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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Introducing Alicia: Tex Avery Review

Rachel here. In actuality, the duet between Kevin and me is really more of a trio. I'd like to introduce my co-contributor Alicia Wishart, a talented cartoonist from Canada who has her own wonderful page on Blogger. Take it away, Alicia:

This is my first contribution to the blog so I've put in a conversation I had with Rachel that I think would bring up some good chat. Rachel's responses are in italics.


Hi Kevin & Rachel,

The other night I was finally able to start going through the stack of video tapes that are sitting on my end table and start watching them. The fist package of tapes I recieved was the Complete Tex Avery so here's my review of what I've watched so far. Now I warn you that my review is going to be totally half-assed compared to what you guys write but hey, it's something.

I found my filmography of Tex Avery and started watching right from the beginning. I should also note that I dubbed to dvd at the same time and the guide which tells me how to make my edits universal for all players is full of lies, but that's for another time.

The first cartoon was Blitz Wolf which I have seen before but who cares, let's watch it again. While watching Blitz Wolf and even further along and into other cartoons, I have come to the blief that Tex's cartoons were truly made for a adult audience rather than a more universal audience.

If there were any doubt about that, I think the "Red" cartoons Tex was famous for dispelled it completely. RED HOT RIDING HOOD, after all, was banned from TV for years because of a scene in which he (Avery's Wolf, I meant to say--R.) becomes stiff as a board at the sight of Red. Too much of a sexual metaphor for the censors, though I doubt any kids would have caught on.I would have liked to have known that Tex, who pushed the limits of censorship almost as far as his protege Bob Clampett. The man who, when a narrator remarks that a hunting dog is "almost human", shows a dog with a naked human lower body. The aging Tex that Mark Evanier writes about, the one who openly expressed regret at much of the violence and other non-"family friendly" content in his cartoons, seems like an entirely different person.In his prime, though, he was a one-man argument against the notion that American cartoons were "kid stuff." (An argument I've heard more than once from anime snobs). My response is usually, "You've never seen a Tex Avery cartoon, have you?"

Of course, compared to todays cartoons like South Park or Family Guy, these cartoons are tame but it's really refreshing to see cartoons that are capable of hitting to an adult audience without an abundance of sexual or language vulgarity.

While I'm generally against censorship of cartoons, I do admit that it forces animators to be creative. Avery and Clampett knew just what the limits were, and went just far enough for people to know what they were implying without having to come out and say it. Take Clampett's line from A TALE OF TWO KITTIES, when the Abbott cat tells him to "give him the bird." The Costello cat says, "If the Hays Office would only let me, I'd 'give him the bird', all right!" The implication is funnier than it would have been had he actually done it.This is the problem I have with much of John K.'s stuff. While at Nickelodeon, he made some of the funniest cartoons people had seen in years, because he was engaged in a contest with them to see how much he could get away with--and found creative ways of doing it. Once he started making cartoons for Spike, that barrier didn't exist, so he replaced humor with vulgarity.Good grief, did I say that? Now I know I'm getting old...

It seemed almost surreal that the laserdisks would start out with a war cartoon since so many of them are taboo. I know that chonologically it was Tex's first cartoon at MGM so why wouldn't it be the first but maybe that's one way that the laserdisks are in someways slightly superior to dvds. While dvds have the fabulous special features and restorations, you have to respect laserdisks for putting the cartoons on full content without concern and getting it right the first time.

I have to admit I like the special features, but yes, the laserdisks concentrated on the cartoons themselves, showing them as they were meant to be seen--uncut. I doubt if a Tex Avery DVD set came out now that any of the "blackface gags" would emerge unscathed, but one sees them in all their politically-incorrect glory on laserdisk.While what I've been saying may seem contradictory, the difference lies in where the censorship comes from, and the reasons for it. I don't like being told what I should see, and I certainly don't like what amounts to a rewriting of history-- which is why I'm irritated by the fact that Tex can't be seen uncut, or that cartoons like Clampett's COAL BLACK aren't more readily available. The animation greats of the past censored themselves more than any outside agency did--with the advent of DVD, the tables have turned, and the external censors have the final say. We're adults--let us decide for ourselves what's objectionable.

