Monday, September 23, 2019

Hollywood Steps Out and les films maudits of '41

Release date: 5/24/41 (according to BCDB); the version we have is the edited Blue Ribbon reissue of 10/2/48

DVD/BR AVAILABILITY: Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 2LT Platinum Collection, Vol. 2; LT Spotlight Collection Vol. 2 (all Warners Home Video DVDs)

You may view a crisp correct-ratio print of this cartoon HERE. The screen grabs are provided by our great pal Devon Baxter, and make this frequency of posting possible. 

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Tex Avery's remaining Warner Brothers cartoons often suffer from tampering or the presence of another director's hand. Some were cartoons left unfinished when Avery parted ways with Leon Schlesinger; others had cuts demanded by the front office.

Hollywood Steps Out is an example of how certain cartoons were altered for their reissue--in this case, seven years after its director had moved on to M-G-M. In this window of time, a war was fought, times changed and some celebrities lost their mass appeal; others matured and no longer resembled their caricatured selves. As wartime gags were scissored from post-war reissues, cultural references that no longer made sense got 86d. None of this mattered to the average moviegoer. The cartoon was not the reason they came to the theater. 

Bundled with other short subjects and coming attractions, they were the prelude to the main features--extras that, if missed, weren't a problem for most viewers. Cartoons came and went; some became word-of-mouth favorites and the good ones built a gradual fan-base that blossomed in the age of television.


This film is not a true example of le film maudit--the "cursed film" that was taken from its maker's hand and altered, often destructively. But its lost footage is long gone, unless an unknown original print surfaces. It's a sad experience to see a version of any film that isn't what its creators intended it to be. 

Many of the reissued Warner Brothers cartoons lost their original title cards and their opening theme--a brief moment for composer Carl Stalling to set the mood. Some have been discovered and restored, including the Avery masterwork A Wild Hare. For this, we are grateful, and it's hoped that more original openings are located before their film elements perish.

Hollywood Steps Out is mostly the film audiences of May 1941 saw. Celebrity caricatures in studio animation were an easy go-to for a change of pace. Disney, Columbia, M-G-M and Warners did them, with varying degrees of success. Disney's Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938) is among the studio's few palatable post-Production Code cartoons; Frank Tashlin's 1942 A Hollywood Detour, made during a brief spell at Columbia's troubled cartoon wing, is another film of note in this genre. Tashlin and Friz Freleng made celeb-caricature shorts for Warners in the late 1930s.

In a rare spot-gag cartoon without a narrator, Avery and his crew created a clever, sometimes transcendent version of this animated archetype. The opening sequence has its director's signature sense of audiovisual comedy. The city's ubiquitous spotlights jolt to a Latin rhythm during a pan-shot of Tinseltown by night:
 
 
 
The camera closes in on Ciro's nightclub--one of the few real-life locations in an Avery cartoon.
 
 
Period photo of the real-life Ciro's.
Caught up in the conga rhythm, a neon sign--a rethink of a gag from 1938's Cinderella Meets Fella--blinks in time to the percussion-rich music. 
This action eats up the first minute of the cartoon and is a clever budget-friendly move to keep complex animation to a bare minimum. The shapes of the spotlights--which are double exposures--were manipulated to stop their movements in time to the infectuous beat. We dissolve to INT. CIRO'S--NIGHT...
Wikipedia IDs the first celebs shown as Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Adolphe Menjou and Norma Shearer. If that's Ameche, he's a little too old and distinguished-looking, There's no mistaking the chap seated by himself--and the first of a bouquet of vocal impersonations by youthful Kent Rogers. (The celeb caricatures were designed by Ben Shenkman, an animation journeyman who also did celeb designs for Freleng's Malibu Beach Party [1940]).

As with Leonora Congdon's designs for Avery's Page Miss Glory, Shenkman's caricatures bring a novel style to the house look. The cartoon is a triumph for he and Rogers. Back to the cartoon-in-progress... 
Grant marvels at Ciro's--"it's as pretty as a picture!"--and then lets forth with a clever bit that mentions, directly or otherwise, three of his recent film hits.
 
