Saturday, August 4, 2018

Wacky Wildlife Brings Late 1940 Spot-Gag 'Trifecta' to a Close

Release date: 11/9/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: 
none

You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

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Yes, we're still in spot-gag mode. That's three in a row. I just want you to realize how I must sometimes suffer for my art!

I kid the Avery spot-gag cartoons. Having to study and review them has given me a grudging respect for them. As time-capsules of the development of Hollywood studio animation, and of the film-to-film progression of one of its great directors, these cartoons have great value. Entertainment-wise, ehh. At their best, they're a well-oiled joke machine. We may be able to second-guess their every move, but they remain likable, to a point.

We are fast reaching the point of no return for the spot-gag cartoons. In 1941, this tacit series takes a prolonged nose-dive, despite a couple of forward-reaching comedic ideas.

Once I get this entry done, I can move on to Of Fox and Hounds, which is one of my favorite Avery cartoons. So there's that.



Our old friend Robert C. Bruce is back to narrate this film, which lost its original title cards when re-issued in 1953. Someone on YouTube unearthed a weathered black and white print of this cartoon and posted the title sequence. So here's what the original title card looks like, if you can imagine viewing the film from beneath filthy bathtub water. The original musical cue wasn't cut; nor was Bruce's redundant voicing of the title. He promises us "odd and interesting action studies of our familiar friends from the animal kingdom."

A bucolic woodland scene opens the film. A faun enters stage right. We know she is going to do something goofy and against type for her species. Will it be a Mae West routine? Another Kate Hepburn riff? A popular radio-comedy tagline?
This not-rotoscoped deer is elegantly designed and animated. Bruce goes on at such length about the creature's timid nature that you know she's going to be rude.
Without losing the simple realism of the character design, the faun plunges her face into the pond and guzzles H2O like a hapless homesteader in a Western movie.
A hiccup/belch combo emits from the deer's mouth. Her facial expression distorts just enough to punch the impact of the moment home.
 Then she feigns embarrassment and tenders an apology for her coarse behavior.
 And then she skulks off-screen, stage left.
 And takes her time doing so.
Next, we witness a potentially gruesome scene; a bird charmed by a snake and then eaten. Except it won't happen...
 Rusty hinge SFX accompanies the snake's opening jaws...
"If you think I'm goin' in theah," says Mel Blanc in his best Li'l Eight-Ball voice...
"yoh crazy!" He then exits with the somnabulist pose, as the chagrined snake realizes the jig is up.
Next up--an amusing variant on the typical anti-skunk sentiment of Hollywood cartoons:
In a twin to the previous cartoon's Mother's Day sequence, we see an encounter between a rotoscoped, realistically proportioned bobcat and a cartoon tom cat somewhere in-between the anonymous tuxedo cats of Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett.

"Hello, Tom."
"Hello, Bob."
This pair of short and sweet gags, with their impeccable timing, show Avery and his team still able to catch the jaded viewer off-guard. This was one of Avery's comedic gifts, and a skill he honed to perfection by the end of the 1940s.
 "A common habit of the crane is to stand on one leg."
This is the first of two Wacky Wildlife gags that Avery will re-use in his 1947 M-G-M comedy nightmare, Slap Happy Lion. The miserably soft quality of these screenshots demonstrates the crime against American pop culture that Warner Home Video is committing by not restoring these invaluable masterworks of animation. 
Though perhaps a third to a half of Avery's Warner Brothers cartoons have been restored, the number is significantly higher than any work done on his M-G-M films since the auto-restored disaster of the long out-of-print Droopy collection. A live-action film equivalent would be to have many of Buster Keaton's early shorts restored, but none of his features.
Avery's Warner Brothers cartoons are important, of course, as they show a comedic mastermind developing his art. Not to have decent restored versions of the M-G-Ms is a crying shame. It does no good for me to carp here about it, but every time I watch a laser-disc transfer of the Avery films, it hurts me inside.
Despite a change in direction, and the character's motivation of fear in the later film, this gag was one Avery must have been fond of, and that he hung onto.
We switch gears to a routine that's devised to try the audience's patience, which is funny itself. I can imagine the chuckles that came from Avery's desk as he thought up this bit.
"The pack rat, an interesting little animal, has a very peculiar trait...."
"When he steals an object..."
"He always replaces it with another object."
The ensuing back-and-forth goes on way too long. The sequence lasts one minute, with Carl Stalling's jolly, percussive music giving a clock-like air to the proceedings, until the inevitable capper--a line used by all the Warners cartoon directors at some point in their careers:
"Monotonous, isn't it?"

