Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Early Worm Gets The Bird: 1940's Inauspicious, Racist-Lite Kickoff

Release date: 1/13/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: none

You may view the uncensored version of this cartoon HERE.

For its first narrative cartoon since Dangerous Dan McFoo, the Fred Avery unit reprises the territory of the earlier (and better) The Sneezing Weasel. Ambition and pace are slowed down, and racial caricatures inform its characters. After four spot-gag cartoons in a row, the notion of a "real" cartoon seems welcome and appealing. This film has a few isolated moments of wit and sharp pacing, but is hampered by dullness and a general lack of inspiration.

The Avery unit has some triumphs just down the road--The Bear's Tale, A Wild Hare and Of Fox and Hounds--and elements of those three films are weakly forecast here. Perhaps it had been so long since Avery and unit had tried to tell a through-story, with no interruptions or side-trips, that they would have made hash of anything they tried.

If nothing else, Early Worm is a sort of fond look back at the Avery unit's triumphs of 1937 and '38, when its blend of meta-story, increasing tempo and more confident, expressive animation announced the arrival of something new to studio cartoons.

Early Worm was among the first of the Warner Brothers "Blue Ribbon" re-issues in the fall of 1943. It was re-reissued in 1952, which suggests, inexplicably, that it was an audience favorite.

The opening is common to Avery's story cartoons of the late 1930s: an atmospheric multiplane exterior, set to music that establishes the mood and place. Stephen Foster's 1851 minstrel song "Old Folks at Home," more often known as "Swanee River," gets us through this gag-free introduction and tells us this is the Deep South--the cartoon version of it, at least.
It might also serve as a tip-off that we're about to see caricatures of black dialect; Foster's song, told from the POV of an Afro-American slave, uses the mush-mouthed likes of "ebber" and "eb'rywhere," among other ethnic corruptions, to get its bizarre sentiments of love for "de ole plantation" and de slavery system across.

We dissolve to the interior of the Blackbird home. Three children say their prayers as their adoring Mammy looks on, delighted at their goodness and grace. An Avery standard--the quick P.S. adorned with fast physical action--makes a lightly humorous tag.
Once the lights are out, one of the kids reveals an obsessive need to be different-- a la the parrot hero of 1937's I Wanna Be a Sailor, or Owl Jolson in 1936's I Love to Singa. He is obsessed with a book called The Early Bird Gets the Worm, which is his version of The Anarchist's Cookbook. He wakes one of his brothers to preach the gospel.

He's voiced by a sped-up but 100% recognizable Mel Blanc, who gives him a standard, if expressive, stock Negro dialect.

(Mother's voice is beautifully rendered by Sara Berner, whose versatility, like Blanc's, is easy to take for granted. She imbues her few moments here with genuine presence and warmth.)

Avery is still enamored with variable light sources--a tentative tie to the Disney influence that he would spend the next six years shaking off with a vengeance.
Brother is less than impressed.
In the next room, Mammy dwells on "them precious little honey lambs" as she settles into bed. In a subtle reveal, tell-tale beams of light from the kids' closed door informs her that one of her brood is being naughty.
She demands the book, which she chucks out an open window, and berates her son for "readin' dat trash." She offers a voice of experience. To stalk the early worm is to be predator and prey: "if you try to catch that worm, the ol' fox'll catch you!"
Fascinated, the triplets ask for more intel on this fox individual.

Mammy makes a vivid show of the fox's attributes, and ends on an effective scare: "He loves t'eat little birds--just like you!"
The kids scramble in retreat under the covers as Mammy, convinced that she's set her offspring straight, again bids them good night.
The Avery Obsessive is blind to sheer reason. "I ain't a-scared o' no oal fox!" Despite the stereo admonition from his sibs, he sets an alarm clock to realize his ambition.
The alarm clock's hands spin through night time (not shown here) and we fade out/fade in on an atmospheric sunrise--another visual trope of Avery's WB years. A rooster crows...
...and, in one of this film's wittiest moments, our hero silences its bracing clang with a simple "Shhh!"
 Wormboy does an early rendition of a trick Avery will use at M-G-M more than once--the lightning-fast passage of a doorway--as oblivious Mammy snoozes.
Outside, bird falls off the house's foundation and does the earliest extant version of a common Avery trick--the "putting on the brakes" bit, which we'll see stretched to its ultimate in next year's The Heckling Hare. As with all Avery's pet gags, he used and refined it in several cartoons until he got the right hairsbreadth timing.
 His hat, er, follows suit.
Now for some standard-issue chase cartoon stuff. 

Bird does canine bit as his search begins.
The Early Worm looks like an escapee from the I. Freleng unit.
 In Avery's world of comic inevitability, he finds the contraband book and reads up on himself:
 Then he adopts the hound-dog sniff 'n' stalk pose.
Cross-cutting is an essential filmic tool for Avery. Only D. W. Griffith got more mileage out of this device. It's a great way to endow a dull scene with some tension, as here:
Some good "Avery takes" as the two realize who they're facing.
The slow burn of realization hits Bird.
Next is a prophetic moment that will grace a forthcoming Avery masterpiece: prey thwarts predator by hopping into a hole in the ground. Predator is frustrated.
Worm joins in with the requests to come out and be part of the food chain. This embryonic version of a much-used gag must have surprised 1940 audiences.