 
The animators' sophistication shines in how they handle the complexities of moving caricature. If one element falls out of place, the effect is wrecked. Here, foreshortening and discreet exaggeration bring the animated Grant to delightful life.
 
Was Greta Garbo the most-spoofed movie star of her time? All corners of mass media took turns kidding her inscrutable, reclusive persona and her famously large feet. 
It's odd that she is relegated to being a cigarette girl. Most of the other caricatures, major and minor, appear as themselves, and as high-profile guests of this upscale nightlife. Garbo's fall from grace, intentional or not, is as curious choice here.
 
Grant gleefully (and patronizingly) buys a box of butts.
 
He asks for a light.
 
 
 
 
 Gets one.
We'll see more of Garbo later. Next, Edward G. Robinson greets Ann Sheridan, Warner's "Oomph Girl." She answers in her publicist's onomatopoeia. Repeatedly.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Henry Binder and Leon Schlesinger make a front-office-pleasing cameo appearance, with "Merrily We Roll Along" gently scored by Stalling. You can hear the heads scratching in the audience.
Some Avery Sign Gags curb animation for a spell. Why they avoided doing an animated Bette Davis is anyone's guess, but she's a disappointing omission...
Kate Smith is fat! Wotta riot!
The inclusion of comic-strip characters from Chic Young's Blondie attests to the popularity of the nearly-unbearable live-action Blondie movies starring Arthur Lake and Penny Singleton. It's a bit of a stretch, but allows for a fire-hydrant payoff.
 
 
Johnny Weissmuller checks his coat. Paulette Goddard is someone's best guess as to the check girl.
He gets a Stalling favorite, M. K. Jerome's "Congo," as he undresses.
 
 
 
 
If this is, indeed, Goddard, why does she have a Central Casting Brooklyn/Bronx accent?
Her next client is strip-tease artiste Sally Rand...
...who surrenders her powder puffy fans and, it's presumed, walks stark naked into Ciro's!
 
 
Humphrey Bogart had yet to film his iconic roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca when this cartoon was in production, but he'd done enough time as a screen tough guy to join the ranks of Jimmy Cagney and George Raft in a classic Avery reversal-of-expectation gag.
Rogers' Cagney is the weakest of his vocal impersonations. Cagney's distinctive speech patterns have remained a tough one for mimics--the reason why so many old TV shows and movies show a comedian bombing with a terrible Cagney take-off. 
 
 
 
 
The frontal drawing of Bogart, with its cubist touches, is wonderful.
 
 
 
 
They squabble over the outcome of this penny-pitching bit.
Garbo's back, and Harpo Marx has got her!
 
 
Camera pans up Garbo's gams and mid-section...
 
 
 
Many precious seconds later, her subdued "ouch" caps the gag.
 
The sadness of Garbo's visage adds spook factor to this moment.
Clark Gable eyes a mystery babe. Watch this space!
Bing Crosby acts as the MC for the floorshow.
 
His mock-hip patois is dampened by the arrival of a nag and its jockey (see previous cartoon breakdown for a look into the humor relationship of Crosby, Bing and horses, race).
 
 
 
Horses in Avery cartoons show a wide range of approaches--from the sausages-with-legs of the 1945 film Wild and Woolfy to Preston Blair's quasi-realistic version in Lonesome Lenny (1946). This poorly drawn beanpole is a whole 'nother beast, and the sole eyesore in a beautiful-looking cartoon. Admittedly, horses are challenging subjects for cartoonists and animators.

Back to '41.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Rogers' Bing is spot-on.
Bing behooves Leopold Stokowski to "make it mellow, fellow" as he dishes out the "South American jive...the conga, to be exact." As with Garbo, one wonders what the serious-minded Stokowski made of his frequent animated parodies.
The hairnet gag was good enough for Friz Freleng to re-use it in 1946's Slick Hare. And the "South American jive" that Stalling dishes out is hypnotic. It imbues the rest of the cartoon with a strong rhythm--one that made it easy for editors to remove gags for the 1948 reissue, including this sublime pairing of long tall Gary Cooper and moppet-sized Shirley Temple.
 
