3/6/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb says 5/18/37)
Available on the Warner Home Video DVD DAMES, released in 2006)
A reasonably good copy of this cartoon can be seen HERE (thanks for providing this, Devon Baxter!) As always, we recommend that you watch the cartoon before reading!
Frustrating cartoon, this. It comes right before Fred Avery's first bonafide masterpiece—one of the most revolutionary animated cartoons in American film. This cartoon is, quite frankly, not worthy of his talent or effort.
This is a pattern that recurs through Avery's career. Minor films precede major works; masterpieces are followed by half-assed also-rans. Avery was not a consistent creator of gems. By his nature, he couldn't be. A constant, fearless experimenter, each film an object-lesson in how much he could get away with (both with the studio brass and paying audiences), Avery had to take mis-steps.
More so than Chuck Jones or Bob Clampett, Avery walked off metaphorical cliffs, and courted abject failure, so that he could excel in his cinematic and comedic gifts.
I Only Have Eyes For You is exactly the kind of cartoon producer Leon Schlesinger wanted. It exploited a hot song (and a genuinely fine one—it's become a solid part of the Great American Songbook), and, on its surface, did nothing out of kilter. It could have been made by any of the units at Schlesinger's studio.
Avery would keep making such cartoons throughout his stay at Schlesinger's. There will be four more of these song-driven cartoons in the next year. They are replaced by the troublesome string of topical spot-gag cartoons in 1939. Your humble host looks forward to covering those cartoons as he would a spoonful of syrup of ipecac.
Avery's frustration is evident through-out this cartoon, and, if anything, it fuels a certain inventive flair. It introduces two major Avery motifs to the world: the genuinely unlikable protagonist and the pretentious, mega-entitled heroine. This female character speaks exclusively in the dulcet tones of Katherine Hepburn. She embodies all the puffery and self-importance of Hollywood—the thing Avery most loved to mock and deflate.
Hepburn had appeared in at least ten films by the time cartoon was in production, including spotlight roles in Little Women (1933) Alice Adams and Sylvia Scarlett (both 1935). Like Bette Davis and Greta Garbo, she was an ideal target for Avery's nose-thumbing satire.
The unappealing "hero" appears to be a cruel take-off of Schlesinger voice-man Joe Dougherty, who was phased out in favor of Mel Blanc by this time. The character's constant, knotted Spoonerisms can be seen as an expression of Avery's frustration with Dougherty.
We start in 1937-hip mode, with a jivy minor-key vocal chorus who fill us in on the story's spine:
Iceman approaches hag's home with extreme caution, knowing that he is about to experience sexual harassment on-the-job.
Iceman's first Spoonerism:
Indeed, she is. In a suspenseful moment, Iceman attempts to sneak into the belly of the beast, shown here as an assembled pan-shot.
(she lewdly winks as she offers him "cornbread an' sweet p'tatas")
Iceman has nowhere to run.
"Fleer's some howers..."
A Crosby-school crooner breaks through the static; Katie shushes this also-ran.
[crooner, from radio] "Don't lean on the radio, son. You bother me."
Iceman is sore, and has every right to be.
"Ahhh... some day, somewhere, some time, I shall marry one..."
"...and I know that we shall be oh so terribly happy..."
"...rally, I do."
In three slick static shots (the first a zoom-in), Avery lets signage do the heavy lifting.
Avery cleverly uses the sign on the door to connect us to the next sequence, as Iceman opens the barrier to reveal Professor Mockingbird, at his desk, contemplating a new mimicry.
Katie is smitten.
[sighs deeply] "I knew he'd come; my lover, my sweet one..."
"Oh, at lahst, to be held in the arms of a crooner..."
"It will make me so sadly happy..."
"Really, it will."
Let the unsuccessful ruse begin...
Hey, where'd that signal button come from?
The affect almost works.
[to audience] "Boy, it's plenty cold in here!"
The Professor literally blows his cover...
The jig is up!
Professor is nursed back to health by Katie Canary...
as workmen remove her radio...
and install an electric refrigerator. The Iceman's services are no longer needed.
A perverse zoom-in, as the lovebirds cuddle...
And one quick inter-title, as we fade in on the Iceman's domestic heaven and hell combined.
The old hag offers comfort foods beyond count...
...but at a price.
Oh, what a price!
"Well, lever the ness... forever a mess..."
"...well, anyhow, she can cook..."
and a dark curtain closes on this scene. "That's all Folks!" indeed...
Admittedly, the stakes were higher, and restrictions were greater, in these costly Technicolor cartoons. These Merrie Melodies had to promote a song, lightly amuse their audience, and perhaps lead to sheet music and record sales of the plugged ditty therein.
Whether the cartoon was brilliant, funny or inventive didn't matter. If that happened, no one would complain, but the Merrie Melodies of this era, at their most typical, can be phoned-in sales pieces.
It's to the credit of the Avery unit that this cartoon is as funny and, in parts, grave as it is. The tension of the Iceman's first entrance of the old hag's home is striking. Although Avery was a reluctant sentimentalist, he does convey a certain desperation in the Iceman's search for love that hits home, beneath the character's cruel Spoonerisms and dimwitted wrong choices. His sad fate is both funny and brutal. Despite himself, this cipher lingers in our thoughts.
Avery will soon cease to make this type of cartoon. In the cheaper, less-monitored black and white Looney Tunes, his unit will soon level the playing field for aggressively cartoony cartoons.
NEXT: Porky's Game-Changer (introducing Daffy Duck).