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.


It also shows Avery's growing, ongoing confidence as a humorist and movie-maker. His prior effort, (Page) Miss Glory, combines visual innovation and a hell-bent desire to scrape away the Disney marzipan and amuse the viewer. In Singa, Avery grows surer of himself, and lets loose some of his favorite humorous motifs.

The character designs of this cartoon show a marked improvement for the Avery unit. They're more stylized and modern-looking (in that '30s streamlined sense), and thus much easier on the eyes. One gets a strong sense of personal ambition in this film--to push past the limits of the clunky Schlesinger look-and-feel, and to bring a more adult comedic sensibility to the table.

The first 30 seconds, post-credits, sets up the scene in a clever way. Our first image is a cutesy-pie Disney-school woodland glade...
The violin-shaped sign hanging over the door catches our eye, and we cut to a closeup...
A combination downward pan and truck-in zoom delivers the answer to that BUT...
and through the keyhole we go, to a tense scene of expectation...
Prof. Fritz Owl paces the floor as he awaits the hatching of his offspring. He wears a rut in the carpeting as he kvetches and worries...
Cha-ching! Momma Owl delivers four eggs. Her DNA carries strong pre-destination--including miniature musical instruments, right in the shell, for the talented offspring of this musical family.
There's a classical music singer...
a violinist...
a flautist...
 and a pop song crooner...
Waitaminnit! Avery's father-figures are control freaks--stubborn males who know what's best for their offspring. While the other three black-garbed owlets are deemed A-OK by Father Fritz, this red-coated crowd-pleaser presents a problem.
Fade in on a disgusted expression that immediately sizes up the situation, before the iris can expand. In a pinched, nasal voice, the young owl sings "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes" as if the song is stabbing him in the heart.
But, during the page turns of Momma's book of sheet music, the pop-star within sneaks out of our young protagonist...
Ya can't keep a good owl down, and with split-second timing, he cleaves his interests between long-hair music and the latest pop hits (sung, slightly flat, by a yet-undetermined vocalist, while Tommy Bond handles the kid's spoken lines).
This is not going to go over well with Father Fritz!
Voiced by the skilled apoplexarian Billy Bletcher, Fritz rants and rails, in vaudeville mock-German, against his son's desire to embrace the new. He is kicked out of the family tree/nest/house (a pivotal moment of this scenario, repeated each time in Avery's many tellings)...
The son is more disgusted than heartbroken. He makes a reference to a comic strip by Milt Gross, "That's My Pop!" Notably, the word "pop" is released as a vulgar oath.
Off wanders the exiled son, comforted by the rod and staff of his bouncy song, and blanketed in the Schlesinger studio's version of the multiplane camera (a device near and dear to Avery in this period of his career.)
Suddenly he hears the strains of a badly-played harmonica. Oh, joy!
Meanwhile, Momma Owl freaks out, as she rightfully should to this abusive action of her spouse's.

While these parents battle with their conscience, their offspring wanders over to a woodland version of Major Bowes' Amateur Hour (or, for youse modern kids, American Idol, as judged by Simon Cowell in a particularly bad mood):
In a modernist march of destiny, would-be talents funnel into the tree-home of station G-O-N-G, have their blink-of-an-eye moment on the air, and are literally flushed out of the studio by the acerbic "Jack Bunny," a in-name-only parody of the popular comedian, but clearly based on the real Major Bowes.
That's the Major and his famous gong. It sounded the fate of many a hopeful small-town "talent" eager for the footlights of fame. We now venture inside the studios of G-O-N-G...
If Bunny doesn't like your act (and that's a 99.9% probability), he bangs the gong with a mallet and pulls a toilet flush cord, which opens a trap door beneath your would-be talent... Buh-bye!
Compelling evidence that Bunny is usually right (except in his spelling of "amateur" on his desk-sign) is the parade of sub-par performances. Their flush-exits are sharply timed, in a prelude to an Avery masterpiece, Hamateur Night (1938).

Avery slips in a gag of the variety Bob Clampett would utilize, to great effect, in his best black-and-white cartoons... on the cutting edge of tastelessness, but impossible to ignore or enjoy...
This is all so quick and funny that we nearly forget the main thread of this film's story. Avery cuts back to the worried, bad parents, and slips in the first (as bona-fide director) of his many two-way radio gags, in which the announcer acerbically responds to the words of its passive audience.
"I vundah if dey've found my little dolling..."
"No, we didn't, lady!"
As with many of Avery's formal innovations, this fourth-wall demolition became part of the mainstream in Hollywood animation. It's important to remember that Avery did it first, and that these gags had a bracing effect on their contemporary audiences.

