Tex Avery’s Droopy Dog
I come to you this evening, tired after another week strapped to the wheel, yet ready and raring to drop the gospel of Droopy Dog.
As I mentioned previously, I’ve spent a good deal of time watching old-school animation (sometimes very old, i.e. Ub Iwerks) with my 3 ½ year old son. This has included a wide variety of “golden era” Warner Brothers – including Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck etc – Friz Freleng’s Pink Panther and Ant & the Aardvark, Bullwinkle and Rocky and Mr Magoo.
Some of these, the WB and Pink Panther shorts have had an instant appeal for my son, not to mention my own enjoyment, partly nostalgia but mostly appreciation of a bygone art form in its greatest days.
Others, like Bullwinkle (not physical enough, humor too cerebral/hip) and Magoo (an abstract premise lost on a toddler) have been less popular.
One recent acquisition – one I was waiting for eagerly – that has been a big hit with both of us, is the reissue of the MGM ‘Droopy’ theatrical shorts.
The brainchild of the brilliant Tex Avery, ‘Droopy’ was not only a great showcase for Avery’s post-Warner Brothers work, but also hilarious (would you expect any less?).
The set (two DVDs at a great price) has been a revelation for a few reasons.
I had seen many of the Droopy shorts over the years, but never enough to witness the evolution of the character, and the animation styles in which his exploits were framed.
The earliest shorts, dating from the mid-40’s are filled with Avery’s innovative visual comedy, gags layered upon gags, upon gags, so many that it takes multiple viewings to pick up on them all. The character of Droopy is a touch undeveloped (more in the visual sense, as his actual character is pretty rudimentary and changed little over the course of the series, which lasted until 1958.
The plots basically involved the laconic Droopy driving a much more animated nemesis (two different wolves and a bulldog) insane with frustration. As the series progressed, the first wolf – an encapsulation of the male id with his eyes and tongue flying out at the sight of a dancing girl – gradually disappeared, to be replaced by the Irish brogued bulldog (usually Spike or Butch) and one of my all-time favorite animated characters, the nameless, perpetually non-plussed wolf (often punctuating his sentences with a dry “..man.” )with a civil war kepi on his head, his hands in his pockets and a drawl like molasses on a cold day.
When the southern wolf appeared, the manic flavor or the earlier shorts was dialed down a notch, fine-tuning an already amazing cartoon.
The wolf – voiced by the legendary Daws Butler (who would take a variation on this voice and turn it into Huckleberry Hound) – became the axis on which these cartoons turned. He would saunter into the frame, whistling the Civil War folk tune ‘Jubilao’, stop, drop some dry observation and continue on, heading for almost certain doom.
Unlike the original wolf, this character is much more sympathetic, acting as the victim more than a villain. No matter what he does (and it is rarely done with malice) he is confounded by Droopy (or as is the case in a few cartoons like ‘The Three Little Pups’ and ‘Blackboard Jumble’, multiple Droopys), often to the point of physical injury.
The cool thing is, no matter how many times he is blown up or otherwise assaulted, the wolf (almost) never loses his cool, trying again and again.
Occasionally – as in ‘Blackboard Jumble’ – the wolf is presented as a sympathetic character. He arrives at a one room schoolhouse, just as the teacher – driven insane by his charges – is running away. The wolf decided that people are too tough on kids, and all that is needed to remedy the situation is a little understanding. Of course, soon after he enters the classroom, chaos ensues until at the end of the cartoon, the once patient wolf is also driven insane and bounces off over the horizon.
All told, the “southern” wolf only appears in three of the shorts, but they are some of the finest things that Avery and his lead animator Michael Lah ever did.
Lah, who worked with Avery on most of the shorts, and took over after Avery left MGM, directing (or co-directing) the series from 1955 to 1958 (this period coinciding with Hanna/Barbera taking over as producers from Fred Quimby).
Many of these later Droopy cartoons are absolute works of genius. The look of the shorts is beautiful (they were presented in Cinemascope) and the animation style has a much smoother feel.
I’ve always loved the Disney “look” of the 50’s and 60’s, and I would go as far as to say that these Cinemascope ‘Droopy’s are better looking than almost anything from Disney or Warners in the same period. There are moments in these shorts where the richness of the color is positively lysergic (BRAVO! to whoever restored these for reissue). Watching these feels like seeing them on the big screen.
The end result is that in this set – the second disc especially – are some of the finest cartoons ever made, by anyone, period.
I plan on spending some more time watching them this weekend.