When it comes to the work of legendary animation director Fred “Tex” Avery, the stories typically show order giving way to chaos, which may explain why the 19 cartoons on Warner Archive Collection’s Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1 from his tenure at MGM aren’t listed chronologically. Though some collectors may find this screwy, the amount of laughter provided should more than make up for any obsessive-compulsive anxiety caused by the randomness.
Avery first made a significant impact on the medium during his time at Warner Brothers, working on Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. While there, he was involved with the creation and development of their biggest cartoon characters (including the big three: Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny), all of whom remain popular around the world. After butting heads with producer Leon Schlesinger, Avery signed on at MGM in 1941.
Separating the cartoons into four categories, the disc opens with nine Tex Avery Classics, starting with his fourth, “Red Hot Riding Hood”, the first appearance of Red. Early on the characters rebel and break the fourth wall because they are bored with telling this story the same way over and over. The animators take note, moving to setting to Hollywood, Grandma’s house is a nightclub penthouse, Red (Sara Berner, speaking/Connie Russell, singing) is a gorgeous nightclub performer, and the Wolf is hot for her.
That cartoon epitomizes Avery’s style. Gags fly rapidly. The rules of physics and the medium are thrown out the window. All done to ensure plenty of laughs. In “Who Killed Who?” there’s a great gag as the shadow of an audience member tries to sneak out of the theater. “Batty Baseball” starts the cartoon immediately, causing a character to ask what happened to the opening titles. Unfortunately as was common for many years, there is insensitivity towards minorities on display. A few times throughout the set there are gags where characters end up in blackface or with an Asian face.
The main conflict in many of the cartoons is characters fighting one another. In “What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard?” Two vultures, one a Jimmy Durante soundalike, struggle to find something to eat in the desert and eventually consider each other. In “The Hick Chick”, two birds, a yokel and a city slicker, fight over the hand of a pretty chick. In “Garden Gopher”, Spike (later known as Butch) and the titular rodent battle in a backyard.
Two standouts in this section are “Bad Luck Blackie” and “Symphony in Slang”. The former, which is credited as the first appearance of Spike/Butch the bulldog though his appearance is different, finds a bulldog terrorizing a kitten. A black cat offers to help the kitten by bringing bad luck to Spike and finds ingenious ways to cross his path. In “Symphony…”, a hep cat is greeted at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter who doesn’t understand his vocabulary. Peter brings him to master of the dictionary Noah Webster, who takes everything the man says literal. The audience sees the misunderstandings, such as the visual of being “beside myself with anger”, “punching cattle”, and “painting the town red”.
The rest of the cartoons are divided up by character. Screwy Squirrel (voiced by Wally Maher) starred in five Avery cartoons but only four are here, omitting Happy-Go-Nutty, and even these aren’t in chronological order. “Screwball Squirrel” introduces Screwy, a violent, psychotic character who abuses Meathead the dog throughout. He also plays with the cartoon’s form and format by adjusting the music soundtrack, showing viewers an upcoming scene, and stopping the cartoon from ending so he can cause more mayhem. In “The Screwy Truant”, Screwy skips school and is pursued by a truant officer. In “Big Heel-Watha”, Screwy is chased by the title character (Bill Thompson using a voice similar to his Droopy performance) because his tribe is out of meat and the chief offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to whomever brings some home. In “Lonesome Lenny”, Screwy becomes a playmate for a dog based on Lenny from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It’s the last Screwy cartoon and the ending suggest Avery knew it.
George (voiced by Dick Nelson) and Junior (voiced by Avery), also based on characters from Of Mice and Men, are bears who appeared in four Avery cartoons. They were like many comedy teams of the time with a dumb character and one slightly smarter. In “Hound Hunters”, they are dog catchers. In “Red Hot Rangers”, they deal with an anthropomorphic flame. They aren’t good at either job, which they fail at in entertaining ways.
Droopy was Avery’s biggest character at MGM, starring in 24 cartoons, and four are included here. In his debut, “Dumb Hounded” Droopy shows his relentless determination as one of many bloodhounds chasing the Wolf who has escape jail. The remaining three find Droopy and Spike competing. In “Wags to Riches” Spike tries to kill Droopy because he is next in line for an inheritance; In “The Chump Champ,” Droopy (voiced by Don Messick) and Spike (here called Gorgeous Gorillawitz) compete to become the King of Sports; and in “Daredvil Droopy”, they compete for a job in a circus. Spike frequently fails even when Droopy is unaware of his shenanigans.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The colors across the spectrum pop in strong hues. Blacks are inky and whites are bright, contributing to a solid image contrast. Film grain looks natural. The image is sharp and the brush strokes on backgrounds can be seen For example, they are noticeable in the violet rug at the start of “Bad Luck Blackie” and the backyard’s green grass that spills onto the white fence. There are a few marks of discoloration as seen when Granny hurtles into the sky in “Red Hot Riding Hood”. Minor flecks appear throughout as does the and rare hair at the side of the frame.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The cartoon soundtracks are filled music and effects that register quietly and loudly, revealing a wide dynamic range. Dialogue is clear. There is a slight hiss due to age.
Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1 is a must-own for animation fans and Classic Hollywood buffs because of Avery’s importance as a director. Having 19 funny cartoons on hand doesn’t hurt either. The high-def video showcases the artwork. It’s a shame there’s no bonus features paying tribute to the people behind these cartoons. Volume 2 can’t be released soon enough.