It was a long time coming, but a simple worldwide Covid outbreak can’t keep a cartoon genius down.
The third long-anticipated volume of Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons is on Blu-ray and again I would like to detail many of the uncredited voices we hear in these timeless films some of which are aproaching their 70th birthday. Along with the animation, design work, music and sound effects the neglected actors are as responsible as anyone for giving the Avery cartoons many of their special qualities.
After six years at Schlesinger’s animation plant Tex Avery had a falling out with Leon in mid-1941. Laid off for a couple of months he dabbled in the SPEAKING OF ANIMALS shorts he had first conceived, then took a job at MGM when Hugh Harman departed. Friz Freleng warned him about the politics at the place but felt that Tex’s talents would fit in at the Metro studio, the plushest and most well-appointed cartoon production shop after Disney’s.
He landed at MGM in September. He already had two cartoons cooked up by the time he arrived. Surrounded by top animation talents and his seasoned cartoon writer Rich Hogan, he was able to ease his way into MGM’s modus operandi. He was assisted at first by former Disney animator and character layout specialist Berny Wolf. Claude Smith took over this role after a year, while Avery’s gifted team of animators – like Disney-trained Preston Blair and his ex-WB animator Irv Spence – rose to each of Avery’s challenges.
Tex truly blossomed at MGM and everything he had absorbed in the previous eleven years at Universal and Warners suddenly ramped up two fold…his uncanny timing, his daringly outlandish gags and his overall confidence in all aspects of cartoon production. At MGM Avery felt a new level of authorship above what he had experienced at Schlesinger’s, where he always felt he was still learning his timing. He also found MGM different under Fred Quimby. Leon Schlesinger, despite his affectations, was always described as “a good boss” by Tex. Leon had a solid sense of humor and mostly knew when to butt out. But Fred Quimby, a hard-nosed studio veteran, was a cartoon boss who needed things explained. Especially Avery’s cartoons!
BLITZ WOLF (released 8-22-42)
The set kicks off with the second cartoon Avery completed for Metro, and the first to be released. Please be aware – as Jerry explains in this post – that the first minute and 52 seconds of picture are from a dupe element. The soundtrack throughout is beautifully restored.
This project was begun in September of ’41 three months before America entered the war. Tex decided to really kick off his MGM debut with outrageous visuals and pacing, and funny swipes at everyone from Adolf Hitler to Walt Disney. The film begins as a parody of Disney’s THREE LITTLE PIGS. But it’s also amusingly topical. With the Fall 1938 “Munich” meeting with Hitler and Britain’s ineffectual Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain still fresh in everyone’s memory, and with war now raging in Europe, the cartoon became not so much a satire as the very thing Avery knew Hitler would hate…ridicule. Here the Nazi villain was devastatingly mocked as good guy Sergeant Pork is asked to sign a treaty with the storm trooping Adolph Wolf. The wolf’s ludicrous animated goosestepping rendered recent newsreel images of marching German soldiers into figures of ridicule. The title itself was a swipe at the German “Blitzkrieg,” a swift, intense campaign ensuring quick and total victory.
For the dialogue, fashioned by Avery and his ex-Warner gag man Rich Hogan, Tex was aware he could no longer rely on Mel Blanc who had been under exclusive contract to Warner Bros. for six months already. He needed a new range of actors. Another person known in Hollywood as a Man of a Thousand Voices was Frank Graham who had been heard each night of the week for two years as the sole star of radio’s Nightcap Yarns. Graham was making his vocal talents known to the cartoon studios to augment his busy radio schedule. Avery hired him to narrate the cartoon’s fairy tale opening.
To play the sceptical but patriotic Sergeant Pork Tex then got his old Lantz colleague Pinto Colvig who had recently done a track for ALOHA HOOEY (one of the Warner cartoons Tex left for Bob Clampett to finish) and Colvig ended up effectively doing an imitation of his own Disney-esque Practical Pig voice.
