Cartoon connoisseurs are finally rejoicing in the year 2020 again after enduring months of pandemic gloom, because Warner Archive is releasing the second Blu-ray set of Tex Avery’s magnificent MGM animation classics.
This time the collection focuses on his later period, from the late 40s and into the 1950s. By now his timing is exactly where he wants it, and the comedy is frantic and endlessly quirky. Simply put, Tex was a one-off, and his body of work is totally original, unable to be duplicated by either imitators or those seeking to pay stylistic tribute. The new disc features some of his most-loved cartoons.
Once again, I felt it was important to enumerate the various uncredited voice artists heard in this latest set, because Avery’s films – while seemingly all about visual gags – were always designed by Tex with slavish attention to the comic aspects of sound, including effects, music and voices.
LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD (released September 17, 1949)
This collection begins with one of Avery’s accepted classics, and a perennial favorite. It’s a revisit to his immortal early Red Hot Riding Hood characters of the ever-tumescent wolf and sexy Red. But this time with that always unexpected Avery twist. A double set of Wolf and Red, one pair hailing from the unsophisticated country sticks and the other pair from the hippest part of Manhattan cafe society.
THE CUCKOO CLOCK (released June 10, 1950)
Daws Butler was back to do the cat’s voice, sombrely narrating this atmospheric cartoon full of cuckoo clock comedy. The gag when the cat’s hand gets violently flattened uses MGM sound-library stock of fellow director Bill Hanna’s loud yell, one of a raft of vocal noises he recorded for his own Tom & Jerry soundtracks.
THE MAGICAL MAESTRO (released February 9, 1952)
Many cartoon studios had taken a stab at mocking the world of grand opera, including classics like Lantz’s The Barber of Seville with Woody Woodpecker. But no cartoon ever made a more creatively funny sendup of the rarefied classical music field than this Avery masterpiece. Daws Butler is the voice of mischievous Misto the Magician who is spurned for a job on the theatre bill in favor of the grand bulldog baritone Poochini. He gets his revenge by casting a spell on the singer who undergoes a series of visual and vocal transformations which dash his image of a serious artist. MGM contract singer Carlos Ramirez, a Latin American opera star of 1940s musicals, recorded a vibrant track of Rossini’s Largo al Factotum, and Avery’s stroke of genius was to use the then-popular Las Vegas lounge act The Mary Kaye trio to record some of their act to represent the various changes in Poochini’s magically-ruined vocal. The trio featured Mary and Norman Kaye, and comedian Frank Ross. After their song was edited to Avery’s pinpoint specifications it was mostly Ross’s comic voices that remained. In order, we see the poor bulldog morph into Carmen Miranda (done by Mary Kaye), a Chinese, a Cowboy singer, a square-dance caller, a little brat singing “A-Tisket a-Tasket” (all by Frank Ross) and two chanting Hawaiians (done by Ross and Norman Kaye).
Mixed into this was an imitation of the high and low voiced members of the Ink Spots vocal group, with Paul Frees doing the quavery tenor (“Everything I Have is Yours”) while the deep basso has the old froggy voice of what seems to be Danny Webb, who had done the Wicked Queen for Clampett’s Coal Black at Warner in 1941, and who then served in the war after which he moved to New York. (Could it be he was visiting LA when this cartoon’s track was being made? Or is it another talent who could do that exact bullfrog voice…until more MGM paperwork shows up we can only surmise.)
Final notes: Avery himself contributes the emphatic “No!!!!” as the magician is ejected from the theatre. The orchestra leader would appear to be a caricature of the MGM cartoons’ musical director Scott Bradley. And note the now technology-dated “hair in the gate” projector gag… Avery had done this exact joke eleven years earlier at Schlesinger in his spot-gag travelogue Aviation Vacation as an Irish tenor warbles, and it was rather laboured in execution. But by the time of this MGM cartoon, his precision timing was much more well-honed. This cartoon took a long time… the Mary Kaye trio vocals were recorded on 29 September 1949, some two and a half years before the film was released. A wonderful cartoon.
ONE CAB’S FAMILY (released May 17, 1952)
The story was by Avery’s long-time collaborator Rich Hogan, working with Disney’s Roy Williams. It has elements of a vintage Warner cartoon from 1937, Streamlined Greta Green, which was also about a pint-sized child-car. In this cartoon, we hear the team of June Foray and Daws Butler in the early days of their voice careers. This great duo were two of the voice immortals of animation history, and they would go on to perform in many Freberg comedy records and radio shows, as well as spending 25 years with Jay Ward Productions. Here Daws is the Father Cab and the Doctor, June is the Receptionist, the Nurse and Mother Cab, and Tex fills in as the second doctor.
THE CAT THAT HATED PEOPLE (released November 20, 1948)
Another Avery classic with endless gags about crazy moon-dwelling creatures. The lead cat is radio voice man Pat McGeehan doing a flustered Durante type delivery. (Was Jimmy Durante the most imitated celebrity voice ever?). The giggling from a pair of animated lips is an old loop of Pinto Colvig, sped up and filed in MGM’s sound library. The woman who yells “What’s going on in there?” is Colleen Collins.
