Friday, December 6, 2013

Picador Porky: A Bold Stride Towards Utter Chaos

RELEASE DATE: 2/27/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database, IMDb and most other Internet sources)

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
None

Thanks to the official #1 pal of this blog, Devon Baxter, you can see a decent-enuf version of this cartoon HERE.

Apologies for the long delay in new postings. This is the only Avery-Warners cartoon that is really hard to see. Thanks to the modern day conglomo-monster that owns Warner Brothers, these black and white shorts have pretty much been chased off YouTube. Since they're actual cartoons, they're no longer shown on the Cartoon Network, save for rare relapses of taste and sanity by their programming directors.

With vintage cartoons on DVD pretty much dead in the mainstream, and the Blu-Ray format more inclined to serve up the latest slop from Hollywood, those early WB shorts that haven't been restored/reissued are not likely to be given such prestigious treatment in the foreseeable future.

End of screed. Let's get down to brass tacks...

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Porky the Wrestler: Minor but Meaningful Sports Shenanigans Welcome Mel Blanc to the Avery Universe

RELEASE DATE:
1/9/1937 (according to the Grand Cartoon Database, IMDb and most other Internet sources)

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
None

An as-good-as-it-gets version of this cartoon can be seen HERE (thanks for providing this, Devon Baxter!)

Avery and his unit continue to coast (but do so well) in this unaccountably rare and fairly minor cartoon. One deeply inspired sequence, worthy of a Jacques Tati, and an early vocal appearance by Mel Blanc--soon to finalize the Termite Terrace Dream Team with his great voice work and wit--makes this cartoon worthy of the name of Fred Avery.

This is one of the earlier Schlesinger cartoons to have been censored. One scene, or shot, was removed sometime in the 1940s. No one knows exactly why. Popular speculations include racial material (which seems unlikely, as racial stereotypes were vibrantly alive in the '40s) and a topical celebrity or sports caricature that no longer made sense, when and if this cartoon was reissued.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Don't Look Now: Half-Strength Avery Better Than None, Alleged Expert Sez

RELEASE DATE:
the unreliable IMDb gives a release date of 12/30/1936 for this film. BCDb says 11/7/1936 is the release date. They give 4/10/1948 for its Blue Ribbon re-issue, which is the version that survives today.

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
NONE AT PRESENT

You can watch a decent color print of this cartoon HERE. Thanks to Devon Baxter for his help with this. If you're not familiar with this cartoon, please watch before you read--thanks!

Like the earlier I'd Love To Take Orders From You, this film is Avery at half-strength. It's another attempt to make an appealing mass-market Technicolor cartoon. That it's done with greater humor and film-making attests to Avery's constant ambition to grow as a creator and show his colleagues and rivals what he could do.

Unlike the earlier cartoon, Don't Look Now has a more pointed, direct narrative, and takes advantage of every attempt to cram something funny into its footage. In retrospect, knowing what lays ahead for the Avery unit in their 1937 films, this cartoon seems less impressive than it ought to.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Milk And Money: Lightning Strikes Twice--To The Keester

RELEASE DATE:
shown at the Strand Theatre in New York on 9/28/36.

Other dates given are 10/3/36 or 12/28/1936 (according to IMDb, which has proven itself, ahem, a mite unreliable)

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
Looney Tunes Golden Collection,
Vol. 5
(Warner Brothers DVD 112172)

You can watch a nice black-and-white print of this cartoon HERE. If you're not familiar with this cartoon, please watch before you read--thanks!
                               In popular entertainment, lightning always attempts to restrike. If Movie A, Song A, or TV Series A proves a success, a rehash is always urged by the highers-up. Apparently, thus was the case with Avery's earlier picture, Porky the Rainmaker. In this case, it was willingly done, and the results show a strong step forward in Avery's skillset as a cartoon film-maker.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Village Smithy: Consider That Fourth Wall Busted, Folks! And...Introducing Carl W. Stalling*

RELEASE DATE:
12/5/1936 (according to the unreliable IMDb, and most other Internet sources)

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
None

A crappy-quality 1990s colorized version of this cartoon can be seen HERE, as part of a collection on archive.org. Thanks to reader "clark" for spotting this version. Due to WB's recent pogroms of their classic cartoons from YouTube, it's newly hard to see many of these early pieces.

This brings up an unavoidable pre-essay thought. It seems ridiculous to me that so many corporate copyright holders (a) have no interest in preserving or making available their archives and (b) strive so hard to keep people from seeing their holdings. This goes for the major music moguls, all movie studios, and book publishers. They seem stubbornly resistant to the fact that there IS interest in this stuff, and that, if they made even the feeblest attempt to offer it publicly, it would be greeted with positive response, which would, in turn, make the greedy gits look good (or as close to good as they might ever appear).

