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.

Into such a charged atmosphere stepped Fred "Tex" Avery, late of the Walter Lantz unit, which produced "Oswald the Rabbit" and "Pooch the Pup" cartoons for Universal Studios. Earl Duvall, Tom Palmer and Bernard Brown (who directed two cartoons before resuming a career as a film composer and sound technician) had failed as directors for Schlesinger.

Jack King, Ben Hardaway and Freleng directed Schlesinger's other 1935 cartoons. Freleng would quickly develop into one of the top-tier cartoon directors. He would rival Avery as a maker of genuinely funny, cartoony cartoons as the '30s faded into the '40s. In 1935, he was trying to hold the status quo at a shaky studio.

Original animation drawing from "Gold Diggers of '49"
Freleng's most notable cartoon of that season was I Haven't Got A Hat, released in March 1935.

Filmed in two-strip Technicolor, Hat introduced an attempted new stable of cartoon stars, including the cocky, brash Beans the Cat, his potential life mate, Little Kitty, the personality-free twin pups Ham and Ex and a stuttering, excitable Porky Pig.

Voiced by real-life stutterer Joe Dougherty, 1935 Porky is the antithesis of the Disney-school cartoon star. Overweight, nervous and tense, Porky is singularly un-attractive. Perhaps that is what drew Avery to him: in no way could he ever be mistaken for Mickey Mouse.

As said, Avery had worked on the Lantz studio's "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" cartoons--a rowdy, vivid and eccentric strain of Hollywood cartooning, led by the sensibility of Bill Nolan. Nolan's penchants for morbid, grotesque gags and exaggerated rubber-hose animation gave the "Oswald" series a haphazard but hearty energy.

Nolan can be considered a sort of comedic mentor to Avery. He appears to have influenced -- and possibly encouraged -- Avery's humor sensibilities. The Lantz Oswalds cared not one whit for Disney-school realism. Their one goal was to leave 'em laughing--usually in the undertow of complete audio-visual chaos.

Notions that would eventually inform Avery's best cartoons pop up in the Lantz Oswalds--from the magic wand that causes jump-cut confusion in 1932's Grandma's Pet to the burlesque of historical cliches that informs the near-brilliant Chris Columbus Jr. (1934). That latter cartoon is a strong example of Avery's influence in the Lantz cartoons of 1933 and '34. If you haven't seen it, click on that link at once!

A case can be made for Chris Columbus Jr. being the first "Tex Avery" cartoon. He did not officially direct it, but his stamp is all over its content--from scenes he obviously animated (1:55 to 2:10 is one sequence animated by Avery) to meta-gags that anticipate his more assured absurdist sensibility of the 1940s.

Avery did direct Towne Hall Follies, which is less ground-breaking than Chris Columbus Jr., but is full of his distinctive drawing style. Columbus impresses with its fast pace, the clever incorporation of music into its action, its elaborate staging and its witty gags. It is, in fact, far more sharply paced than Avery's first Warner Brothers cartoon, which we're about to discuss.

Gold Diggers of '49 attempts to salvage characters from Freleng's I Haven't Got A Hat.

This had been tried earlier in the season. Beans and Porky Pig made a color appearance in Freleng's Merrie Melodie The Country Mouse (in which the new characters, including either Ham or Ex, are seen on the sidelines of the first scene). Jack King's black-and-white Beans star vehicles Hollywood Capers and A Cartoonist's Nightmare, showed the painful limitations of this derivative character (and the film-maker).

At Schlesinger's, in 1935, the bar was set very, very low for improvement.

Avery puts Beans in the Oswald Rabbit role--a cheerful, bland and low-key protagonist, essentially unchanged from his prior appearances.

Avery's redesign of Porky Pig is grotesquely striking. Porky is now an obese, gluttonous adult, with a most un-appealing Andy Devine-style personality, punctuated by a series of elongated, painful-looking "wh...yippee!" cries.

Before we meet this bizarro Porky, Avery indulges in one of his frequent attacks on Hollywood pretense. In a few seconds, he boils down the key ingredients of any Hollywood historical drama:

It's 1849. The West is gripped with gold fever, and spunky Beans is determined to make good. He's discovered at work, with a couple of visual gags that remind us of the Lantz "Oswald" cartoons:
Beans digs straight down through the center of a mountain...

A naturally-occurring slot machine delivers his gold payload
He infects Porky, and the rest of the depressed Western town, with his mania. Among them are a regrettable pair of stereotyped Chinese laundrymen (who soon take a more painful ethnic turn-for-the-worse) and a barbershop quartet in the midst of "Sweet Adeline." They run off, then, as a group, feel compelled to dash back and finish the song. This is a signature Avery gag idea--recursion humor. Unexpected break-ups, or reprises, of an incomplete activity, happen over and over in his cartoons.

