Imagine being in a theater in May of 1943. The lights dim, the curtain rises, and the “MGM Cartoon” logo comes on the screen.
Audiences expecting the innocent chase violence of Tom and Jerry instead find themselves watching Red Hot Riding Hood, a re-telling of the classic “Little Red Riding Hood” fable, filtered through off-the-wall animated sight gags, screwball comedy, and a heavy dose of sex appeal.In his book, Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, author Charles Solomon wrote about the impact this now iconic short subject had on moviegoers and the movie industry:
“Red Hot Riding Hood raised eyebrows and brought down the house. Audiences – especially GIs – loved the film. Censors at the Hays office and/or studio deleted some of the Wolf’s takes from the release prints of the film, although servicemen were allowed to see the uncut version. MGM reported that Red Hot Riding Hood and later “Red” films were the most popular shorts the studio ever released.”
Red Hot Riding Hood came to theaters on May 8, 1943, and it’s hard to believe that it celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. The cartoon short begins as a very traditional re-telling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” until the three main characters (Red, Grandma, and the Wolf) break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera, stating that they don’t want to see just another tired re-telling.The narrator acquiesces and points the tale in a newer direction as the cartoon switches gears. We are taken to Hollywood, where the Wolf is now a tuxedo-wearing playboy who drives around town in a ridiculously long convertible, and Grandma lives in a penthouse, drinking martinis (a neon sign above her building reads: “Grandma’s Joint. Come Up and See Me Sometime”).
The Wolf enters a nightclub where “Red Hot Riding Hood” performs. She first appears in the traditional cloak of Riding Hood as she carries a basket, which she flings off to reveal a skimpy showgirl outfit, as she belts out a song.
The character of Red in this sequence is one of animation’s greatest tour-de-forces by a true master of the medium, as noted by author John Canemaker in his book Tex Avery: The MGM Years, 1942-1955:
“The animation of Red has a marvelous verve and sensuality thanks to Preston Blair, a great character animator formerly known of Disney, where in Fantasia (1940) he made Mickey Mouse tread water and crocodiles and hippos tripped the light fantastic. Red’s design is borrowed from caricatures of ‘innocently sexy’ females drawn by Fred Moore, a Disney animator. ‘Freddie Moore girls’ were simple, animatable designs constructed of sensual pear shapes, and the type found its way into Disney’s 1940s films, starting with Fantasia’s ‘centaurettes.’”
The Wolf’s licentious responses to this – gigantic bug-eyes, jaw drops, freezing vertically in mid-air – brilliantly animated by Ed Love, became a blueprint for cartoon reactions going forward.
The Wolf attempts to escape, as a series of beautiful sight-gags follow (including one where the Wolf opens a door and slams into a brick wall, upon which a sign reads: “Imagine that! No door!”)
The Wolf eventually jumps out the window and makes his way (bandaged and beaten) back to the nightclub, where he swears off women, stating that he would kill himself before looking at another woman.
Red then comes on stage, and the Wolf pulls out two guns, kills himself, and his ghost proceeds to whistle and clap for Red as the cartoon ends.
Audiences at the time loved Red Hot Riding Hood so much that several follow-ups were made. These included Swing Shift Cinderella, The Shooting of Dan McGoo and Wild and Woolfy (all 1945), as well as Uncle Tom’s Cabana (1947) and Little Rural Riding Hood (1949).
Not everyone applauded the cartoon short. According to author Michael Barrier, in his book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age: “Red Hot Riding Hood ran into such serious objections from the Production Code Administration that parts of it had to be remade.”
The film is one of the shining examples of director Tex Avery’s genius. In the introduction to John Canemaker’s book on the artist, Chuck Jones wrote: “Avery was lightning. Just as unpredictable, as surprising, as spectacular as lightning – with one difference: Unlike lightning, Avery was funny.”
Like all of Avery’s films, Red Hot Riding Hood demonstrates why he is considered the architect of the screwball cartoon. The irreverent humor and comedic creativity that was Avery’s trademark has rightly cemented him as one the kings of cartoons’ golden age and one of the masters of the medium.
With Red Hot Riding Hood, Avery left a legacy for decades after, with its fingerprints seen in a number of films, most notably, 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit and 1994’s The Mask.
The short rightly earned its place at number seven in Jerry Beck’s 1994 book, The 50 Greatest Cartoons As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals.
In that book, author Joe Adamson’s words explain why this film continues to be celebrated eighty years later: “…Red Hot Riding Hood keeps reminding us that, as long as we think sex is something we’re able to be adult about, it’s got another joke up its sleeve – and it’s probably on us.”