For his third actor Avery chose Bill Thompson, nationally known as the comic actor who played memorable regular characters like The Old Timer and “Wallace Wimple” on the top-rating radio comedy Fibber McGee and Molly. Thompson auditioned for and won the role of Adolph Wolf, “Colossal Stinker” who speaks in a crazy mock-German accent. Sara Berner was double tracked as the voices of the naïve Pigs 1 & 2, while Kent Rogers, also double-tracked, did the devils at the end in yet another radio appropriation, that of Jewish comedian Mr. Kitzel’s famous “Mmmmm, could be!!” Another radio gag that has confused many latter day cartoon fans with no knowledge of old-time radio is the Wolf’s making a phone call and stopping to say, “Is that you Myrt? How’s every little thing, Myrt?” On the Fibber McGee and Molly program it was a running gag that Fibber would pick up his phone and get Myrt, the local switchboard operator…it ran for years on the radio show, and the real gag was that not once was the voice of Myrt herself ever heard.
Avery’s debut cartoon was a smash, receiving heavy studio promotion. It was one of those morale boosting comedies always welcome in a time of increasing tension and was nominated for an Oscar (sadly losing out to Disney’s thematically similar Donald Duck entry, DER FUEHRER’S FACE). Tex Avery was now well on his way.
THE EARLY BIRD DOOD IT! (released 8-29-42)
Completed before BLITZ WOLF but released as Avery’s second Metro film, this is an enjoyable journey into the familiar cartoon territory of adversarial animals, with the usual Avery twist of parodying the form. There are also typical Avery comic touches such as the characters stopping in frantic mid-chase to look at a movie poster for MGM’s Mrs. Miniver, here renamed “Mrs. Minimum”, when they notice this very cartoon is also advertised. To which the cat says, “I er, hear that’s a pretty funny cartoon!” Kent Rogers adopted a Lou Costello-ish approach for the little Worm’s voice (including Costello’s through-the-teeth whistling), while Frank Graham, for the first time in an MGM cartoon, did his great gruff voice for the tough-guy Bird, with Tex himself voicing the dumb cat.
ONE HAM’S FAMILY (released 8-14-43)
Begun in mid-June 1942, this was another Avery cartoon to pay tribute to then-current radio programs. This one is an ode to MGM’s star comic Red Skelton who was enormously popular on-air each week at the time this cartoon was being made. One of Skelton’s several zany characters was a baby-talking brat named Junior, “The Mean Widdle Kid.” Kent Rogers not only imitates that voice as Junior Pig but also does an excellent impression of Hal Peary, the comedy actor who played The Great Gildersleeve on NBC radio from 1941-58. The pompous Gildy voice is used for the hapless, giggling Wolf. Rogers even adds his talent to the opening gag where a storybook Narrator has to rush to keep up with the suddenly speeding on-screen words. Avery regulars Sara Berner and Pinto Colvig are Junior’s put-upon parents, with Colvig once again doing a satire on his own Pig voice from THREE LITTLE PIGS.
HAPPY GO NUTTY (released 6-24-44)
This short, full of self-aware cartoon gags, had a shorter production time than many others in this collection: from inception to release it took a relatively quick ten months. Radio actor Wally Maher returns doing his original Screwy Squirrel voice, last heard in his other three cartoons on Volume One. Maher’s Screwy is still another of the many radio voices Avery used for a cartoon character. The dumb dog Meathead remains unconfirmed, but I suspect it is Tex himself doing that voice for this cartoon. It sounds very much like the Willoughby voice he used at Warner Bros. in THE CRACKPOT QUAIL (a bonus cartoon in this collection). I could be wrong, but either way until various MGM sound records are located poor old Meathead is still a mystery voice for the ages. As is the imitation of Rochester heard in one gag in this cartoon.
JERKY TURKEY (begun in early 1944, released 4-7-45)
The town cryer’s baby cry is re-used track from Baseball Batty (from Volume 1). Frank Graham voices one Native American (“Me half breed”), but the deep Indian Chief is someone I can’t name. Wally Maher does the Jimmy Durante-esque wise-guy turkey, another in the long parade of actors who did a Schnozzola imitation. It has long been assumed that Avery himself is doing the Pilgrim, which is the Droopy voice used in THE SHOOTING OF DAN McGOO during actor Bill Thompson’s absence (Thompson had been serving his country in the Navy since March 1943). Avery also provides the yells in this cartoon (“Land ho!!,” “Hey turkey!!”).
