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THE TOP TEN CARTOONS OF 1939

1939 is often considered the greatest year in motion picture history, due to the release of seminal films like Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, etc.

As far as animated films are concerned, however, I’m not sure many would make the same claim.

The Disney studio had most of its efforts on upcoming animated features like Pinocchio and Fantasia (both released in 1940), and some of their short subjects settled into formula (the Silly Symphonies series ended this year in favor of character-based series featuring Donald Duck, Goofy, etc.) On the other hand, they did win the Best Animated Short Oscar for their final Silly Symphony, The Ugly Duckling, which I have heinously neglected to include on this list (I sort of prefer the more primitive 1931 version).

Warner Bros. was also in a bit of a middling period; the studio exploded with inspiration in 1937 and 1938, pushing boundaries in a way the world of animation had never seen, but in 1939 and 1940 the studio became distracted with spot gag cartoons and travelogue parodies (which were often funny but predictable), and they didn’t fully get their groove back until A Wild Hare in 1940, which introduced the world to Bugs Bunny.

Max Fleischer released his first animated feature in 1939 (Gulliver’s Travels), but the studio lacked the personality it once had, and studios like MGM and Walter Lantz were still figuring out what they were going for (both would find purpose the following year with the creation of characters like Tom & Jerry and Woody Woodpecker).

But I’m selling 1939 a bit short, as even in this period of transitions there were plenty of wonderful cartoons released, as you’ll see from this list. There are many great films from Disney and Warner Bros. here, as well as some appearances from MGM, Max Fleischer and independent filmmaker Len Lye.

Take a look:

THE AUTOGRAPH HOUND
Directed by Jack King; Walt Disney

Donald Duck was a real breath of fresh air in the Mickey Mouse cartoons of the 1930s, where his irascible temper gave a much-needed punch to the more typically benign Disney short films. But once he got his own series in 1937, the Disney artists started going through the motions and his films became routine. 1939 entries like Hockey Champ, Sea Scouts and Officer Duck are amusing enough on their own terms, but are more or less indistinguishable from other Duck films, and this general predictability continued throughout the late ‘30s and ‘40s with a few notable standouts, including Der Feuhrer’s Face, Duck Pimples, Donald’s Dilemma… and this short.

The film sets Donald loose on a Hollywood movie lot, where he attempts to get autographs from his favorite stars while avoiding a meddling cop. This short continues in the tradition of excellent Hollywood parodies that Disney was turning out in the ‘30s, including Mickey’s Gala Premiere (1933), Mickey’s Polo Team (1936) and Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938). Seeing Donald run into stars like Greta Garbo and Shirley Temple is a real delight, and the stars are mostly caricatured to perfection.

The film is full of great moments, such as Donald’s run-in with Sonja Henie (Olympic figure skater and star of musicals like One in a Million and Sun Valley Serenade), whose ice skating tricks are animated expertly by Bob Stokes. Italian character actor Henry Armetta is graced with a hilarious walk cycle by Dunbar Roman (he’s seen serving roast beef, despite being a popular star), and Shirley Temple – animated by Dunbar Roman, Ray Patin and Judge Whitaker – is marvelously conveyed, with a giant head that makes her both cute and slightly grotesque. And then there’s the brilliantly anarchic bit with the Ritz Brothers, animated with zany gusto by the great Ward Kimball. The Ritz Brothers were popular for only a brief moment in time, and their madcap antics suggested that they could’ve been much funnier than their generally cornball material allowed them to be. This fantastic cartoon caricature is probably their greatest contribution to film.

The weakest link here is the sequence with Mickey Rooney, animated by Paul Allen, which isn’t drawn particularly well (unlike other caricatured stars, Rooney’s expression is frozen on his face) and doesn’t capture Rooney’s persona; he’s characterized as a mischievous punk a la Pinocchio’s Lampwick rather than a feisty hothead (maybe because such a characterization would clash with our leading duck?) and the meeting feels like a waste. Not to mention that this is probably the only Mickey Rooney caricature that comes across as freakishly tall. On the plus side, however, the gag where Rooney sticks a violin in Donald’s hand as he’s throwing a temper tantrum is a great one.

