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.
That said, this was more like the cartoon middle America really wanted to see, rather than a revolutionary piece like Porky's Duck Hunt or Uncle Tom's Bungalow. Late-Depression America was in the mood to be distracted by drivel. Only renegades and gadflies sought to shatter the status quo. The late 1930s are, in general, a dismal time for the American animated cartoon. Though animation technique and skill ramped up, cartoon content back-pedaled and stagnated.

You can tell this is gonna be a fun installment, huh, folks?

An atmospheric establishing shot is a must for a 1937 Schlesinger cartoon. Here's this one:
Necessity demands a multi-plane left-to-right tracking shot of the interior. That's what we get next:
Such moments, which cannot be pieced together in Photoshop, are impressive, but anathema to comedy. That mouse hole, stage left, will not produce much of the latter in this here cartoon.

Introducing Nameless Mouse. His girl calls him "George."
The coast is clear... this pieced-together panorama shows the exaggerated perspective and fore-shortening that could be used in such shots. Conjoined, it looks a bit Cubist.
Nameless does the one thing you'd expect of an Avery character, in such a hallowed, hushed Disney-esque setting:
All is well. Nameless starts the most wholesome festivities, via mouse elevator:
Nameless becomes see-through, due to a botched double-exposure effect. He is unfazed.
 Let's get the lights on...
 ...and land on a silk top hat.
Nameless exhorts his rodent posse to come out and have fun.
Silk top hats, in cartoons, are not suggested items for standing, leaning or eating (see Bob Clampett's 1938 Porky's Party for an example of the latter calamity)...
Nameless isn't deterred--he just wants to have fun, and to sing the title tune.
As his brightly-garbed mice pals gambol towards headgear, Nameless stays put.
He awaits his singing partner/potential better half:

 Nameless customizes the escape hole for his beloved.
 Namelessa approves.
 Enter the antagonist. His resemblance to a controversial animation historian is rather amusing...

Can we have some Irv Spence animation--please? Alas, we have the title tune, and its cutesy rendition, to survive before that joy falls upon us.

The ditty, composed by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain, falls short of the bar set by Harry Warren and Al Dubin in earlier Warner Brothers musicals such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. The Kahal/Fain team wrote a number of decent standard pop songs, including "I'll Be Seeing You," "When I Take My Sugar To Tea" and "You Brought A New Kind of Love To Me," but this is not their finest hour. (This is a UK edition of the sheet music here, BTW.)

So far, Sunbonnet Blue the cartoon has shown an interest in color lighting effects, and in the contrast between cool and warm light. The meet-cute production number further trades on these visual tricks. The results looked much better in original three-strip Technicolor, I'm sure...
 First, there's some cutesy business with the headwear stars of the song's lyrics...
Whip pans are masterfully used in this cartoon. Said it before, saying it again: Avery's sense of movie-making is strong in these late 1930s cartoons. He avoids the flash of a Frank Tashlin, but he has an innate understanding of  mainstream film vocabulary. Thus, his cartoons have an authority that Friz Freleng's or Ben Hardaway-Cal Dalton's lacked.
 This whip pan reveals the green faced villain in on the hot hat action, too.
 Now for some mood-setting colored lights...
 Let the cuteness overload... begin.
 Another whip-pan takes us to an unsettling enactment of the song's lyrics,
using sentient hats with tiny arms and legs.
It is hard to believe Avery's heart was in one moment of this. As with earlier Merrie Melodies (I'd Like To Take Orders From You, Ain't We Got Fun), this seems designed to please the front office.
 Avery gets in one good swipe at convention--in this hellish scene of wedded bliss, 1937 style.
 Now let's put those colored visors to use!
 This sequence must have looked awful on old black and white TV sets!
 Mice crowd approves... great, wonderful.
 Now can we have some Irv Spence animation? PLEASE?
Our patience is now rewarded, with a brief section of animated entertainment a la Avery. Fast cutting, rapid-fire gags, a bombast of lighting effects and plenty of Irv Spence animation make this sequence not a waste of our precious time.
No attempt shall be made to transcribe this area of A Sunbonnet Blue. For their toon-porn eye-candy appeal, here are a jillion screenshots of Spenceual joy...

 Non-Spence cycle of mouse supplying atmosphere.
Bold color shifts, to match the mood swings of the Ratz Brothers, are a smart touch. Form (Spence's animation) and function (justified shifts in tint) meld with great results. For this fleeting interlude, Avery and Spence do what they love doing, rather than what Schlesinger wants of them.
 Tonal and thematic shifts are as fast as any of Frank Tashlin's edits in his '37 pictures.
Devon Baxter reminded me that Irv Spence worked at Ub Iwerks' cartoon studio in the mid-1930s. He absorbed the Iwerks house style, added some personal torque, and brought this great visual gift to Schlesinger. His zesty, bright and beautifully posed figures, animated to perfection, are an oasis in what is, otherwise, a visually stagnant sump. 

Avery stepped back his visual influence, compared to its hearty presence in the 1935/6 cartoons. Thus, the dull, overcautious 1937 house style prevails. Spence helped rescue the Avery product from its potential inertia. Without his presence, this cartoon might be unbearable.

