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When you think about the classic animation directors of the 20th Century, names like Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, Walter Lantz, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett might come to mind. Also on the list would have to be Tex Avery. 19 of his wild, inventive, freewheeling cartoons have been compiled in The Warner Archive Collection’s new Blu-ray release, “Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1".
The collection is divided into four sections of films Avery directed for MGM from 1943 to 1951: Tex Avery Classics, Screwy Squirrel, George & Junior, and Droopy. The shorts are not in chronological order.
One of the many highlights of the disc, “Red Hot Riding Hood”, leads off the Classics section. If you’ve seen 1994’s “The Mask” movie, you’d be familiar with Jim Carrey’s title character reacting like Avery’s cartoon Wolf, with exaggerated lust, when watching Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz) singing at The Coco Bongo. In fact, The Mask’s head turns into the Wolf’s noggin via special effects. Early in the film, too, The Mask’s alter ego, Stanley Ipkiss, is shown in his apartment watching “Red Hot Riding Hood” via a VHS tape.
The cartoon’s premise is that Red, The Wolf, and Grandma want the “Little Red Riding Hood” story told in a different way. They get their wish as “something new is added”. Red is now all grown up and sexy looking, performing Bobby Troup’s song “Daddy” in a Hollywood nightclub. The mustachioed Wolf is dressed in a tuxedo, and has “the hots” for the singer. Even Grandma is wearing an evening gown, and romantically chases after the Wolf.
"Boxoffice" magazine reported in 1945 that two years after its release, "Red Hot Riding Hood" had the greatest number of bookings, over 15,000, of any MGM short subject in the studio's history. It also was quite popular with American GIs stationed overseas during World War II.
"Red Hot Riding Hood"
The "Avery Screwball Classics" animated movies feature lots of sight gags. In “Who Killed Who?” the killer points a gun in the back of the police detective investigating the murder. He tells the agent, “Reach for the ceiling.” The detective’s arms then stretch up like rubber to the ceiling, as if he were “Plastic Man”. “What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard” begins with a picturesque shot of a barren mountain area in Arizona. A sign reads, “The Painted Desert-Painted By Local 852”, which was then the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild union. ”Daredevil Droopy” shows rivals Droopy and Spike competing in various sports activities to win a job with the circus. In one, Spike skates a visible figure eight on an ice rink. Droopy, in turn, skates a “4 + 4” on the ice.
But the Avery cartoon with the most sight gags happens to be one of the cleverest, “Symphony in Slang”. A recently deceased young man is at the Pearly Gates, telling his life story. Every sentence he says is accompanied by a literal depiction of the action. When he mentions he got a job but "couldn’t cut the mustard", onscreen he’s shown carving a portion of the condiment with a knife and fork on a dinner plate. Later in the short, he talks about leaving a nightclub, where “it was rainin’ cats and dogs”. Thus, a whole group of felines and canines are falling down from the sky along with the precipitation.
"Symphony in Slang"
Avery places several unconventional scenes in the cartoons, too. “Batty Baseball” starts with just the title card. About thirty seconds into the movie, one of the baseball players asks the narrator “Didn’t you forget something?” Who made this picture? How about the MGM titles, the lion roar and all that kind of stuff? The announcer apologizes, and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” then plays as the missing Leo the Lion intro and opening credits run.
Droopy’s debut,“Dumb-Hounded”, includes a section in which the Swing Swing Prison escapee Wolf sprints to get away from the dog. The Wolf takes too wide a turn, and he’s shown running out of a simulated movie frame with sprocket holes shown. He ends up in a white space on the screen, until skidding back into the film print.
Avery is credited with creating Daffy Duck and developing Bugs Bunny for Warner Brothers. In fact, “The Wascally Wabbit”’s trademark phrase, “What’s Up Doc?” is attributed to Avery. His MGM character Screwy Squirrel had the zaniness of the early Daffy or Woody Woodpecker, but the films were not successful. Four of the five shorts featuring the Squirrel are in the Blu-ray set. The most controversial is “Big Heel-Watha”, which contains Native American stereotypes. The tribe in the cartoon is facing a meat shortage, and the Chief says that the first hunter that brings back fresh game will receive his beautiful daughter Minnie-Hot-Cha (with a Mae West type voice and figure like Little Red Hot Riding Hood) “as a prize”. Heel-Watha tries to catch Screwy Squirrel throughout the cartoon, in this regard.
The Squirrel’s last starring movie, “Lonesome Lenny”, pairs him with a dog that sounds just like Lon Chaney’s Jr.’s portrayal of Lennie in the film version of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. Avery continued in that vein by spoofing both the George and Lennie characters as bears in another short-lived series, “George and Junior”. Avery, in fact, provided the voice of Junior. Two of the four “George and Junior” cartoons are included in this Blu-ray release.
Avery’s most popular character at MGM was Droopy the dog.The small bloodhound with the deadpan speech was inspired by the character Wallace Wimple from the 1936-1953 “Fibber McGee and Molly” radio show. Bill Thompson provided the voice of Wimple and Droopy, as well as Hanna-Barbera’s Touche Turtle. The Blu-ray contains four Droopy films, including “Dumb-Hounded”. The cartoon’s premise is that the wolf on the lam thinks he’s ditched Droopy at various hiding places, only to find the pooch at each location. Avery first used the routine in the 1941 Bugs Bunny film, “Tortoise Beats Hare”, with Droopy taking the role of Cecil Turtle. Spike the Bulldog is Droopy’s nemesis in the other three films in the Blu-ray.
4K scans from the original Technicolor film elements have been used for the cartoons, and they look fantastic. Leo the MGM Lion has never appeared so good visually as he roars to start the cartoons.Of course, the films themselves are what matter the most, not just Leo, and the colors are bright with picture quality clear and crisp. Aspect ratio is the original theatrical 1.37:1. English subtitles are available in the cartoons. Unfortunately, you can’t re-watch the previous film without going back to the main menu. No bonus features are included for the dual layered disc. Unlike the Popeye Warner Archive Blu-ray releases, the cartoon lineup is featured on the back of the Blu-ray case, not on the disc itself. Total running time is 138 minutes.
Avery created 67 cartoons while working at MGM. With 48 animated Avery shorts left out of this set, we can look forward to at least a "Tex Avery: Screwball Classics Volume 2” release in the very near future. In the meantime, this disc is an excellent representation of the work of one of Hollywood's most influential animation directors.
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