Friday, April 26, 2013

The Blow Out: Toon Terrorism and the Emergence of an Unlikely Cartoon Star


Porky Pig 101 (WHV 5-dvd set)

You can view this cartoon HERE.

The Blow Out is an impressive step forward for Fred Avery. Through 1938, Avery's cartoons would vacillate between significant advances and curious retreats.

Here, Avery introduces several essential items in his trick bag. Large comic "takes," colorful comedic villains and the nightmare of one character trying to escape from another--who turns up with supernaturally bad timing--are unveiled in The Blow Out.

Avery would perfect these tics by the time of his first few cartoons for M-G-M. The slow but steady development of these comedic facets becomes a point of fascination in his Warner Brothers efforts.

The Blow-Out also adds significantly to the personality of Porky Pig. Though the character won't be set in stone, er, pork for another two years or so, this cartoon helps to give him something like a personality.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Plane Dippy: "Get a Load Of This!"

January 4, 1936
Porky Pig 101 (WHV 5-disc set)
You can view this cartoon HERE

Fred Avery survived his first directorial effort for Leon Schlesinger, Gold Diggers of '49. With one "Supervision Fred Avery" credit to his name, and a reasonably good cartoon in release, he set out to do better the second time around.

His first step was to revert Porky Pig to the smaller, child-man of I Haven't Got A Hat. The grotesque hog of the prior cartoon was too harsh an exaggeration, even for Avery, who trafficked in distortion, over-statement and bigger-than-life effects.

He wisely assumed that a smaller character was automatically funnier. Of equal importance, this figure needed to be a cipher. These were Avery's favorite protagonists. Though Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Screwy Squirrel contradict this claim with their brash, aggressive personalities, Avery liked best the Porkys, Droopys and Eggheads--nobodies to whom things happened.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Gold Diggers of '49: Moonshine In The Schlesinger Gas-tank

RELEASE DATE: November 2, 1935

Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. V (Warner Brothers DVD 112172)

You can watch an original black-and-white version of this historically important cartoon HERE. Finally.

To appreciate the first Warner Brothers cartoon by Fred Avery, it's important to see it in the context of the other Warner Brothers cartoons of its season.

Leon Schlesinger's cartoon studio was in a creative doldrums in 1935. The once-manic energy of the first WB cartoons, produced and directed by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, was long gone. Harman-Ising's star employee (and fellow ex-Disney alumnus) Isadore "Friz" Freleng had begun to direct for Schlesinger, but his best work was years ahead of him.

The studio's attempts to create likable recurring characters had failed. Despite the obvious lack of appeal of Buddy and Cookie, Beans, Ham and Ex, et al, the studio stubbornly stuck with them. Walt Disney had long set the example: you had to give audiences a character they could laugh at and with. Easier said than done, especially when the Disney templates were either ciphers (Mickey Mouse) or blowhards (Donald Duck).

Schlesinger's color cartoons, which showcased a song from the Warner Brothers publishing house, and usually had no continuing characters, were marginally better, though still rather dull. Like the other Hollywood cartoon studios, Schlesinger's felt the impact of the critically-lauded Walt Disney shorts. Disney sought to create the illusion of life in his animation--at the expense of imagination, energy and humor. 

This challenge effectively stale-mated theatrical animation in the last half of the 1930s. As studios with smaller staff and budgets copied the Disney approach, usually without enthusiasm, the entertainment value of their collective output miserably dwindled. Ironically, the most ardent and obvious copyists of the Disney Way were Harman and Ising, who established a cartoon studio with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and immediately launched into their Happy Harmonies series--the most successful and lavish Disney knock-offs of their day.

The New York studios still showed signs of life, in Paul Terry's crude but vivid output, and in the black-and-white cartoons of The Fleischer Studio--particularly the rowdy, engaging Popeye series. (Fleischer was already grabbing at the Disney brass ring with its ambitious but often dull Color Classics cartoons.)

The 1935 animation industry was in creative gridlock, unsure of its next move, and unenthusiastically trying to produce what it thought audiences might like.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Goals Of This Blog...

As I wind down a half-decade run on Stanley Stories, my much-discussed but ultimately frustrating exploration of the work of comics creator John Stanley, I confess I feel stale-mated.

I've put in years of hard work and research on John Stanley. I have made breakthroughs in identifying comics he both wrote and drew--entire series and stories no one had yet attributed to his creation.

Aside from a high-profile (and creatively satisfying) berth as a member of the advisory board of The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics, co-edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, little has ultimately come of all that work, save for some significant friendships I've made through the blog, and the kind comments of the many people who have visited and responded.