Tex's cartoons use the medium of animation to it's fullest extent. The best use of animation to me is where eye's can be left behind once the body runs away, and then run to catch up and then bang on a door to be let in. Proportions can change, inanimate objects can be lifeless one minute and then full of life the next but not in that "Beauty and the Beast" kind of way. Strech and squash are used like never before and the relation to the characters with each other on screen and then their inclusion if the audience add for a truly surreal experience that only animation can truly provide.

This is beautiful. It's the best definition of "animation" I've ever heard, far better than any dictionary could manage. To "animate," as Chuck Jones often said, is to "evoke life," but cartoon animation has the power to go beyond that, to enable creatures to do things never imagined in live action. What made Tex's cartoons funny is simple--they start out mundane, almost Disneyesque, then unexpectedly explode into insanity. Whereas Disney asked, "How much like everyday reality can I make this?", Tex asked, "What would the audience least expect?" As so many animation historians have said, if one doesn't push animation to the fullest extent possible, why use that medium at all?

If only someone could tell the film makers today that the point of animation is to do the things that live action cannot rather than to make them look like live action, then maybe we would have great cartoons again.

To do that, we would have to recreate the sort of atmosphere that existed in the glory days of Termite Terrace and MGM. The sort that allowed creators to create without worrying about what demographic they're marketing to, or what group they're likely to offend. It doesn't seem likely these days, but I hold out hope that some small, outlaw studio will have that sort of attitude, and we'll truly see funny cartoons again.That said, I'm not sure today's cartoon creators even know how to be funny anymore. Pop-culture references, over-the-top vulgarity, and pseudo-hipness rule the day, and are more a replacement for humor than humor itself.

Gotta wrap this up, co-workers getting suspicious. My only complaint about Tex Avery is that the cartoons can be formalatic (is that a word?) and repetative at times. After watching about 15 cartoons I felt that there were maybe about 5 or 6 truly original cartoons. Between the numerous disclaimers and the same Red Hot dance in about 3 cartoons, I began to yearn for something new. I feel hypocritical saying this as a person who loves the Coyote series but hey, that's what I felt.

Tex did reuse gags, but then, so did everyone back then. How many times have you seen the same gag in a Friz Freleng cartoon, for instance? That unfortunately was the result of a system that had to crank out cartoons on a very tight schedule. What made Tex's cartoons special is that they managed to be funny in spite of this.

Well there's my half-assed, 15 minutes for lunch review. Let me know your thoughts so we can chat.

Here's Kevins thoughts:

Alicia and Rachel:

One of you said: Tex did reuse gags, but then, so did everyone back then. How many times have you seen the same gag in a Friz Freleng cartoon, for instance? That unfortunately was the result of a system that had to crank out cartoons on a very tight schedule.

True, but at Warner Brothers, sometimes, one animator would "redo" another animator's cartoon, even reusing footage, but that animator would add his own touch to the original. I won't say how the original animator felt about the process, but I think it would have challenged the original animator to come up with something stronger or more outrageous. Othertimes, animators would indeed redo their own cartoons, sometimes speeding up the pace of the original or perfecting the timing a little. Take a look at "NOTES FOR YOU", coming in LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION 4, and then compare it to "BACK ALLEY OP-ROAR" found on the fantastic finale disk of LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION 2, and you'll see how animation or its timing and gag content had developed over the years. The successor has so much more to add, like that funny operatic cat who,at first, stands there turning the page around in her hands as if not really knowing which way to hold it, and then she gets hit on the head and the look on her face as the soundtrack is altered to represent her suddenly slowly losing consciousness--it even stands as a brilliant piece of audio alone if you've seen the cartoon enough times!! But, remember, we are talking here about Warner Brothers, a studio that, in its heyday, created almost twice as many cartoons as its competitors. Sure, you felt that, if a "cheater" was done at MGM, it was unnecessary since there were only a certain number created within a year's time, and nothing was really added to the cheater, especially where TOM & JERRY were concerned, although they'd come up with a thin premise--Jerry is writing a book or Tom finds Jerry's diary and begins reading about the pursuits taken from other cartoons. The audience feels cheated, although these are interesting to watch once you've got the entire series in front of you.

