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.

Spence also puts his fellow unit-members to shame. Most scenes here not Spence-drawn look ugly in comparison. Admittedly, this was an awkward transitional period for the look and feel of studio animation. The first hints of the slick, stylized and visually pleasing 1940s style (the one that typifies Avery's M-G-M cartoons) are on the horizon. The dreadfully rounded, symmetrical look of c. 1935 still plagues the artform.

The look of the classic 1940s animated cartoon demanded stronger draftsmanship, and better problem-solving, of its animators. The 1935-ish stuff embraced poor drawing skills, and, by its clumsy design and construction, hampered good animation.

Thus, Egghead Rides Again is most interesting for its struggle of visual styles. Avery's own, highly distinctive cartooning style is largely buried. He had lost two superstars--Bob Clampett, who had his own directorial unit by this time, and Chuck Jones, who became Clampett's lead animator.

This loss temporarily shook the Avery unit. The director was obviously reliant on Clampett and Jones to bring life and authority to his comedic ideas. Suddenly, he had left only a group of dull journeymen, content to keep on keepin' on, and uninspired to push beyond their lazy boundaries.

That Avery gives so many key scenes to Spence speaks volumes about how much he valued this new addition. Spence, in turn, seems to have raised the bar high enough that Avery's other animators HAD to work harder, and do better.

In this cartoon, and the next several Avery efforts, we will see a harsh disparity in the skill level of the animation and draftsmanship. Irv Spence ultimately did much good for Avery's unit, and his work of this period is one of the unsung glories of late '30s animation.

This is the first appearance of Egghead, a human character who would morph into Elmer Fudd by 1940. Egghead is an ugly, irritating figure in this debut. Avery would soon soften him (and add a touch of the personality of cult comedian Joe Penner to the mix); here, abrasively voiced by Mel Blanc, he's just another Avery anti-protagonist with little going for him.

Well, let's get to the play-by-play business, shall we? As always, I urge you to watch the cartoon before you read further.

The thing that seems to have most amused Avery was making such a repellent character the star of a more expensive Technicolor Merrie Melodies cartoon. Egghead is the polar opposite of a Bugs Bunny or a Droopy.

Our first glimpse of Egghead is a close-up that trucks back to reveal him in a fragile (and noisy) daydream of the Wild West. Animated by Spence, he has more appeal than he merits, due to dynamite poses and drawings.

The Western, still in its thematic infancy, was a staple of American popular culture. The likes of Stagecoach, Yellow Sky and The Tall T were yet to come. Egghead's dream of the West is pure pulp-mag hokum.

The rooming house manager, whose speech is peppered with "dadburns," takes offense to this upstairs frenzy, and bitches about it as he readies for an eviction. Here's some of that 1935-ish, moldy fig animation.
Egghead and his pulp magazines are 86'd, dadburn it.
Though he's an ugly character, his more streamlined look clashes terribly with the antiquated look-'n'-feel of the landlord.

Homeless, devastated, Egghead is a plaything of fate. Fate often summons Avery's characters to new adventures via mass media, as seen here (via more gorgeous Spence footage):

 Alas, there's nothing funny hidden in the columns of this want-ads page. Not even any name dropping!
 Egghead takes charge of his destiny.
For their sheer eye-candy appeal, I'm probably overdoing it on the screen grabs. I hope this stuff floats your boot, as well.

Egghead has a great way to travel inexpensively. The punchline will be dryly delivered in a minute or so.

