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.

Avery's M-G-M cartoons are short on characterization and long on bravura comedic set-ups. It's easy to forget the amount of rich character development that occurs in the Warner Brothers cartoons. Though this cartoon's attempts to build character are primitive, when compared to Avery's 1938-1941 cartoons, it's a start.

As will soon be common for Avery's work, the cartoon begins with its focus on the bad guy. The bald-headed, five o' clock-shadowed serial bomber (who is never referred to by name) is seen doing his dirty deeds, in a distinctive down-shot that shows up in several other Warner Brothers Avery efforts.

Following this is a series of overlaid newspapers with screaming headlines, and the first appearance of an insert shot of a police station switchboard. Avery enjoyed spoofing the already-cliched visual vocabulary of live-action movies. In doing so, he invested his cartoon work with a striking cinematic quality that stands out from the WB cartoons of his peers.

Frank Tashlin would soon outdo Avery in his mimesis of live-action montage, and visual shorthand. Despite such flourishes, Avery is a visually conservative film-maker. After 1944, he almost never indulges in showy staging or other visual dynamics. A flat, dead-on mise-en-scene is all he needs in the service of his screen comedy.

He will go through a visually baroque stage at Schlesinger's, in the later 1930s, and prove himself quite adept at the use of these devices. They weren't essential to his comedic/filmic vision, as they were to Tashlin's and Chuck Jones'. Yet he was the first WB cartoon director to toy with them.

The scene is now dramatically set for the appearance of the mad bomber. As au courant as this topic seems in 2013, it's important to remember that such disturbed individuals have long been part of the fabric of America. Google "George Metesky" or "Carl Warr" (pictured below, from a 1912 incident that terrified Los Angeles) for just two examples of this archetype.

Howard McNear (Floyd Lawson on The Andy Griffith Show) played a mad bomber in a memorable turn on an early 1950s radio show that may have been Dragnet, The Lineup or Johnny Dollar. I heard the episode 20+ years ago, and the internet thwarted my attempts to find it.

Long story short: such actions are nothing new in our society, alas.

We're introduced first to the shockingly squalorous world in which the bomber lives. Such delapidated, hopeless settings were rarely seen in West Coast cartoons. The difference between this vista (spliced together from a pan shot) and the sunny, well-apportioned vistas of previous Schlesinger cartoons is striking.
In a mood shot right out of an Ub Iwerks-era Walt Disney cartoon, we see the bomber in his dismal lair, readying another of his deadly creations. Again, Avery uses a dramatic, ambitious overhead shot to frame this introduction:
The bomber rants to himself as he works. Exactly who voiced the mad bomber here is a mystery. credits Lucille La Verne in the role. Animation historian Keith Scott, in answer to my query, offers this theory:

"I believe it was Martha Wentworth, but I have no proof. She played the witch in radio's Witch's Tale and it was a little like the bomber. I know her range of voices, and it's definitely her as Mama in I Love To Singa."

Such trainspotting is beyond the usual purview of this blog. It is a remarkable vocal performance, in the screen debut of an essential Avery character type.
As the bomber assembles his latest weapon of urban terrorism, Avery distorts the cartoon physics in a subtle way. The bomber inventories the contents of his clock-bomb, which includes fireworks, dynamite, and one of those black globular bombs seen in many silent comedies (usually wielded by a Bolshevik anarchist type). This leavens the potential drama of the moment with some quietly absurd comedy.
In a final Disneyesque flourish, the terrorist dramatically drapes himself in a long black cloak and a slouch hat. He selects his next target: the Blotz Building!

Change of scene to a soda shoppe, on the periphery of the deadly slums. Here we witness another vital moment of development in Avery's career: the sudden focused consolidation of a somewhat appealing protagonist.
Porky Pig, now clearly defined as a child, watches with a wealth of emotional responses, as his lust for an ice cream soda takes root.
The more rounded, stylized Porky is a character capable of some viewer sympathy, even though his goals are gluttonous at best.

