartoons.

The long delay in posting this analysis is due to the temporary misplacement of my set of complete Warner Brothers cartoons from a sudden move this past January. I am happy to say the set has been recovered, and I'll try to get through the rest of this spot-gag period quickly and painlessly.

By the time of Fresh Fish, an easy formula rules the Avery-directed spot gag cartoons. Robert C. Bruce is the affable, mildly sarcastic emcee; Mel Blanc and Carl Stalling supply invaluable audio input, and a talent pool of animators with a growing skillset turn out stable, functionial-to-impressive work. The Warners cartoons begin to have the vibe of a finely-tuned machine: each part does its work with due diligence, and each part works with its neighbors in concert.

The lone variant, by this time, is the content of each cartoon. Avery's time at the Leon Schlesinger studios demonstrates the power of this variant. With good material, Avery and crew could create an instant classic cartoon. With formula stuff or a flawed basic theme, the same group of talented people, capable of far greater things, could turn out a trifle. No one was going to remember these things, so if they turned out good, great; if not, well, let's try to make the next one better.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Land of the Midnight Fun: Smooth Sailing on a Ship of Fools

Release date: 9/23/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: as an extra on the Warners Home Video DVD of Allegheny Uprising.

You may view the uncensored version of this cartoon (with Cartoon Network logo) HERE.

Here's something to be happy about: A Tex Avery travelogue spot-gag cartoon that's funny, well thought-out, and beautifully drawn.

Land of the Midnight Fun feels like the result of a Termite Terrace think-tank session, in which the goal was to make one of these popular topical gag cartoons with clarity, solvency and some genuine wit. By sticking to one narrative incident (a cruise to Alaska), rather than a shotgun-spray of unconnected gags. LotMF is cohesive, appealing and endearing. Though Avery never depended on a strong narrative, it surely doesn't hurt him. Having a sturdy foundation upon which to gag, and confound the viewer, is common to his best early cartoons.

Yes, there are some bad puns--those poor-on-purpose items that are part of the spirit of these spot-gaggers. But Avery is wise enough, from the experience of having made a few of these, to let his natural comedic and cinematic inclinations steer this ship.

The title sequence announces something out of the norm:

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Detouring America: Gagging (in both senses of the word) Across the Great 48

Release date: 8/26/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: as an extra on the WHV DVD of Each Dawn I Die

You may view the uncensored version of this cartoon HERE.

Another early spot-gag cartoon, spoofing the abundance of over-narrated travelogues that crowded the short subject segment of motion picture programs.

This format has not grown completely stale, but these spot-gag cartoons have none of the impact they had on first release.

A corny opening "disclaimer," backed by a characteristic medley of familiar national tunes, sets the stage for the next seven minutes and change:
The announcer (Avery regular Robert Bruce) tells us we're going on "an educational tour of the United States." Snort. Chortle. Our first stop is a faux-multiplane Manhattan.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dangerous Dan McFoo: Inching Towards Mastery

Release date: 7/15/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: an extra on the WHV DVD of Dodge City; and 
an extra on the French collection of Avery's M-G-M cartoons

You may view this cartoon HERE. Kudos to this blog's official pal, Devon Baxter, for providing this best-there-is version for us to view.

Two years after the release of this cartoon, Tex Avery will be at M-G-M. There he will make the body of cartoons most consider his best work. Few of his later Warner Brothers cartoons anticipate the vibe of his M-G-M work quite like this one.

Comparisons are unavoidable to the later work, as Avery sorta-remade this cartoon in 1944 as:

We're going to study the earlier work on its own merits today.

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.