It seems to me that a win-win situation for these monoliths is to let this stuff stay up on YouTube, etc., in the belief that it will create a new market for these vintage pieces. If/when a legal, official version is commercially released, they'd have every right to crack down on poachers. If they only want to hoard these gems, and keep people from seeing them, then they're going to look like selfish, arrogant jerks.

End of soapbox sermon. Now, on with the show...

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Porky The Rainmaker: Cause-and-effect Comedy in Stark Black and White

RELEASE DATE:
8/1/1936

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
None

You can watch a 1990s-era colorized print of this cartoon HERE. If you're not familiar with this cartoon, please watch before you read--thanks!

After the status symbol of having directed three color cartoons in a row, the Fred Avery unit went back to black-and-white for the Avery unit.

This is not one of Avery's greatest cartoons. It does introduce a couple of important comedic tools to its maker's belt.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

I Love To Singa: A Merrier Melodie, Much Beloved

RELEASE DATE:
7/18/1936

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
Looney Tunes Golden Collection,
Vol. 2
(Warner Brothers DVD 31284)

You can watch a decent color print of this cartoon HERE. If you're not familiar with this cartoon, please watch before you read--thanks!

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This is the earliest cartoon of Tex Avery's that everyone knows. It has  an underground reputation, and resultant street-cred, in the rap and hip-hop community. Rap "remixes" of the musical scenes can be found on YouTube. In the media mainstream, the cartoon was memorably parodied on the hyper-popular, button-pushing South Park TV series.

Its inclusion on the high-selling second volume of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection series introduced it to a new generation, while us older fogies fondly recall it from blurry, scratchy, salmon-red TV prints of the 1970s and '80s.

I Love To Singa revisits the basic narrative of Avery's first color cartoon, I'd Love To Take Orders From You, but with an important change. Amidst the very funny and sharply timed actions of this musical cartoon is the eternal conflict between father and child, old guard and new wave.

This was one of Avery's pet themes, and he returns to it several times in his animation career. This cartoon is, I believe, his finest version of this scenario.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

(Page) Miss Glory: A Reluctant Excursion Into Style


RELEASE DATE:
6/9/1936

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
Looney Tunes Golden Collection,
Vol. VI
(Warner Brothers DVD 115871)

You can watch a nice color print of this cartoon, with commentary by Will Friedwald, HERE. If you're not familiar with this cartoon, please watch before you read--thanks!

As I anticipated (and dreaded) when I began this blog, it has proven difficult to look beyond the mere trainspotting of facts, figures and rumors that seem to obsess many fans of classic animation.

That is not what this blog is about. I hate to repeat myself, but I guess I must. My sole intention with this blog is to examine the development of Fred "Tex" Avery as a humorist, movie-maker and pop-culture influence. It is not to determine who did what, when, where, or why.

Yes, animation is a team effort. Yes, some talented and very significant animation figures worked on these cartoons. Yes, there was behind-the-scenes intrigue. You can find that information readily elsewhere on the Internet. What you'll find here is MY personal look at the developmental efforts of a great film-maker. Please respect what I'm trying to do here. Thank you.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I'd Love To Take Orders From You: Avery's First Technicolor Cartoon, If Nothing Else...

RELEASE DATE:
5/25/1936

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
none at present

An on-line color version can be viewed HERE.

If you're not familiar with this cartoon, please watch it now before reading my analysis. Thanks!

Avery's sudden promotion to the Technicolor Merrie Melodies series shows that he had impressed Leon Schlesinger with his first three black-and-white cartoons. I'd Love To Take Orders From You completely suppresses the creative urges that shine through those first efforts.

Perhaps this was by choice. The stakes were higher for these larger-budgeted Technicolor cartoons. They typically flogged a recent song from the Warner Brothers popular music catalog. More attention was paid to the Merrie Melodies by the front office, and expectations for more crowd-pleasing (i.e., bland) content were perhaps encouraged.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Blow Out: Toon Terrorism and the Emergence of an Unlikely Cartoon Star

RELEASE DATE:
4/24/1936

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
none at present

You can view a 1990s-era computer colorized version of this cartoon HERE. It's better than nothing...

The Blow Out is an impressive step forward for Fred Avery. Through 1938, Avery's cartoons would vacillate between significant advances and curious retreats.

