As far as I’m concerned, all the animation and anime platters released on Blu-Ray this year can take a back seat to the Warner Archive release of TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS, VOLUME 1. It’s what I’ve been waiting for, and allows me to at last be able to give those laserdiscs a rest.
Tex, as you may or may not know, was one of the primo geniuses at the Warner Bros. Termite Terrace cartoon studio – right alongside Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, etc. In 1941, yearning to see if he could stretch his creative wings, he took an offer from the upscale highbrow MGM (after a squabble with Looney Tunes boss Leon Schlesinger), a dubious decision – as they (as a studio) were never as anarchic or kwazy as the folks as Warners. Surprise, he wasn’t hobbled; in fact, he was pretty much left alone, creating some of the greatest and funniest cartoons in the history of animation. Here, in a single Blu-Ray disc, are 19 Technicolor gems, spanning 1943-1951, comprising many of his best works.
Tex, like Clampett and Tashlin, wasn’t making Disney pics for kids; his work was definitely adult-oriented – going places live action movies wouldn’t dare think of, even before the 1934 Production Code. Rampant sexuality, crazed violence, anatomical disasters, culture kicks in the butt, and more were packaged in exquisite groundbreaking animation style. Tex delighted in smashing down that fourth wall with a sledgehammer – kidding knowing movie audiences with all the foibles of the technology – bad prints, splices, hairs caught in a film gate, torn sprockets, wonky color, lousy projection, etc. Nothing like this had ever been seen or experienced in cinema – and savvy fans ate it up. The fact that this was all done at Metro – the stodgy “family values” studio was even more amazing. It certainly seemed like a dream gig at the Dream Factory. Alas, it wasn’t always so.
While enjoying unabashed freedom from suits who didn’t understand why so much of what Avery was doing was funny (although they did know that his cartoons were the most popular in their stable (so they begrudgingly gave him space), they also knew that often a Tex toon, like a Laurel & Hardy short, brought comedy buffs in to see a main attraction that they might have just sloughed off; indeed, Tex’s stuff was infinitely funnier than the lion’s share of live-action MGM comedies they supported. And, like Tashlin, Tex harbored a “jones” to enter the world of live-action slapstick. At Metro, that meant Red Skelton – the studio’s then-top comedian, and a perfect human outlet for Tex’s antics. Decades ago, Clampett told me that Avery spent much of his free time devising sight gags and even full-length feature scripts for Skelton. They were sent to his office at MGM, and never heard from again. Flash forward several years later. At a major Tinsel Town event, Skelton approached Avery like a ga-ga bobbysoxer drooling over Frank Sinatra. “I can’t believe I got finally a chance to meet you. You’re one of my heroes. I love your work, it’s so much better than a lot of my pictures.” And on and on the funnyman gushed. Avery, totally confused, when able to get a word in edgewise, countered with, “Then why did you never acknowledge me with all the stuff I sent to your office?” And Tex related his past failed attempts to engage a Red alert. Skelton was shocked, and honestly replied that he had never seen a page of it, and, that had he known, Avery would have been given carte blanche in his unit. This proved problematic until a little detective work uncovered the skeevy answer. All of Avery’s scripts and gags were intercepted by MGM cartoon division head Fred Quimby, who unceremoniously tossed them in the trash (Quimby realized that Tex and Hanna-Barbera were his meal tickets). Quimby, unlike Warner’s Schlesinger, was an unfunny company man who disliked cartoons intensely (Leon, at least had a sense of humor). Photos of him live up to his name: a total Quimby – a bespectacled, dumpier sad sack Rod Rosenstein-looking mofo!
Even more sorrowful was Tex’s post-Metro fate. With theatrical cartoon departments closing down in the late 1950s-early 1960s, Avery moved into television; unable to crack the thriving Saturday morning toon market, he ended up doing animation for Raid commercials, and, not surprisingly, suffered from bouts of depression. An undeserved fate for a, to paraphrase Wile E. Coyote, “super genius,” except in Tex’s case, the tag was accurate.
Not to put a damper on this terrific collection, just thought I’d supply some basic background info. That said, this set has everything you need to know about the cinematic Avery. Included are his bona fide masterpieces, 1943’s Red Hot Riding Hood, one of the most unbridled depictions of volcanic sexuality and erotica ever, Who Killed Who? (also 1943), a hilarious parody of whodunits, with a bulldog police sleuth drawn to resemble character actor Fred Kelsey, who made a living playing those parts for over a quarter of a century, plus What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943), Batty Baseball (1944, featuring a team called The Draft Dodgers), The Hick Chick (1946), Bad Luck Blackie (1949), Garden Gopher (1950), The Peachy Cobbler (1950),and Symphony in Slang (1951).
Three separate sections are devoted to Avery MGM characters: Screwy Squirrel (Screwball Squirrel, 1944; The Screwy Truant, 1945; Big Heel-watha, 1944; Lonesome Lenny, 1946 (set in a pet shop, under the heading “You Smell It, We Sell It”); George and Junior (based on Of Mice and Men’s George and Lenny): Hound Hunters, 1947; Red Hot Rangers, 1947), and Droopy (Dumb Hounded, 1943; Wags to Riches, 1949; The Chump Champ, 1950). Screwy Squirrel is a bit of a hard sell for me, despite Avery’s oft-inspired participation. Screwy was MGM’s attempt to have their own Bugs Bunny, a character Tex helped develop at Warners. The gags are frequently similar (even identical to some WB situations), but, unlike Bugs – Screwy Squirrel isn’t likeable, and too many times the brilliantly executed visuals come off more mean spirited than outrageously riotous. George and Junior had already made doppelganger incarnations at Warners (“Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?”), so hardly groundbreaking. Droopy fares better (again occasionally borrowing some Looney Tune scenarios to get his point across). The scripts (with uncredited assist from Tex) are nicely constructed by Rich Hogan, Heck Allen and Jack Cosgriff, and Scott Bradley’s music scores ape the use of studio musical numbers for background ID, but can’t compete with Warners’ great Carl Stalling, who did likewise…and did it first). Tex, too, participated in many of the voice characterizations, alongside Daws Butler, Don Messick, Dick Nelson, Bill Thompson, Wally Maher and even (in The Hick Chick), Stan Freberg. Call me bias, but WB’s Mel Blanc remains incomparable.
The 19 Technicolor cartoons in TASC, VOLUME 1, remastered in 1080p, look sensational. The audio, too, is top-notch; of particular note are the latter toons, ca. 1950-1951, heralded as being in Perspecta Sound, an early stereophonic precursor to Dolby. How cool would it have been to be able to have those original tracks. But don’t let that be a deal-breaker. This disc is a must! LSS, I can’t wait for Volume 2!
TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS, VOLUME 1. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Turner Entertainment/Warner Bros. Entertainment. SRP: $21.99.
Available from the Warner Archive Collection: http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.