Back at G-O-N-G, an addled reciter soon determines his own fate. Bunny needn't do a thing.
We pause for a bit of non-vital funny business, in a scene that offers me another attempt to paste together a panorama... here's the interior of the radio station (click to enlarge):
Avery loved the use of worn-out jokes, and delighted in forcing his audiences to laugh at them, by sheer persistence. This routine, out of a tattered burlesque jokebook, has the station secretary read a telegram, while fending the randy advances of the delivery boy with the "STOP!" punctuation of the document. (It's still pretty funny.)
This ancillary business sets the stage for the appearance of our dejected, misunderstood hero, who finally reveals his name, via calling card (I didn't have the heart to mention it before...)
Avery would always rather reveal information visually. Via Jack Bunny's changing expression and body language, we see that he actually likes this little off-key "jazz singer!"
Thanks to modern means of communication, c. 1936, the Owl family catches their charge in-action. They rush, like a set of boxcars, towards G-O-N-G...
...where Owl J. is killin' it. So delighted is the dyspeptic Bunny that he reaches for his silver FIRST PRIZE cup... and I'll bet it's thick with dust!
Little do Owl's parents know that they're a huge buzz-kill. As they arrive, our protagonist's PTSDs kick in...
That sour expression so perfectly conveys its bearer's cramped reluctance-cum-hatred of having to conform. I would love to see Avery's layout sketches of this scene, to see how much of this was from his hand, and how much from the animators'...

Bunny's face changes from rhapsody to reflux, as the peppy strains of "Singa" become the harsh distaste of "Drink To Me Only..."
Before he can bang that gong and pull that flusher, the Owl Family rushes in, as one, to save the day and empower Owl's musical soul with some well-rehearsed song-and-dance work...
Mr. Bunny approves!
The loving-cup is awarded, and we iris out on the now-jazz-friendly Fritz Owl family...
Whoops! Someone didn't tell the key grip about that trophy!

But never mind... as the right of the triumphant Avery protagonist, Owl J. is able to wrench the aperture open, seize his prize, and let the iris contract to infinity.
I Love To Singa, the last of Avery's first color trifecta, pushes his comedic theory into the forefront. What occurs in its eight minutes is a substantial improvement on the Merrie Melodies formula. The title song is plugged in a front-office-pleasing way, but it's framed in a story that offers some genuine narrative stakes and allows itself to be constantly, subtly spoofed.

The gags and attitude are tame, compared to later cartoons like Cinderella Meets Fella (1938) and Thugs With Dirty Mugs (1939). Judged on its own merits, and in the context of what had passed for a Merrie Melodie pre-Avery, Singa is a significant ground-breaker. Avery's confidence is key here. He tries some outrageous things, but presents them with vigor and charming gusto.

This was really fresh stuff for 1936, and it did not go unnoticed by Avery's peers. This attitude would infect the Hollywood cartoon community--to the point that even Disney would try their hand at an Avery-zany Silly Symphony (1938's Mother Goose Goes Hollywood).

The seeds of a stylistic revolution have been planted in these first three Avery-directed color cartoons. For the nonce, it's back to black (and white) for the Avery unit for awhile. Somebody's got to make those Porky Pig cartoons!

Coming next: Porky the Rain-Maker (1936)

14 comments:

  1. Great post on a very important entry in the Warner canon. It's so fondly remembered precisely because it's just about the earliest cartoon in the U-A package that has more than musical synchronization going for it - an anomaly for all of us watching those cartoons on TV as a kid for sure.

    The father/son concept simply works better with '30s aesthetics. By the time of ONE CAB'S FAMILY and LITTLE JOHNNY JET, when Avery was deep into his prime, any sensitivity just seems insincere (i.e. the taxi's tears being cleared with windshield wipers while his son's in surgery).

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    1. Thanks for your response, Thad. The difference between WB and MGM Avery is that the former is less afraid to show genuine emotion, and the latter has shaved it out of the picture (LITTLE 'TINKER notwithstanding). The "hard" Avery of the MGM years strives for comedy nirvana, where emotions are excess baggage.

