Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Daffy Duck and Egghead: One The Hardaway (or, 'Bugs' Bugs Me*)

RELEASE DATE: January 1, 1938 (according to the Big Cartoon Database and IMDb)
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. III (Warner Brothers DVD 68890)

You can watch this cartoon  HERE. Enjoy!

J. B. Hardaway, known to his colleagues as "Bugs," is a pivotal but problematic figure in classic animation history. He helped nudge Hollywood animation away from bland, nice-guy characters. Perhaps the most appealing studio cartoon character of them all bears his nickname.

Bugs Bunny, in a primitive first draft, was of his hand. He also helped develop Walter Lantz's Woody Woodpecker (for whom he did the voice in the 1940s). As such, he should be considered as great a force as Tex Avery and Bob Clampett in the fight against curdling Disneyfication in later 1930s/early '40s animation.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Little Red Walking Hood: Mojo Once Again In Good Working Order for the Avery Unit

RELEASE DATE: November 6, 1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb says December 23, 1937)
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. V(Warner Brothers DVD 112172)

You can watch a restored version of this cartoon (with commentary by animator Mark Kausler) HERE. Enjoy!

We've recently examined the brief but painful down period for the Fred Avery unit at Leon Schlesinger's cartoon mill.

The mid-to-late 1930s were not great times for Hollywood animated cartoons. Significant breakthroughs in animation, color and film technique occurred, many of them pushed forward by Walt Disney and his technical staff. These would benefit the artform's decade-long peak in the 1940s. With a focus on improving the visual aspect of animation, the core content of studio releases faltered.

Disney's innovations sent shock waves through the animation industry. Studios indifferent to change, such as Paul Terry's, showed striking improvements in the quality and personality of their animation. Disney's visual improvements over-emphasized technique and de-emphasized content. That negative influence spread like cancer in cartoons of 1934-1940.

The cartoons Leon Schlesinger produced for Warner Brothers particularly suffered. Liminal cartooning, stuck in the Art Deco style of the earlier '30s, with an occasional tiptoe towards a new look, makes these cartoons seem stale and awkward to our 21st-century eyes. Timing, humor and characterization tend on the dull side, despite some forward-thinking flashes.

Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin consciously strove to break through this barrier of mediocrity through clever technique and, most vitally, a focus on the content of their pictures.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

I Wanna Be a Sailor: The End of a Dry Streak of Hide-And-Seek

RELEASE DATE: 9/25/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb concurs)

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY: Kid Galahad DVD (part of WHV's Gangsters Collection, v.4)

You can view a fuzzy but acceptable print of this cartoon HERE.

Thanks to our good bud Devon Baxter for hosting this cartoon. Devon has a great collection of classic cartoons online, and a visit to his DailyMotion account will yield hours of enjoyment.

Two weeks after the release of Porky's Garden comes this, the last of the Avery Unit Depression of 1937. After this, Avery's output will become more bold, daring and funny. Even when the cartoon itself isn't so hot (e.g., The Sneezing Weasel), its first attempts at ideas Avery will later perfect at M-G-M make the work more vital and important.

As with Avery's prior Merrie Melodie, A Sunbonnet Blue, I Wanna Be a Sailor lacks the intense commitment that we saw in Avery's 1936/7 pictures, right up to Uncle Tom's Bungalow, and scarcely exhibits its creator's personality. With this the fourth mediocre film in a row, it would appear that Avery was either burned out or prevented, in some unknowable way, from giving his work 110%.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Porky's Garden: "Guinea" Meets Pig In Fond Farewell to Black-and-White for the Avery Unit

RELEASE DATE: 9/11/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb concurs)

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY: Porky Pig 101 (WHV 5-DVD set; the version there is butchered)

You can view a cruddy but acceptable print of this cartoon HERE.

Thanks to our good bud Devon Baxter for hosting this cartoon. Devon has a great collection of classic cartoons online, and a visit to his YouTube account will yield hours of enjoyment.

