Do not binge-watch Tex Avery Screwball Classics, Volume 1, strongly recommends cartoon historian Jerry Beck, who co-curated the first-ever Blu-ray collection of Avery’s MGM cartoons. “It’s too much for your brain,” he cautions.
Avery cartoons were meta before meta was cool, Beck notes in a phone interview. They fully acknowledged that they were indeed cartoons being watched in a movie theater. In Screwball Squirrel, one of the 19 animated shorts included on the Blu-ray, an adorable squirrel straight out of a Disney cartoon is interrupted mid-frolic by the title character. “Say, what kind of a cartoon is this gonna be, anyway?” It’s gonna be a Tex Avery cartoon, and that means Screwy will take that furry charmer behind a tree, violently dispose of him, and assure the audience, “The funny stuff will start as soon as the phone rings.”
Avery’s Blu-ray debut is a big deal beyond the visual upgrade that makes these cartoons pop like the Wolf’s eyes do when he gets an eyeful of Red Hot Riding Hood in Avery’s essential cartoon of the same name (also included here). Beck ranks Avery, who is credited with giving Bugs Bunny his personality at Warner Bros., up there with Buster Keaton as a comic visionary and innovator. In The Little Mermaid, when Sebastian’s jaw drops like an anvil when he spies Ariel comforting an injured Prince Eric, that’s Avery. When Jim Carrey’s Mask man stops in the middle of a dramatic death scene to accept an acting award to the applause of silhouetted movie theater audience members, that’s Avery. And the Animaniacs’ helter-skelter pace, meta references, and fourth wall-breaking? That’s Avery, too.
Tony MGM, with its high-gloss productions, was the ruin of such clowns and anarchic spirits as Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, but Avery was able to unleash cartoons even loonier than his Warner Bros. Looney Tunes. “It’s animation,” Beck mused. “Upper management didn’t pay attention to people like Tex Avery. It really was like Toontown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit; animators were considered second-class citizens.”
Screwball Classics, Volume 1 is a solid introduction to Avery. Sample at your chosen speed, but we’ve ranked them from best to worst and recommend you watch them in this order. There are at least five absolute masterpieces, but even lesser Avery has inspired moments that lift his above most other cartoons.
Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)
“Something new has been added” to the classic fairytale; an urban, catcalling Wolf pursues Little Red Riding Hood to the Hollywood nightclub where the newly dubbed Sweetheart of Swing performs. The Wolf’s ecstatically aroused reaction to her act has kept many a network censor busy.
Bad Luck Blackie (1949)
A put-upon kitty gets revenge against its canine tormentor courtesy of a black cat who brings instant bad karma to anyone whose path he crosses. The final comeuppance of falling objects (anvil, sink, bathtub, piano, etc.) is a delirious riot of “Can you top this?” sight gags.
Droopy, Avery’s best-loved MGM cartoon character, makes his debut in this chase cartoon in which a fugitive wolf, no matter where or how far he runs, cannot shake the morose Bassett hound, who is always one step ahead of him. “I surprise him like this all through the picture,” he tells the audience.
Who Killed Who? (1943)
It’s a classic Avery moment after a character is murdered and a police detective barges in, shouts, “Don’t nobody move,” then clubs a silhouetted audience member seen trying to make his way out of the movie theater. And that’s only the beginning of this particularly inspired collection of gags that spoof the traditional whodunnit. If you don’t have a clue about Tex Avery, this cartoon is a good place to start.
What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943)
It’s slim pickings for two starving buzzards who turn on each other. Things get macabre really quickly.
The Peachy Cobbler (1950)
Another fractured fairy tale in which shoemaker elves come to the aid of a kindhearted cobbler, done up with spot gags of the elves trying to fulfill all his shoe orders before morning. Except for one jar-muffled string of profanities and a sexy shoe striptease, this is probably the most kid-friendly cartoon in the collection.
Symphony in Slang (1951)
“I went to pieces.” “Outside it was raining cats and dogs.” “I died laughing.” And that’s how a hipster gets to heaven, where his odd manner of speech is imagined literally by the angel charged with listening to his life story.
Screwball Squirrel (1944)
The title character, Avery’s attempt to replicate Bugs Bunny, is a real nut job who, unlike Bugs, attacks without provocation. But most of the gags in his debut are top-notch, like when Screwy peeks ahead to the following scene to see what he’s supposed to be doing next.
Lonesome Lenny (1946)
Screwball Squirrel’s last hurrah after only five cartoons. Only Tex Avery would be demented enough to kill off one of his characters: “Sad ending, isn’t it?”
Batty Baseball (1944)
This lineup of baseball spot gags is more hit than miss. The beginning is particularly Avery-esque, as one of the players in a fiercely contested game halts the action to angrily address the narrator: “Ain’t you forgettin’ somethin’? Who made this picture? How about the MGM titles, the lion roar and all that kind of stuff?”
Red Hot Rangers (1947)
George and Junior are two bears with a dynamic right out of Of Mice and Men. In one of the team’s better efforts, they tear a forest apart trying to extinguish a runaway flame.
The Garden Gopher (1950)
When he wasn’t trying to dispose of Droopy, Spike the bulldog starred in a handful of his own cartoons. Here, he’s pitted against a gopher pillaging his garden. This being a Tex Avery cartoon, a cosplaying Spike in a sexy gopher getup is last seen fleeing from an army of amorous rodents.
Hound Hunters (1947)
A “puny little mutt” gets the best of George and Junior. There are more cosplay gags here, including George and Junior dressing up as hydrants.
Wags to Riches (1949), Daredevil Droopy (1951), and The Chump Champ (1950)
Spike the bulldog and Droopy have a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner thing going on as Spike cheats, schemes, and sabotages in his futile efforts to defeat Droopy, but as Droopy sagely observes, “Cheaters never win.”
The Screwy Truant (1945)
A canine truant officer is after hooky-playing Screwy Squirrel. The violence here is particularly unpleasant as Screwy dips into his box of “assorted swell stuff to hit dog on head.” It makes you want to rewatch the end of Lonesome Lenny.
The Hick Chick (1946)
A rooster that sounds like Charles Boyer and a chick that sounds like Katharine Hepburn. That’s about as good as it gets here as a slow-witted rural Romeo tries to protect his girlfriend from being swept off her feet and taken to the big city.
Big Heel-Watha (1944)
This may be the most problematic cartoon in the bunch for its depiction of Native Americans. Even the narrator turns on the milquetoast Big Heel-Watha (“a flat-faced, pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, blubber-headed tub of lard”). It does have some good “you can do anything in a cartoon” gags, but unless you’re a member of the WWII era’s Greatest Generation, references to the draft, Lockheed, and food rationing may not land. And did we mention Screwball Squirrel is in it?