Here's another future Slap Happy Lion gag. It remains a mystery bit of business for us cartoon nuts, including Devon Baxter, who did an excellent series of columns for the Cartoon Research website on animation's borrowing from radio comedy. This one is an obvious radio bit, but its origin hasn't been discovered yet.
"The dense Everglades of the South are infested with vicious alligators..."
As with the gag that opens this cartoon, the length of Bruce's spiel about the dangerous quality of the alligator is a comedic red-flag. And sure 'nuff...
Here's a telling difference in Avery's approach. In 1940, he feels the need to set up the punchline by having Bruce talk with the reptile. This is fine: at the time, Avery was still a bit self-conscious about breaking the fourth wall. He doesn't make a Cecil B. deMille production out of it here, as he did three years earlier with Uncle Tom's Bungalow, but he does feel the need to cushion the blow by this back-and-forth.
Bruce shows genuine concern for this gator's withered torso. The punch-line is one that was voiced by millions of kids back in the days when these cartoons were shown on television:
 "Well..."
 "I've been sick."
In another analogy, the Warner Brothers Avery cartoons are like pre-WWII jazz. They're exuberant, grand-standing and visually rich--the artistic equivalent of "melodic." M-G-M Avery, by the time of Slap Happy Lion, has a comedic sensibility equivalent to bebop: dissonant, atonal, unpredictable in its shifts from light to dark.
Avery cut back on the bells and whistles of film-making as the 1940s hit their midway point. Though the animation and backgrounds remain impossibly lush and attractive, the intent is narrowed down, with no room for excess baggage.
Avery works the Rule Of Three here. Two healthy specimens scramble out of the water...
 the malnourished third toddles out of the drink for a few seconds...
 He looks right at us, his eyes pitiful...
 He utters the line in a weak childish voice...
 And he continues in his flight.
The gag is played against a neutral earth tone, which highlights the bright green, yellow and pink of the alligator, and heightens his pathetic state. We are seeing the work of a master film-maker here. The Avery of Wacky Wildlife is clearly a superior animation director. That he would continue to improve might have been unthinkable to his colleagues of 1940.
Next, a mother bird scolds her young 'un, at great length, while a tell-tale Avery-requested musical cue of "Listen to the Mocking-bird" accompanies her avian rant.
 "Aw, lay off the bird talk, Mom," the street-wise kid says...
 "What's on yer mind?"
Junior pauses to spit (with the boxing-match DING sound effect) and turns his steely stare to stunned mater.
Bruce sings the praises of Montana's sheep herds...
 "Ah, there's nothing like a good leg of lamb," he sighs. A lamb overhears him...
...and delivers the goods, to the tune of "It Had to Be You," Carl Stalling's stand-by for moment of sudden sexualization.
 That cocking of the head is perfect.
 Back to being a sheep.
Bruce derides the mud-wallowing sloppiness of a barnyard pig.
 "All right; so I ain't neat," Blanc-voiced pig growls.
Duck-hunting was among Avery's pastimes when not laboring at the animation studio. The atmosphere of this sequence is familiar to his work. 
There's a quiet elegance to the naturalistic animation of these ducks descending on the water and settling in.
 Hunter, rifle at the ready, fires on the flock of fowls.
Bruce worries over the ducks' fate as the rifle scatters them.
 One duck doesn't budge. Bruce calls it "stupid" and urges it to flee.
 An odd moment of pre-war patriotism ends this pastoral bit.
Big trees... is a dog joke coming?
 Nope--termites! Tiny critter clean-cuts a massive tree...
 ...struggles to push it over...
 ...shouts "Tim-BER" and dusts off its hands with a real sense of accomplishment.
 Now we're in the desert for a suite of like-themed blackouts.
Cowboy's rhythmic range-riding turns out to be horse's horseplay.
 Coyote call for his mate in the desert night...
 A wonderful atmosphere is quickly shattered with a wolf-whistle...
 "Hey! Mabel!"
 "Come on out!"
A rendition of another Stalling standby, "If I Could Be With You" get a bright, swingy treatment as the coyote pants in anticipation.
 A camel gag? Sure! There can never be enough animated camels to suit me.
Again, Bruce's fuss and bother over the camel's legendary ability to go without water begs to be toppled. Camel obliges with a mean look...
 "I don't care what you say; I'm thirsty."
Okay, we're gonna end on another dogs-and-trees bit. This slightly naughty notion was Avery's pet gag of 1940. Distinguishing this routine is inspired and frenzied animation that shows a touch of the Bob Clampett influence--while revealing Avery's hand in the canine's profile poses.
Carl Stalling's musical sting as the wild dog's tail flops down is a classic Warner Brothers cartoon moment.
Bruce, always willing to take the bait, asks the dog what makes him so wild (and so much fun to watch).
 There is Avery's hand as an artist in that profile. Always nice to see.
 "What makes we wild?"
 "What makes me wild?!?"
 "LOOK!!!"
 Camera follows orders and pans right...
 ...reveals deforestation galore in boffo finale.
 The oddest iris-out in Avery's filmography.
 Crappy generic reissue end title.
I am hard pressed to come up with anything new to say here. Anything I might say I've already said, over and over. I'm glad to get a break from spot-gag cartoons for the next installment of this blog. That's all, fokes.
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UP NEXT: The Lenny Effect and the Rewards of Repetition: Of Fox and Hounds.