At Warner Brothers, you've got situations like this; for example, you've got "HECKLING HARE" which is a great hunting dog romp as Bugs outwits the dumb hunting dog with every trick in the book, but then comes "HARE RIBBIN'" which not only gives the dog a new voice but takes nearly the whole cartoon underwater, sometimes re-enacting the same bits (the dog again is fooled into thinking that he actually murdered Bugs), and not only did they make *ONE* version of this remake, they secretly made *TWO* versions!! Even after 10 volumes of GOLDEN AGE, there will still be cartoons left to toy with and add as, perhaps, a package marked "THE REST", with disconnected toon titles and tidbits that didn't really belong in any major category but sure deserve to be seen, merely because they are LOONEY TUNES or MERRY MELODIES!! Unfortunately, you can't quite do that with MGM cartoons; I tried, after pushing hard for an extended MGM CARTOON MAGIC type of collection that would do for that cartoon studio what Jerry Beck and the folks are now doing for the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION series. Oh, it could be done, but the idea of concepts for each disk would wear thin quicker than with the LOONEY TUNES collections. Even if you ran out of concepts and decided to just issue the cartoons in order of their appearance, regarding LOONEY TUNES, you could still make it all entertaining. Oh, I still say that an ultimate two volumes of MGM cartoons could and should be made, but nothing, absolutely *NOTHING* beats what can be and is being done with LOONEY TUNES.

Perhaps what I'm trying to say here is that, although making toons at all major studios was a chore for all involved, it seemed as if those at Termite Terrace were genuinely having fun, even on the darkest days, because you can see just how many titles were done within the same amount of time that MGM or Lantz or Disney or any of the major studios were also at work, and you can see how creative these folks still remained under the pressure to be so!! Yes, sometimes I feel this sense that even Tex Avery became disillusioned. To us, he still was terrific, all the way through his TV work with RAID ads, but there was something missing--he was perhaps becoming sadly aware that the kind of animation enthusiasm for detail and timing and gag content was slowly moving away, and a new attitude was taking over. Design was taking over where fluid animation once held sway, and the animation staff was soon looking at the art form, as far as theatrical stuff was concerned, as that which preceeds a movie and is obviously ignored, even though awards were now being given out. In that sense, again, I will leave it up to those in the know to give us commentaries on any possible MGM set. If there is a COMPLETE TEX AVERY done for DVD, however, I'd heard that Warner Brothers doesn't do much cross-lisencing anymore and, so, won't do their best to acquire the Lantz cartoons or even Avery toons from other sources. Just think how cross-lisencing would even work to the betterment of the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION sets. Imagine if we had shades of Chuck Jones at other studios. We know that they can now use MGM examples of the work of Friz Freleng or voice work by Mel Blanc. This means that we could get some terrific cartoons that might not see release elsewhere at all, like Freleng's CAPTAIN & THE KIDS cartoons or Jones' "DOT AND THE LINE" or Mel's inventive voices for some Harmon/Ising films. Yet, all these principles did work for other companies and this work definitely should be seen as well and, since the other studios' works are not being used for anything else, why not use this LOONEY TUNES collection as a means for unearthing some of these great films? So many possibilities!!


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any_ol_1 said...

Reply to Kevin and a question
DOT AND THE LINE is on the dvd "The Glass Bottom Boat".
For anyone:
I was also going through some tapes (looking for "the old house") and found some unreleased Happy Haromonies on TNT's Wild World of Shorts. Is MGM's entire catalog in the Tom and Jerry syndication package and might we see Happy Harmonies on CN's Tom and Jerry Show?

Rachel said...

Kevin is unable to answer comments directly, so I will forward this to him.

As to your second question, I honestly don't know. That's something I can ask Jerry Beck about, however.

Rachel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rachel said...

