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Tex Avery on DVD

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

The French are always ahead of us, it seems, when it comes to the cinema, not only in their own films, but also in preserving and presenting classic films of all kinds.

A few posts back, I video blogged on the birth of the auteur theory, the invention of André Bazin in Cahiers du cinéma, the then-revolutionary idea that the director — who’d have thought? — was the primary creative force behind the creation of a film. Now it’s a commonplace concept; once, it was absolutely groundbreaking.

The French have also been in the forefront of preserving the films of the past, as witness the tireless and pioneering work of Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, who was among the first to save Hollywood films from destruction when the studios short-sightedly no longer thought they had any commercial value — before television, DVD, steaming video and the like — and they were the first to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, certain key directors were worth extensive study, as one discovered the themes and obsessions that circulated throughout all their work.

This extends to cartoons, as well, and once again, it’s the French who are in the forefront with an extensive set of DVDs covering the work of one the greatest animators who ever lived — a contemporary of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and the rest of the Termite Terrace gang — the one, the only Tex Avery. Avery was one of the originators of the animated cartoon in the United States, and as Gary Morris notes, “[Avery] steered the Warner Bros. house style away from Disney-esque sentimentality and made cartoons that appealed equally to adults, who appreciated Avery’s speed, sarcasm, and irony, and to kids, who liked the nonstop action. Disney’s ‘cute and cuddly’ creatures, under Avery’s guidance, were transformed into unflappable wits like Bugs Bunny, endearing buffoons like Porky Pig, or dazzling crazies like Daffy Duck.

Even the classic fairy tale, a market that Disney had cornered, was appropriated by Avery, who made innocent heroines like Red Riding Hood into sexy jazz babies, more than a match for any Wolf. Avery also endeared himself to intellectuals by constantly breaking through the artifice of the cartoon, having characters leap out of the end credits, loudly object to the plot of the cartoon they were starring in, or speak directly to the audience.”

Avery did all that and more at Warner Brothers, but he arguably did his best work when he moved to MGM, where his anarchic vision found full flower in such brilliantly warped shorts as Blitz Wolf (1942), The Early Bird Dood It! (1942), Dumb-Hounded (1943), Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), Who Killed Who? (1943), the utterly twisted What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943), Screwball Squirrel (1944), The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945), Jerky Turkey (1945), Swing Shift Cinderella (1945), Wild and Woolfy (1945), Lonesome Lenny (1946) and many, many others.

But amazingly, there isn’t a collection of Avery’s work available on DVD in the United States. Some of his cartoons featuring his signature character Droopy are available in a domestic DVD, but if you want a larger selection of Avery’s best work, well, you’ll have to go to Amazon in France, where you’ll find a superb collection of Avery’s best work available in four separate volumes, as well as two collections of DVDs.

Though some have criticized the transfers here, I am not one of them. They are sharp, clean, and almost perfect. The DVDs are, after all, official Warner Brothers releases, and they feature many of Avery’s best MGM shorts, and also — as extras — some of his earlier work for Warners. The cartoons come with optional French subtitles, but these can easily be clicked off so as not to interfere with one’s viewing pleasure; in addition, they’re also viewable in a dubbed French version, in which both the dialogue and the voice characterizations are lovingly detailed and surprisingly accurate.

Avery’s brilliant cartoons obviously aren’t going to be released on DVD in the US anytime soon, though I have no idea why. If anyone cries out for a DVD box set of their best work, it’s Avery, so don’t hesitate — before the DVDs are gone, get them now, and enjoy the work of one of the most obstinately individualistic auteurs the medium has ever known.

Yes, these are Region 2 DVDs, but if you don’t have a Region 2 player by this point, why not?

When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Adam Abraham’s book on the rise and fall of UPA, the pioneering “limited animation” studio that dominated more adventurous cartoon production in the 1950s and 60s, is both a cautionary tale, and a celebration of the people who founded UPA, mostly as a response to the rigid cookie-cutter approach espoused by the Disney studios. UPA’s founders, Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow set up shop as an alternative way of making cartoons, and soon had a hit with the nearsighted Mr. Magoo, and Gerald Mc Boing Boing, creating cartoons that pleased both the public and the critics.