Here, Avery introduces several essential items in his trick bag. Large comic "takes," colorful comedic villains and the nightmare of one character trying to escape from another--who turns up with supernaturally bad timing--are unveiled in The Blow Out.

Avery would perfect these tics by the time of his first few cartoons for M-G-M. The slow but steady development of these comedic facets becomes a point of fascination in his Warner Brothers efforts.

The Blow-Out also adds significantly to the personality of Porky Pig. Though the character won't be set in stone, er, pork for another two years or so, this cartoon helps to give him something like a personality.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Plane Dippy: "Get a Load Of This!"


RELEASE DATE:
January 4, 1936
DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
none at present
COMPUTER-COLORED VERSION CAN BE SEEN ON-LINE HERE

Fred Avery survived his first directorial effort for Leon Schlesinger, Gold Diggers of '49. With one "Supervision Fred Avery" credit to his name, and a reasonably good cartoon in release, he set out to do better the second time around.

His first step was to revert Porky Pig to the smaller, child-man of I Haven't Got A Hat. The grotesque hog of the prior cartoon was too harsh an exaggeration, even for Avery, who trafficked in distortion, over-statement and bigger-than-life effects.

He wisely assumed that a smaller character was automatically funnier. Of equal importance, this figure needed to be a cipher. These were Avery's favorite protagonists. Though Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Screwy Squirrel contradict this claim with their brash, aggressive personalities, Avery liked best the Porkys, Droopys and Eggheads--nobodies to whom things happened.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Gold Diggers of '49: Moonshine In The Schlesinger Gas-tank

RELEASE DATE: November 2, 1935
DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:

Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. V (Warner Brothers DVD 112172)

You can watch an original black-and-white version of this historically important cartoon HERE. Finally.

To appreciate the first Warner Brothers cartoon by Fred Avery, it's important to see it in the context of the other Warner Brothers cartoons of its season.

Leon Schlesinger's cartoon studio was in a creative doldrums in 1935. The once-manic energy of the first WB cartoons, produced and directed by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, was long gone. Harman-Ising's star employee (and fellow ex-Disney alumnus) Isadore "Friz" Freleng had begun to direct for Schlesinger, but his best work was years ahead of him.

The studio's attempts to create likable recurring characters had failed. Despite the obvious lack of appeal of Buddy and Cookie, Beans, Ham and Ex, et al, the studio stubbornly stuck with them. Walt Disney had long set the example: you had to give audiences a character they could laugh at and with. Easier said than done, especially when the Disney templates were either ciphers (Mickey Mouse) or blowhards (Donald Duck).

Schlesinger's color cartoons, which showcased a song from the Warner Brothers publishing house, and usually had no continuing characters, were marginally better, though still rather dull. Like the other Hollywood cartoon studios, Schlesinger's felt the impact of the critically-lauded Walt Disney shorts. Disney sought to create the illusion of life in his animation--at the expense of imagination, energy and humor. 

This challenge effectively stale-mated theatrical animation in the last half of the 1930s. As studios with smaller staff and budgets copied the Disney approach, usually without enthusiasm, the entertainment value of their collective output miserably dwindled. Ironically, the most ardent and obvious copyists of the Disney Way were Harman and Ising, who established a cartoon studio with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and immediately launched into their Happy Harmonies series--the most successful and lavish Disney knock-offs of their day.

The New York studios still showed signs of life, in Paul Terry's crude but vivid output, and in the black-and-white cartoons of The Fleischer Studio--particularly the rowdy, engaging Popeye series. (Fleischer was already grabbing at the Disney brass ring with its ambitious but often dull Color Classics cartoons.)

The 1935 animation industry was in creative gridlock, unsure of its next move, and unenthusiastically trying to produce what it thought audiences might like.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Goals Of This Blog...

As I wind down a half-decade run on Stanley Stories, my much-discussed but ultimately frustrating exploration of the work of comics creator John Stanley, I confess I feel stale-mated.

I've put in years of hard work and research on John Stanley. I have made breakthroughs in identifying comics he both wrote and drew--entire series and stories no one had yet attributed to his creation.

Aside from a high-profile (and creatively satisfying) berth as a member of the advisory board of The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics, co-edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, little has ultimately come of all that work, save for some significant friendships I've made through the blog, and the kind comments of the many people who have visited and responded.

In a sense, these gifts are reward enough. The friendships I've made, by themselves, are proof of that. As well, people have scanned rare stories, endangering their rare vintage comic books in the process, and indulged my requests to see certain obscure pieces that often turned out to not be Stanley's work. There has been no rivalry nonsense... comics scholars are pleasingly open with their work and discoveries, as I wish scholars in all fields of specialized study might be.