THE SHOOTING OF DAN McGOO (released 3-3-45)
Tex had already satirized the famous Robert W. Service poem before at WB with his Merrie Melody DANGEROUS DAN McFOO. Some of the verbal-visual gags even presage Tex’s pun-filled SYMPHONY IN SLANG (Volume 1) from six years later (“The drinks are on the house, boys” and “He looked like a man with a foot in the grave”). For the voices in this cartoon, Frank Graham does triple duty as the sonorous opening poem narrator, the bartender and the Wolf stranger. A re-use of Bill Thompson’s Droopy line “Hello, all you happy taxpayers” is lifted from BIG HEEL-WATHA (in Volume 1). Then Avery – we again assume – does the dog’s other dialogue in Thompson’s absence. Sara Berner does the speaking voice of Lady Lou, but her singing of “Put Your Arms Around Me, Wolfie” is by Imogene Lynn, the fine vocalist from Artie Shaw’s band. Avery and Scott Bradley auditioned several chanteuses, including a fine singer named Gloria Grafton who sang “You’re Nobody’s Sweetheart Now” in a September 1943 unused audition track for this cartoon, soon after it had commenced production. A re-use of “What a repulsive way to make a livin’!” from WHAT’S BUZZIN’ BUZZARD? is used for the pianist, with the voice of Pat McGeehan.
SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA (released 8-25-45)
Begun in May 1944 under the working title “Red Hot Cindy,” this is a sequel to Avery’s famous RED HOT RIDING HOOD (in Volume 1). This cartoon, one of Tex’s fine fairy tale skewerings, brings back Sara Berner as two fairy tale icons: Red Riding Hood and Cinderella (speaking in a Bette Davis imitation), as well as Grandma who has a voice based on the man-hungry radio character Vera Vague who appeared on Bob Hope’s program. Imogene Lynn’s fine vocal track “Oh Wolfie” (a parody on the famous original song “Oh, Johnny” popularized by Wee Bonnie Baker) was recorded well in advance on January 23, 1944, possibly for inclusion in DAN McGOO but later shelved. Continuing as his patented lecherous Wolf was Frank Graham, who also voices the nightclub M.C. As with many of Avery’s soundtracks he re-uses some earlier effects stored in the cartoon sound department library, in this case the eerie laugh and screams from the opening of WHO KILLED WHO? (also in Volume 1)
WILD AND WOLFY (released 11-3-45)
Production began in the spring of 1944 for this funny cartoon, the first of many Western parodies done by Tex and his writer Heck Allen, both self-confessed Western movie buffs. This was another piecemeal recording job, with regulars Sara Berner and Frank Graham contributing just one line each: Sara does the Saloon Girl as Mae West saying, “My hero,” while Graham is the brief race caller. Tex himself contributes some bit lines as he used to do in many 1930s Lantz cartoons: here he says “Gimme a Neapolitan” and “Make mine a Tutti Frutti” as well as the “Whoahhhh!!!” He also speaks again for the dog hero (later known as Droopy) in Bill Thompson’s continuing war service absence. This time the wolf villain’s voice is unknown – possibly Pat McGeehan – but whoever it is also says, “Let’s get him boys.” Another unidentified Texan twang – like that of Cactus Mack’s – says “Howdy, Mule.” This time around the sexy girl singer is a specialty voice from the country-western music field. The Pickard Family ensemble had appeared in the 1941 MGM feature Billy The Kid as party singers, and daughter Ann Pickard is the excellent vocalist Tex hired to warble the Stuart Hamblen composition “[Out on the] Texas Plains,” for which she is backed by the rest of the Pickard Family.
