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by Brandie Ashe

Oh, for the good old days, when almost every theatrical release was preceded by a cartoon. Nowadays, we pretty much have to rely on the folks at Disney and Pixar to get our theatrical cartoon fix, but in the 1930s and 40s, it was guaranteed that going to the movies—to see any feature—meant also seeing the latest adventures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry, Superman, Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes gang, Mr. Magoo, Woody Woodpecker, and dozens of other animated troublemakers.

Things began to change with the so-called “Paramount Decision” of 1948, in which the Supreme Court decided that movie studios could no longer force theater chains to accept the practice of “block booking” a studio’s “lesser” products (short films and animated cartoons, namely), sometimes sight unseen, and exhibiting those shorts with feature-length studio productions. In other words, studios no longer had any sort of guarantee that their cartoons would actually be seen by audiences, so what was the point in producing cartoons anymore? It was the beginning of the end of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood animation. Many studio animation departments began to suffer in the wake of the decision, and animators at those troubled and soon-to-close studios began to find refuge in television.

In 1957, MGM, home of the Tom and Jerry series of cartoons, closed its animation division, despite the continued popularity of the duo. Tom and Jerry’s “parents,” animation directors William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, soon decided to try their luck at the still (relatively) new medium of television, and started their own animation company, H-B Enterprises (eventually rechristened Hanna-Barbera Productions). They found early TV hits with two new characters: a drawling, Southern caricature of a canine named Huckleberry Hound, and a horsey Old-West sheriff called Quick Draw McGraw. But Hanna-Barbera’s greatest television success came when the duo decided to move to primetime, introducing the world to a “modern Stone-Age family” whose lives, funnily enough, came right out of the most familiar of situation comedies.

That fabled family, The Flintstones, debuted on ABC on September 30, 1960, at 8:30PM. Its timeslot competitors? On CBS, the anthology drama series Route 66, and on NBC, yet another entry in the TV cowboy sweepstakes, The Westerner. Neither of those dramas was exactly lighting up the ratings, and so The Flintstones, perhaps by default, not only won its timeslot that year—it would go on to be the eighteenth most popular show of the 1960-61 television season and be nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, becoming the first animated program to ever receive a nod for that award.

Yet it did this largely without support from television critics, who dismissed the show as an unexceptional novelty. And even today, the position of The Flintstones on any countdown such as this can be expected to produce debate about the merits of the show. There’s a tinge of nostalgia to the show, especially for baby boomers who grew up watching Fred and Barney’s antics—my own father, born in 1953, counts this show among his favorites of all time, and introduced my brothers and me to its dubious charms in the 1980s via the joys of syndication. But does “nostalgia” equal “quality?”

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by Brandie Ashe
In searching for an appropriate topic for this celebration of Allan’s life and legacy, I found myself perusing his “alternate Oscars” posts from a few years ago, a series that was both impressive in its sheer scope and fascinating for what it revealed about Allan’s preferences as well as his judgments about what performers, films, and directors should be considered “award-worthy.” And one of the things I was delighted to discover upon going through these posts is that I share with Mr. Fish an affinity for the work of the great Tex Avery.
Indeed, in his personal selections of the best short film productions of each year, Allan chose five Tex Avery cartoons, every single one of them an absolute gem. So I can think of no better way to celebrate Allan’s memory than to highlight those five hilarious and brilliantly-constructed animated shorts, all of them released during what was arguably the heyday of Avery’s career as the wonderboy of MGM’s animation division.
Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)

Long before Edward Everett Horton narrated a series of “Fractured Fairy Tales” for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Tex Avery presented his own unique, skewed take on the genre. Red Hot Riding Hood wasn’t the first time Avery had dipped into the fairy-tale well; in 1937, he directed Little Red Walking Hood for Warner Bros., a gag-heavy take on the familiar story. Still, that one ultimately hewed much more closely to the original story’s plot than Avery’s follow-up for MGM six years later.

Red Hot Riding Hood is one of the most notable productions of Avery’s long career, arguably the most influential and best-remembered of his many animated shorts. On the Jerry Beck-curated list of the “50 Greatest Cartoons,” Red Hot ranks seventh, and is the highest-placed MGM cartoon on the list (its 1949 semi-sequel, Little Rural Riding Hood, also appears on the list at #23). Red Hot is a prime example of a master gag craftsman at work, one who is more than willing to push the envelope in order to garner the most laughs.