We head Westward, via an elaborate multiplane shot of the type Avery adored throughout his Warners tenure. The un-credited singing group The Sons of the Pioneers provide authentic Western crooning as the atmosphere is set. I suspect some staff caricatures amongst the singing foursome.
Avery shows genuine affection for the ways of the West, as in many of his other cartoons. Guess they nicknamed him Tex for a reason.
The specially shaped doorway is a clever, Jacques Tati-esque touch. This leads into a dashing-of-expectations sequence, peppered with one mildly funny anachronism.
 An iris to mask a deception is a common Averyism.
It's genuinely funny that the cowpokes ride about four feet, after all that whooping and hollering. The raised hand of the head man, to hail the mail, adds a nice touch of childishness.
Now comes a payoff from earlier--and one of a precious few only-in-a-Tex-Avery-cartoon moments we'll enjoy today.
As with Avery's best comedic ideas, it's presented matter-of-factly. That no one is more than mildly tickled by this fourth-dimensional appearance makes it work like a charm.
Reunited with Irv Spence, Egghead gets some badly-needed personality footage, as he begs to join the Bar None Ranch:
"Today I am a may-yun," Egghead brags in a hormonal squeak. The ranch boss, apparently impressed by his survival in a three-cent envelope, is game. In a comedy-of-humiliation ritual worthy of Buster Keaton, Egghead is challenged to measure up to the real deal, despite his having nothing but romanticized enthusiasm.
 The red-headed cowhand answers in an Andy Devine voice.
This Spence sequence looks like something from a 1935 Ub Iwerks cartoon:
 The boss man shows how it's done.
"Now, heah! Yew try it, pardnuh!"
You just know what's going to happen.
Spence's previous animation of the red-head is re-used, right up to a switcheroo:
The outcome of this exercise would have been old news to 1927 audiences. Yet it carries on, regardless...
 Smoke-screens help delay the inevitable.
This is a visual gag Avery returns to throughout his career.
Its matter-of-factness is the key to its success.
 In a gag repeat from Picador Porky, the hat is left in mid-air, a souvenir of terror and displacement.
The asshole ranch-hands mock and deride. This is straight out of the films of Keaton or Harold Lloyd.
The boss man bids the mockers to fetch a calf...
 ...which surprises them, but they obey.
 Before we get to the close-up of the red-hot branding iron, we know it's not going anywhere near that calf's rear end.
 This illustrates another rule of Cartoon Physics... a rubber stamp, stencil or branding iron that would normally be reversed, in order to leave a positive mark, works fine as a one-way entity.
 Egghead is thrilled to be given this rip-roarin' Wild West task.
 He endearingly tips his hat in gratitude...
 ...and runs off to wreak havoc.
The inevitable is served up with energy.
Again, a cloud of smoke disguises the painfully obvious.
A unison Avery take--one that shows some evidence of its creator's drawing style--is a thoughtful flourish.
Calf unscathed!
That's two fails for wanna-be cowpoke Egghead. They say these things come in threes...
"Git that calf an' you'll git th' job!"
 This occasions a gag Avery will develop in his 1940s Droopy cartoons.
Well, he can mount a horse; we'll give him that much!
 The events suddenly become a steeple-chase.
"Buck Egghead rides again! And again!"
 "And another time!"
A stop sign MUST be obeyed in a Tex Avery cartoon.
Here's another bit of business endemic of the Avery universe.

Gravity breached, the calf changes course.
 A cowboy is only as smart as his horse.
This sudden spurt of energy is badly needed. For the first time, one senses that Avery and unit are enjoying themselves. The less Avery leans on narrative structure, the more fun he has as a comedian.
All Avery really needs is two characters and a horizon line. That said, he does love to make the most of a complex landscape, as this next sequence demonstrates.

 There is an overlaid layer to this background, which will vanish when no longer needed.
 Here's another Avery ur-gag: the long shot of a complex site in which characters give chase. Think of this as a primitive dress-rehearsal for the elevator chase in 1943's Red Hot Riding Hood.
 Miracle of miracles, Egghead lures the errant calf back to its pen.

 Calf is fatigued from (a) all that chase and (b) the realization that he's not such a smart-ass, after all.
 It appears our anti-hero may actually succeed at his given task.

 Another cloud of dust obscures the outcome...

...which is downright cruel.

