Before He Was “Tex”: Avery At Lantz (1930-35) Part Two

10 Feb

A sailor's tattoo getting tipsy

He may be incognito on this cartoon, but but this gag has "Tex Avery " written all over it: a sailor's tattoo gets a little woozy from the sailor's shot of booze in SHE DONE HIM RIGHT (1933)

by Rachel Newstead

Music, under the leadership of a superb musical director, can become as much a part of an animation studio’s house style as its character designs and layouts.  This is particularly true when one musician stays for decades, as Scott Bradley, Carl Stalling, and Winston Sharples did.  Some (like Stalling) are so good, we fans often forget anyone had come before (“Norman Spencer?? Who’s he?”) and try our level best to forget anyone who came after (pity poor Bill Lava).

To a certain extent, the Walter Lantz studio also fell victim to this thinking. On the rare occasion one hears “Walter Lantz” and “music” in the same sentence, it’s usually to praise the fiery, brassy swing of Darrell Calker.  Calker did contribute much to the style and mood of the early Wooody Woodpecker and Andy Panda cartoons, and one can’t imagine the Swing Symphonies without his involvement. Calker, however, was just one of many.

Our "hangdog" singer with the detachable features, from SHE DONE HIM RIGHT

In the previous decade, Lantz experimented with several people, trying to get the right sound. Frank Churchill from Disney, Frank Marsales from Harman-Ising/Schlesinger, Nathaniel Shilkre, and even onetime animator Victor McLeod each had his turn at the podium. However,  one man would leave his imprint as deeply on the Lantz cartoons of the thirties as Calker would in the forties: James Dietrich.

You’re no doubt wondering what in heaven’s name this has to do with Avery; in the case of today’s cartoon, a great deal. Avery’s gags shone when combined with the right musical score, and in She Done Him Right, Dietrich’s music made the glow even brighter.

By the 1930s, the music, fashions and mores of the 1890s were still recent enough for old-timers to remember, yet distant enough for parody, so the subject proved irresistible for cartoons. It’s a formula Lantz would return to again and again in the decade, culminating in an entire series (the short-lived Nellie The Sewing Machine Girl cartoons). Other studios would also find it irresistible: Schlesinger, in 1938, would produce Hardaway and Dalton’s Love and Curses; Paul Terry, coming in on the trend a bit late, would resort to it in The Magic Pencil and his Mighty Mouse series, and the genre would of course reach its apex with Chuck Jones’ Dover Boys. But in 1933, it was still a new idea, and She Done Him Right was perhaps the first of its kind.

Overweight--and tipsy--woman with bird on hat

A "cheerful" bar patron a whose hat decoration has a mind its own...

Droopy's ancestor, perhaps? "Dopey Dick" from SHE DONE HIM RIGHT

Unlike Grandma’s Pet, Avery is not credited, but there’s enough evidence of his presence in She Done Him Right to suggest he at least contributed gags–three scenes in particular are too Averyesque not to have his mark on them.

Further, the presence of a character named “Dopey Dick” in this cartoon should leave no doubt as to Avery’s influence. Equal parts Droopy and J. Wellington Wimpy with a little bit of Egghead thrown in, Dopey Dick’s purpose was to be an incongruous presence in the cartoons in which he appeared (as Egghead would later be). He shows up in at least one other Lantz cartoon, the heavily Avery-dominated Christopher Columbus, Jr., and was not used again after Avery’s departure. Therefore, the character must surely have been his.

Avery’s contributions aside,  it’s the music that makes this cartoon enjoyable. An obvious parody of the then-recent Mae West film She Done Him Wrong, it stars not Oswald, but a new (if derivative) character named “Pooch The Pup”.  The resemblance to Fleischer’s “Bimbo” is probably not coincidental;  just as Bimbo lusted after the canine (and later, the human) version of Betty Boop, Pooch pines for a doggy Mae West named “Poodles”.  And like both Mae and Betty, she can belt out a good jazz number.