Northwest Hounded Police (1946)

In the 1943 animated short Dumb-Hounded, Tex Avery debuted a new character, a laconic, quick-witted, slow-talking hound dog. Originally dubbed “Happy Hound” (though this is never explicitly mentioned onscreen), the dog spends the entire cartoon tracking down a wolf who has escaped from jail, remarkably appearing in every locale to which the wolf attempts to escape. From the city to the remotest areas of the planet, there is nowhere the wolf can go where the damn dog isn’t waiting for him, and every encounter with his would-be captor sends the wolf into frenetic takes marked by incredibly imaginative imagery. Eventually christened “Droopy,” the seemingly mild-mannered, deceptively meek pup became the perfect vehicle through which Avery could explore the wildest gags he could possibly conceive.

Dumb-Hounded was remade in 1945 as the fourth entry in the Droopy cartoon series, this time called Northwest Hounded Police. Working with a skilled animation team that included frequent colleagues Preston Blair and Ed Love, here Avery put together one of the strongest entries in the entire Droopy filmography. This time around, the recycled gags are sharper and crisper, the reaction shots of the wolf even more exaggerated than before. Avery reuses a fantastic gag from Dumb-Hounded in which the wolf skids off the screen, momentarily exposing the side of the film strip before jetting back into the action, and then takes the meta references up another notch by having the wolf attempt to hide in a movie theater–before Droopy appears onscreen and singles him out in the audience. It’s all-out insanity crammed into a mere seven minutes, and far exceeds its predecessor in both production and laughs-per-second.

The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945)

The second entry in the Droopy filmography, McGoo is a parody of the 1907 poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew, by British-Canadian poet Robert W. Service. In (loosely) recreating the story from the poem, Avery borrows characters from 1943’s Red Hot Riding Hood: that cartoon’s Red becomes the sexy singer Lou, and the Wolf takes on the role of Droopy’s adversary. The interaction between these two characters is pretty much the same as in the earlier cartoon; the Wolf lusts after Lou in a series of increasingly outrageous, exaggerated takes as she sings a seductive tune, and when he tries to abduct her, the horndog wolf gets his comeuppance.

McGoo is populated by typical Tex Avery-style gags, jam-packed in from the opening shots: the Alaska town’s “welcome” sign boasts its punny name, Coldernell (a gag Avery would reuse in later cartoons); as gunshots ring out, the population of the town–as advertised on the sign–shrinks. There are other sign gags and wild takes galore: a row of boozehounds turn into howling wolves at one word from Lou; beers sliding down an extended bar are subject to traffic lights; a burly bartender stands in front of a portrait of a (supposedly) naked lady, blocking the naughty bits and speaking directly to camera, “You might as well move along, doc. I don’t move from here all through the picture” (don’t worry–he’ll eventually get out of the way, making room for yet another spot-on sign gag). And that’s just in the first two-and-a-half minutes, before the plot even gets underway.

The Cat That Hated People (1948)

In his work, Avery deliberately turned the “lifelike animation” touted by Walt Disney completely on its head. “I couldn’t compete with Disney,” he once admitted in an interview, “and I didn’t attempt to. I attempted to do things that Disney wouldn’t dare to do … exaggeration in films, wild takes, distorted fairy tales–and I laid off of the fuzzy-wuzzy little bunnies because it wasn’t my bag.”

This is quite evident in The Cat That Hated People, whose Jimmy Durante-esque protagonist is far from the type of cutesy feline creatures that tend to populate Disney shorts. Instead, Avery’s cat is a mangy, disgruntled misanthrope, so worn down from his mistreatment at the hands of the human race to the point that he feels compelled to hop a rocket into outer space. And once he’s there, Avery lets loose one insane, loopy gag after another to torment the poor cat in ways Disney animators likely never could have dreamed.

Magical Maestro (1952)

Each of the five cartoons listed here demonstrate Tex Avery’s distinctive and innovative style–a style which was eventually adopted, at least in part, by other cartoonists who recognized the effectiveness of the Avery model: unending and inventive gags (often at the expense of a defined plot); exaggerated reactions; multiple asides to the audience–whether by sign or by having characters break the fourth wall; intensely sped-up action; and impeccable comedic pacing.

But more than anything, Avery had an unerring, innate sense of comic timing. That timing was ultimately the key to Avery’s success, as he was able to make a gag “pop” like no one else in the business. And in the case of Magical Maestro, Avery takes “comic timing” to a whole new level by incorporating an increasingly manic musical motif to accompany the visual jokes, in the process crafting a series of gags that work in hilarious harmony with the classical music soundtrack and building to a crescendo of guffaws. Not to say the cartoon is entirely perfect (there is the unfortunate bit of blackface and a cringe-worthy Chinese parody), but the multiplying-rabbits gag alone is worth the price of admission.