Still, the biggest laugh comes at the film’s climax, which features a whole myriad of stars including Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Charlie McCarthy, Stephin Fechit, Roland Young, Joe E. Brown, Martha Raye, Hugh Hubert, Eddie Cantor, Katharine Hepburn, Lionel Barrymore, Bette Davis, the Marx Brothers, Joan Crawford, Charles Boyer, etc. I’m sure it delighted Walt Disney and his staff to have the most popular stars of the day tripping over themselves to meet one of their own characters. Still, given Donald’s phenomenal popularity in the ‘30s, the scene probably isn’t too much of a stretch.

GOOFY AND WILBUR
Directed by Dick Huemer; Walt Disney

Goofy and Wilbur might seem like a fairly typical Disney short, but it’s actually something of an oddball in the studio’s history. Goofy had been appearing in Mickey Mouse cartoons since 1932’s Mickey’s Revue, and by the late 1930s, Disney felt it was time to give him his own series.

Unfortunately, around the same time, Goof voice actor Pinto Colvig left the studio. The Disney artists worked around this walkout by putting Goofy in a series of How To cartoons which involved narration and very little dialogue. In those films, spearheaded by Jack Kinney, Goofy became less a character and more a vehicle for gags, eventually leading to outrageously funny films like How to Play Football and Hockey Homicide where the entire universe is bizarrely populated by Goofy-like beings.

In the ‘50s, the Goofy series was adjusted to focus on the trials of suburban life, and Goofy became an everyman; his voice, design and even his name were in constant flux (he lost his dog ears and was sometimes called George Geef). By the time Disney started producing a handful of shorts starring a character that resembled the Goofy of the ‘30s, like Two-Gun Goofy (1952) and For Whom the Bulls Toil (1953), it was a much different studio and the shorts hardly resembled the ones that made Goofy a star in the first place.

So in many ways, Goofy and Wilbur is the only “pure” Goofy cartoon, sticking his brainless klutz persona in a Silly Symphonies-style narrative. And despite the slightly inadequate Goofy voice, it’s a charming example of the Disney studio at its best. In the film, Goofy enlists the help of his grasshopper friend Wilbur to help him catch some fish, but Goofy has to go on a mad search to save him when Wilbur is swallowed by one.

Much of the short’s appeal rests on Wilbur, a thoroughly charming character who only appeared in this one film. His endearing design, complete with pie-cut-eyes a la Scrappy and Toby the Pup, reflects the sensibilities of director Dick Huemer, and Wilbur’s cheerful gusto gives the film an extra spurt of energy. He’s a cross between a loyal pet (he rubs against Goofy’s finger like an affectionate cat) and a cocky showman, skating around on the water, fully confident in his abilities to escape danger. There’s also a lot of heart in the portrayal of Goofy and Wilbur’s affection for each other, even amidst all of the jokes; the Disney artists give the relationship some poignancy without going overboard on schmaltz.

Sticking a comic character like Goofy in a cartoon with a real narrative was a bit of a risk, but the artists handle it expertly, and the film gives Goofy ample opportunity for slapstick pratfalls without slowing down the story. The short is full of wonderful little visual gags, such as Goofy using a fish as a telephone and Wilbur sending an S.O.S. through his antennas, and the visuals are terrific all around. The sloshy animation of the huge fish squeezing into Goofy’s net is mesmerizing, and when a stork swallows the frog that swallowed Wilbur, Goofy’s flabbergasted reaction is priceless. Add on top-notch direction (the pacing is sharp and there are some impressive angles, including an upshot of Wilbur hopping on the water) and a nice score by Paul J. Smith (the vibraphone solo during the chase sequence is great) and it all adds up to a fantastic Goofy cartoon. If only there were more.

HAMATEUR NIGHT
Directed by Tex Avery; Warner Bros.

