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.)