Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 9, 2020)
One of the most famous animation directors becomes the focus of a compilation called Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1. We get 19 shorts from Avery’s time at MGM in this set.
Red Hot Riding Hood (1943): This offers an updated urban version of Little Red Riding Hood with a sexy Red and a salacious Fox. An influential cartoon, fans will recognize aspects of Hot in flicks like 1994’s The Mask. Irreverent and creative, this becomes a fun spin on the story.
Who Killed Who? (1943): After a murder in a creepy mansion, a police detective investigates. Like Hot, Killed brings a clever spoof, one that entertains as it parodies the genre.
What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943): Driven to starvation-induced desperation, two buzzards attempt to kill and eat each other. My, that sounds grim, doesn’t it? Of course, Avery plays matters for nutty laughs, and Buzzin’ manages to score comedic points despite the perverse concept.
Batty Baseball (1944): The National Pastime gets lampooned. Another parody, Batty shows its age a little more than the others, but it still comes with clever moments, like Avery’s subversion of the standard MGM opening. While not a great short, it still entertains.
The Hick Chick (1946): Country hen Daisy chooses a suitor between fellow rural dweller Clem and city sophisticate Charles. This mainly becomes an excuse for a lot of violent sight gags, but the cartoon manages enough inventiveness to work.
Bad Luck Blackie (1949): A bulldog bullies a kitten but gets his just desserts after a black cat repeatedly crosses his path. Less dialogue-driven than its predecessors, Luck really relies on visual humor. It does fairly well in that regard, though it gets a little tedious along the way.
Garden Gopher (1950): Spike the bulldog tries to bury a bone but finds opposition from a local gopher. “Garden” gives off a bit of a Chip ‘n’ Dale vibe, though of course Avery makes it far more violent than Uncle Walt would’ve allowed. The short never becomes great but it boasts decent laughs.
By the way, the opening of this Blu-ray warns of some imagery that doesn’t fly now. We got a little of that in Blackie via potentially offensive Asian stereotypes, and this issue comes to the fore here with ugly African-American-based visuals.
The Peachy Cobbler (1950): When a poor cobbler behaves in a noble manner, magical elves reward him. Avery goes for a cuter/gentler vibe here – albeit one with plenty of the usual violence. Still, it’s a charming change of pace, as even the pain suffered by the characters seems more silly than sadistic.
Symphony In Slang (1951): When a hipster dies, the attendants at the gates of heaven find it difficult to understand his lingo. After a short almost totally devoid of speech, we get one that actively pairs dialogue with sight gags. The concept seems more interesting in theory than reality, so this becomes a less than terrific cartoon.
Screwball Squirrel (1944): Sassy Screwy Squirrel battles with a dim-witted bird dog. Avery seems to take aim at Disney via an intro with an adorable rodent, as the short then goes straight to the more violent antagonism we expect. Nothing remarkable occurs but the cartoon offers reasonable entertainment.
The Screwy Truant (1944): Screwy Squirrel skips school and a canine truant officer pursues him. Screwy didn’t take off as a character, probably because he feels like a transparent rip-off of Bugs Bunny. Avery milks some humor here, mainly due to surreal elements.
Big Heel-watha (1944): Indian brave Heel-watha tries to prove his worth when he attempts to capture Screwy Squirrel. Substitute Heel-watha for the dim-witted dogs of the last two shorts and you find this one. Throw in pretty blatant racial stereotypes and you get a cartoon that doesn’t hold up well.
Lonesome Lenny (1946): A dog who doesn’t know his own strength attempts to become the companion of Screwy Squirrel. Influenced by Of Mice and Men, we’ve seen many parodies of this sort. Screwy’s wackiness adds some life, but it’s easy to see why the character never prospered.
Hound Hunters (1947): Ursine hobos George and Junior become dog catchers. Expect more characters based on Of Mice and Men, and we also get the weird Goofy/Pluto dynamic of a world where some animals act like humans and others don’t. This becomes a fairly mediocre cartoon.
Red Hot Rangers (1947): Now forest rangers, George and Junior deal with a fire that resists their efforts to extinguish it. Anthropomorphic bears contend with a sentient flame – alrighty then! Bizarre nature of the concept aside, the short offers decent entertainment, though like Screwy Squirrel, George and Junior feel like characters who never caught on for good reason.
Dumb-Hounded (1943): A wolf escapes from prison and finds himself pursued by mild-mannered but determined police dog Droopy. After the failures of Screwy and George/Junior, Avery originates a character with lasting impact. I never loved Droopy but the role works well in this fun, inventive short.
Wags to Riches (1949): When their owner dies, Droopy inherits the fortune and Spike tries to kill him. Wait – one minute Droopy is a police detective, and now he’s a house pet? That odd contrivance aside, Wags exploits Droopy’s natural charm in a positive way.
The Chump Champ (1950): When Droopy and Gorgeous Gorillawitz – aka Spike - compete in various athletic disciplines, Spike cheats in an attempt to win. Expect fairly predictable shenanigans, as the Droopy/Spike dynamic already starts to feel stale.
Daredevil Droopy (1951): Droopy and Spike vie against each other to win a job as a circus acrobat. If the Droopy/Spike battle came across as blah in Champ, it doesn’t improve with Daredevil. It ends the Blu-ray on a mediocre note.