Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dangerous Dan McFoo: Inching Towards Mastery

Release date: 7/15/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: an extra on the WHV DVD of Dodge City; and 
an extra on the French collection of Avery's M-G-M cartoons

You may view this cartoon HERE. Kudos to this blog's official pal, Devon Baxter, for providing this best-there-is version for us to view.

Two years after the release of this cartoon, Tex Avery will be at M-G-M. There he will make the body of cartoons most consider his best work. Few of his later Warner Brothers cartoons anticipate the vibe of his M-G-M work quite like this one.

Comparisons are unavoidable to the later work, as Avery sorta-remade this cartoon in 1944 as:

We're going to study the earlier work on its own merits today.

The one upside to the tedious spot-gag cartoons that pollute this stretch of Avery's career is that they gave him the chance to recharge his batteries. Almost all his non-spot-gag cartoons of 1939, 40 and '41 are worthwhile. A few, this among them, have their moments of brilliance. 

Avery was too wrapped up in his work, as a reflection of his self-worth and social status, to have the energy to create non-stop masterpieces. A study of the M-G-M work finds towering classics flanked by meh-level cartoons. Even those films have something of value, and Avery's risk-taking helped him develop great concepts that he could re-use for better purposes.

This and the M-G-M remake are "adapted from" the hoary oratorical verse written by Robert W. Service. Curious to read it? Look HERE. The sing-song cadence of this poem, like Longfellow's "Hiawatha," were once the dread of millions of school-children, who struggled to memorize the latter's heavily accented lines and recite them without a hint of enthusiasm. Those kids--many who were adults by 1939--could take comfort in seeing this white-elephant "classic" kidded and deconstructed in cartoon form.

Both cartoons open in a similar manner, with the narrator hamming up the ersatz first lines:

A gang of the boys were whooping it up in the Malibu Saloon...
Incongruous SoCal neon, married to spoof of a common movie theater come-on (back in the days when air conditioning was an absolute luxury), was sure to get that all-important first audience guffaw. Truck/dissolve to scene of inertia...
 two seconds of frenzied bacchanal...
 and more inertia.
The honky-tonk pianist "playing a swingtime tune" (in reality the era-appropriate "Seeing Nellie Home," composed by John Fletcher) does a clever Tati-esque typewriter routine with his battered old upright pie-anna...
A smooth close-harmony trio lights into a vocal version.
Don't let those top hats and tails fool you...
 Avery quotes himself, in a recap of a moment from the previous season's Penguin Parade.
 The vocal is lovely, and it reaches its end...
 at which time, the trio does a dead-pan pre-macarena bump-and-grind...
 and then lights out as if the law will be on their tails.
 No explanation given or needed. 
The sheer "huh?!" factor of this last bit is as surprising today as it must have been in '39. Whatever its motivation, it clears the palate. Now anything can happen--as it should be in an animated cartoon.
 At the back of the house, in a solo game...
 was Dangerous Dan McFoo!
 Two onlookers move, so we can see what's happening...
As McFoo manipulates the pinball game, we see the first of a curious breed of pink and purple-accented dog-guys. Technicolor cartoons of the later 1930s have some odd color choices, but this one's a lulu.
Arthur Q. Bryan, in a voice that will some become revered as Elmer Fudd's, speaks McFoo's greeting:
 "Hello, ev-wee-body!"
 And watching his fate was his heavy date--the girl that's known as Sue.
 You know she's going to do the Katherine Hepburn routine, but it's still endearing.
 Pink-Eye teaches McFoo some pinball wizardry.
 "More... more... more..."
 It is, of course, two city blocks away.
 My pinball games always go this way, so I can relate...
 We hear the first instance of Bryan's, er, tantwums...
 "I was wobbed! I WAS WOBBED!"
At this point, the stranger must stagger through the doorway and cause conflict.
Avery loves this door-in-the-floor bit, and will use it throughout his career.
The villain looks more like Eb, from Green Acres, than the standard-issue wolf Avery will employ in the '40s. His reactions, upon first sight to Sue, forecast similar (and more extreme) moments of the next decade.
 There is Avery's drawing style--that art-deco balloon-animal look.
Some of the animation in this scene is by Virgil Ross, and it's quite good.
 Mel Blanc recalled shouting himself hoarse as this character.
His scruffy, overly loud voice characterization was the obvious inspiration
for Yosemite Sam, Bugs Bunny's most frequent foe of the later '40s.
 Sue plays coquette.
Transformation to painted Bette Davis reminds us that the actress was once considered a sex symbol.
 The syncopated, stylized heart-on is another touch that anticipates the M-G-M work.
 Villain does not turn into a living stiffie, but he scrambles to woo this potential conquest.
 "Your eyes... your lips...
 Honey, I loooooooovvvveee you!"
 Sue rebuffs this bold display.
 "Oh, please go no further...
 because my heart belongs to Daddy."
 "Daddy" recovers from his crying jag with a start!
McFoo weminds the villain that Sue is his girl, and etc. etc.
 Villain forces McFoo to give the audience...
 the finger! Truth told, it happens so quickly that no one would even
notice it, and no one outside an animation studio was still-framing cartoons
in 1939...
 That's it! McFoo gets angry...
 Avery pulls one of his free-associative tricks. A bell ding-dings...
 and in a split second, a bulldog referee appears. It's disarmingly quick timing.
Avery makes some career breakthroughs in speed and timing in this cartoon.
 Sue attempts to inject drama into farce.
 "I hope Dan mows you down...
 Really, I do."
 Why NOT have a streetcar enter the bar-room, and function as
the round-bell for the fight?
Again, it all happens so fast...
This sequence, which starts at 3:42, stresses rapid timing, synchronization to a piece of recognizable PD classical music and exacting drybrush work.
 Some great poses in this sequence. 
 The always-good "hands up to the ceiling" bit.
 What the #^%$ just happened?!?
Back to the funny animal conflict...
 Sue exhorts Dan to be careful while he's getting the $#!t knocked out of him.
 "Don't wowwy, honey. I'm not hurt a bit. And I'll be wight out!"
Time for a break!
 The old "invisible staircase" routine.
A second free-associative tangent that really pays off,
aided by laser-sharp comic timing:
A shave and a haircut in six seconds flat!
 Another emotion moment for Sue. "Oh, my darling... are you hurt?"
 "Uh uh."
Another hoary cartoon routine that seems more at home
in a Famous Studios "Popeye:" opponent as punching bag.
 Condom and gonad shapes of McFoo are visually obvious, but not acknowledged by characters.
Avery redeems the staleness of that last bit with an inspired variation
on the out of body experience...
 CARTOON PHYSICS: In a pinch, an ectoplasm can carry a heavy pail of water.
 Dan initiates a gag that was old in 1939, and one Avery wasn't done with yet.
"Mista Wef-a-wee..."
 McFoo suspects his opponent has something in his gwuv.
Avery will do a more graphically graceful variant in one of his M-G-M masterworks, Lonesome Lenny (1946). That is one ugly cartoon horse.
At this point, the cartoon begins to lose steam. The ponderous delivery
of this last gag, and the weak narrative, prove hard to transcend.
After more encouragement from Sue, the fight re-re-starts:
Villain hikes up trousers...
 ...reveals scrawny frame.
 This concerns Dan.
 In a repeat of an earlier bit, here is another loosey-goosey doorway.
"For the benefit of the fight fans in the audience,
we will stop our camera at intervals--so that you
can see the blows as they land."
Narrator abandons the Robert Service spoof for
more up-to-date grist of newsreel hooey.
Wonderful drawings surpass the gag set-up (that all
blows are illegal ones, and that this is far from a
fair fight):
Villain delivers "a hard right to the chin" of the bulldog barkeep.
More amusing poses.
Then futility sets in. In a moment that might reflect Avery's realization
that he's stuck in a rut, the until-now unseen narrator breaks the
fragile fourth wall. His hand tosses in two firearms.
 "Let's get this thing over with," narrator urges, as he breathlessly
resumes the Service doggerel:
True to the poem, the lights go out...
a woman screams (self-consciously)...
 And the Schlesinger studio SFX artists get a shining moment,
via these out-of-focus abstractions:
 We hear a sound somewhat like an elk getting a surprise rectal exam.
Then the lights come up...
and we see a precursor to the beautifully animated "death scene" of Avery's upcoming
masterwork, A Wild Hare. Perhaps this sequence was animated by one of the McKimson
brothers (Robert or Charles)... we see the same delicacy of motion, foreshortening and quiet
drama of the more famous 1940 scene.
 "Dan! Speak to me!"
 "Speak to me!"
 Dan's rictus-grin is captured in the iris out.
Obviously not the original end-title card.
Dangerous Dan McFoo loses its impetus in its last half. Until that moment, Avery and his crew demonstrate some of the finest comic timing seen in Hollywood animation. This seems to be Avery's breakthrough cartoon for the creation of exhilarating, immaculately-timed fast-paced comedy. He will build on the gains made in this film, and keep at it until his pacing becomes the industry standard--one that few directors (even Disney bigshots!) have the smarts and skill to emulate.