As Fred Patten notes in his review of the book in Animation World Network, “Abraham’s history of United Productions of America covers much more than that studio alone.  In his picture of how UPA grew out of the Disney strike of 1941, he describes the Disney studio of 1938-1941 in considerable detail and the 1941 strike in great detail [. . .] Most of the animators (or animation artists of varying technical ranks) who joined the strikers were among Disney’s younger artists, who had a modern art education.  The wrap-up of the strike required Disney to rehire the strikers, but they were made to feel unwelcome or soon re-fired.  By the end of 1941 there were hundreds of young animators looking for new jobs.  Abraham argues persuasively that this was both why the Disney studio lost its willingness to experiment with new art styles after the early 1940s, and why there were so many animators interested in modern art at other studios during the 1940s.”

Abraham is an excellent writer, and he also created the book’s inviting design, which is lavishly illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs, drawings, and animation cels, and he doesn’t stint on limning the darker side of the UPA story; how many of the animators who worked there came to untimely ends, how Disney’s continued hostility to the studio (particularly when it began picking up Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Subject) also took a toll, and how the changing marketplace forced UPA to cut the running time of their cartoons to the bone, and eventually move exclusively to television.

I’ve never really been a Mr. Magoo fan — it seems like a one joke premise that quickly wears thin — but Abraham’s book is really more about the studio itself, and its artistic and historic impact, than its most famous character. Behind UPA’s creation was the search for personal and creative freedom, and as Disney himself noted of the rise of UPA, “once a man’s tasted freedom, he will never be content to be a slave.” Working for Disney was doing what the boss wanted, and nothing else; at UPA, a whole new style was forged, which would prove, in the long run, to be a harbinger of the future of animation.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sample of UPA’s work.

Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow, the founders of UPA, at work in the studio.

Draftee Daffy (1945) by Robert Clampett and Rod Scribner

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Daffy Duck tries to evade the draft in Draftee Daffy.

It’s World War II, and everyone is signing up; everyone, that is, except Daffy Duck, who espouses patriotism in the opening moments of Draftee Daffy, but once summoned by the Draft Board, changes his tune to “it had to be me.” Brilliantly animated by Rod Scribner, and directed by Robert Clampett, Draftee Daffy is an insidiously subversive commentary on mid 1940s social values, which finds Daffy trying every means possible to kill “the little man from the draft board” who keeps attempting to deliver Daffy’s induction notice.

When I spoke with animator John Kricfalusi — the creator of Ren and Stimpy — years ago for an interview, we bonded immediately over our shared admiration for Clampett and Scribner as an “unbeatable team” when it came to classical Hollywood studio animation; the plastic possibilities of the medium are clearly pushed to their limits in this 7 minute cartoon.

Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell wrote a great essay on Clampett’s work, which you can see by clicking here, which deconstructs this classic Warner Bros. cartoon in detail, along with other examples of Clampett’s contribution to the history of animation. I’m struck by the freedom of imagination that this cartoon, and other Clampett/Scribner collaborations, demonstrate — an anarchic vision that seems to be almost complete absent from the hyperrealist motion capture 3-D style now in vogue in the Pixar films and related projects.

For myself, this is a much more interesting and freewheeling approach the possibilities of the medium; see what you think by clicking on the image above.

Coo-Coo Nut Grove (1936)

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see Coo-Coo Nut Grove (1936).