In 1939, Tex Avery received his first Academy Award nomination for the travelogue spoof Detouring America, but for my money, this sharply funny series of vaudeville-flavored gags deserved the Oscar nod far more. The short stars a deadpan canine host who introduces various acts performed by amateurs, including musical performance, recitation, dog tricks, etc. When the acts takes a turn for the worse, a pig backstage bangs a gong and the performers are sent tumbling down a trap door.

It’s difficult to talk about Tex Avery cartoons without merely listing off great gags, as he was so single-minded about getting laughs that everything else in his films feels close to irrelevant. So I guess that’s what I’ll do: here we’ve got Maestro Paderowski on his player piano (it chimes in with the Warner favorite, “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down”), an operatic owl who raises up every time he hits a higher note, a Hindu Mystic named Swami River who winds up killing his volunteer, a cute lil insect named Teeny Tiny Tiney Tinny Tinny Tin who recites “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (her fall down the trap door causes a massive crash), a dog trainer named Fleabag McPoodle who instructs his dog to make a rousing speech, a Shakespearian wolf who gets splatted with a tomato before he can finish quoting Hamlet’s soliloquy and a botched balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet. There’s also a hippo in the audience, voiced by Avery himself, who finds the whole thing to be uproariously funny and annoys other audience members with his loud guffaws.

The trap door conceit is lifted from I Love to Singa (1936), and classic as that film is, Avery is far more assured as a comedy director by this point, finding even more comic possibilities in the idea. The stuttering bird who attempted to recite Simple Simon and the overweight chicken who had to be crammed down the trap door with a mallet made for amusing moments in Singa, but such jokes would feel a bit mild if put alongside the howlingly funny gags Avery comes up with here. He had learned a lot in three years. (Also worth noting: the song Owl Jolson was forced to sing, “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes”, features on the soundtrack during the Romeo & Juliet segment).

The running gag here is the little red-nosed guy from previous Avery films like Little Red Walking Hood, The Isle of Pingo Pongo and A Feud There Was. The character is sometimes mistaken for Egghead, a similar red-nosed Avery character, although promotional materials billed him as Egghead’s Cousin and he is referred to in A Feud There Was as “Elmer Fudd” (Chuck Jones later changed him into the Elmer Fudd we know and love in 1940’s Elmer’s Candid Camera). Whoever he is, he repeatedly interrupts the show, attempting to sing “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” in a hilarious voice provided by Mel Blanc. The end result, that the entire crowd is made up of cheering Fudds or Eggheads or whatever they are, suggests a similarly absurd ending that Avery would later use in his masterpiece Northwest Hounded Police (1946).

IT’S THE NATURAL THING TO DO
Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Tom Johnson]; Max Fleischer

Political correctness is usually thought of as a fairly recent development, and violence in cartoons didn’t became a major concern until the 1960s, so it’s both surprising and delightful to find this preemptive mockery of moral crusaders and the idea that cartoons ought to be toned down in any way. The remarkably self-reflexive plot concerns Popeye, Olive and Bluto getting a letter from the Popeye Fan Club that asks them to “cut out the rough stuff” and act more refined (one would think the Popeye Fan Club, of all organizations, would be okay with the violence). So they attempt to keep the rest of the cartoon polite and well-mannered, to no avail.

The Popeye series lost a bit of its luster when the Fleischer studio moved to Florida in 1938, and It’s the Natural Thing To Do reflects that to some extent. The absence of Mae Questel and Gus Wickie as Olive and Bluto hurts (Olive’s voice is grating, and Bluto isn’t nearly forceful enough), and the film lacks the rough charm of the earlier entries. But the gags are funny, the animation is top-notch and the concept is so strong in this case that it overcomes whatever issues it has.

The short proudly declares that the Popeye series is built on violence, and that’s the way it should stay. It rather brilliantly gives detractors of slapstick what they claim to want, seating the characters on sofas to make polite conversation, just to demonstrate how boring it is. Good behavior is fine in the real world, of course, but Popeye isn’t flesh and blood, he’s a cartoon. Cartoon characters are supposed to be funny, and comedy is born out of conflict. As Mark Twain observed, “there is no humor in heaven.