Here's Kevin's respoonse to the Happy Harmonies question:

Wow, I was unaware that there was another source for the HAPPY HARMONIES titles (and what do you mean by "unreleased"), but this is a distressing source. If these cartoons are being offered still as kid fodder, then it will be that much harder to offer the ultimate HAPPY HARMONIES GOLDEN COLLECTION, as I would configure it, featuring *ALL* the titles in the original series, along with some from Hugh and Rudy's return to MGM. You'll have to run down any titles you locate for me, but I would really hope that "THE OLD HOUSE" and "LI'L OL BOSKO AND THE PIRATES" would eventually end up, in pristine condition, on such a collection.

But, getting back to your original question, I rather doubt that the HAPPY HARMONIES series would be included on the Cartoon Network's TOM & JERRY show, not if they are senselessly editing the T&J titles and, thus, looking for very short cartoon titles. Any of the HAPPY HARMONIES cartoons are lengthy, including "POOR LITTLE ME", "TWO LITTLE PUPS" and any of those often played titles that contain no "offensive" matter. However, if TNT staffers are issuing these collections you talk about, it is possible that the HAPPY HARMONIES titles would show up unedited as TNT might not pander to the same audience as the Cartoon Network. But beware, nonetheless.

If the tapes or disks came from TCM, the only one of the stations that truly lives to clean out the vaults, having run "OVER THE GOAL", a movie that features musical numbers and dialogue that eventually ended up on the cartoon, "KATNIP KOLLEGE", I would guess that someone at that network actually is on our side and wishes to also restore even the mildest and most irrelevant cutesy cartoon titles. I've not seen this film as yet, but it is thought that sections of the cartoon might have been somewhat rotoscoped from the original film? It remains to be seen. Those who saw the Turner Classic Movies airing of this film, shown on a day honoring the game of football, would have to tell me just how closely the live action "OVER THE GOAL" relates to the "KATNIP KOLLEGE" cartoon. The music alone might be a cool thing to have and sections of it should be considered for a future GOLDEN COLLECTION, perhaps with even a fully restored, with title card, version of the "KATNIP KOLLEGE" cartoon.

But I know I'd hold out for the ultimate HAPPY HARMONIES collection if it ever appears, honoring mainly the actual series that bears that name, from 1934 through 1938. This might cover four disks nicely and the inclusion of the BOSKO titles would certainly appeal to even the worst cynic who sees the cute characters here as cloying and devoid of any charm. The BOSKO titles are fast-moving and more like the cartoons that would be created in the early 1940's.

Either that, or it would be nice if a BOSKO title from MGM would appear on one of the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION sets as examples of what happened to a familiar LOONEY TUNES character upon moving to new digs at MGM. In this sense, Jerry Beck and company could get away with showing the BOSKO titles because these are just examples of where some characters went and what became of them.


Any_ol_1 said...

I've given up searching for HAPPY HARMONIES on T&J. There are, however, some EXCELLENT re-issue columbia cartoons showing up on Animania, A HDnet (High Definition) channel that was part of VOOM but now is available on Dish. (I'm getting all that 3rd hand, pardon if I've got the detail wrong).. Some MAY be cropped and modified for 16x9 presention, and somem like the magoos, it's REALLY hard to tell. Some MAgoos (16?) were cinemascope, but i think what's being presented are cropped)

What I meant by unrelased was not (As far as I know) on dvd, laserdisc or vhs or beta. I no longer have the equipment to transfer 8mm or 16mm, but someowhere in the blog Rachel asked is footage that was reused in a lost cartoon from a cartoon that exists can be "recreated". Absolutely. Once the material is digitized almost anything can be done to it. Since mentioning DVNR (Digital Video Noise Reduction) is like mentioning sunlight to vampires I hope I'll never say I can "restore" cartoons, but certainly filters and processing can be done to significantly alter, and to some, in some cases, possibly improve them. The nice things about "fan" effort recreations is while there are more expensive tools available, fans take the time to discuss and consider the minutest details, and discussions can really be fun about what might have been in these cartoons; which is why I find this blog so fascinating. With details as great as these, then we can attempt to figure out how complete and original what we have is, it's history and some interesteing facts and opinions. Fascinating stuff great work.