DirectorDirected by Tex Avery, Produced by Fred Quimby
Release Date(s)1942-1955 (October 5, 2021)
Studio(s)MGM/Warner Archive Collection (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
Tex Avery hasn’t necessarily had the popular recognition of other animators such as Chuck Jones, but he’s long been beloved by film fans and even the major film theorists for the way that he explored the boundless possibilities of the animation medium, untethered to even the slightest pretense of representing reality. Jones is justifiably lauded for his postmodern deconstruction of animation in Duck Amuck, but for Avery, that kind of thing was all in a day’s work. He didn’t actually need to break the fourth wall, because he never had one in the first place—he had already torn the medium to its foundations and treated the audience as active participants in his work. He went beyond mere surrealism into what could perhaps be described as anti-realism. Even his characters were plastic in his hands; not content to merely have them doing exaggerated “takes” for reaction shots, his trademark was having them break into puzzle pieces before reforming. Anything and everything was fair game to him.
Warner Archive has just released Tex Avery Screwball Classics: Volume 3, which collects 20 more classics from Avery’s tenure at MGM:
- Blitz Wolf (1942 – 9:51)
- The Early Bird Dood It! (1942 – 8:50)
- One Ham's Family (1943 – 7:37)
- Happy Go Nutty (1944 – 7:17)
- Jerky Turkey (1945 – 7:30)
- The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945 – 7:51)
- Swing Shift Cinderella (1945 – 7:44)
- Wild and Woolfy (1945 – 7:37)
- Northwest Hounded Police (1946 – 7:30)
- Slap Happy Lion (1947 – 7:26)
- King-Size Canary (1947 – 7:55)
- What Price Fleadom (1948 – 6:57)
- Little 'Tinker (1948 – 7:17)
- Senor Droopy (1949 – 8:20)
- Cock-a-Doodle Dog (1951 – 6:43)
- Rock-a-Bye Bear (1952 – 7:24)
- Little Johnny Jet (1953 – 7:04)
- Billy Boy (1954 – 6:05)
- Deputy Droopy (1955 – 6:33)
- Cellbound (1955 – 6:29)
Unlike Volume 1 and Volume 2, the cartoons here are presented in chronological order, without grouping them by character. It’s actually a better way to see how he developed during the period. Like any animator, Avery was guilty of stealing from himself by repeating gags, but he often found new nuances for them. For example, both Rock-a-Bye Bear and Deputy Droopy use the exact same basic gag structure, but Avery still managed to explore new ideas with it. Repetition was actually a key element of his humor—he loved the to take the basic concept of a joke and see how far he could push it via reductio ad absurdum, like in Bad Luck Blackie, where he took the idea of unmotivated objects landing on a dog’s head to truly insane extremes. In this collection, King-Size Canary is an example of the same thing, where he pushed the idea of a growth potion as far as it could earthly go—literally, in this case.
Of course, many elements of Avery’s humor haven’t dated particularly well, and Warner Archive has added the same disclaimer at the beginning that they used for the previous volumes. It’s a small price to pay for having these cartoons included in their original uncut forms. (The Shooting of Dan McGoo would be the only exception, but that’s for technical reasons as the only existing complete version is a nitrate print owned by a private collector, and the problems at Warner Archive prevented it from being included here.) There are some blackface jokes, though less than in previous volumes, as well as a few other racially insensitive moments. The wartime propaganda effort Blitz Wolf is intact, including its rather shockingly blithe joke about destroying the entire nation of Japan. (That cartoon also contains an amusing bit of adult humor where a bit of profanity is implied by a rhyme.) Elements like that shouldn’t be censored, but they also shouldn’t be dismissed so easily as “products of their time.” Warner Archive’s decision to acknowledge the issue, while still including the material uncensored, is really the best approach to deal with it.
All twenty cartoons are presented in 1080p at their theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Warner Archive scanned the best available 35 mm elements for each at 4K resolution before doing extensive restoration work. The original nitrate negatives were destroyed by the fire at the George Eastman House Museum in 1978, so the majority of these were scanned from color reversal internegatives (CRIs) that MGM had created prior to the fire. In a few cases, actual separation masters were uncovered, so those were used instead for the following titles: The Shooting of Dan McGoo, Little 'Tinker, Rock-a-Bye Bear, Little Johnny Jet, and Billy Boy. It’s a testament to the amazing work done by the Archive that the other titles in the set are virtually indistinguishable from those that came from better elements. The only notable issue is with the first one minute and fifty-two seconds of Blitz Wolf, where the CRI had been replaced by a lesser quality dupe internegative, and as a result it looks significantly softer than anything else in the set. Once that mark is passed, everything looks fantastic. There’s an abundance of detail, especially in the backgrounds, where all of the brush strokes are clearly visible, and the grain always looks natural. There’s very little in the way of damage, and yet occasional bits of cell dirt or other artifacts from the animation process are still present—in other words, everything is clean, but it isn’t too clean. The image always has a palpable sense of texture. It’s worth noting that Avery was fond of zooming in and out of the artwork, so it’s naturally a little softer whenever seen up close. But that’s the way that it was animated, so it’s a perfectly accurate presentation. These classic cartoons have never looked better on home video.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. The fidelity is of course limited by the source, but everything has been cleaned up nicely, and it sounds perfectly clear and balanced.
There’s a single cartoon included as an extra on the disc:
- The Crackpot Quail (1941 – 7:40)
The Crackpot Quail isn’t an MGM production like the rest, but rather an earlier Merrie Melodies cartoon that Avery directed while still at Warner Bros. It’s a significant inclusion because it restores a repeated sound effect which was altered after the original release in 1941, one which improves the cartoon immensely. Whenever the quail tries to blow his drooping feather plume out of his face, it was originally accompanied by the sound of a raspberry, but since that sound effect was forbidden by the Hayes Office, it was later changed to a whistle. That whistle version is the only one which has been available ever since, so this is the first time that The Crackpot Quail has ever been offered on home video as originally intended. It’s a very brief extra, but it more than makes up for its length by its importance.
Given the state of physical media at this point in history, and the recent chaos at Warner Archive, it’s a delight that we now have three volumes of Avery’s work on Blu-ray. There are more of his cartoons left in the vault, including my own personal favorite Lucky Ducky, so this is a case where it’s best to speak with your pocketbook to keep the momentum going. It’s worth every penny.
- Stephen Bjork
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