Sunday, August 16, 2015

Thugs With Dirty Mugs: An Avery Masterpiece-- And a Staggering Strangulation of the Gangster Genre

Release date: 5/6/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:
 Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. Three (WHV)

You may view this cartoon HERE. (Warning--the volume control on Critical Commons videos is hidden--it's on the right side of the screen. It only appears if your mouse/finger lingers over it. Take a moment to find the volume slider:this one is LOUD!)

A stellar example of what the Fred Avery unit could produce, when inspiration and skill intersected, this cartoon is one of the director's early masterpieces. It's also a study in economy, with sequences that avoid animation and thus allow its new footage to shine with special effects and expressive, elaborate draftsmanship.

A parody of Warner Brothers' genre-defining gangster and crime movies--a staple of the late-Depression movie-going experience--was a solid idea. By spring of 1939, audiences had viewed over a decade's worth of talkie crime movies. Warners had a big one coming in the fall of 1939--The Roaring Twenties, which co-starred established James Cagney and brink-of-stardom Humphrey Bogart.

Some of these films, like Rouben Mamoulian's City Streets and Edward L. Cahn's Afraid To Talk, are impressive, moody and still of great interest. Much of the Warners/First National efforts are solid entertainments, although given to formula by the middle of the 1930s.

Long story short: this genre demanded a meta-spoof, and Avery gave it to his audience. From music to montage to atmosphere, Thugs With Dirty Mugs is both an effective satire of the gangster film and a formal romp through the biases of Hollywood movie-making.

As would a typical WB picture, we begin with "credits" that show the main characters, culled from apropos footage seen again later in the film. Other cartoons had done this gag, including Avery's, but the device sets up a delicious anticipation--and leaves no doubts as to its coming attractions:*
The screen shots are from the gorgeous restored version seen on the second disc of Warner Home Video's Looney Tunes Golden Collection III. The vibrancy of these restorations makes the viewer wish all the important early Avery cartoons had been given this royal treatment.