More chase stuff. I wonder how many hours of footage the American animation industry has produced of characters chasing one another? More, I'm sure, than anyone could view in one sitting.
Since the bird is clearly no Einstein, worm pulls another early-adapter cartoon classic: prey gives oblivious predator intel on where prey went.
One of the most humiliating moments in any animated character's life is the realization that they have been played...
 ...and the attendant dissolve-into-sucker moment. These lollipops are typically bright red, perhaps to imply the bearer's embarrassment. The event lasts, at best, a few seconds, but is a dark moment in any cartoon entity's life cycle.
Worm seeks refuge in flower; finds cartoon's deus ex machina.
An inspired double take-off--a bit of business I don't think Avery repeated--is startling:
Worm announces it's all a trick, incites more chase footage.
 Fool enough to fall for it again...
 Of course, this time it's the for-reals bee.
The worm calls the bird for more horseplay when the tangible antagonist appears.
 No Avery bad-guy goes without proper introduction.
And we have a "double chaser," a year before Friz Freleng's cartoon of the same name.
Bird is unaware fox is fox, and approaches him as a colleague. Blanc voices this pompous canid.
Bird warns fox to be on the lookout for himself. Blanc's performance, as the bird slowly sizes up the dire situation, is impressive.

 Bird does clever attempted sleepwalk exit...
 Escape FAIL.
Worm observes sad situation; comes up with solution.
That irksome bee! Why, of course...
Meanwhile, fox comes prepared with pre-buttered white bread...
 and catsup (not ketchup; please note).
 D. W. Griffith would've been proud of this dramatic crosscutting.
 One of cartoondom's more morbid moments...
 Worm prepares to a real pain in the sit-down.
Offers own ass as enticement.
 Worm, bird run for cover. What goes up...
...must come down.
 Including catsup.
In a weak bit of narrative, fox believes his catsup is blood. I don't buy it, but it gets him out of the picture.
Worm and bird shake hands. We're ready to iris out...
 It's that damned bee. We dissolve to interior, Blackbird home:
 Bird's excessive sweating is kind of gross.
As Mama enters to wake up her brood, bird feigns sleepiness.
 Quizzed about breakfast choices, other brothers request worms.
 Our protagonist, humbled by his misadventure, declines.
 As does his surprise bedmate, the worm...
Who, in a great closing moment, realizes that he's probably ended his life with that cute li'l wisecrack.
Sharp character animation, increasingly sophisticated timing, and a strong pool of voice talent aside, there's not much to hang onto in Early Worm Gets the Bird. It's a phoned-in cartoon, garnished with moments of wit and rapid-fire action, but it adds nothing new to the comedic universe of its maker--something even the spot-tag travelogues still manage to do.

Avery did this cartoon, as said earlier, much better with 1938's Sneezing Weasel, and one detects a desperately needed recharging of creative batteries. Avery's heart isn't in this material. He neither likes or disdains his characters. This indifference hurts the work. 

Avery needs some sort of emotional connection to his characters--even if it's contempt--to breathe life into them. That investment isn't here. He is a pro, and capable of delivering the goods, but the goods aren't worthy of his talent. This happened many times in the studio cartoon era, and it would plague Avery again in his 1941 cartoons The Haunted Mouse and The Crackpot Quail.

In these lesser Avery cartoons, we can appreciate the moments of brilliance, short though they are, and realize that animation was a business, and its creators had to deliver the goods on schedule. Great or terrible, the cartoon went out to theaters, ran its course and went back in the vaults. By that time, the film-makers were onto other projects, and they figured no one would ever see these things again. If they'd known the scrutiny their work would inspire, from the 1970s on, they might have frozen up.

This must be kept in mind when approaching classic cartoons. They weren't pre-planned as masterpieces. They were a brief burst of color and rowdy entertainment on the theater's bill. If they turned out as masterpieces, wonderful. If not, back to the drawing board; another one had to get finished.

NEXT TIME (I hope sooner than later): Cross Country Detours.


  1. You give incorrect link for video.
    Here's the correct link:

  2. The original opening music cue apparently appears in a Schlesinger Party Gag Reel:

    1. Here's the full gag reel:

  3. Thanks, Frank. I'm very happy you're continuing this blog, no matter how long it takes. It'd actually make a fine article (edited of course) once it's finished.

    Not a fan of this one, either, but I agree, plenty of tropes here in their embyronic stage. And hey, isn't that the first time a character ever turned into a sucker? At least the first time with the "you're a horse's ass" tune...

  4. Thanks, Thad. I value your opinion and feedback. I'm determined to finish this look at Avery's WB cartoons, even though more topical spot-gag cartoons await...
    As for the sucker thing, I too wonder if this was a first. That became such a staple '40s gag, for all studios, and it would be really interesting to know for sure if it came from the Avery unit...

  5. We've kind of gone back to pre-"Little Red Walking Hood" here, in that we're actually being asked to take the villain somewhat seriously as a threat, while giving him if not extended, as least enough screen time to show a personality (the bear in "Of Fox and Hounds" that chases Willoughby is just being a bear in that short when he becomes the threat to cause George to come to the rescue). It's one of several cartoons from all of the units in 1940 that feel a bit like throwbacks, as if the studio still wasn't completely confident in making using their improving Disney-style animation to do decidedly non-Disney stories.

    (Also, I'd say of this, "Haunted Mouse" and "Crackpot Quail" Avery does have a love for the redesigned Willoughby in the latter, but the problem is Tex already did a cartoon with the quail's personality -- Avery makes you want to root for Bugs in "A Wild Hare" while he makes you want to root for the dog hunting the Bugs-like quail in the latter cartoon. Having the right adversary for the cocky character would be key to the chase-and-violence form of cartoon.)