The Sunday Night Movie: The Cartoons of Tex Avery (1936-1952)

I picked up the second volume of the Looney Tunes Platinum Collection on Blu-Ray a year or so ago, but it wasn’t until last weekend that I had time to sit down with it.  My main reason for buying the set was that it marks the first time that the ingeniously clever cartoons of Tex Avery (the best of which was done after Avery left Warner Bros. for MGM, incidentally) have been made available on DVD.  It doesn’t hurt that the set also includes a wealth of Looney Tunes classics by Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett (including the famously weird Porky in Wackyland).  Anyway.  The Avery cartoons represent mid-twentieth-century animation at its most antic and irreverent.  Here are five favorites:

Blitz Wolf (1942, pictured above)

Probably the best-known of the WWII-era propaganda cartoons (a title card informs us that the resemblance of a goose-stepping Big Bad Wolf to Adolf Hitler is “purely intentional”), it’s chock-a-block with corny puns, phallic weapons, jingoistic violence, and references to popular songs and movies.  Opens with a parody of Disney’s Three Little Pigs and ends with the Wolf being blown to hell, where he’s greeted by a chorus of grinning devils.  Delightfully unhinged.

Red Hot Riding Hood (1944) and Swing Shift Cinderella (1945)

Avery’s fairy-tale cartoons beg to be read as snarky, adult-oriented revisions of the Disney classics, which Avery would continue to mock throughout his career for their saccharine cuteness.  Red Hot Riding Hood begins with Little Red, the Wolf, and Grandma all complaining that their story needs a re-haul.  So Avery makes Red into a sultry nightclub singer and the Wolf a leering horndog whose insatiable libido is rivaled only by that of hot-and-bothered Grandma.  Swing Shift Cinderella is an unapologetic retread of Riding Hood, with a bonkers Fairy Godmother taking over the Grandma role.  Avery’s fairy tale cartoons were banned for years due to their keyed-up sexual humor, and one can see why.  These aren’t subtle acknowledgements of the adult themes that already lie beneath the original stories—they’re raucous, manic, panting travesties.  See also Little Rural Riding Hood (not included in this DVD edition, sadly).    

King-Size Canary (1947)

A good example of how under Avery’s direction a familiar conceit (cat pursues mouse) could be exaggerated to surreal proportions.  By the end, cat and mouse, having each taken liberal doses of “Jumbo-Gro” in an attempt to outsize the other, stand shoulder to shoulder on a basketball-sized Earth.  I first read about this one in J. Hoberman’s essay “Vulgar Modernism,” in which he singles out Avery’s work as an example of American mass culture at its most mind-bendingly experimental.

Symphony in Slang (1952)

It’s a testament to Avery’s cleverness that he could sustain what is essentially a single gag—the de-familiarization of common idiomatic expressions (ex. “he drew a gun on me”)—for the span of a seven-minute short.  That beautifully flat, angular animation style doesn’t hurt, either.


Ranking the Best Picture Winners, Part X

6.  Unforgiven (1992)

If you don’t count Cimarron (and really, why should you?) this marked the first time a Western won for Best Picture.  And what a Western!  Not since The Searchers had the genre so harrowingly laid bare the battered psyche of the frontier “hero.”  “I got scars,” says Clint Eastwood’s William Munny.  That’s one way of putting it.  By turns rip-roaring, terrifying, beautiful, and deeply moving.     


Ranking the Best Picture Winners, Part IX

15.  The Deer Hunter (1978)

Another one that really impressed me as a budding film lover but that I should probably revisit.  It may be one of the best uses of the three-act structure in Hollywood cinema, and one of the few three-hour movies that’s actually well-paced.  Also, Meryl Streep.  


Ranking the Best Picture Winners, Part VIII

23.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

The gender politics in this one—oof.  Setting that aside, some truly great performances here.  That a fiercely talented “character actor” like Louise Fletcher could land a starring role in a movie this big and ride it all the way to a Best Actress win is proof that the system can work (sometimes).


Ranking the Best Picture Winners, Part VII

34.  How Green Was My Valley (1941)

This is John Ford at his loveliest and most heart-breaking, as opposed to the hokey sentiment to which he sometimes stooped in lesser films.  Very fine.