Again, laughing fiends deride.
Egghead's resignation to his failure is one of the saddest moments in Avery's filmography. The close-up crying scene, in which Herculean effort yields exactly one tear, is heart-breaking.

Spence, who's been absent for the last couple minutes, gets that close-up moment.

Worse, Egghead has to pass his mockers, who really let him have it.
This hurts, despite Egghead's lack of likability.

Egghead must be thinking of another three-cent envelope... but before he can work out postal rates, the kind hand of the boss man intervenes.

 Spence again gets the good scene here, in which the boss, while repeatedly teasing Egghead's shortness, congratulates the city slicker that he's "now a member of the ole Bar None Ranch!"

Again, this animation reminds me of scenes from Ub Iwerks cartoons.

There's always a catch in an Avery happy ending. Egghead is too happy at being considered a peer of these rough and tough cowpokes to anticipate the mixed blessing that awaits.

Someone's got to take care of all the "horse hockey" that litters the golden sands of the Bar None.
The boss man's sweet talk does little to soften the blow.

 This stuff is a joy to look at, in case I haven't said that already.
 Now comes the symbolic changing-of-hats--instant lowered status for the poor, eager Egghead.

 Let's bring in that trashcan-on-wheels, too...

 With pushbroom, the transformation/demotion is complete!
 Egghead gets it, but he has to accept it.
 He attempts to rouse himself with one last cry of self-aggrandizement...
(as realization of job duties fully dawns on him, chagrin sets in)

 A sad violin strain underscores the suckiness of Egghead's future, as we iris out.

Egghead Rides Again is a triumph for Irven Spence (whose name is mis-spelled in his screen credit), but a flaccid career moment for Avery. It's not a bad cartoon, but the spark so present in the recent Porky's Duck Hunt and Uncle Tom's Bungalow is not there.

Did the making of those cartoons (and others of their caliber) temporarily exhaust Avery? This disparity continues through his M-G-M period, and might explain the year-long break, due to what appears to be a nervous breakdown, that happened in the early 1950s. Anecdotes of Avery's workaholic tendencies--which could result in grueling consequences to his vital organs and bowels--were told by his Schlesinger peers.

Avery's best cartoons could only have been made by an extraordinary force of will and focus. No flame can burn so brightly too long. We are fortunate to have the masterpieces in Avery's career. Cartoons such as this one are testament to the fact that Avery, like any Hollywood cartoon director, had to keep working, to bluff and soldier on, even when inspiration was nil.

The next three cartoons from this unit are especially weak, but Avery does recover, and his 1938/39 season of cartoons contains some genuine masterpieces. In the meantime, I, too, will soldier on, and hope to extract some insights from the lesser works of a great cartoonist, comedian and movie-maker.

Next: Another Mediocre Merrie Melodie... A Sunbonnet Blue


  1. For what it's worth, Frank, the first newspaper ad I found for the cartoon was dated July 22, 1937 (Erie County Independent). I found other ads in July and August. There's no way a November date is correct.

  2. I enjoy razzing IMDb, the Wikipedia of movie sites, so I always take joy in posting their whacked-out guesstimates of release dates.

  3. Aside from Spence's work, the most interesting thing about Egghead here is Avery's decision to give him the proto-Daffy Duck voice, lisp and all. The story about the staff being worried about Leon's reaction to hearing a character with his lisp is well-known among animation buffs. But it's always assigned to Daffy's debut cartoon, "Porky's Duck Hunt" where Daffy:
    1.) Barely speaks, and
    2.) When he does, speaks without any lisp at all (Tex was probably just happy here to find someone like Mel who could stutter on cue for Porky without worrying about having Blanc do a funny speech impediment for the guest star).
    This is the first short where the Schlesinger lisp really shows up, albeit in a character most people don't' remember -- It would be reassigned to Daffy, while Egghead gets Joe Penner's voice, in both characters' second appearance. But it wouldn't be a surprise if this was the cartoon that had Avery cringing over how Leon would like the new character's voice.