NORTHWEST HOUNDED POLICE (released 8-3-46)
Started in late 1944 this cartoon took almost two years. It’s a fast-paced re-working of the earlier DUMB HOUNDED (from Volume 1) which first brought us the hangdog Droopy character, seemingly an ineffectual creampuff but always ten times more capable than the villain suspects. Again I believe it’s Avery subbing for Droopy during Bill Thompson’s enforced absence. Frank Graham, Avery’s favourite 1940s voice artist, steps up to the microphone for his by now famous Wolf bad guy and also the voice of the plastic surgeon. Although I’m not sure without some documentary proof, it sounds like Pat McGeehan doing the R.C.M.P. Chief.
SLAP HAPPY LION (released 9-20-47)
Another cartoon with a two year gestation period. Frank Graham does his wolf voice for the little gruff mouse whose dialog is mostly “Boo.” Sara Berner contributes a scream and the famous line “Well….I’ve been sick” for the sadly emaciated miniature crocodile. The baby crying is re-used from both BATTY BASEBALL and JERKY TURKEY and cut in to this cartoon.
KING-SIZE CANARY (released 12-6-47)
Still another cartoon that took two years from inception to release. Very likely considered by most animation lovers one of Tex’s five most famous cartoons, this seven minutes of total nonsense is always a pleasure to revisit. Frank Graham again plays the tough mouse he did in SLAP HAPPY LION, and Sara Berner’s “I’ve been sick,” also from that cartoon, is inserted into this one’s soundtrack. The animation of the increasingly ungainly and lumberingly gigantic cat and mouse is wonderful to see over and over. The cat is either Pinto Colvig or someone trying very hard for one of his voices.
WHAT PRICE FLEADOM (released 3-20-48)
I believe it’s Tex Avery again doing the Willoughby-like delivery for the Dog, and the sound editors insert one of Bill Hanna’s patented agonized screams for the bulldog. This cartoon has model sheets from as far back as April 1945 and a year later in mid-1946, indicating it was possibly shelved for a while and started up again.
LITTLE ‘TINKER (released 5-15-48)
The working title was “Smell Bound,” mainly because the lead character of B. O. is a cute skunk. That title was likely nixed by Quimby but was originally a pun on the Hitchcock psychology thriller Spellbound. The cartoon was already being worked out by mid-1946, and the Sinatra take-off of “All or Nothing at All” was recorded by session singer Bill Roberts on June 28 of that year. On the same day the flexible Roberts also recorded B.O.’s operatic voice singing the “Sextet from Lucia.” (Cartoon Research readers are by now surely aware of Bill Roberts, the famous singer for Chuck Jones’s immortal frog in Warner’s One Froggy Evening). It is assumed that these musical numbers were recorded this early for the animators’ reference: extra time and effort was taken to animate the intricate musical numbers and accompanying visual gags to Avery’s precise specifications. Other artists hired for voices in this cartoon were Dick Nelson as Cupid, Sara Berner as both Cobina Rabbit and the swooning sighs of “Frankie,” and Lillian Randolph who says, “Love dat man!” Mimic Walter Craig did B. O.’s Charles Boyer imitation.
SENOR DROOPY (released 4-9-49)
Character models for this cartoon appear as early as December 1946. Bill Thompson returns to MGM as the definitive and original Droopy voice, and is finally referred to by that name (“Senor Droopy from Guadalupe”) for the first time since he was drawn in 1942. Thompson also does the nervous guy who querulously says, “On your mark…” Tex Avery revives his amusing chortle for the sadistic bull, while character actor Nestor Paiva is the voice of the portly bullfight announcer. MGM musical contractee Lina Romay appears in a live action combination with Droopy.
COCK-A-DOODLE DOG (released 2-10-51)
A dialogue-free cartoon although Avery does some of Spike’s vocal effects, and somebody is doing those rooster sounds!
ROCK-A-BYE BEAR (released 7-12-52)
At long last, one of Tex’s most well-remembered cartoons comes to Blu-ray. It’s a marvellously timed study in comic frustration which Avery would re-visit in DEPUTY DROOPY and for Lantz’s THE LEGEND OF ROCKABYE POINT. Joe Bear, who “CAN’T STAND NOISE!!!!!” was voiced by radio veteran Patrick McGeehan who did all the many character voices in Red Skelton’s radio shows, in a recording date he must have sworn never to repeat. If we recall Avery’s finicky and often insecure reputation for multiple takes, this session was likely as much of a workout for McGeehan’s throat as Mel Blanc’s dreaded Yosemite Sam recordings! But it’s a hell of a funny cartoon. (Almost forgot, McGeehan also provides the voice of the dog pound owner, while Tex adds the vocal effects for the hapless dog trying to be quiet.)