 

 

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forbidden-planet

by Brandie Ashe

 In the final decade of the 21st century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon. By 2200 AD, they had reached the other planets of our solar system. Almost at once there followed the discovery of hyperdrive, through which the speed of light was first attained and later greatly surpassed. And so, at last, mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.” –Prologue

Humanity loves its technology almost as much as it fears its destructive capabilities. For every development that makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, there are those advancements that bring with them the possibility of calamity, whether on a minor or somewhat more global scale. Technology is both friend and foe. It is a helpmate and a hindrance. It is born of our ingenuity and our arrogance, of our desire to help ourselves and one another, and of our greed and avarice. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, on some level, we must admit that much of our technology arises from our desire to play God, to prolong our existence, to defy the natural order of things and fly in the face of mortality.

 

An ancient alien race, the Krell, discovered this to their detriment some 200,000 years ago. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I don’t think it would be stretching it to say that, right from the eerie opening strains of the before-its-time electronica soundtrack, 1956’sForbidden Planet changed the face of science-fiction cinema in the 1950s. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person to ever say that. To reiterate an overused term, it truly is a groundbreaking movie, and in many ways, it set the stage for the evolution of science-fiction film over the subsequent decades. In a decade that saw any number of over-the-top treatments of the genre, Planet was something quite special: it was a straightforward, A-level sci-fi flick that took its science-fiction elements seriously, and in the process delivered a film that is both endlessly entertaining and thoughtfully multilayered. (more…)

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duck dodgers

by Brandie Ashe

In 1935, a brash young animator named Tex Avery presented himself to Leon Schlesinger at Warner Bros., talking up his resume as a fledgling director and somehow convincing the producer to give him his own small production unit on the Warner lot. Schlesinger stuck him in a ratty bungalow that was quickly (and, unfortunately, quite appropriately) nicknamed “Termite Terrace,” and gave him an initial crew of four enthusiastic animators: Virgil Ross, Sid Sutherland, Chuck Jones, and Bob Clampett. As unlikely as it may have seemed at the time, cartoon legends would soon be borne out of that pest-ridden shack.

Avery’s crew worked primarily on the Looney Tunes series, and in his first cartoon for Warner Bros., 1935’s Gold Diggers of ’49, Avery cemented not only his own rising star, but that of a new character, Porky Pig. The stuttering porker had premiered six months earlier in the Friz Freleng-directed Merrie Melodies short I Haven’t Got a Hat, and Avery’s toon marked only Porky’s second-ever appearance. Porky would go on to reign as the most popular character in the Warner Bros. stable for almost two years, until Avery introduced an antagonist for him–a loopy, insane, and incredibly daffy duck. Animated by Clampett and first appearing in 1937’s Porky’s Duck Hunt, the out-of-control Daffy became an instant star, bouncing across the screen yelling his signature, “Hoo hoo!” as he drove his costars batty.

The pig-and-duck duo was an effective one, and they appeared together in numerous cartoons throughout the following decade, their interactions eventually morphing from antagonistic to an actual partnership—though an unequal one, by most measures. By the 1950s, Porky had been downgraded to the role of sidekick in many of his appearances, while Daffy’s maniacal tendencies had given way to a more calculating sense of self-interest, largely under the guidance of Chuck Jones, who had long since moved into the director’s chair in the wake of Avery’s exit to MGM. Under Jones’ supervision, Daffy’s loose screws were tightened, and he became less zany and more of a self-proclaimed “greedy slob” seeking fame and fortune at the expense of anyone and everyone who might be in his way. This more evolved Daffy—in a manner of speaking—found his main foe in Warner’s marquee star, Bugs Bunny, as he sought to usurp Bugs as the “rightful” head of the cartoon kingdom. But matching wits against the wily hare never quite worked out the way Daffy planned, as Daffy learned in 1953, which saw the release of two of his most memorable cartoons of all time: the mind-bending meta exercise in cartoon madness Duck Amuck, and the conclusion of the fabled “Hunting Trilogy,” Duck! Rabbit, Duck!. (more…)

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iron giant

by Brandie Ashe

When Brad Bird first pitched the idea of adapting Ted Hughes’ 1968 science-fiction children’s novel The Iron Man to Warner Bros., he reportedly did so by posing a simple yet effective question: “What if a gun had a soul?” It’s that intriguing, yet not altogether subtle theme that winds throughout Bird’s 1999 film version of the story, retitled The Iron Giant for its cinematic release.