Many kind mentions on The Comics Journal's blog, Drawn + Quarterly's blog and on Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter have also been most gratifying.

It's also been nice to share these hard-to-find comic book pieces with the world at large. When I began Stanley Stories, almost nothing by its subject was in print. Five years later, a fair portion of John Stanley's work is readily available in bookstores, libraries and schools.

I feel that Stanley Stories stands as a working rough draft for the book I'd ultimately like to write on John Stanley. Many of my thoughts there I'd like to develop, re-assess and expand. But there's one little problem with all this...

No one appears willing or able to publish a book on John Stanley. Despite his obvious worth as a creator--he is the finest writer of mainstream American comics, and one of the great American popular authors of the 20th century--he remains a hard sell.

I am still ready and willing to write the book on John Stanley. But I get the message: it's time to move on.

For many years I have admired the animated cartoons of Fred "Tex" Avery. His synthesis of old and new revitalized the Hollywood animated cartoon, and rescued it from a morass of derivative, inept attempts to mimic the output of Walt Disney's studio.

To many, Avery's MGM cartoons, created between 1941 and 1953, are the director's greatest achievement. I agree. Those 65 cartoons represent a high point in film-making of any kind. A singular vision is expressed in these animated shorts. Their creator's personality is aggressively visible in every frame.

But where did this vision come from? It didn't emerge fully formed from nowhere when Avery began to direct for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's cartoon studio. It was shaped, film by film, scene by scene, frame by frame, in the 62 cartoon shorts "supervised by Fred Avery" for Warner Brothers' cartoon division between 1935 and 1941. (Because of the lag time between the completion and release of these cartoons, Warners' supply of Avery-directed shorts continued into 1942.)

The conventional wisdom about these cartoons is that they're not as good as the MGM shorts, and therefore inferior, and certainly less consequential. To some, they're boring and bothersome.

I'm not about to argue that Avery's WB output is superior to his MGM work. I do claim that these films are the solid core of his sensibilities as a cartoon filmmaker. Avery's was one of the few singular visions that flowered in the Hollywood studio system, and grew and deepened over the years.

His live-action parallel, Buster Keaton, was denied creative control of his films in his prime as a creator. He suffered through three decades of making do with whatever table scraps the Hollywood system threw his way. For all intents, he was dismissed as a creative film-maker in 1929, and never given the chance to redeem his vision.

Avery, in contrast, was allowed to work out his comedic and filmic ideas, to try and fail, and to repeat promising ideas until he perfected them. His vision became more expansive at MGM, but almost every significant concept of his career has some founding in his work for Warner Brothers.

In these 62 animated cartoons, which I will discuss in the order of their release, we have the rare opportunity to see the development of a great American humorist, satirist and film artist. Each film is a creative stepping-stone for their maker. Some are giant steps forward; some regrettable back-tracks.  Each of them is worth an extended look.

PLEASE NOTE:

This blog's chief concern is to chart the developing cinematic and comedic vision of Fred Avery. It is not a blog about Warner Brothers' cartoon history, although some of that will, by necessity, enter the picture.

Therefore, it is not my intention to spotlight or celebrate the styles of the many talented animators who worked in the Avery unit at Leon Schlesinger Productions. I will, of course, talk about certain animators (I can't wait to discuss Irv Spence's contributions to the 1937 and '38 releases!), but this is not trainspotting of who did what. There are many other opportunities, on the internet and elsewhere, to obtain this information. This is a blog about Mr. Avery and what he did as a creative filmmaker.

Avery's Warner Brothers cartoons are not fully available on commercial video. Perhaps half these shorts have been officially released on American DVD or Blu-Ray discs. Some are extremely hard to see, aside from dismal-quality reductions on YouTube or Daily Motion. When possible, I'll include a link to a viewable version of each cartoon discussed--if the available version is complete and of acceptable visual quality.

I hope to make a case for Avery's Warner Brothers work that, despite its experimental mis-steps and obvious flaws, it stands for something significant and powerful in American animation.

Avery freed the Hollywood animated cartoon from the shackles of stifling attempted realism that Walk Disney's vision forced upon the medium. In his 62 cartoons for Warners, Avery led a revolution against pomp, pretension and what critic Manny Farber called "white elephant art." Avery forced the issue that animated cartoons should be alive, agitated, amusing and bracing.

If I can get at the heart of this matter, and show the developmental steps in this great creator's early work, I will not have wasted my (or your) time with this blog.