LITTLE JOHNNY JET (released 4-18-53) Oscar-nominated
Daws Butler does John Jet and other male voices, and Colleen Collins plays Mary Jet. A re-working of ONE CAB’S FAMILY (Volume 2), this was pleasant enough but one of the weaker Tex entries from the 1950s, the first cartoon he directed after returning to MGM. He had spent 16 months away from the business, recuperating from burnout caused by years of working too hard without any down time, and from his characteristic worrying and micro-managing every detail of his films. He was only back for 20 months during which time he completed 12 more cartoons, but he finally left MGM permanently in June 1953 for a position with his old boss Walter Lantz, so most of these later MGM cartoons were completed and released in his absence.
BILLY BOY (released 5-8-54)
Daws Butler’s laconic Carolinian dialect wolf returns after being hailed as an outstanding voice in Avery’s THE THREE LITTLE PUPS (from Vol. 2). Here the character is a farmer attempting to banish the world’s hungriest baby goat. An odd vocal tic is added to the wolf via a stammering repeat of the last word in each sentence, like “Billy boy-boy-boy-boy-boy.”
DEPUTY DROOPY (released 10-28-55)
An amusing Western parody, the last such by Avery and his long-time collaborator Heck Allen. Daws Butler does the voices of both Sheriff and Bandit, while Avery owned up to his biographer Joe Adamson that he was the little “ouch” noises from inside the bottle. Droopy here is an unfamiliar voice. A rare example of a re-worked concept being just as effective as the original, ROCK-A-BYE BEAR.
For the final of his sixty-five MGM cartoons, Avery hired the versatile voice master Paul Frees as all the voices heard here: Spike, the Prison Warden, the warden’s wife, and two inmates. For some nice “big house” prison ambience, well known L. A. session musician Gus Bivona contributes the harmonica solo.
THE CRACKPOT QUAIL (released 2-15-41, Warner Bros.)
This cartoon, restored with its original soundtrack, was made in 1940 at least a year before Avery left Schlesinger’s employ. Mel Blanc is the squeaky voice of the title character and Tex himself speaks for Willoughby, the slow-thinking dog who appeared two months earlier in his cartoon OF FOX AND HOUNDS. Avery had been deeply impressed by Lon Chaney Jr’s fine performance of the gentle but mentally challenged and potentially dangerous Lenny in the 1939 feature movie Of Mice and Men, from the classic John Steinbeck story. Avery found the film well-made, but it was Lenny’s tragic character he found both fascinating and instant fodder just made for his parodic mind.
That completes this set with only a few Avery titles left to go. This Blu-ray collection is loaded with many fine cartoons, most of them from the 1940s when Tex’s powers reached their pinnacle at MGM. The actors he hired were always right for the way Avery heard the gags in his head. Although all the players mentioned above are sadly long departed, their performances under Tex’s studio tutelage live on to amuse future generations.
Copyright KEITH SCOTT, August 2021
Over the decades I’ve spent researching this topic, the fine USC Cinema-Television Library (Arthur Freed-MGM Music Department collection) and its outstanding curator Ned Comstock were most helpful, and the Margaret Herrick library at The Center for Motion Picture Studies was another excellent facility. Tex Avery chroniclers Joe Adamson, Michael Barrier & Milton Gray, Tom Klein and John Canemaker have all written fine material about the cartoon master. The late Daws Butler, June Foray, Paul Frees, Don Messick, Mel Blanc, Robert Bruce, Chuck Jones and Bill Hanna all described working with Tex Avery to me. My second set of ears was, at different times, Ken Greenwald, Graham Webb and the late and missed Hames Ware. Thanks too, to Yowp for digging up various trade notices that both confirmed my research and also provided new information. And a tip of the hat as ever to Jerry Beck and this great platform for my digging into these arcane byways of vintage animation.