DOGGONE TIRED (released July 30, 1949)
One of Avery’s frequent hunting pictures, and we hear Pat McGeehan once again as the oblivious owner of poor, sleepless mutt Speedy. McGeehan gives a fine energetic reading to his lines, while the Brooklynese female telephone voice is long-time Avery favorite Sara Berner, here sped up for effect. Tex himself supplies Speedy’s canine sounds.
THE FLEA CIRCUS (released November 6, 1954)
From late in Avery’s MGM tenure, this entry about a group of fleas who defect from performing to living on a dog has a complex track. Radio veteran Bill Thompson does his familiar Droopy voice for the role of Francois the Clown, and Shep Menken doubles as Pepito and the Pianist flea. A child actress with a genuine French accent was the voice for Fifi LeFlea. Her name was Francois Brun-Cottan and she had first done a cartoon two years earlier playing a charming little mouse in the Tom & Jerry Oscar-winner The Two Mousketeers. By the time she did this cartoon MGM had renamed her Marie Francois, but like many children, once she hit puberty she drifted out of show biz. The song “Applause” by Ira Gershwin & Burton Lane, heard throughout, was re-used from the track of a 1953 musical feature, Give a Girl a Break.
FIELD AND SCREAM (released April 30, 1955)
The last of the various spot gag cartoons in Avery’s theatrical career, this was a tribute to his lifelong pursuits of hunting and fishing, and the title was a take-off of the famous magazine Field and Stream. The wry narration is unconfirmed but sounds much like Avery’s oft-used Gil Warren, who he had known since his days at Warner from KFWB radio. The other lines are spoken by Tex, for the character Ed and “Hey, Mac.”
THE FIRST BAD MAN (released September 30, 1955)
Here was an oddity, a combination of Western and caveman jokes, the third last MGM theatrical Avery directed. This would appear to be the only cartoon by Tex ever to carry an on-screen voice credit. It was for the narrator Tex Ritter, a famous country & western actor-singer and father of TV sitcom star John Ritter. The two Tex’s grew up near Austin, Texas, and Ritter was riding high at this point for his well-known vocal of “Do Not Forsake Me” from the track of western classic High Noon. Aside from Ritter’s smooth narration, we hear June Foray as a nagging Cave-wife, and Avery speaking for a Caveman. (It may be that some of the caveman gags here stayed in Joe Barbera’s head for a few years before the advent of The Flintstones.)
OUT-FOXED (released November 5, 1949)
A second Avery cartoon for Daws Butler who does a subtle impression of distinguished British star Ronald Colman as the refined, tea-drinking and monocled Fox. Bill Thompson is back as Droopy (in his previous appearance, Wags to Riches, Tex’s sad Basset hound had been played by Don Messick in Thompson’s absence). I can’t tell if the Kennel Master is actually Daws doubling in another subtle voice change, or another actor, but it’s Tex himself doing the “dogspeak.” And it sure sounds like everyone on Avery’s staff joins in at the end to warble Auld Lang Syne.
DROOPY’S DOUBLE TROUBLE (released November 17, 1951)
The great “mistaken for a twin” farce staple is the source of gags galore in this cartoon, featuring the accomplished cartoon voice specialists Bill Thompson and Daws Butler. Thompson triples as Droopy, twin Drippy and Spike the flummoxed bulldog, while Daws not only does the butler’s lines but doubles for one of Spike’s Irish-accented lines (“Ah, that’s great, pal!”), obviously when Thompson was unavailable for pickup lines, a common occurrence in animation dialogue recording.
THE THREE LITTLE PUPS (released December 26, 1953)
This cartoon – parodying Three Little Pigs – features a raft of funny dogcatching jokes, heightened by Daws Butler’s Carolina inflected dogcatcher character. This was Daws’s unveiling of what would become his most famous accent, used with subtle gradations for Hanna-Barbera’s TV star Huckleberry Hound and various characters for Walter Lantz and others. Aside from the dog catcher, Daws does some narration, while Bill Thompson is back again as Droopy. And the relaxed whistling of Jubilo was done by musician Joe Trescari.
DRAG-A-LONG DROOPY (released February 20, 1954)
A fine Droopy cowboy take-off by Western specialist story man Heck Allen, a long time Avery associate. Bill Thompson does the Droopy voice again, while Tex Avery does the bull moo’s and the voice of the accident-prone Wolf.
HOMESTEADER DROOPY (released July 10, 1954)
A follow-up Western, a movie genre enjoyed by Avery and Heck Allen and always ripe for parody, this one features a florid narration by actor Paul Frees. Bill Thompson doubles as both Droopy and the baby version of Droopy (sped up from his Pa’s voice), with Colleen Collins as Mrs. Droopy. Tex himself plays villain Dishonest Dan, a voice he owned up to doing when he addressed an audience in 1974 at Chapman University. He even did it live for the crowd, recreating “It’s the laaaaaaaawww of the west.” And he adds Dan’s truly dopey laugh at the end.