As well, his unit begins to dig their way out of the ugly look-and-feel of the late '30s cartoons. While this film's character designs are still tentative, their countenances and contours show a strong effort to get away from the balloony, misshapen figures of earlier cartoons. With Irv Spence gone, Avery has lost one great draftsman; in Virgil Ross and the McKimsons, he has animators of great skill and graphic potential.

Avery seems to think, at this time, that to better the look of his pictures, his own drawing style must be tamped down. Somewhere beneath the gloss of the film's emergent '40s Hollywood cartoon look, Avery's hand is still felt. From now on, a house style that attempts to catch up with the standards Disney had set, from Snow White forward, takes precedence. The director is no longer the de facto character designer. Other layout and design artists will adapt Avery's sketches to the service of this more homogeneous, slick affect.

It was a sacrifice for Avery-the-artist, but a necessary move for the betterment of his skills as a humorist and film-maker. Avery would further surrender his visual imprint in the earliest M-G-M cartoons, which rival any Disney product in terms of gloss and TLC.

Avery's own hand returns to his cartoons, with a vengeance, around 1945, at which point he departs from the Hollywood norm to create one of the most dynamic, grotesque and mesmerizing animation looks in the medium's history.

Dangerous Dan McFoo was state-of-the-art cartoon for mid-1939. Its story weakness aside (and strong stories are never Avery's forte), its timing, wit, exacting integration of music and sound effects and its sheer drive remain impressive. And driven Avery was to better this breakthrough, despite the rocky road that lay ahead.

NEXT: Detouring America--good-as-it-gets spot-gags.


    An undubbed copy of "I'd Love to Take Orders from you" was just found by Bodek610.

  2. If Robert C. Bruce narrated this, it would be Robert C.Bruce narrates the works of Robert W.Service. Bruce at the Service of Service fans. The gags like "sue"'s Bette Davis transformation would be reused many times, and in this variation is used by Friz Freleng for the previous year's "Jungle Jitters" for TWO stars (for the 1930s radio-derived hick dog based on "Elmer Blurt" of radio comedy fame)-Robert Taylor, and Clark Gable. Bette Davis was not only at least at one time a sex symbol, but a plug for the studio...just as "sue" herself said, "My Heart belinds to Daddy'-In Bette Davis's case, Daddy Jack Warner..and she inspired 1981
    s top hit, "Bette Davis Eyes"!