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  2. The other thing this cartoon benefited from was the mandatory song -- It's a silly Al Jolson/Cab Calloway number, with silly lyrics and staged in a completely silly way in live action the year before. Unlike may of the other tunes which had to be used in the Merrie Melodies, "I Love To Singa" demands to be part of a silly plot line, which is what Avery delivers by grafting it onto Jolson's (and at this point, Warners') most famous movie.

    Going through all the 1934-38 cartoons, you can see why having to stick the WB-owned songs in the color cartoons drove Friz and then Tex crazy. But in this case, the song seems like something Avery wanted to work with, as he would a year later with Daffy's rendition of "The Merrie Go Round Broke Down".

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  3. Terrific analysis of this cartoon as well as your previous entries. You present a very good case on how Avery really revolutionised the attitude and humour in the Hollywood animation industry. Much more superior to the review on my chronological WB blog a year back.

    BTW, one minor note: Keith Scott told me a year ago the Owl's non-singing voice was Jackie Morrow (who also provided the voice of Buddy in his last cartoons). Just curious where the information of Johnnie Davis came from.

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    1. Where does Keith's information come from? If he can show me a document that unmistakably states this, I'll go with it. Otherwise, this notion that someone "knows" something, and that their word is law, is just as flawed as my attempts to take IMDb on their word.
      None of this is really important to my focus on Avery's work. It's just trainspotting.

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    2. Hi Frank,
      Keith's information comes from DECADES of researching the subject of cartoon voices, which includes scouring the recording archives of various studios for documentation and listening to thousands of hours worth of recordings. IMDB credits are generally dumbasses making arbitrary guesses (i.e. Wikipedia).

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    3. Thanks for this information, Thad. I've decided I'm not going to mention anyone except Avery by name anymore, unless that person is Carl Stalling, Mel Blanc or perhaps Irv Spence, because everyone has his or her own version of history, and I'm tired of the nit-pickers.

      I have no way of knowing what is and isn't correct, and I've learned that I can trust no reference sources on this material (at least, what I have access to at present).

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    4. And I don't mean to come across as such an Ed Bighead about all this... I just keep stepping on land-mines, and it's making me very frustrated.

      I wholeheartedly admire the Keith Scotts of the world, who are able to dig deep and find out what really happened. I look forward to the day when their information, certified as correct, can replace all the speculative BS that so utterly frustrates my good intentions.

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  4. Needless to say, this is a spoof of WB's own landmark, "Jazz Singer".

    Cast for this cartoon:
    Owl Jolson, singa-ing(:)).....Jackie Morrow (I don't think Frank mentioned Johnny Davis)

    Owl Jolson, speaking.....Tommy Bond

    Mother Owl....Martha Wentworth

    Father Owl/stubby little bird auditioning..Billy Bletcher

    Jack Bunny...Tedd Pierce

    Stuttering bird (NOT Joe Doughtery)...Lou Fulton

    The "I'm Forever Blowing...Bubbles"Fat,u\h, Chick...Bereneice Hansell

    Secretary Bird (gong..another pun/others..unknown.

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  5. I never realized how significant this cartoon was besides the fact that it was different from many other animated cartoons produced at the time in its self awareness. It was always a fun treat to watch as a kid. Saw it many times then too! Thanks for all the excellent analyses of these landmark cartoons, Mr. Young. Tex Avery has been one of my most important cartooning influences ever and why I have any interest in learning about the craft or creating something funyn and original. I hope this blog will help other animation artists out there.

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    1. Thank you, Reberto. Your reply, as someone who gets what I'm trying to do here, is meaningful, amidst a sea of nit-picking trainspotters. I truly appreciate your words!

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  6. I hope you have a new post coming up soon! That confusing, Flapjack/Regular Show look-a-like Sanjay and Craig cartoon that I watched on Sunday made me realize how more of a genius Tex Avery was and how even the worst of his films are still more inspiring and livlier than much of current mainstream animation right now. Noodle arms and tiny pupils seem to be the biggest thing right now along with absolute weirdness aimed at the short attention span Twitter/Instagram/Xbox 360 kind of Millennial generation. Not to sound like a nostalgic, old curmudgeon or anything. There is still plenty of good entertainment being made now, but the model for producing it is slowly starting to change for the better.

    Cheers!

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  7. Now there's a word! Nicely done, Frank.

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  8. Now there's a word! Nicely done, Frank.

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