In developing the story for the big screen, Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanlies excised a large part of Hughes’ novel (essentially eliminating the entire final section, in which the Iron Man battles an intergalactic space dragon) and moved the action from England to the pictaresque, appropriately-named Rockwell, a seaport town in Maine that serves as a perfect microcosm of small-town America in 1957. The resulting film focuses less on outside conflict and more on the loving relationship that develops between Hogarth Hughes (Eli Mariental) and the Iron Giant (Vin Diesel) as Hogarth attempts to protect his new friend from a suspicious government agent, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald).

The Iron Giant is steeped in the paranoia of its Cold War-era setting, and its depiction of the time period is rather on-point. From the spot-on parody of that Cold War classroom staple, Duck and Cover (the ridiculousness of the concept of a school desk protecting someone from a nuclear blast is pointed out by several characters), to the fear-driven Mansley’s incredibly stupid and short-sighted call for a nuclear strike on the robot–and the very town in which he himself is standing–Giant captures the almost irrational terror of the unknown that resulted from the nuclear arms race between the United States and the USSR.   (more…)

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tkam

by Brandie Ashe

I’ll start by admitting some pretty heavy bias went into my selection of the top film on my ballot for this countdown. I was born and raised in Alabama, where two texts tend to reign supreme over all others: the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird, written by native daughter Nelle Harper Lee and published in 1960. You may think I’m exaggerating, but Mockingbird was on a number of reading lists that were assigned or suggested in school over the years, from middle school onward through college. I have devoured the novel dozens of times, and I continue to watch the 1962 film version year after year (three viewings so far in 2015 alone, thank you very much) just for the sheer pleasure of reliving young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch’s story over and over again.

And it is Scout’s story, regardless of our tendency to focus the lion’s share of our attention on her father, Atticus Finch, played so memorably by Gregory Peck in the cinematic adaptation. It is through her eyes that we see the story unfold, and it is her young, touchingly innocent, yet ultimately wise perception of things that colors our own perception of the characters and the events that occur in the story.

It’s a perspective that is particularly appealing for young readers, who can put themselves in Scout’s shoes—perhaps especially for those of us from Alabama (really, the South in general), for whom these characters and this setting are so very recognizable. For even though I was raised in the suburbs of Birmingham (about as far from Maycomb—or its real-life counterpart, Monroeville—as you can get), I know the rural parts of my home state well, and over the years have met many people who could easily stand in for the characters in the story (some of whom are members of my own extended family, in fact, but I’ll refrain from direct comparisons).

So, yes, I admit some bias in my selection. But I don’t think it’s too far off the mark to label To Kill a Mockingbird one of the best movies ever produced about childhood. Brought to life by a brilliant cast, led by Peck (in what many, myself included, consider the performance of his career) and young Mary Badham as Scout, Mockingbird speaks to all the complexities of that too-short period in our lives: the wonder of discovery, the mystery of the unknown, and that too-familiar death of innocence and the dawning of knowledge about the greater world around us which sparks adulthood. (more…)

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et

by Brandie Ashe

I was two years old when the Steven Spielberg-directed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial debuted in theaters. I was six years old when I saw the film for the first time, which my parents had taped from television along with two other movies (the titles of which I can no longer remember) during a free preview weekend of whichever premium channel we could not afford to indulge in full-time. And I was perhaps ten years old when that videotape became no longer watchable due to the sheer number of times I rewound it to play E.T. over and over and over again.

Mom and Dad eventually bought the film on tape, and the obsession continued. And even today, the Blu-ray is on regular rotation ’round these parts, because it’s one of those movies that remains just as magical and fresh and revelatory today as it was more than thirty years ago.

To say that E.T. had a profound affect on young me would be an understatement. Next to the animated films and classic cartoon shorts that I adored (and still do) above all else, E.T. was something truly special–a film where the focus was on the kids, kids who were smart and brave but also flawed, who strove to do the right thing and yet weren’t perfect paragons of cinematic characterization. They were, in essence, real kids, and I identified with them as much as I longed to actually be them, and to have an adventure with a cuddly alien all my own.

That focus on the children is not a mere by-product of the film’s central science-fiction storyline; it is the entire purpose of the film. Indeed, Spielberg, himself a child of divorce, had long sought to make a film about the myriad ways in which divorce affects kids. Told from the perspective of a family of three kids–two boys and a girl–E.T. is ultimately less about the titular alien than it is about the dynamics of a broken family, and how that damaged unit dusts itself off and learns to function as a smaller whole. (more…)

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