The title song (which was covered by Bing Crosby) was written in support of love and romance, so this film rather brazenly goes against the spirit of the song it’s supposed to be plugging. But it winds up being a good fit, anyway. For Popeye, it’s completely natural to beat his enemies to a pulp – as he does in the cathartically destructive climax here – and this member of the Popeye Fan Club wouldn’t have it any other way. Viva la spinach!

JITTERBUG FOLLIES
Directed by Milt Gross; MGM

Milt Gross may not be the most well-known newspaper cartoonist, but you’d have trouble coming up with a better one. He was a cartoonist in the purest sense; his drawings were fall-down funny and always full of giddy energy. As compared with today’s comics, which are generally populated by static talking heads, Milt Gross’s characters explode off of the page. To look at them is to laugh. Personally, I would be happy to endorse his brilliant 1930 wordless book He Done Her Wrong as the Great American Novel, and my tongue isn’t even slightly in cheek (the title ought to go to something creative and unusual, right?).

Milt Gross’s distinctive brand of Yiddish-flavored nonsense humor didn’t go unnoticed at the time; deranged creations like Nize Baby, Dave’s Delicatessen, That’s My Pop and Babbling Brooks (to name but a few) were enormously successful, and Gross dialogue like “Iggy, keep an eye on me!” and “banana oil” became national catchphrases. Animators worshiped him (Bob Clampett was a professed fan), and so it isn’t surprising that there would’ve been attempts to bring his unique vision to the screen.

MGM, after unsuccessfully trying to adapt Rudolph Dirk’s The Captain and the Kids to the screen, turned to Milt Gross’s creation  and brought Gross in himself to write and direct. Fine animators like Bill Littlejohn tried their best to bring the wacky energy of the comics to the screen, and the results were completely off-the-wall. Producer Fred Quimby was outraged, feeling that the films were below MGM’s dignity (remember that they had recently been producing the Disneyesque Happy Harmonies shorts), and after Quimby and Gross got in a fight, Gross left after completing only two films – Jitterbug Follies and Wanted: No Master. Of the two, Jitterbug Follies more successfully captures the screwball appeal of Gross’s humor.

Count Screwloose was a resident of a mental institution in the strip, but here we find him running a jitterbug contest with his loyal pet J.R. the Wonder Dog (originally, his dog in the strip was named Iggy and the canine in Dave’s Delicatessen was J.R. the Wonder Dog, but the two worlds were eventually combined). Screwloose and J.R. hope to make off with the cash before they have to award a prize to the winner, but they are eventually threatened into sticking around and forced to go on with the show. As in any comic adaptation, it doesn’t fully capture the magic of the strip; some of the members of the cast look like generic ‘30s cartoon characters rather than Gross designs, and not all of the humor comes off. But the short’s off-the-wall comedy and restless energy strikes like a bolt of lightning.

The gags almost have a stream-of-consciousness quality as the animators seem to be willing to try anything, no matter how tangential (two abrasive penguins from the comic strip, Otto and Blotto, keep invading the cartoon to create general mayhem and no explanation is ever provided). You already know it’s going to be a great cartoon from the beginning, when it pans across a line of cross-eyed Milt Gross characters performing a series of wacky animation cycles. Certainly MGM wouldn’t try anything this comically daring until Tex Avery arrived at the studio in 1942. Credit should also go to Mel Blanc, who is brilliant in the main role of Count Screwloose. When he shouts in desperate frustration, “AN OSTRICH IS GOING TO WIN THE CONTEST!”, I defy you not to laugh.

In many ways, the situation behind the scenes played out like one of Gross’s Count Screwloose strips. Milt broke out of the mad house of newspaper comics to sell wacky ideas to an animation studio. Quimby, by rejecting his inspired work in favor of cutesy, Disney-inspired dreck, proved he was crazier than Gross was, and I’m sure Gross was only too eager to break back into asylum. Iggy, keep an eye on me!

