Earlier this month, our friends at Wonders in the Dark set out to honor one of their own–the dearly departed Allan Fish–with an online film festival, for which I was sincerely honored to be invited to participate.
I did not know Allan, outside of his online presence, but I nonetheless was in awe of him–of his obvious, all-abiding passion for film, his skilled and thoroughly engaging writing, and his frank (and, sometimes, frankly terrifying) manner of expressing his opinion about various areas of the cinematic universe. In the weird and wonderful world of the internet, Allan was one of my favorite reads, even when I wholeheartedly disagreed with his opinion about this, that, and the other.
Suffice it to say, Wonders in the Dark–and online film criticism in general–will not be the same without Allan Fish. He is already greatly missed.
In searching for an appropriate topic for this celebration of Allan’s life and legacy, I found myself perusing his “alternate Oscars” posts from a few years ago, a series that was both impressive in its sheer scope and fascinating for what it revealed about Allan’s preferences as well as his judgments about what performers, films, and directors should be considered “award-worthy.” And one of the things I was delighted to discover upon going through these posts is that I share with Mr. Fish an affinity for the work of the great Tex Avery.
Indeed, in his personal selections of the best short film productions of each year, Allan chose five Tex Avery cartoons, every single one of them an absolute gem. So I can think of no better way to celebrate Allan’s memory than to highlight those five hilarious and brilliantly-constructed animated shorts, all of them released during what was arguably the heyday of Avery’s career as the wonderboy of MGM’s animation division.
Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)
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.
To view this cartoon, click on the image above.
In the 1943 animated short Dumb-Hounded, Tex Avery debuted a new character, a laconic, quick-witted, slow-talking hound dog. Originally dubbed “Happy Hound” (though this is never explicitly mentioned onscreen), the dog spends the entire cartoon tracking down a wolf who has escaped from jail, remarkably appearing in every locale to which the wolf attempts to escape. From the city to the remotest areas of the planet, there is nowhere the wolf can go where the damn dog isn’t waiting for him, and every encounter with his would-be captor sends the wolf into frenetic takes marked by incredibly imaginative imagery. Eventually christened “Droopy,” the seemingly mild-mannered, deceptively meek pup became the perfect vehicle through which Avery could explore the wildest gags he could possibly conceive.
Dumb-Hounded was remade in 1945 as the fourth entry in the Droopy cartoon series, this time called Northwest Hounded Police. Working with a skilled animation team that included frequent colleagues Preston Blair and Ed Love, here Avery put together one of the strongest entries in the entire Droopy filmography. This time around, the recycled gags are sharper and crisper, the reaction shots of the wolf even more exaggerated than before. Avery reuses a fantastic gag from Dumb-Hounded in which the wolf skids off the screen, momentarily exposing the side of the film strip before jetting back into the action, and then takes the meta references up another notch by having the wolf attempt to hide in a movie theater–before Droopy appears onscreen and singles him out in the audience. It’s all-out insanity crammed into a mere seven minutes, and far exceeds its predecessor in both production and laughs-per-second.
The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945)
The second entry in the Droopy filmography, McGoo is a parody of the 1907 poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew, by British-Canadian poet Robert W. Service. In (loosely) recreating the story from the poem, Avery borrows characters from 1943’s Red Hot Riding Hood: that cartoon’s Red becomes the sexy singer Lou, and the Wolf takes on the role of Droopy’s adversary. The interaction between these two characters is pretty much the same as in the earlier cartoon; the Wolf lusts after Lou in a series of increasingly outrageous, exaggerated takes as she sings a seductive tune, and when he tries to abduct her, the horndog wolf gets his comeuppance.
McGoo is populated by typical Tex Avery-style gags, jam-packed in from the opening shots: the Alaska town’s “welcome” sign boasts its punny name, Coldernell (a gag Avery would reuse in later cartoons); as gunshots ring out, the population of the town–as advertised on the sign–shrinks. There are other sign gags and wild takes galore: a row of boozehounds turn into howling wolves at one word from Lou; beers sliding down an extended bar are subject to traffic lights; a burly bartender stands in front of a portrait of a (supposedly) naked lady, blocking the naughty bits and speaking directly to camera, “You might as well move along, doc. I don’t move from here all through the picture” (don’t worry–he’ll eventually get out of the way, making room for yet another spot-on sign gag). And that’s just in the first two-and-a-half minutes, before the plot even gets underway.
The Cat That Hated People (1948)
In his work, Avery deliberately turned the “lifelike animation” touted by Walt Disney completely on its head. “I couldn’t compete with Disney,” he once admitted in an interview, “and I didn’t attempt to. I attempted to do things that Disney wouldn’t dare to do … exaggeration in films, wild takes, distorted fairy tales–and I laid off of the fuzzy-wuzzy little bunnies because it wasn’t my bag.”
This is quite evident in The Cat That Hated People, whose Jimmy Durante-esque protagonist is far from the type of cutesy feline creatures that tend to populate Disney shorts. Instead, Avery’s cat is a mangy, disgruntled misanthrope, so worn down from his mistreatment at the hands of the human race to the point that he feels compelled to hop a rocket into outer space. And once he’s there, Avery lets loose one insane, loopy gag after another to torment the poor cat in ways Disney animators likely never could have dreamed.
Magical Maestro (1952)
Each of the five cartoons listed here demonstrate Tex Avery’s distinctive and innovative style–a style which was eventually adopted, at least in part, by other cartoonists who recognized the effectiveness of the Avery model: unending and inventive gags (often at the expense of a defined plot); exaggerated reactions; multiple asides to the audience–whether by sign or by having characters break the fourth wall; intensely sped-up action; and impeccable comedic pacing.
But more than anything, Avery had an unerring, innate sense of comic timing. That timing was ultimately the key to Avery’s success, as he was able to make a gag “pop” like no one else in the business. And in the case of Magical Maestro, Avery takes “comic timing” to a whole new level by incorporating an increasingly manic musical motif to accompany the visual jokes, in the process crafting a series of gags that work in hilarious harmony with the classical music soundtrack and building to a crescendo of guffaws. Not to say the cartoon is entirely perfect (there is the unfortunate bit of blackface and a cringe-worthy Chinese parody), but the multiplying-rabbits gag alone is worth the price of admission.