In his book Tex Avery: The Great Animation Director from the Golden Age of the Hollywood Cartoon, author John Canemaker wrote:
“Bad Luck Blackie (January 22nd, 1949) may well be Avery’s masterpiece, a classically structured narrative about superstition and karma that confidently progresses the situation and gags to an inevitable absurd conclusion.”
Many feel the same way. While Tex Avery had a number of cartoon masterpieces, Bad Luck Blackie does indeed stand out as a wonderful example of the director’s exaggerated imagination and genius.
In Bad Luck Blackie, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, a cute, little white kitten is being constantly bullied, no make that tormented, by a dog (with a hearty, mean-spirited laugh, provided by Avery himself). The dog’s torments include a mouse trap in a dish of milk and squishing the kitten into the shape of a book. The put-upon kitten is at the end of his rope when he meets a street-smart black cat named Blackie, who asks him, “Hey shorty. Dog trouble?”
Blackie, with his rakishly tipped bowler hat, appears with a cocky attitude, along with a business card that reads: “Black Cat Bad Luck Company. Paths Crossed-Guaranteed Bad Luck.” The kitten agrees to take on Blackie’s services, and Blackie goes on to demonstrate that he simply crosses the dog’s path, and there is instant bad luck. With that, he crosses in front of the dog as it races after the kitten, and a flowerpot falls on the dog’s head.
Blackie also gives the kitten a whistle, with instructions to blow it, and the black cat will cross the dog’s path, bringing more bad luck.
The dog attempts to continue his bullying ways. The kitten blows the whistle, and Blackie continually crosses the dog’s path (to an instrumental version of “Comin’ Through the Rye” on the soundtrack). Each time Blackie appears, bad luck quite literally falls on the dog in the form of assorted items like pianos, bombs, and cash registers. At one point, the dog attempts to ward off the bad luck with a horseshoe, but after tossing it to the side, he is struck with multiple horseshoes and the horse itself.
Toward the end of the short, luck seems to have come back in the dog’s favor; when he gets a hold of the whistle and paints Blackie white. There’s then a plot twist where the kitten paints himself black and begins enacting bad luck on the dog.
The dog then swallows the whistle, and each time he hiccups and the whistle blows, something new falls from the sky, each one getting hysterically bigger and bigger, growing from a kitchen sink to a battleship. At the finale, the little kitty is crowned with the bowler hat from Blackie and lets out a snicker for the camera.
Bad Luck Blackie features brilliant animation from Grant Simmons, Walter Clinton, Preston Blair, and Louie Schmitt that not only expands our expectations of animation’s possibilities but, in the midst of the surreal world, gives us distinct personalities. Even through all of the fantastic action, the bulldog is annoyingly despicable, and we genuinely feel for the innocent kitten, particularly in the opening segments.
The groundwork for all this was laid by Rich Hogan, who is credited with the story. Hogan was a frequent collaborator with Avery at Warner Bros, with projects such as A Wild Hare (1940) and at MGM with Little Rural Red Riding Hood (1949), among others.
Seventy-five years later, Bad Luck Blackie has earned its spot as a masterpiece and a shining example of a golden age. In 1994, the short was rightfully part of Jerry Beck’s book, The 50 Greatest Cartoons. Bad Luck Black came in at number fifteen.
The short is one of the pinnacles of Tex Avery’s brilliant career. In his book, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Leonard Maltin sums up what made Avery such an essential member of animation history:
“He is not content to stretch reality for comic effect; He turns it inside out, upside down, and into a fourth dimension that leaves one breathless.”
Below: The opening and closing of the film. To see it complete, it’s on Tex Avery’s Screwball Classics Vol. 1 blu ray – or streaming on MAX.