PEACE ON EARTH
Directed by Hugh Harman; MGM

The first post-apocalyptic animated short (and maybe the first post-apocalyptic film of any kind outside of 1936’s Things to Come), Peace on Earth tells the story of the days after all of the humans have killed each other through wars and have left the animals alone on the planet to rebuild. This highly esteemed cartoon (it was nominated for an Academy Award, received a citation from the Nobel Prize Jury and was voted #40 in Jerry Beck’s 50 Greatest Cartoons list in 1994) was initially viewed with skepticism by the unfailingly wise producer Fred Quimby, who tried to talk Hugh Harman out of it. Showing the extinction of mankind as a parable for the evils of war was pretty unusual in the pre-Twilight Zone era of the 1930s, and making such a statement in a cartoon – of all things – was unheard of.

Mainstream animated films in the ‘30s were intended to be cute, funny or charming, and somber themes were generally avoided (surreal comic nightmares of the Swing You Sinners type are a different matter). There were exceptions to this rule, of course: Disney had flirted with a more serious tone in Silly Symphonies like 1937’s The Old Mill, and would eventually go even further in sequences like The Rite of Spring from Fantasia. A handful of the Fleischer Color Classics from the mid-‘30s are somewhat sentimental and melancholy (examples: The Song of the Birds, Time for Love, Musical Memories, Somewhere in Dreamland), and Chuck Jones’ 1938 film Old Glory is about as serious as you can get with a character like Porky Pig. Probably the closest equivalent to Peace on Earth is Columbia’s 1937 film The Little Match Girl, a sad fable about a poor little girl on the streets, but Peace on Earth goes one step further by killing off the entire human race.

And despite the cute animals, the film does nothing to sidestep its grim message. There’s a real power in the sequences featuring rotoscoped humans in eerie impersonal gas masks, mindlessly murdering each other in bleak wastelands, ravaged by war. And Harman is merciless in showing the last human’s final breath before sinking into a puddle of mud. There’s an element of satire here, as the humans are apparently fighting over the flatness of their feet and vegetarianism and such, but the tone is generally gloomy.

One might criticize the film for being a bit simplistic in its moralizing, and there may be too great of a contrast between the horrifically real battle sequences and the cute, Disneyesque cartoon animals telling the story (the tale is told by a grandfather squirrel voiced by Mel Blanc), but even after all these years the film still packs a wallop and credit goes to Harman for trying out such daring subject matter. And, for once, Harman made it to the finish line before Disney by including a social message.

PORKY’S TIRE TROUBLE
Directed by Bob Clampett; Warner Bros.

Bob Clampett is often praised for the rubbery animation in his films, but here that rubbery quality is made into a plot point. In the short, Porky’s dog Flat Foot Flookey (almost as good of a name as Black Fury, Porky’s dog in the 1938 classic Porky’s Party), follows Porky to his job at the Snappy Rubber Company. Flookey winds up falling into a vat of Rubberizing Solution and hijinks ensue.

The Disney studio frequently made cartoons featuring a character – usually Pluto – struggling with a prop such as a piece of fly paper, a plunger, a magnet, etc. In that sense, it might make sense to think of this film as a Pluto cartoon on crack. Clampett sets up a series of frustrations for his zany-looking dog, but he twists and warps his body in ways that the Disney animators would never dream of.

The amount of creative variations Clampett churns out of this simple setup is extraordinary, and there’s a lot of goofy fun to be had seeing how far the animators can squash and stretch their canine star. In fact, I would say that this is some of the best animation the Clampett unit ever turned out in the years before Clampett was teamed with the likes of Rod Scribner and Bob McKimson in the early 1940s. (One bit, where the dog’s right legs stretch out while his left legs stay the same, calls to mind one of the great Clampett moments in his 1946 masterpiece Baby Bottleneck, only by that time he was so used to stretching his characters that he didn’t need the excuse of Rubberizing Solution to do it).

