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.

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