Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Haunted Mouse: Return to Monochrome Has Mixed Results for Avery Unit (with guest commentator Devon Baxter)

Release date: 2/15/1941 (according to BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: none

You may view or download the complete version of this cartoon HERE.


A big thank-you to Devon Baxter, Cartoon Research columnist and budding film restoration person, who kept on me to finally get this post, started far too long ago, finished. His comments pepper this look at a troubled production.

1941 begins with the Avery unit's first black and white cartoon since 1937's Porky's Garden. In this period, all of Leon Schlesinger's directors took turns making monochrome Looney Tunes.

This was apparently to help the studio meet its release requirements for the year. As well, less Technicolor footage lowered the outlay of money. Most of these '41 cartoons are in the public domain. When they came up for copyright renewal, the powers-that-were possibly passed on the trouble. What could black and white cartoons do for them in the late 1960s?

There are some fine cartoons in this batch. Friz Freleng helmed some high-quality Porky Pig episodes. As my friend Thad K. has noted, they're substantially better than the late black and whites of Bob Clampett, who let Porky become a mindless figurehead. Freleng's black and whites are highly amusing and well-made.

These would be the only black-and-white cartoons of Chuck Jones' directorial career. He made a few outstanding Looney Tunes, including Joe Glow the Firefly and some Porkys. Avery served a hitch in the Looney Tunes trenches, and had been away from the series since 1937. His two B&W shorts of '41 gave us the transcendental Porky's Preview and this beautifully animated, problematic one-shot.

The Haunted Mouse is a failure as a cartoon; a fatal flaw in its storyline, plus unsympathetic characters, leads nowhere. This isn't the first time Avery has made do with a sub-par storyline. It's a surprise to see Michael Maltese's name as storyman. His scenarios for Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones are among the most solid of the mature-period WB cartoons. Maltese's scenarios are usually bullet-proof. This cartoon seems like an experiment--doing something without insurance of its success. Such risks could be better taken in a lower-budget black and white cartoon.

Cancer treatment and this guy (at left) have kept me pre-occupied. I'm in the middle of restoring Cecil Jensen's classic absurdist comic strip Elmo, which I intend to self-publish by the end of this year.

I am on the home-stretch of this blog project. It makes sense to finish it. When I decided to examine each one of Tex Avery's Warner Brothers cartoons--to establish some kind of critical exploration of a neglected and mis-judged body of films--I knew there would be some rough going. It's more pleasurable to write about films I admire and consider successful. But we learn from mistakes--our own and others'--and there is value in examining why something doesn't work.

With the sound off, The Haunted Mouse is a thing of beauty. Lush, atmospheric backgrounds and nuanced animation from such talents as Robert McKimson, Virgil Ross and Rod Scribner are state-of-the-art 1940 work. We do miss Carl Stalling's moody score if we omit the audio track--an essential component of these cartoons.

We'll go through it with sight and sound, warts and all. Ready?