Clampett’s cartoons are always a joy to watch just because he seems to be having so much fun with animation’s possibilities, and that joy translates even in the scenes that don’t involve Flat Foot Flookey pulling his body in various directions (any other director would’ve created a normal looking dog before warping him beyond recognition, but Clampett starts off crazy and goes from there). We’ve got a wonderful gag where a steam shovel chews up rubber trees like bubble gum, a truly imaginative and purely cartoony explanation for the creation of tires, and there’s that killer final gag where the walrus boss (voiced by Billy Bletcher) gets tossed into a giant waffle iron. It doesn’t resolve the story in any way, but Clampett, master director that he is, knows to bow out on a strong gag.

THE POINTER
Directed by Clyde Geronimi; Walt Disney

The Pointer has frequently been identified as the introduction of the modern Mickey Mouse design (the most significant change is the whites around his eyes as opposed to pure black ovals). However, that design was actually created for the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence in Fantasia, which was currently in production, and the design made its debut in the commercial short Mickey’s Surprise Party, a film shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair as an advertisement for Nabisco cookies.

Doesn’t matter, as The Pointer is a landmark Mickey Mouse cartoon with or without a new design. In this film, Mickey and Pluto go hunting for quails, but eventually run afoul of a ferocious bear. This simple setup allows for one of the mouse’s greatest performances, and there is an incredible amount of craftsmanship in the visuals. The gorgeous, painterly forest backgrounds are a treat to look at all by themselves, and they rate quite well alongside the incredible backdrops that would be used in 1942’s Bambi. The Disney artists also added lots of embellishments to the characters in this one, giving them strikingly realistic shadows throughout the entire short. Today, this type of thing can be done with a certain amount of ease through the aid of computers, but the incredible amount of work it must’ve taken in 1939 just to get a little detail right shows the sort of dedication these artists had to their craf

Even with all of the frills the Disney studio added to their films that no other studio managed, their greatest triumph was in the field of character animation, and some of the best examples of it are in this short. There’s a lot of nice work in here from legends like Preston Blair, John Lounsbery and Ollie Johnston. Norm Ferguson, the studio’s expert on Pluto ever since his groundbreaking flypaper sequence in 1934’s Playful Pluto, handled the crucial acting scenes from Pluto, such as the bit where Mickey yells at him for scaring away the quails. As usual, Ferguson gives Pluto the suggestion of an inner life, and even includes a little callback to his earlier work: the closeup of Pluto sniffing into the camera is remarkably similar to a scene Ferguson animated back in 1930’s The Chain Gang, the first cartoon to feature Pluto.

And Lynn Karp, a relatively obscure animator who went on to do lots of “funny animal” comic books for titles like Giggle and Ha Ha, animated the numerous quails who walk all over Pluto’s body in a funny but painful scene. Karp later complained that he usually got saddled with the cute stuff, and the quails here certainly qualify, but he handles many characters moving at the same time with ease, and the quails’ actions suggest that Karp really studied the movements of real birds.

Still, the finest animation in the film comes from Frank Thomas, who took on the scenes with Mickey and the bear. The bear is animated splendidly, with lots of power and a visible thought process, but Mickey steals the show with his remarkably naturalistic acting. The scenes where he attempts to reason with the beast are fantastic thanks to the combination of Walt Disney’s desperate voicework (and let it be said that Walt never turned in a finer performance) and Thomas’s intelligent animation, which really gets inside Mickey’s head and never feels clichéd for a second.

In one memorable moment, Mickey identifies himself and says sheepishly, “I hope you’ve heard of me… I hope.” It’s a pretty self-referential joke, which Disney tended to avoid because he was worried it would threaten the believability of his characters. This is one of the rare meta-jokes that slipped by, but it couldn’t possibly matter because Frank Thomas’s animation has brought Mickey to life so convincingly. By that point in the film, if Mickey turned to the audience and announced that he was just a series of static drawings run together to mimic movement, you wouldn’t believe him.