Here’s a classic Warner Bros. cartoon from 1936 which has long been a favorite of mine; not so much for the humor, but for the parade of Hollywood caricatures that populate the film. The person who originally posted this on YouTube helpfully provided this list of the stars depicted in the cartoon, many of which will probably be unrecognizable to contemporary viewers. Here it is:

“At 0:53 – Ben Bernie; 1:11 – Walter Winchell; 1:29 – Hugh Herbert; 1:34 – WC Fields & Katharine Hepburn ;1:45 – Ned Sparks; 1:50 – Johnny Weissmuller & Lupe Velez; 2:04 – John Barrymore; 2:18 – Harpo Marx; 2:50 – George Arliss & Mae West dancing; 3:10 – Laurel and Hardy; 3:22 – Edna Mae Oliver; 3:33 – Clark Gable; 3:41 – Gary Cooper; 4:01 – The Dionne Quintuplets; 4:51 – Groucho and Harpo Marx; 5:00 – Helen Morgan, a famous torch singer of the period; 5:18 – Wallace Beery; 5:59 – Edward G. Robinson & George Raft.” Directed by Isidore “Friz” Freling, with animation by Robert McKimson and Sandy Walker, and music arranged and conducted by Carl Stalling.

It’s a sweet reminder of a Hollywood long since past.

Little Red Riding Rabbit

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

In the middle of Winter, we could all use a laugh.

Click on the image above to view Little Red Riding Rabbit, a 1944 Bugs Bunny / Warner Bros. cartoon, which riffs on the classic tale of Little Red Riding Hood in an engaging manner, especially in its depiction of Red herself, who is presented as a teenage “bobby boxerwith, as Wikipedia notes, “an extremely loud and grating voice.”

In this version of the story, Red is bringing a basket containing Bugs Bunny to her grandmother’s house. Naturally, a wolf is tailing Red, and hotfoots it to Grandma’s house, using a shortcut. Grandma is conveniently out of the house, working the night shift at a defense plant, so the wolf jumps into her bed in disguise. When Red arrives and delivers the basket, the wolf unceremoniously kicks Red out the door, and tries to catch Bugs, but the rabbit continually eludes the wolf for the rest of the cartoon.

But Red refuses to give up on her role in the cartoon, and repeatedly barges back into the house to declaim, in somewhat dimwitted fashion, her dialogue from the original story,  screeching “Uh, HEY GRANDMA! WHAT BIG TEETH YA GOT!” and “Uh, HEY GRANDMA! THAT’S AN AWFULLY BIG NOSE FOR YOU — TO HAVE!,” as both Bugs and the Wolf grow more and more annoyed. I’ll leave it to you to enjoy the surprise ending of the cartoon, just one of the many classic Merrie Melodies churned out by Warner Bros. during the height of the studio era.

Red is voiced by Bea Benaderet, by the way; the wolf by the gruff-voiced Billy Bletcher, while Bugs is handled by the multi-talented Mel Blanc, who gets a voice credit here for the first time in the series. Isadore “Friz” Freleng directed from a script by Michael Maltese; animation was handled by Manuel Perez, Gerry Chiniquy, Virgil Ross and Richard Bickenbach. They don’t make them like this anymore; pop culture with a distinct World War II flavor. Enjoy.

Mary Blair, Pioneering Animator and Designer

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Mary Blair at the Walt Disney Studio in 1941; click on the image above for a brief video biography.

Today, October 21, 2011, on what would have been her 100th birthday, Google honors the work of the pioneering animation artist Mary Blair, born Mary Robinson, who started her career with animator Ub Iwerks, moved on to MGM, and then finally found her true home with the Walt Disney company, where she created her most influential and memorable work.

As Barry Neild reports in The Guardian, “Blair, who was born in Oklahoma on 21 October 1911, was best known for the artwork she contributed to animations including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Cinderella. She also illustrated a number of children’s books. Blair’s colorful, childlike images – vaguely reminiscent of the cubist movement – are credited with bringing modern art into popular animation and influencing a generation of illustrators.

Walt Disney was so taken with her designs that he recruited her to work on It’s A Small World, an attraction that debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and has since been recreated in all of Disney’s theme parks. Other commissions for Blair, who died in 1978, include giant murals at Disneyland and Disney World.”

Blair is one of the key innovators in animation history, and deserves more recognition than she’s gotten in the past. It’s nice to see her getting a global nod for her many contributions to the art of animation, design, and illustration.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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