Back to the bland, although we'll see more Spence action here and there. Despite fast cutting, the rest of A Sunbonnet Blue is miserable stuff. The notion of hat-as-predestination is a bit strained, and, as in the later The Mice Will Play, a pretentious air smothers the picture. Avery's lack of investment pokes through the professional sheen.

Middle America approves. Now, back to the most dismal scenario in 1930s cartoons: villain steals girl, boy (and militarized pals) give chase. Avery and his gagmen do what they can, but it's pretty much like trying to make the crucifixion a laff-riot.
 The only Avery take of note in this here cartoon:
Innocents on the brink of war, late '30s America loved the idea of a tidy, streamlined military as a big, shiny playtoy. This notion recurs in dozens of animated cartoons.
 In this world, you are what your hat is. Makes finding work much easier.
Spence animation, and a Mel Blanc-voiced "why doesn't somebody TELL ME these things?" gag, offer a brief ray of hope.
 Sports imagery blends well with military action...
 This is a bit much.
 More Spence.
 Back when physical infirmity was its own boffo laff...
 A hollow visual spectacle.
 Spence! Spence! Spence!
 A double-exposure of a hard-to-see animation effect. 

 Disgruntled villain utters oft-used "Tain't funny, Magee" line.
 Now, the inevitable wedding scene.
 I appreciate that the ceremony is rendered in yada-yada-yada form.
 Instant wedding gift! Something from Ikea?
The closing shot is, I believe, Avery's first use of live-action footage in his cartoons. He would do much better by this concept in films and years ahead.
 And, mercy be upon us, this thing comes to an end.
Among my least favorite of Avery's non spot-gag cartoons, A Sunbonnet Blue is another uneasy attempt for an innovator to follow fallow formulae. The popular image of Avery as a faultless comedic genius, capable of only masterpieces, is not true. Nor was it of Charles Jones, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, or other directors-of-note at Termite Terrace.

Schedules had to be met, and cartoons had to be made, good, bad or mediocre. I can't imagine Avery and his crew rolling up their sleeves in joyous anticipation of this project. It slotted into the raison d'etre for the Merrie Melodies' existence--to plug potentially hot songs from the Warner Brothers live-action films.

That anything of virtue ever came of these cold demographics is a miracle. Once the song-plug conceit was dropped, the Merrie Melodies were free to be authentically funny. By the early 1940s, the creative teams were comfortable enough to knock out solid cartoons. It took much hard work, and painful times of transition, to get there.

Here, Avery tries to stack a stale deck of material with a few wild cards. His efforts--and talent--are mostly in vain. With Spence the only outstanding animator on his team, and the visual style of Hollywood animation in liminal doldrums, this cannot have been a happy time for Avery the moviemaker.

After the highs of Porky's Duck Hunt and Uncle Tom's Bungalow, Avery flounders through the rest of 1937. He remains professional and conscientious, but nothing in the material of this and its neighbor films hold inspiration.

The Avery unit now makes a one-film return to black-and-white, in the hope of capturing the bright vibe of their 1936 cartoons. Then it's back to Technicolor. The fruits of their labor will exponentially improve in the new year. Your humble host cannot wait to get to those 10 good-to-brilliant cartoons.

UP NEXT: Guinea and pig, in Porky's Garden.


  1. Spence's Ratz Brothers scene here does at least lift 45 seconds of this cartoon above the level of the final effort in Tex's 'Cute Rodent' trilogy, "The Mice Will Play" -- now that's an unwatchable cartoon, made worse by the fact it came after Tex's burst of creativity in 1938. (Avery had to be overjoyed when Jones got Tashlin's color unit and basically took over the job of doing all the cutesy-cutesy Merrie Melodies to keep the straight-laced theater owners demanding Disneyesque color cartoons from J.L. happy.)

  2. Thanks, as ever, for your comments. I'd argue that Avery never made a wholly unwatchable cartoon. He did fall from grace and fail to meet the high standards he set for himself. Throughout his cartoon career, misfires occur in his filmography. That he was not afraid to fail in public is admirable. Trial and error led to a body of masterpieces that stand with the best examples of film-making, past present or future.

    Even those dreaded spot-gag cartoons have one or two small redeemable moments. They're not fun to sit through (nor is "The Mice Will Play," I agree), but they're a necessary evil in Avery's q.v.

    1. I give the 1930s shorts far more leeway in terms of weakness, because in the 1936-41 period we're really watching the Warners staff make it up on the fly, adding their own touches to cartoon humor while watching what the Disney studio was doing in the way of animation and personality characterizations and adapting that for their own use. That's different from the weaker 1960s shorts, where you knew the writers, animators and directors were capable of much better work.

      Based mainly on the Avery and Tashlin efforts coming up in 1938, you can say Warners actually found its comedy voice in that year, but took a step or two backwards in 1939-40 to work on their animation, so that the gags drawn up on paper didn't lose a lot of their bite when animated (as Tex's staff later told Joe Adamson was the case about this time). So even the spot gag cartoons of the period have their assets, if you look at them as Avery's way to completely kill off the earlier "We gotta have a plot that goes with the song" Merrie Melodies format, while the crew worked on improving their drawing style so the gags got the audience reaction they were supposed to get.