SWINGING THE LAMBETH WALK
Directed by Len Lye

Swinging the Lambeth Walk is a “direct film” (i.e. it was painted directly on the film without the use of a camera), of the type that Len Lye pioneered with his 1935 short A Colour Box. The film is something of a music video for the popular swing number referenced in the title (with Django Reinhardt on guitar and Stephane Grapelli on violin), and the bright, cheerful colors match the breezy sound of the music. This short doesn’t feature human silhouettes like Rainbow Dance did, with the exception of a hand raising its thumb as a chorus shouts “Oi” for the film’s conclusion.

As opposed to simply using abstract images to illustrate a musical piece, much less tack on a piece of music to purely visual experimentation, Lye seems to be using lines, shapes and colors to serve as a visual representation of music itself. As Brett Cashmere wrote in a Senses of Cinema article about Lye, the film “matches visual motifs to musical instruments: diagonals introduce piano phrases, circles express drum beats, wavy horizontals represent guitar licks, vertical lines map base parts, etc. Primary red, blue and deep green colour fields are rendered frameless by upwardly cascading kite shapes, luminous tapered stripes and batik-like patterns”. This idea of using visual symbols to represent different sounds was adapted by Disney in the Toccota and Fugue in D Minor sequence of Fantasia the following year (and, indeed, Walt Disney was inspired by Lye’s work in the making of the film).

This short, unlike Lye’s earlier classics A Colour Box (1935) and Rainbow Dance (1936), mercifully features no advertisement for the post office. The film was instead made for the UK Ministry of Information, and some government bureaucrats found the film to be an appalling waste of money. Ah, well, Lye eventually got the respect he deserved.

THUGS WITH DIRTY MUGS
Directed by Tex Avery; Warner Bros.

One of Tex Avery’s funniest films at Warner Bros., this fast-paced parody of gangster movies of the era (which were a specialty of Warner Bros., Avery’s bread and butter) tosses silly jokes at you one after another in a manner that anticipates comedies like Airplane! (1980) and The Naked Gun (1988), only Avery crams more great jokes into eight minutes than either of those films do in ninety. It also anticipates Bob Clampett’s 1946 masterpiece The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (which borrows the “pin it on ya” gag from this film) and Avery’s own 1943 classic Who Killed Who? at MGM.

The film stars crime boss Killer Diller (played by “Edward G. Robemsome”), who robs hundreds of banks daily while being tirelessly pursued by Inspector Flat-Foot Flanigan (with a Floy Floy). The plot is only an excuse for an endless stream of ridiculous gags, and there are too many great ones to mention here. Avery takes particular enjoyment messing with the conventions of film, having characters address the audience and reach across a split-screen. Avery also makes perhaps his best use of the audience-member-getting-up-during-the-movie concept, which was an idea that Avery had been getting mileage out of since 1937 in cartoons like Little Red Walking Hood and Daffy Duck and Egghead.

Audiences today may not be familiar with the crime films that inspired this short, like Little Caesar and Angels with Dirty Faces, and the references to the song Flat Foot Floogie and comedian Fred Allen might be a bit obscure, but Avery is such a master of this sort of thing that knowledge of ‘30s pop culture isn’t really necessary for enjoyment of the short. Even those who’ve never heard the name Edward G. Robinson won’t feel lost here.

When all is said and done, Tex Avery really should be considered one of the fathers – if not THE father – of film parody. Who else was doing such razor-sharp burlesques of movie genres in 1939? Mockeries of other movies existed since the silent era, but with nowhere near this level of wacky expertise. Even the closest precedent to Avery’s self-aware style of humor, the Marx Brothers, generally stuck to their own distinctive brand of humor rather than razz other films. The comedy team of Olsen and Johnson were developing a similar style of zany, parodic humor around the same time on the broadway stage, although I think it’s instructive that when they adapted their broadway hit Hellzapoppin’ to film in 1941, they borrowed a Tex Avery joke from Daffy Duck in Hollywood (“Miracle Pictures – where if it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle”). Whether it’s Mel Brooks, Monty Python or the early works of Woody Allen, it all traces back to the groundbreaking comedy of Tex Avery.

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