Ranking the Best Picture Winners, Part VI

44.  Out of Africa (1985)

The best thing this movie has going for it is John Barry’s exquisitely romantic score, which is so good that it justifies the existence of the film itself.  Also, Meryl Streep.


Ranking the Best Picture Winners, Part V

53.  The King’s Speech (2010)

This was the year when many critics were rooting for The Social Network, a film I actively despised.  So I wasn’t exactly disappointed when this perfectly charming, well-acted, inoffensive dramedy ended up winning instead.  (Tom Hooper winning Best Director is another story.)  And so we enter the “damning with faint praise” portion of our program…         


The Sunday Night Movie: The Rules of the Game (1939)

Is The Rules of the Game a comedy?  Re-watching it last night I was reminded of just how silly much of its middle section at La Colinière plays, with its jealous husbands chasing their wives’ lovers with guns, annoying mistresses throwing drunken tantrums, etc.  It’s a sequence in which we see the whole machinery of European bourgeois society going haywire, just at the moment that (tellingly) Robert’s much-prized mechanical theater proceeds to break down.  The screwball comedy of The Rules of the Game’s middle act makes the fatal coincidences of its ending all the more devastating; farce is replayed as tragedy.  And yet the film’s final wry observation, delivered by the unflappable old military general staying at the house as a guest of Robert, is a kind of punch-line that lands squarely in the gut.  It’s a poignant and unexpected ending, one that both caps off the film’s delicate intermingling of comedy and tragedy, the two swirling together like red and white wine, and joltingly re-frames the action of the film by viewing it from an unfamiliar angle.    

To set the scene: the idealistic, romantic lover Jurieux, his identity mistaken for that of his best friend Octave, has just been shot to death in the garden.  A consummate host, Robert responds by delivering an impersonal, official-sounding speech, itself framed as a theatrical performance upon a stage, bemoaning the unfortunate “accident.”  One of the guests turns to the general and responds with a snort of derision.  But the general points out that Robert’s bogus platitudes are actually a queer sort of comfort—a sign that Robert understands the rules of the game of class, and that he is committed to following them to the letter.  The defeat in the general’s voice as he says this is tempered by a note of mournful pride.  That the last words of a film so crowded with people are given to the general, whose role is relatively small, comes as something of a surprise.  Why not end with Christine, or a remorseful, humbled Schumacher, or a cynical crack from Lisette, or a word of remembrance from Octave, who after all is played by Renoir himself?  But instead Renoir defers to this sage-like figure who stands apart from the film’s tangle of lovers.  Watching them, what can one do but congratulate them on the grace with which they each play out their parts, doomed though they may be?  What else can one do but smile, and laugh?  The Rules of the Game may only be a comedy insofar as it is about choosing to smile through tears.  Watching Renoir’s film, you don’t laugh until it hurts—you laugh because it hurts.  

Ranking the Best Picture Winners, Part IV

62.  Dances With Wolves (1990)

Ah, Kevin Costner.  I remember (vaguely) the days when you were an important player in Hollywood.  Haven’t seen this one in a while but I remember it being…watchable?  I’ll put it here for now.


Ranking the Best Picture Winners, Part III

72.  Ordinary People (1980)

This movie about white middle-class malaise may not really be any worse than, say, American Beauty, but it feels more egregious, what with its repeated use of Pachelbel’s “Canon,” wistful shots of falling leaves, etc.  Haven’t seen this in twenty years or so, though, so my memory of it may be unreliable. 


Ranking the Best Picture Winners, Part II

80.  Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

Critical concensus is that this star-studded extravaganza—very loosely based on the Jules Verne novel—is pretty terrible.  I have only vague memories of seeing this on TV as a kid and being amused enough to sit through the whole thing.  I’ll go ahead and assume that it’s worse than I remember.

79.  Gigi (1958)

Now here’s one that I saw on TV as a slightly-older kid and remember actively disliking, and not because I was one of those adolescent boys who thought musicals were dumb.  The dumbness of this movie transcends genre.