As in many a silent comedy, the would-be hero falls pitifully short of his intended goal. An ice-cream soda costs a dime; he can scrounge up just five pennies.

He enters the shop, and, through the animation of young Bob Clampett*, Porky is imbued with genuine character. His desires, laughable in the context of a larger adult world, become enormous, and his efforts to find a way around an unbendable reality are entirely simpatico.

Part of the fascination in watching the first few Avery-directed cartoons is their all-star talent pool. Here we have "Tex" Avery at the helm of a cartoon with Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett as his animators. Few other animated cartoons could boast an A-team of such sheer talent.

Avery uses Clampett's endearingly cute yet edgy sense of character, and Jones' emergent desire to express emotion, volume and life, to both men's benefit in this film. Clampett's sensitivity to emotion, in these character-defining scenes, gives a potential throwaway scene a certain gravity that fuels the rest of the cartoon.

Porky leaves the parlor and slumps on the pavement, dejected. Like Buster Keaton's screen persona, he is a mere plaything of fate. He tries to gird himself for the task ahead. Such fate can be kind, as the pig quickly learns:
Porky's auto-pilot return of a dropped cane results in a one-penny tip. A-ha!
Porky's recurring, charmingly timed and animated "happy dance" quickly sets a pattern. The pig, at mania level, seeks out new opportunities to earn some copper. With each success, the ritual dance is enacted.
Avery, like Keaton, is quick to remind us how fickle fate can be. Porky is stunned into paralysis when he sees a nickel--the utter solution to his crisis--laying on the ground before him!
Porky's slow response time is thwarted by the first of Avery's Thrifty Scotsmen, who swoops in to claim the prize and frustrate the pig. (At least the miser is polite!)
Avery's characters are deterministic. Once a plan is born, nothing can stop their attempts to complete it. A pattern has been established: do good deed, get penny reward. That, and only that, is Porky's agenda for the rest of the cartoon.

Cut to the bomber, as he reaches the Blotz Building with his deadly present...
Animation audiences of 1936 had never seen the likes of what would happen next. It's a fundamental Avery event, as mentioned earlier. The lines of good and evil, pro- and antagonist, are blurred in a tsunami of fear, horror and humor in what I'll call the Avery Nightmare Pursuit.

Porky witnesses the attempted serial bombing, interprets it as the man in black having dropped a clock, and that its return is worth one red cent. Thus, for the rest of the cartoon, wherever the mad bomber goes, no matter how cleverly he hides, Porky will turn up at his heels, with the ticking time-bomb in hand, and the expectation of a penny's reward.

The bomber's reaction is a pivotal Avery moment--the first of many exaggerated, full-body comic "takes." These stark, vivid expressions of shock and terror are perhaps the first thing someone thinks of when Avery's name is invoked. According to Mark Kausler, many (if not all) of these wild takes are the work of Charles M. Jones.*
In retrospect, these first "takes" are tame, but their original, undiluted impact on 1936 audiences cannot be understated. Cartoon characters had never freaked out in such a concentrated, emotionally vivid manner--outside of the pre-Code cartoons of the Fleischer brothers. Bimbo, the chicken-thieving dog, goes through a variety of creative "takes" in perhaps the greatest cartoon of the early sound era, Swing You Sinners (1930):

As creative and funny as the Fleischer "takes" could be, they lacked the lightning bolt of anxiety that Avery's deliver to the viewer. In the Avery take moment, we often switch places with the antagonist--as we do in reading some of Chester Gould's dark narratives in his Dick Tracy comic strip. From this viewpoint, the protagonist is a single-minded nuisance, and in these moments we grow to resent that character.
In one of the pursuit moments, Avery creates a remarkable preview of an image from his third cartoon for M-G-M, Dumb-hounded (1943):

The 1943 image is more dynamically staged, but the impact is the same--a terrified figure in flight, as seen from far above. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Avery had some pet images that he returned to in his animation career. This objective high shot is one of Avery's signature scenes.

