Sunday, July 29, 2007

Guess Who?
King Klunk and Tex Avery Make Woody DVD Worthwhile!

This past week's Universal DVD release of The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection sports 75 cartoons from the Walter Lantz Productions archives. This is great news for Woody Woodpecker and Walter Lantz fans -- of which I'm neither (though my son Dan has evidenced a Woody Woodpecker fan streak of late).

The only Woody Woodpecker item I've held on to since childhood is this vintage 'how to draw' book (pictured); though I've watched countless WW cartoons, theatrically (Universal still tacked vintage Woodys onto their drive-in movie releases into the '70s) and on TV, I never cottoned to the red-head.

However, I picked up this new DVD collection for its inclusion of a few choice Tex Avery cartoons -- the last theatrical shorts of Avery's career -- and the 1933 Pooch the Pup gem King Klunk. There's some other bright spots, a few surprises among the Walter Lantz Swing Symphonies and Cartune Classics on each of three discs (like Looney Toons and Merry Melodies, Lantz's series names were patterned after the popular Walt Disney Silly Symphonies, embracing a catch-all moniker evoking the merger of sound and cartoons). But Klunk and Tex's outings made this an essential addition to my library!

King Klunk is one of my all-time favorite cartoons, despite the paucity of charm from Pooch the Pup. The lackluster 'hero' isn't the lead -- as in King Kong, it's Klunk who reigns o'er this amazingly compact (9 minutes) but spot-on parody of the same year's King Kong. None other than William K. Everson elevated King Klunk into the spotlight in his second Citadel Press volume, More Classics of the Horror Film, which is what first brought this cartoon to my attention. Thankfully, my amigo G. Michael Dobbs
  • (whose new book, Escape! How Animation Broke Into the Mainstream in the 1990s is coming out soon -- see this link!)
  • had a copy he screened for me shortly after we first met, and King Klunk immediately rocketed to top of my fave cartoons list.

    Directed By Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan, this corker opened on September 4, 1933, just six months after Merian C. Cooper/Ernest P. Schoedsack/Willis O'Brien's King Kong had smashed Depression boxoffice records. The narrative is to the template: Pooch the Pup and his girlfriend sojourn to Africa to make a movie about a giant gorilla and find King Klunk. Before Pooch pirates the primate to the big city, Klunk trashes a native village and fights with a dinosaur before his fiery dive from the Empire State Building. The End.

    True to its period, the racial stereotypes of black native villagers (the "Hot Cha" Tribe) are gross caricatures, but this takes on a whole new dimension via Lantz & Nolan's second satiric target, the surprise indy roadshow boxoffice hit Goona Goona (also 1933), reportedly the most extreme of all post-Cooper/Schoedsack ethnographic adventure films (I say 'reportedly because it remains a 'lost film' today; despite decades of trying, I've never found or seen a copy). Goona Goona was so popular in its day that its title became the catch-all industry term for its racist breed -- exotic roadshow exploitation features mixing nudity, animal action, and genuine documentary/travel footage with faked horrors (usually fake 'gorillas mating with native women' hijinks) -- until the 1960s, when Mondo Cane's international success and notoriety dubbed the new wave of '60s exploitation exotica 'mondo movies.' Hence, in King Klunk, the romantic overtures of the little native princess to Pooch with the catchphrase, "Goona! Goona!" It broke 'em up in '33, but it's a gag lost on all but the most obsessive movie fans of 2007.

    Fred 'Tex' Avery's 'Cartunes' for Lantz are, for my money, the best on the set, next to King Klunk. Omnipresent cartoon vocal actor Daws Butler voices Smedley the Dog in Avery's first Chilly Willy cartoon I'm Cold (1954), which is beguiling enough but one can feel the discomfort between Avery's style and the staid universe of the Lantz studio. There's some nice gags and Daws's deadpan performance has its moments, but it's weak Avery. Freezing li'l Chilly Willy (that's the whole gag with Chilly: he's a penguin that hates the cold, much like H.P. Lovecraft... hmmmm, never thought about that: is Chilly Willy the world's first Lovecraftian cartoon series? No, that's a stretch, I reckon) spots a flyer advertising fur coats while feeding paper to a fire in his igloo. Chilly toddles across the ice to the fur storage facility to steal a fur to keep warm, only to be repeatedly stopped by Smedley -- until Chilly realizes that Smedley also has fur, and thereby hangs the tale (and tail).

