The 1943 animated short Red Hot Riding Hood begins innocently enough: the insipid narration of an unseen storyteller introduces us to little Red, her sweet grandma, and the big, bad wolf who’s stalking her through the forest. But before the tale can get underway, the characters rebel. The Wolf, breaking the fourth wall, complains to the narrator (after mocking his airy tone):
“I’m fed up with that sissy stuff! It’s the same old story over and over. If you can’t do this thing a new way, bud, I quit!”
Immediately, “sweet” little Red joins in, with a somewhat jarring Brooklynese accent:
“Me, too! Every cartoon studio in Hollywood has done it this way!”
Before long, even Grandma is voicing her displeasure with the generic tone of the cartoon (“Yes, I’m plenty sick of it myself!”), and the exasperated narrator finally gives in–and gives up the sugary-sweet delivery. The scene shifts to Hollywood. The Wolf pops up at Hollywood and Vine sporting an elegant tuxedo. A suddenly-amorous Grandma lounges in her flashy penthouse. And a sexed-up, grown-up, scantily-clad Red dances on stage cooing “Daddy” with the shimmying moves of a woman who knows her own appeal.
Well, the characters wanted something new, and director Tex Avery certainly gave it to them.
Long before Edward Everett Horton narrated a series of “Fractured Fairy Tales” for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Tex Avery presented his own unique, skewed take on the genre. Red Hot Riding Hood wasn’t the first time Avery had dipped into the fairy-tale well; in 1937, he directed Little Red Walking Hood for Warner Bros., a gag-heavy take on the familiar story. Still, that one ultimately hewed much more closely to the original story’s plot than Avery’s follow-up for MGM six years later.
Red Hot Riding Hood is one of the most notable productions of Avery’s long career, arguably the most influential and best-remembered of his many animated shorts. On the Jerry Beck-curated list of the “50 Greatest Cartoons,” Red Hot ranks seventh, and is the highest-placed MGM cartoon on the list (its 1949 semi-sequel, Little Rural Riding Hood, also appears on the list at #23). Red Hot is a prime example of a master gag craftsman at work, one who is more than willing to push the envelope in order to garner the most laughs.
Avery’s gags are beautifully brought to life through the skilled work of his animators, namely Preston Blair and Ed Love, former Disney animators who, as we mentioned in Thursday’s post, began working with Avery from the production of his first cartoon for MGM, Blitz Wolf. Blair designed Red, giving her a kind of innocent, pin-up-type sensuality that is reminiscent of the Fleischers’ Betty Boop—though according to animation historian John Canemaker, the curvy design of Red owes more to the Disneyfied “Fred Moore Girl,” named after Blair’s former coworker who specialized in such figures. In an interesting turnaround, MGM’s Red later provided some obvious inspiration for the Disney animators who brought Jessica Rabbit to life in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
In contrast to her highly-sexed image, Red’s speaking voice is injected with a decided note of Katharine Hepburn’s famously refined delivery (a callback to the character’s voice in Little Red Walking Hood), while her singing is appropriately throaty and calls to mind chanteuses like Lena Horne. The saucy redhead would become a recurring character in several subsequent Avery cartoons, albeit sometimes under different names: for instance, “Lou” in the 1945 Droopy cartoon The Shooting of Dan McGoo and the title character in 1945’s Swing Shift Cinderella, among others.
For his part, Love animated the Wolf, and brilliantly captured the essence of the character in a multitude of hilariously aroused takes. The image of the Wolf pounded the table and visibly lusting after the alluring songstress Red has been copied, mimicked, and outright ripped off by dozens of animators in the seventy years since its release. The gags in Red Hot center largely around just how blatantly Avery and crew can depict the Wolf’s (and later Grandma’s) overt sexual desire, and some of the imagery comes close to toeing the line. It may be surprising today to see exactly what Avery was able to get past the Production Code, but according to author Gary Morris, it was all by the director’s design. Knowing that the censors would reject some of the material he wanted to use, Avery devised even more outrageous gags and inserted them into the cartoon, realizing that once the most offensive gags were purged, the ones he really wanted to include would remain in the final product.
Yet the censors’ biggest issue eventually came not from the Wolf’s lustiness, but from the proposed original ending, in which the Wolf is forced into a shotgun marriage with Grandma, and is later shown to have produced cubs with her. To the Production Code office, a long, phallic car, sexual panting, and erect body positions were okay, but comic evidence of “bestiality” was verboten. Instead, it was judged much more acceptable to end the cartoon with the Wolf putting a gun to either side of his head and blowing his own brains out.
Don’t forget to enter our awesome Tex Avery prize pack giveaway (details here)!
*Editor’s Note: Due to computer issues, we were unable to publish this post yesterday. As a result, we’ll be extending our Tex Avery tribute through Monday.*