 
 
James Stewart and Dorothy Lamour are uneasy partners at a Ciro's table. Rogers' beautifully nuanced Stewart impression, in concert with Rod Scribner's animation, make for a magical moment that's touching, charming and funny.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lamour's rotoscoped conga-dancing has a kick...
 
...an effect not lost on Stewart.
 
 
 
 
Avery Sign and movie title reference in one fell swoop.
 
 
Close-up for the myopic in the audience.
Dissolve to more intrigue and Clark Gable.
"It's me again."
 
Tyrone Power and Sonja Henie participate in a favorite Avery Bit: the truck-to-reveal-discrepancy.
 
Frankenstein monster and The Three Stooges share the same static background--a startling effect often seen in early TV animation.
 
 
 
Oliver Hardy does a twin of the Kate Smith gag:
 
 
Opinions differ on who Cesar Romero dances with. Some say Rita Hayworth--who was not yet an A-list star--and others Ginger Rogers. It's another truck-and-reveal bit with a more baroque payoff.

 
The grotesque placement and movement of both parties' feet is perfectly done,
and is the best example of this Avery gag trope.
Was this the only Judy Garland caricature in classic Hollywood animation?
 
A $50 check was a serious chunk o' change in '41.
 
Mickey Rooney requests heart-to-heart talk with Lewis Stone (both adroitly voiced by Kent Rogers).
 
 
 
 
Dish-washing in conga time.
 
 
 
"Don't go away, folks... this oughta be good!
Bing's back to announce the feature attraction of the evening...
 ...with some partial re-use of earlier animation.
 
"Keep movin', boys... I'll see ya later back at the track."
 And the spot-light is on Sally "Strand"--the real-life Rand was touchy about the use of her name and likeness in spoofs and take-offs. 
 
 
It has been rumored that a "hotter" version of this sequence exists, with more skin showing. 
Truth or fanfic falsehood?
An aroused Kay Kyser.
"Stoo-dents!" 
A bevy of caricatures respond: William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Ronald Colman, Errol Flynn (top row); Noah Beery, C. Aubrey Smith (bottom row).
 
They give with the "Baaaaaby!" en-masse reaction seen in Cinderella Meets Fella.
 A modernistic, atonal-ish rendition of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles"
accompanies "Strand"'s racy routine.
Here is one of the earliest set-ups of the Red Hot Riding Hood routine: sexy dame on stage peppered with comical male reactions. Peter Lorre is first at bat:
"I haven't seen such beautiful bubbles since I was a child." 
 
 
Henry Fonda, in his only classic-cartoon caricature:
 His name is called by off-screen female voice in parody of the tagline of Henry Aldrich, a popular radio/film/TV look at adolescence.
 "Coming, Mother!"
 Mother comes for him!
 J. Edgar Hoover appeared in enough true-crime short subjects to sorta-qualify as a movie star. His joke is the kind of stone-dumb bit that killed Avery, who is cinema's pioneer of meta-stupid.
That right eye is oddly placed.
 
 
Deadpans Boris Karloff, Arthur Treacher, Buster Keaton...
 ...and Mischa Auer watch "Strand" in action.
 Ned Sparks inquires if fun is being had by all.
 
 (as one) "Yes."
 
Jerry Collona (and Yehudi) also have fun.
 
This vocal bit is credited to Mel Blanc. It's odd that he would do only three words of dialogue in a cartoon dominated by another voice artist.
 
 The dance climaxes...
 
 
 
 
Harpo ends it with a bang.
 
 
 
 
 
Tex Avery, like David Lynch, really digs curtains.
 
The film reaches its finale--the one spot that was cut when it was new. Prints circulate of a more complete ending than the one seen theatrically. Apparently, as legend has it, Clark Gable got wind of, and was bothered by, the same-sex gag and demanded the ending trimmed. I have no idea if this is true. What we do know is that the film ends abruptly, like the forthcoming The Heckling Hare, and leaves the viewer wishing that the closing had more oomph.
 "Now listen here, babe...
 