DIXIELAND DROOPY (released December 4, 1954)
Some fine Dixieland music can be heard in this rags to riches story. Bill Thompson does his Droopy voice for the character of musician John Pettybone, while radio comic specialist John Brown (heard as all three voices in Volume 1’s Symphony in Slang) does three more voices here: the Narrator, the Flea bandleader and the Agent, although when we hear “Come back with my fleas!!” it’s Avery’s voice.
THE COUNTERFEIT CAT (released December 24, 1949)
Another Avery winner with this funny cat-dog-canary scenario. Avery rehired actress Colleen Collins to do the woman’s voice. Tex himself did some of Spike’s phony meows and, if I’m not mistaken, Bill Thompson is doing some of the bow wows. (These non-dialogue sounds are hard to identify with certainty.) The canary is reused track of 1930s bird whistling specialist Marion Darlington who recorded trills and whistles back in the Happy Harmonies era at Metro.
VENTRILOQUIST CAT (released May 27, 1950)
Spike the bulldog is once more tricked by a cat who learns the art of voice-throwing in another series of fine gags. To do the cute little cat sounds Avery hired nightclub MC and trick voice mimic Merle Coffman, best known by his billing as Red Coffey. He had already been heard in the Tom & Jerry cartoon Little Quacker, doing the querulous duckling voice he would be asked to reprise several times. Avery himself handled the panting and phony meows at the end.
THE HOUSE OF TOMORROW (July 30, 1949)
The first of Avery’s “Tomorrow” foursome with gags based on the things to come premise was the final cartoon that Frank Graham did for Tex (although his last MGM cartoon was Hanna-Barbera’s Jerry and the Lion released in 1950 just months before he took his own life). Graham’s slightly sepulchral tones always provided great narration, and here he describes household changes of the future. He was unavailable to record a pickup section of the film, so Don Messick fills in as the Pressure Cooker announcer. Graham also supplies the snarky “Aaaaahhh shutup!!” while a bratty kid voice sounds like a woman sped up. And director Avery adds the burping sounds. One thing that dates some of these 1950s cartoons comedy-wise are the now archaic-seeming references to awful mothers-in-law. Seeming a tad misogynistic today. By the way, is that Joi Lansing we see in live action on a TV screen?
CAR OF TOMORROW (released September 22, 1951)
Avery always remembered reliable voice talents even years after their last meeting. Here he hired Gil Warren from the Warners radio station as the narrator of a series of gags about new-fangled car attachments. Warren had narrated a few of Tex’s Warner cartoons in the 1938-40 seasons, including A Day at the Zoo and Holiday Highlights. June Foray is heard as female characters and Tex adds some hiccups.
T.V. OF TOMORROW (released June 6, 1953)
When Avery wanted a stentorian narrator he began hiring Paul Frees, still mainly a radio actor at this point. Frees got a cartoon break with Hanna-Barbera in Jerry’s Cousin as Jerry’s Bogart-like tough relative Muscles. He was soon appointed the new voice of Barney Bear in Dick Lundy’s unit. Frees narrated this cartoon sending up the sombre 1950s documentary style, and the few fill-in bit parts were added in separate pickup sessions. Daws Butler did a gambler’s voice, while an unknown voice did three more: “this new brew,” “the Las Vegas special,” and “We’re getting a picture now.” They sound like comic actor Bob Hopkins, but alas I have no proof.
THE FARM OF TOMORROW (released September 18, 1954)
The closer on this Blu-ray disc. This was a milder cartoon when compared with Tex’s acknowledged classics, and by now he was occasionally repeating himself, but what a track record of cartoon greatness he could boast. And it’s still nice to hear animation voice legends Paul Frees narrating and June Foray as a chicken. Colleen Collins is doing the female commercial voice, and Tex yells “Mama!!” A final voice mystery seems to be a subdued Billy Bletcher type saying, “Here’s one for you frustrated grocers.”
And that’s it for Volume 2. Fingers crossed we get a follow-up set in 2021, but meanwhile enjoy these twenty-one cartoons from the grand master of animated illogicality and timelessly timed gags, the singular Fred “Tex” Avery.
For research assistance over the many years I’m indebted to the following departed folks: Daws Butler June Foray, Paul Frees, Bill Hanna, and my colleague Hames Ware. Others I wish to thank are Ned Comstock (USC Cinema-TV Library), Mike Barrier, Mark Kausler, Milt Gray, Ken Greenwald and Ron Wolf at the old PPB, Francois Cottan, and Don M. Yowp for various helpful clippings. And as ever Jerry Beck for Cartoon Research.
For my voice over-view of the first Avery blu ray collection (Vol. 1) click here.
Copyright © KEITH SCOTT, November 2020