At this point, Gold Digger of '49 is only marginally better than its 1935 season peers. Its gags are more funny, and delivered with more authority than the cautious, measured pace of Freleng's cartoons. The studio's house lethargy seems to affect Avery, and will continue to dog him over the next year or so.

In the wake of a cringe-worthy racial transformation (see at left; 'nuff said), what little story the cartoon possesses limps into line.

A villain bulldog, drawn in Avery's balloon-animal style, spies what he thinks is Porky's bag of gold, and steals it using a fishing line and fetches it in an appropriate net.

Porky declares that Beans can have his daughter's hand in marriage if he gets that bag back.

Thus, the zillionth such chase in animated cartoons, even by 1935, begins. Nothing about it is distinguished. The pacing flags, despite a sudden stronger influx of Avery's drawing style in all the characters.

A gag, once cut for TV showings, involves some injury-to-the-ass business -- another recurring Avery motif, and one he shared with Walt Disney. Disney loved "fanny gags," and surviving memos to his story department make mention of their importance to him.

Avery's fascination with ass-bites, in particular, built throughout his career. The pain-takes of such events become more baroque and aggressive in his 1950s efforts. His late masterpiece, The Legend of Rockabye Point (1955) is built around this gag. In 1935, they were just one part of the Bag O' Tried-'N'-True Gags that everyone dipped into.

Finally, Beans' flivver runs out of gas. (One never stops to ponder the existence of 1920s-style Detroit autos in the world of 1849, just as one never stops to question a cartoon character's ability to light a fire under-water. It just is, in the book of Cartoon Physics.)

Beans pours some moonshine into his car's gas tank, and then something remarkable happens--an event that was entirely new for the Hollywood animated cartoon--a sudden, almost erotic sense of propulsion and energy. These screen grabs only hint at the remarkable effect Avery and his animators achieve in this brief, breath-taking sequence:

These few moments of true innovation make Gold Diggers of '49 a landmark of Hollywood animation. At last, someone achieves freedom from the cautious, dogged, measured pacing that plagues most animation in its early sound era! Even the greatest of the Fleischer studio's cartoons, such as Swing, You Sinners (1930), Minnie The Moocher (1932) and Snow White (1933) suffer from a lack of tension and release, of allegro and adagio.

Avery would struggle to match this early triumph for the next few years. Somehow, in 80 seconds of screen time, he captured lightning in a bottle.

After this bravura display, there is nothing more for this cartoon to do. It ends with an eccentric table-turner--on both the conventions of cartoon "stories" and on audience expectations. These two topics were pet peeves of Avery's, and their systematic dismantling, mocking and meta-twisting are essential to his comedic vision.

Here, it's revealed that the contents of the bag are not gold. "D-durned! Th-th-that's m-m-m-my lunch!" Porky exclaims. We watch him drool as he opens the sack, admires the Dagwood sandwich inside, and wolfs it down. We, the passive spectators of an active world, are helpless to escape this spectacle of greed and gluttony:

Iris out on a cartoon that is better than it has any right to be, and that announces the first inkling of a radical new sensibility in American film-making. Fred Avery would have to wait until his third Schlesinger cartoon to make what I consider his first great film. He was in the right place at the right time. Though cartoons were popular, they were at an artistic nadir.

Had Avery not emerged, I hate to think what might have happened to American animation in the last half of the 1930s. Through sheer tenacity, via trial and error, Avery would newly assert the concept that cartoons were, by design, bigger than life, bolder than logic and not meant to mirror recognizable reality. From this perspective, Disney's approach was confining, conflating and, ultimately, a betrayal of its medium.

This radical voice of dissent saved animation, and Gold Diggers of '49, humble start that it is, begins that journey away from the Disney influence.


  1. I agree that it's not the strongest debut for Avery it could have been, but it only gets better from here.

    Also, arguably one of Avery's biggest legacies at WB is his "mentorship" (if that's the right word) of the credited animators here, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. Under Freleng and King, they didn't get to do much of anything good (see "Buddy Steps Out"), but they'll become Avery's top men and, in short order, directors themselves.

  2. Frank, I'm as pleased by your Avery blog as I am disappointed by the wind-down of your Stanley studies—the lack of a book in particular. I'm not sure there's much I can add at the moment, except that there's indeed a (colorized, stretched) online source for Gold Diggers of '49 here.

  3. I am really pleased to see someone has decided to dedicate a blog to the analysis of Tex Avery's work in WB. Keep on with the good job! A big handshake from Argentina.

  4. Bernard Brown's score during the chase scene was terrific.