Ranking the Best Picture Winners: The Good, The Meh, and the Ugly (Part 1)

These lists were going around the Internet a year or so ago, so I’m a little late to the party.  But I didn’t think it was right to weigh in without actually having seen all 86 films in question, which I can now proudly (read: exhaustedly) claim to have done (where’s my prize?).  Here goes:

86.  Cavalcade (1933)

While none of the films to win Best Picture seems to me downright execrable, there are a fair number of them that border on unwatchable, this one probably being the unwatchable-ist of all.  It’s a March-of-Time-type deal written by Noel Coward, whose name meant more to audiences of 1933 than it does today.  That’s the only explanation I can come up with for this film having appealed to anyone, ever, though there’s also the bigness factor to be taken into consideration (the production values were, for its time, colossal, and when it comes to winning Oscars bigger is often better, today as then). 


Blogging Best Picture: 1989, "Driving Miss Daisy"

Having just finished watching Driving Miss Daisy (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1989) for the first time, I have now seen all eighty-six films to win Best Picture.  (Stay tuned for an upcoming series of posts in which I rank them from worst to best.)  Beresford’s film falls somewhere in that hazy gray area between good and bad cinema.  It even looks hazy; the cinematography is burnished and soft, almost bleached out.  Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy are first-rate, but their roles are soft-ball parts, so cozy and unchallenging that there’s not enough for them to do, and the performances end up feeling phoned-in.  (They’re powered by the sheer magnetism of Tandy and Freeman’s personalities.)  If the film never really does anything egregious, it also contains no surprises: we know immediately that Freeman’s devilish charm will soon melt Tandy’s icy heart, which we also know really isn’t icy at all. 

While the racial politics of this film are only quietly distasteful in the same well-meaning, middlebrow way that they are in, say, The Help, it’s impossible for Driving Miss Daisy not to feel roughly fifty years more old-fashioned than it is when one remembers that 1989 was also the year of Spike Lee’s trenchant Do the Right Thing, one of the most devastating movies about race relations in America (or about anything) ever made.  (FYI: Do the Right Thing was nominated for two Oscars that year, for Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay.  It won neither.  Driving Miss Daisy was nominated for nine awards and won four.)  To look at the two films side by side is to see an image of the Hollywood film industry in black and white.  Do the Right Thing is a “scary” black movie, a radical defense of black militancy, and a call to arms, with tragic overtones (and edgy, in-your-face comedy).  Driving Miss Daisy is, by contrast, reassuring, quiet, and tasteful.   

I don’t like to beat up on films like Driving Miss Daisy and The Help too badly, because I don’t find them insidious; they’re essentially soft liberal social-problem pictures of the kind that Hollywood has always made.  Watching them, you’re likely to squirm not because they betray some latent bigoted ugliness but rather because you can feel the well-intentioned white filmmakers and actors trying to say something ennobling and meaningful about race but not knowing what to do with the black characters and actors.  The latter become sanctified and boring, and the whole thing enterprise ends up feeling awkward.  Are Driving Miss Daisy and The Help reprehensible films?  I don’t think so.  But they’re limited by the blind spots that inevitably come from approaching the question of race from a white perspective.  They’re embalmed by their own fear of saying anything real.


Blogging Best Picture: 1981, "Chariots of Fire"

File this one under the heading “What Were They Thinking?”  Granted, 1981 was not exactly a banner year for cinema, American or otherwise.  My favorites from that year are nearly all cult or exploitation films: Abel Ferrara’s Ms.45, John Waters’ Polyester, Joe Dante’s The Howling, Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising—none of them what one might call Best Picture material.  I guess I can also see why Raiders of the Lost Ark, which did manage a Best Picture nomination, was probably thought to be too frivolous and lightweight ever to be a serious contender.  None of this helps me to understand the appeal of Chariots of Fire, though, which fails to engage on the level of its characters, its subject matter, its style, or its performances.  Why does this movie exist?  And, more bafflingly, who liked/likes the thing?  I did perk up when Brad Davis appeared in the final half hour, and my inner Savoyard appreciated the smatterings of Gilbert and Sullivan that punctuate the soundtrack.  Good God, is this a slog, though, and it does nothing to disabuse audiences of the common misconception that English cinema is a generally prissy, bloodless affair.  Avoid.