    Avery gives his all, but the mesh of talents -- animated by Ray Abrams, Don Patterson, La Verne Harding, background paintings by Raymond Jacobs -- can't get its footing, the script (by Homer Brightman) and especially Clarence Wheeler's musical score failing to engage with the Avery universe. The timing of the best gags in I'm Cold are thrown by a beat or two, the music always either telegraphing the gag or punctuating it too late or too obviously.

    Avery knew it, too, as evidenced by the ideal fusion of the same character and animators for the classic Legend of Rockabye Point (1955). The setup is similarly primal -- Chilly and a polar bear compete to steal fish from a docked fishing boat, where the catch is protected by an extremely vicious dog -- but Avery convinced Lantz to allow him to hire vet WB cartoon script writer Michael Maltese, and that makes all the difference in the world. The chemistry is infectious, and the whole works beautifully. Avery's gags, timing and inventive permutations on the situation remains hilarious and endearing, the strangely moving finale elevating this to truly classic stature.

    Look out, polar bear: Rawhead Rex is guarding those fish! A great Tex Avery/Michael Maltese gag image, drawn by the animation team of Ray Abrams, Don Patterson, La Verne Harding, from Legend of Rockabye Point

    It's joined by Avery's final theatrical cartoon, the classic Sh-h-h-h-h (1955); together, these Avery cartoons provide an ideal showcase for the master animation director's orientation to the medium. After all, both Legend of Rockabye Point and Sh-h-h-h-h-h are fresh spins on a number of Avery's MGM classics (Doggone Tired, 1949; Cock-A-Doodle Dog, 1951; and best of them all, Rock-A-Bye-Bear, 1952, in which Avery's character Spike gets a job house sitting for a high-strung hibernating bear and has to keep things quiet) -- and both are still riotously funny, by far the best cartoons on this set.

    Avery's discomfort with the 'poor li'l innocent' Chilly Willy of I'm Cold gave way to a fresh take on the penguin as a speed demon of malice: after Charlie the Polar Bear amply demonstrates his intention of relegating Chilly Willy to starvation and exile in order to ensure the bear's own unlimited access to a fresh food source, Chilly matches and tops Charlie's mercilessness. Willy pulls no punches. It's the relentless malice (not mere mischief; Avery's Willy is a mean little bastard!) Willy unflinchingly dishes out that suddenly lends unexpected weight and spine to this slightest of all Lantz cartoon characters. Maltese and Avery play off the incongruous friction between Willy's diminutive size & wide-eyed look of guileless innocence vs. the escalating cruelty of his torment of Charlie (all the more effective for his being essentially mute, save for his singing of "Rock-a-bye Baby") for all it's worth, and the cumulative result is astonishingly funny. I'd nominate Legend of Rockabye Point as Lantz's best-ever cartoon -- a bit like William Castle needing Roman Polanski to live up to the potential of adapting Rosemary's Baby (1968) to cinema, Lantz's stable had long needed a shot of Avery's manic energy and anarchy. It's too bad their collaboration came at the end of the heyday of theatrical animated shorts, and was so short-lived.

    Avery's Crazy Mixed-Up Pup (1955) is also thankfully on this set -- like Rockabye Point, it was nominated for an Academy Award; like Sh-h-h-h-h-h, it was scripted by Avery himself. Alas, I was rather underwhelmed by Pup. While out grocery shopping, timid middle-aged hubby Samuel Smith and male family pet Rover are run over by a speeding car. An ambulance shows up right away, but the moronic ambulance attendant instantly mixes up blood supplies and his on-the-tarmac transfusions mistakenly pumps Sam up with dog plasma and Rover with human plasma. Both immediately recover, but Sam starts demonstrating canine behavior and Rover begins walking, talking, shaving and reading the paper like a human being, much to the consternation of Sam's wife, Margaret. This was quite popular in its day, launching a Maggie and Sam cartoon series that's long forgotten today -- The Ostrich Egg And I (1956), The Talking Dog (1956) and Fowled Up Party (1957) -- all featuring Rover the dog, too, of course. Still, Crazy Mixed Up Pup didn't work for me -- all the ingredients are there for a great Avery cartoon, but the timing of the gags and animation itself seemed a bit off.

    Well, that's it, I gotta run. I recommend you run out and snag a copy of this DVD, and enjoy!

  • Note: This link is the source for the Chilly Willy images on today's post (and definitive venue for all Chilly Willy 'cartunes' and info). Check it out.
  • _____________________

    Have a great Sunday and week, one and all! Maybe I'll see you here this week, maybe not... but have a good one, nonetheless!

    Labels: , , , , ,