In a sense, these gifts are reward enough. The friendships I've made, by themselves, are proof of that. As well, people have scanned rare stories, endangering their rare vintage comic books in the process, and indulged my requests to see certain obscure pieces that often turned out to not be Stanley's work. There has been no rivalry nonsense... comics scholars are pleasingly open with their work and discoveries, as I wish scholars in all fields of specialized study might be.

Many kind mentions on The Comics Journal's blog, Drawn + Quarterly's blog and on Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter have also been most gratifying.

It's also been nice to share these hard-to-find comic book pieces with the world at large. When I began Stanley Stories, almost nothing by its subject was in print. Five years later, a fair portion of John Stanley's work is readily available in bookstores, libraries and schools.

I feel that Stanley Stories stands as a working rough draft for the book I'd ultimately like to write on John Stanley. Many of my thoughts there I'd like to develop, re-assess and expand. But there's one little problem with all this...

No one appears willing or able to publish a book on John Stanley. Despite his obvious worth as a creator--he is the finest writer of mainstream American comics, and one of the great American popular authors of the 20th century--he remains a hard sell.

I am still ready and willing to write the book on John Stanley. But I get the message: it's time to move on.

For many years I have admired the animated cartoons of Fred "Tex" Avery. His synthesis of old and new revitalized the Hollywood animated cartoon, and rescued it from a morass of derivative, inept attempts to mimic the output of Walt Disney's studio.

To many, Avery's MGM cartoons, created between 1941 and 1953, are the director's greatest achievement. I agree. Those 65 cartoons represent a high point in film-making of any kind. A singular vision is expressed in these animated shorts. Their creator's personality is aggressively visible in every frame.

But where did this vision come from? It didn't emerge fully formed from nowhere when Avery began to direct for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's cartoon studio. It was shaped, film by film, scene by scene, frame by frame, in the 62 cartoon shorts "supervised by Fred Avery" for Warner Brothers' cartoon division between 1935 and 1941. (Because of the lag time between the completion and release of these cartoons, Warners' supply of Avery-directed shorts continued into 1942.)

The conventional wisdom about these cartoons is that they're not as good as the MGM shorts, and therefore inferior, and certainly less consequential. To some, they're boring and bothersome.

I'm not about to argue that Avery's WB output is superior to his MGM work. I do claim that these films are the solid core of his sensibilities as a cartoon filmmaker. Avery's was one of the few singular visions that flowered in the Hollywood studio system, and grew and deepened over the years.

His live-action parallel, Buster Keaton, was denied creative control of his films in his prime as a creator. He suffered through three decades of making do with whatever table scraps the Hollywood system threw his way. For all intents, he was dismissed as a creative film-maker in 1929, and never given the chance to redeem his vision.

Avery, in contrast, was allowed to work out his comedic and filmic ideas, to try and fail, and to repeat promising ideas until he perfected them. His vision became more expansive at MGM, but almost every significant concept of his career has some founding in his work for Warner Brothers.

In these 62 animated cartoons, which I will discuss in the order of their release, we have the rare opportunity to see the development of a great American humorist, satirist and film artist. Each film is a creative stepping-stone for their maker. Some are giant steps forward; some regrettable back-tracks.  Each of them is worth an extended look.


This blog's chief concern is to chart the developing cinematic and comedic vision of Fred Avery. It is not a blog about Warner Brothers' cartoon history, although some of that will, by necessity, enter the picture.

Therefore, it is not my intention to spotlight or celebrate the styles of the many talented animators who worked in the Avery unit at Leon Schlesinger Productions. I will, of course, talk about certain animators (I can't wait to discuss Irv Spence's contributions to the 1937 and '38 releases!), but this is not trainspotting of who did what. There are many other opportunities, on the internet and elsewhere, to obtain this information. This is a blog about Mr. Avery and what he did as a creative filmmaker.

Avery's Warner Brothers cartoons are not fully available on commercial video. Perhaps half these shorts have been officially released on American DVD or Blu-Ray discs. Some are extremely hard to see, aside from dismal-quality reductions on YouTube or Daily Motion. When possible, I'll include a link to a viewable version of each cartoon discussed--if the available version is complete and of acceptable visual quality.

I hope to make a case for Avery's Warner Brothers work that, despite its experimental mis-steps and obvious flaws, it stands for something significant and powerful in American animation.

Avery freed the Hollywood animated cartoon from the shackles of stifling attempted realism that Walk Disney's vision forced upon the medium. In his 62 cartoons for Warners, Avery led a revolution against pomp, pretension and what critic Manny Farber called "white elephant art." Avery forced the issue that animated cartoons should be alive, agitated, amusing and bracing.

If I can get at the heart of this matter, and show the developmental steps in this great creator's early work, I will not have wasted my (or your) time with this blog.