"I'm a man of few words, see. I've been chasin' you all night..." 
 
 "Now, how about a li'l kiss, baby?..."
 
 "Well!" Groucho Marx says. "Fancy meeting you here!"
 There's no break in the animation's flow, and Gable's look of roguish chagrin is spot-on...
 
Yet, as legend has it, the pre-release cut of the film had Gable smooch Groucho, and then say to us, "I'm a baaaaaaad boy!" The kiss seems to no longer exist, but footage of the film's intended closing line. An approximation of this ending can be seen HERE. The long-ish fade-out/fade-in does encourage the idea of excised footage.
 
 
What happened to Hollywood Steps Out is minor compared to cuts and changes to come in Avery's final months at Warners. Aside from the dilution of an inspired ending--which may, in reality, have been too out-there for American film in 1941, Gable or no Gable--it is among the best of its sub-genre. The gags are solid, as is their execution. Avery's hand is light, and this seems to have been conceived as a crowd-pleaser, which it was and still is.

It's impressive for its lack of ethnic humor. There was room for a Hattie McDaniels, Cab Calloway, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson or Stepin Fetchit moment. Such things were in Avery's wheelhouse as a popular culture humorist. The closest the film comes to this is its neutral portrayal of Cesar Romero, a Cuban-American who was one of 20th Century-Fox's stable of stars and a popular light comedian. 

Just as surprising is the lack of a Katharine Hepburn appearance. Given Avery's love of savaging the actress's affectations (as he did Bette Davis' style) in earlier Warners cartoons, her absence is notable. 

The film, in its current state, doesn't suffer for lack of any personality. With at least 45 celebrities caricatured in less than eight minutes, it's a heady spin through the Hollywood of pre-war America. That modern audiences still recognize a large amount of these celebs says much about their staying power--and compliments Ben Shenkman's spot-on caricatures, which Avery's crew animate with deft precision and grace. 

One of Avery's most handsome cartoons, Hollywood Steps Out appears to be the work of a happy, ambitious director who has paid his dues and is on the verge of his greatest work. Behind the scenes, things weren't so rosy. But interoffice conflicts didn't show up on-screen. It's worth noting again that this cartoon works beautifully without a narrator--the device that drives Avery's other spot-gag films. That additional voice would have strangled the film's easy-going flow. 

The film's planned ending would have yanked its sense of affable amusement out from under its audience. People would've laughed, but they'd also have been confronted with a social taboo. Men didn't kiss men on-screen in a studio film production in 1941. It was daring of Avery to attempt this ending, regardless of who pulled the plug on it.

This push against the status quo will dominate Avery's final films for Schlesinger, as intensified by our next subject, a genuine film maudit...

COMING SOON: The Heckling Hare.

6 comments:

  1. Wondering if “Ameche” is William Powell.

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  2. Yep, this seems to be Judy's only caricature in animation (I've watched many others for years, but nothing).

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  3. I think the cost check girl is just a coat check girl. If she was supposed to be Paulette Goddard it would be obvious.

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  4. Hollywood Steps Out revisits the caricature setup that was established in The Coo Coo Nut Grove. It also contained a gag of Groucho cross dressing (although I don't recall any film where he does that). Despite the truncated ending, the reveal and Gable's reaction still works as a hilarious punchline (it gets me everytime).

    Stokowski actually had a sense of humor. There's a photograph of him posing with pride of a caricature of himself which was done by a Disney artist during the production of Fantasia.

    I kind of wonder why no one has discussed the censorship of this film up until recently. Did Avery ever discuss these production hassles during his last year at Schlesinger's? I kind of wonder if this was a factor as to why he left.

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  5. I always thought the animation was based on caracatures drawn by Tee Hee, or did he only work on Coo-Coo-Nut Grove?

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    1. Hee was a talented caricaturist with a distinctive style. He was at Disney from 1937 on, so it's unlikely he would have done side work for the Schlesinger studio. He did two cartoons with Schlesinger, including "The Woods are Full of Cuckoos."

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