The Blow Out sequence is a bravura moment in Avery's early work. La Verne/Wentworth's performance as the agitated escape-seeker is highly expressive, and must have inspired some of the visual treatment of these panic-attack moments.

Avery uses the ticking of the clock-bomb to great effect on the sound track. This tightens the strings of the picture's tension ever further...

Avery achieves another breakthrough in this sequence. He has the bomber directly (and sarcastically) address the audience. His mocking statement emphasizes the passive state of the viewer. Events parade on-screen and we're powerless to influence them in any way. Only by closing our eyes, or leaving the theater, could 1936 film patrons have changed the situation.
"He'll be blown to pieces--whether you people like it or not!"
The typically slow-witted police take notice of the bomber--and that Porky appears to be in just pursuit of the villain.The pig is caught on the bomber's flowing cloak, and is unwittingly dragged in the fiend's undertow as he runs in utter panic, back to his lair.
Avery climaxes this nightmare pursuit with another of his pet images. This harrying scene is animated by young Charles M. Jones.*

Seemingly safe in his lair, the bomber closes--and locks--multiple overlapping doors. The final door has several locks, all swiftly bolted. And then he turns to see...
That final take is the best--it's full of Avery's drawing style, and gets remarkably close to the look-and-feel of his mid-'40s M-G-M cartoons. The look of horror, laced with disgust, in the fourth picture above, is beautifully achieved.

The bomber throws himself on the cops, but Porky is determined to get that danged penny. He finally returns the about-to-pop clock to the bomber...
Porky, again animated by Bob Clampett*, mock-shyly holds out his hand for the penny that's surely about to come...
He does a remarkable early smear-take when his good fortune dawns on him, as the bag splits open, and coins shower over him.
REPORTER: Say, what're you gonna do with your reward, sonny?
PORKY: I'm gonna b-buy me...I'm gonna b-buy me... I'm g-gonna, uh, b-buy me...
Dissolve to a cheerful spectacle of gluttony. Porky acknowledges the viewer as the iris closes in, sparing us the gastronomic horrors that may occur after "That's All Folks" scrolls across the silver screen.

In three cartoons, Fred Avery has redefined what an animated cartoon might be--and clearly shown, by exclusion, what isn't needed or is unimportant.

With The Blow Out, Avery has, for the first time, summoned the anxious energy that will soon make him famous--and much-imitated. If the pacing seems sluggish to us in 2013, please try to imagine how novel and unexpected this cartoon was when it was in release, 77 Aprils ago.

The breakthrough of The Blow Out is quickly underwhelmed by his next three cartoons. As you'll see, these first excursions into Technicolor are a regrettable step backwards--but a necessary step forward as a film-maker.
*-- thanks to Mark Kausler for his help in IDing the animators of these crucial scenes.

COMING NEXT: I'd Love to Take Orders from You (1936)


  1. Medusa, alias The Gorgon, in 1937's "Porky's Hero Agencvy', isn't Berniece Hansell, but Tedd Pierce, imitation the radio character/nutty cook Tizzie Lish, played by an actor named Bob Comstock on "The Al Pearce Show" in the 1930s.
    Imitated also on other 30s WB cartoons and cartoons of the decade from others.

  2. Excellent work on this blog, Mr. Young. I am looking at these films that I have been familiar with since childhood with a new perspective and I look forward to further following Avery's work at Warner Bros. here.

  3. black and white version of this cartoon

  4. The gentleman who drops his cane is voiced by Tex himself, no?

  5. The gentleman who dropped his cane is voiced by Tex himself, no?

    Big fan of this blog... sad it's coming to an end, but it's been a truly fascinating run.

  6. Ooh, good question! This gives me a welcome excuse to view the cartoon again. Yes, I'm sad that this blog is almost finished, but considering how long it's taken me to get through all the cartoons, I know I've made some folks anxious with my slowness. I hope that I've given a good account of the development and early triumphs of one of the great film-makers.