The Avery unit has been in free-falling flounder for its past few cartoons. Despite a dearth of great ideas, Avery and his crew have been polishing up their act, as the look and feel of animation--and its increasingly faster pace--ramps up for the 1940s.

Porky's Garden is a fond step backwards, to the more innocent days of 1936. Avery had less front-office pressure as he and his talented crew cranked out lower-budget black-and-white "Looney Tunes."

And while this cartoon is as bankrupt of great ideas as Avery's last few--it is, indeed, the weakest of his black-and-white cartoons, until 1941's The Haunted Mouse--it proceeds in a cheerful, harmless way. It offers glimpses of the coming sophistication to the visual aspect of Hollywood animation.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Sunbonnet Blue: Another Lesser Avery Effort--More Singing Mice, Less Mad Meta-Comedy

8/21/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb claims a 12/1/1937 release date)


You can view a mid-1990s Turner print of this cartoon HERE. Thanks to our good bud Devon Baxter for hosting this cartoon. Devon has a great collection of classic cartoons online, and a visit to his DailyMotion page, or his YouTube account, will yield hours of enjoyment.

A month after its prior Merrie Melodie, Egghead Rides Again, the Avery unit reverts to front-office-pleasing pabulum, spiced with stolen moments of inspiration and humor.

In 2014, with knowledge of Avery's career, and of what he could do, left to his own devices, A Sunbonnet Blue is merely an annoyance. Having thrown down several gauntlets of challenge to animation conformity, this and similar cartoons are little more than a waste of Avery's time.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Egghead Rides Again: A Meh Cartoon Enlivened by Irvin [sic] Spence Animation

7/17/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb claims a 11/29/1937 release date)

Kid Galahad DVD (part of WHV's Gangsters Collection, v.4)

You can view a mid-1990s Turner print of this cartoon HERE.

The Avery pattern of major film/minor effort rides again! After the game-changing meta-slap of Uncle Tom's Bungalow, this cartoon seems tame and unexceptional. Cheerful, yes. Mildly amusing, for certain. But it's unworthy of Avery and his unit.

The chief joy of Egghead Rides Again is Irv Spence's charming, eccentric animation. His work both looks back and ahead. His drawing style is redolent of the spiky, kinetic look of Ub Iwerks' mid-1930s cartoons. The apparent influence of Grim Natwick informs Spence's way of drawing.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Uncle Tom's Bungalow: Brief Bursts of Brilliance in a Controversial Cartoon

6/5/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb claims a 7/12/1937 release date)


We once had access to a very nice print of this cartoon, but it was taken down. An adequate version may be seen HERE, and you can always take initiative to find other versions out there. It's easy, mac!

The first of two Avery cartoons banned from television airing by the late 1960s, Uncle Tom's Bungalow is part of a group of cartoons animation scholars (and fans) refer to as "The Censored 11."

These cartoons were suppressed mostly for racial stereotypes that were too much for post-civil rights America. Aside from prints hoarded by collectors, these cartoons were often difficult to see, pre-Internet—and are still often encountered in faded, lo-rez versions that do the originals no favors.

Arguably, only three of the "Censored 11" are great cartoons. Bob Clampett's exuberant mini-masterpiece Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs (1943), Friz Freleng's solid, funny musical Goldilocks and The Jivin' Bears (1944) and this Avery cartoon are the real keepers of this clandestine subset.

Appreciation of these cartoons requires the viewer's understanding of the era and circumstances in which they were made. In Avery's case, they raise larger concerns and ask bigger questions.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Tex Avery Terrytoon? Almost--Ain't We Got Fun

5/1/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb claims a 7/2/1937 release date)

The Life of Emile Zola DVD (Warners Home Video)

Thanks to the always-awesome Devon Baxter, you can view a mid-1990s Turner print of this cartoon HERE. You're a brick, Devon!

After the epochal effort and game-changing effect of Porky's Duck Hunt, Avery's next cartoon is an inevitable letdown.

