Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Early Worm Gets The Bird: 1940's Inauspicious, Racist-Lite Kickoff

Release date: 1/13/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: none

You may view the uncensored version of this cartoon HERE.

For its first narrative cartoon since Dangerous Dan McFoo, the Fred Avery unit reprises the territory of the earlier (and better) The Sneezing Weasel. Ambition and pace are slowed down, and racial caricatures inform its characters. After four spot-gag cartoons in a row, the notion of a "real" cartoon seems welcome and appealing. This film has a few isolated moments of wit and sharp pacing, but is hampered by dullness and a general lack of inspiration.

The Avery unit has some triumphs just down the road--The Bear's Tale, A Wild Hare and Of Fox and Hounds--and elements of those three films are weakly forecast here. Perhaps it had been so long since Avery and unit had tried to tell a through-story, with no interruptions or side-trips, that they would have made hash of anything they tried.

If nothing else, Early Worm is a sort of fond look back at the Avery unit's triumphs of 1937 and '38, when its blend of meta-story, increasing tempo and more confident, expressive animation announced the arrival of something new to studio cartoons.

Early Worm was among the first of the Warner Brothers "Blue Ribbon" re-issues in the fall of 1943. It was re-reissued in 1952, which suggests, inexplicably, that it was an audience favorite.

The opening is common to Avery's story cartoons of the late 1930s: an atmospheric multiplane exterior, set to music that establishes the mood and place. Stephen Foster's 1851 minstrel song "Old Folks at Home," more often known as "Swanee River," gets us through this gag-free introduction and tells us this is the Deep South--the cartoon version of it, at least.
It might also serve as a tip-off that we're about to see caricatures of black dialect; Foster's song, told from the POV of an Afro-American slave, uses the mush-mouthed likes of "ebber" and "eb'rywhere," among other ethnic corruptions, to get its bizarre sentiments of love for "de ole plantation" and de slavery system across.

We dissolve to the interior of the Blackbird home. Three children say their prayers as their adoring Mammy looks on, delighted at their goodness and grace. An Avery standard--the quick P.S. adorned with fast physical action--makes a lightly humorous tag.
Once the lights are out, one of the kids reveals an obsessive need to be different-- a la the parrot hero of 1937's I Wanna Be a Sailor, or Owl Jolson in 1936's I Love to Singa. He is obsessed with a book called The Early Bird Gets the Worm, which is his version of The Anarchist's Cookbook. He wakes one of his brothers to preach the gospel.

He's voiced by a sped-up but 100% recognizable Mel Blanc, who gives him a standard, if expressive, stock Negro dialect.

(Mother's voice is beautifully rendered by Sara Berner, whose versatility, like Blanc's, is easy to take for granted. She imbues her few moments here with genuine presence and warmth.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Screwball Football: Cavorting Sports Retorts

Release date: 12/16/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: none

You may view the uncensored version of this cartoon HERE.

More spot gags? As if we have a choice. This one has a welcome looseness, and is less reliant on deliberately stinky puns and other verbal-humor quips.

Thanks to this not being reissued, and thus shorn of its elaborate original titles, we can enjoy an unusual approach, via animated silhouettes. There's a funny gag, and everything:

These credits have more laughs than the entirety of, say, A Day at the Zoo, so this is off to a promising start--despite its being a sports cartoon. Not being a sports person, and finding sports, as-is, already funny, I am prone to groan when an athletic theme dominates an animated film.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Smile When You Say 'Flounder:' Fresh Fish

Release date:
 11/4/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: nada

You may view a nice-looking copy of this cartoon (with an embedded logo) HERE.

Perhaps I'm softening, or weakening under the spell of these Avery spot-gag cartoons, but they don't seem as egregious as I anticipated. They can be stale, but it's a deliberate staleness, a reveling in the joy of telling a bad or corny joke.

These aren't Avery's most enjoyable or memorable cartoons, but they do offer evidence of the shreds of progress in his path to becoming the most innovative and well-known non-Disney director of Hollywood cartoons.

The long delay in posting this analysis is due to the temporary misplacement of my set of complete Warner Brothers cartoons from a sudden move this past January. I am happy to say the set has been recovered, and I'll try to get through the rest of this spot-gag period quickly and painlessly.

By the time of Fresh Fish, an easy formula rules the Avery-directed spot gag cartoons. Robert C. Bruce is the affable, mildly sarcastic emcee; Mel Blanc and Carl Stalling supply invaluable audio input, and a talent pool of animators with a growing skillset turn out stable, functionial-to-impressive work. The Warners cartoons begin to have the vibe of a finely-tuned machine: each part does its work with due diligence, and each part works with its neighbors in concert.

The lone variant, by this time, is the content of each cartoon. Avery's time at the Leon Schlesinger studios demonstrates the power of this variant. With good material, Avery and crew could create an instant classic cartoon. With formula stuff or a flawed basic theme, the same group of talented people, capable of far greater things, could turn out a trifle. No one was going to remember these things, so if they turned out good, great; if not, well, let's try to make the next one better.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Land of the Midnight Fun: Smooth Sailing on a Ship of Fools

Release date: 9/23/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: as an extra on the Warners Home Video DVD of Allegheny Uprising.

You may view the uncensored version of this cartoon (with Cartoon Network logo) HERE.

Here's something to be happy about: A Tex Avery travelogue spot-gag cartoon that's funny, well thought-out, and beautifully drawn.

Land of the Midnight Fun feels like the result of a Termite Terrace think-tank session, in which the goal was to make one of these popular topical gag cartoons with clarity, solvency and some genuine wit. By sticking to one narrative incident (a cruise to Alaska), rather than a shotgun-spray of unconnected gags. LotMF is cohesive, appealing and endearing. Though Avery never depended on a strong narrative, it surely doesn't hurt him. Having a sturdy foundation upon which to gag, and confound the viewer, is common to his best early cartoons.

Yes, there are some bad puns--those poor-on-purpose items that are part of the spirit of these spot-gaggers. But Avery is wise enough, from the experience of having made a few of these, to let his natural comedic and cinematic inclinations steer this ship.

The title sequence announces something out of the norm:

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Detouring America: Gagging (in both senses of the word) Across the Great 48

Release date: 8/26/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: as an extra on the WHV DVD of Each Dawn I Die

You may view the uncensored version of this cartoon HERE.

Another early spot-gag cartoon, spoofing the abundance of over-narrated travelogues that crowded the short subject segment of motion picture programs.

This format has not grown completely stale, but these spot-gag cartoons have none of the impact they had on first release.

A corny opening "disclaimer," backed by a characteristic medley of familiar national tunes, sets the stage for the next seven minutes and change:
The announcer (Avery regular Robert Bruce) tells us we're going on "an educational tour of the United States." Snort. Chortle. Our first stop is a faux-multiplane Manhattan.