6 comments:

  1. The jazz analogy is very fitting, Frank, and one I hadn't considered.
    I don't know if we'll ever find the origin of the "I've been sick" routine. It would appear to have been a joke involving an elephant talking with a mouse. Columnist Leonard Lyons attributed it in 1939 to Jay Allen, a fellow journalist, I assume. In 1940, Jimmy Fidler credited it to actress Ruth Elder. A 1970 piece in Newsday claimed it was an old Jimmy Durante gag. I've found variations on it (all involving an elephant and a mouse) as newspaper fillers in the '40s and '50s.

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  2. The duck/flag gag has a specific historical meaning. Before the U.S. entry into World War II in December of 1941, the U.S. was, of course, neutral. In order to (in theory) protect its merchant ships from being attacked, many ships had a large American flag painted on the side in order to identify them, large enough to be spotted by, for example, U-Boats. Hence the gag here: the duck has protected itself from enemy fire in the same way. You can find an example showing the great liner S.S. America displaying the flag in this way here: https://www.explorermagazin.de/amstar/amhist1_e.htm

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  3. The extended gag with the pack rat seems to be a warm-up for the extended fall with Bugs and Willoughby in "The Heckling Hare" -- in both cases, part of the fun for Tex seems to be trying to extend the gag to such an extent that just the length or it becomes funny (something he'd try again a a slightly different manner with his final theatrical cartoon "SH-H-H-H-H-H".

    (Also, while Tex was in a bit of a rut with the spot gag cartoons by the end of 1940, Chuck Jones also was in one with his overly quiet/cute efforts and even Bob Clampett by the end of '40 was struggling to figure out a way to use Porky in every single Looney Tune. That might be why Leon Schlesinger shook things up a little in 1941 prior to Avery's departure, where all four units now had to do color and B&W shorts, and Porky no longer had to be in every Looney Tunes.)

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  4. "Wacky Wildlife" could nearly have been a "Speaking of Animals" reel, which series was an Avery concept. "I don't care what you say, I'm thirsty", was used in at least one of the SOAs.

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  5. the Warner Brothers Avery cartoons are like pre-WWII jazz. They're exuberant, grand-standing and visually rich--the artistic equivalent of "melodic." M-G-M Avery, by the time of Slap Happy Lion, has a comedic sensibility equivalent to bebop: dissonant, atonal, unpredictable in its shifts from light to dark.

    Very, very perceptive, Frank. An excellent piece!

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  6. I have a B/W 16mm print of "Wacky Wildlife" with the original credits - should have sent you a better screenshot. There is no difference between the original and reissue in this case, beyond the title artwork.

    Most of those closeups of the snake, birds and mouse are by Rod Scribner. Virgil Ross animated the wild dog. Not much to really say about this one, at all, though.

    And yes, it truly is an embarrassment there is STILL no comprehensive digital media collection of Tex Avery's work in 2018. All of the people at Warner Home Video who had sway should be ashamed of themselves that an important slate of film history is still unavailable. Part of the reason may be because at least two cartoons ("Uncle Tom's Cabana" and "Half-Pint Pygmy") are, like two Tom & Jerry cartoons, on a permanent "do not release" list that Warner Legal will NOT back down from despite being drawn up eons ago by people no longer with the company. Another factor is an individual who could actively make a difference, but I hear tell this individual "doesn't like the MGM cartoons," so that individual is no champion of classic film, whatever is said to the contrary. Sad, ain't it?

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