This is a Tex Avery pattern: a masterpiece followed by a "meh." Avery's lesser cartoons still have redeeming moments, and this Merrie Melodie, which chooses the road less traveled of prudence and restraint, is a minor moment in a major filmography. By the standards of any of the other units in Leon Schlesinger's studio, this would be a good-to-average cartoon. It might have been Jack King's masterpiece.

It's also Avery's first cartoon to deviate from his way of drawing. I'll get into this topic more later, but the majority of the characters in Ain't We Got Fun don't appear to be of his design.

Perhaps this film was a trade-off for the Avery unit being allowed to make Porky's Duck Hunt, which was previously covered in depth here. "You made a cartoon your way; now you gotta make one for the front office." (This is only an educated guess.) Where Duck Hunt is infused with comedic passion, Ain't We Got Fun is phoned in with gritted teeth. One recalls Oliver Owl, from Avery's I Love To Singa, forcing out his pinched rendition of "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes."

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Porky's Duck Hunt: Return To Monochrome Inspires Director; Gives Birth to Archetype To End All Cartoon Archetypes

4/17/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb concurs)

Available on the Warner Home Video DVD THE ESSENTIAL DAFFY DUCK, released in 2011)

This epochal cartoon--as important to the artform as STEAMBOAT WILLIE or ROOTY TOOT TOOT--has, at long last, been lovingly restored and released on legit DVD.

It's the sole "new" attraction of the double-disc, double-dipfest that is The Essential Daffy Duck. Thanks to the wonderful Patrick Malone at The Internet Animation Database (link: http://www.intanibase.com) I have a sumptuous rip of the restored version. You can view this gorgeous, accurate version of Porky's Duck Hunt HERE. Do take nine minutes and watch it before you read further.

It is downright curious that such a crucial cartoon has been so overlooked in the restoration process. This cartoon appeared on one of the Warner VHS collections of the 1980s, and was in dire need of some TLC then. WHV also waited to restore Avery's other seminal game-changer, A Wild Hare (1940) until after the heyday of the scattershot-but-sweet Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD sets.

In a sense, Porky's Duck Hunt, like Steamboat Willie, has outlived its own effectiveness. Revolutionary upon its release, its gags and attitude were so absorbed into the lifeblood of the American cartoon landscape that it might elicit a "meh" from the casual viewer.

If this cartoon had not appeared when it did, and made the way it was made, American animation might have further suffered the stifling constraints of the Disney way.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Stuttering Charlatan Loses Girl, Wins Food Source: I Only Have Eyes For You

3/6/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb says 5/18/37)

Available on the Warner Home Video DVD DAMES, released in 2006)

A reasonably good copy of this cartoon can be seen HERE (thanks for providing this, Devon Baxter!) As always, we recommend that you watch the cartoon before reading!

Frustrating cartoon, this. It comes right before Fred Avery's first bonafide masterpieceone of the most revolutionary animated cartoons in American film. This cartoon is, quite frankly, not worthy of his talent or effort.

This is a pattern that recurs through Avery's career. Minor films precede major works; masterpieces are followed by half-assed also-rans. Avery was not a consistent creator of gems. By his nature, he couldn't be. A constant, fearless experimenter, each film an object-lesson in how much he could get away with (both with the studio brass and paying audiences), Avery had to take mis-steps.

More so than Chuck Jones or Bob Clampett, Avery walked off metaphorical cliffs, and courted abject failure, so that he could excel in his cinematic and comedic gifts.

I Only Have Eyes For You is exactly the kind of cartoon producer Leon Schlesinger wanted. It exploited a hot song (and a genuinely fine oneit's become a solid part of the Great American Songbook), and, on its surface, did nothing out of kilter. It could have been made by any of the units at Schlesinger's studio.

Avery would keep making such cartoons throughout his stay at Schlesinger's. There will be four more of these song-driven cartoons in the next year. They are replaced by the troublesome string of topical spot-gag cartoons in 1939. Your humble host looks forward to covering those cartoons as he would a spoonful of syrup of ipecac.