Mae West-like dog singing, in close up

Our canine chanteuse Poodles, and Pooch, pestering from the wings

Pooch first lays eyes on her, when the cartoon opens, on the posters he’s assigned to post around town.  His infatuation gets interrupted twice, first by a horse who shoves his head through the poster and laughs at Pooch, and second by a cop who enforces the “Post No Bills” notice.  Pooch, however, turns the cop into an unwitting moving billboard by pasting the poster to his back. The picture of Poodles shimmies as the cop walks, and his movements make her eyes roll as well (this is likely the first of the Avery gags).Policeman with poster glued to his back

At that moment a carriage passes by, carrying the real Poodles, who’s en route to her performance. Pooch follows on his little bicycle–she notices him and says in typical Mae West fashion, “Why don’tcha come up, sometime?”

Hearing that line, I was struck by how stilted it seemed (the word “sometime” was a bit too slow and deliberate) but I imagine it was an awkward attempt on the part of the voice artist to match the dialogue to the lip movements. (Indicating that the Lantz cartoons were perhaps still “post-synched”, as the Fleischer’s were–if so, it’s a bit unusual for a West Coast studio of that period).

Taking her flirty little come-on for a real display of affection, Pooch is now completely smitten; he decides to follow her to the beer garden where she’s appearing.

Poodles' ardent--if a bit long in the tooth--admirers

Awaiting her is a two-deep queue of geriatric types, panting over her as they limp along on their gouty legs. She gives them–and Pooch–a seductive wink. She tosses her parasol into the aging crowd, causing a brouhaha as they claw like wildcats to grab the souvenir. Which–of course–Pooch snags.

Pooch scrambling through a pant leg

Pooch finds a novel way to get inside in this Avery-ish sequence (above and below)

No sooner is Pooch inside the beer garden than we take a hard right turn into “Averyland”:  the scene shifts to a deadpan, mustached fellow singing a standard of the turn of the last century called “Has Anybody Here Seen Nellie?” A tiny bird on an equally deadpan woman’s hat pipes up second frame in the "pantleg" sequencewith a “Nellie!” every time he repeats the title lyrics. Meanwhile, a fly seems determined to pull at the fellow’s mustache as he sings, and we’re treated to a throwaway bit involving a pretty-girl tattoo on a sailor’s chest, which staggers, hiccups and yells “Whoopee!” every time the third frame in the "pantleg" sequencesailor slugs down a drink. (This earned a big laugh from me).

The fly eventually succeeds at pulling the singer’s mustache–and nose–completely off as the number ends. Obviously another Avery trademark, but thanks to the molasses-slow timing, a bit clumsily executed. It looked more painful than funny, even if the nose resembles a screw-in Christmas bulb.

After a brief bit involving Pooch getting conned out of his “free” lunch (the hot dog is on a chain) we get to the centerpiece of the cartoon, Poodles’ number. She belts out a red-hot-mama rendition of Minnie The Moocher’s Wedding Day, as sensational as it is anachronistic. (But who cares about that, really? Save period accuracy for the History Channel.)

The number’s intercut with various gags, as we get our first look at Dopey Dick; he’s trying to put one over on the house by stuffing buttons off his clothes into the slot machine .  Down to his last suspender button, he hits the jackpot just as he walks away. The machine’s exceedingly literal, though: what he gets is a chamber pot marked “Jack’s” (We won’t see gags like this much longer–the 1934 Hays Office crackdown banned them from cartoons for good).

Pooch, meanwhile, has gotten just a bit too forward–he stands in the wings as he tries to return Poodles’ parasol, but she ignores him. An attempt to get on stage earns him “the hook” and a trip to the street.A dog singer rejects an admirer

But wait: another one of Poodles’ “suitors” arrives, and isn’t exactly gentle with her. He kidnaps her right off stage, and goes off in a carriage with her in tow. This is Pooch’s chance to turn hero,  as he pursues them on his little bicycle.

We get one final Averyish gag as the carriage, which goes inside a tunnel, has an unseen run-in with a train–it emerges with the horse inside the carriage, and the villain pulling it. The final scene shows Pooch riding along in the front seat; we get a brief reprise of the cartoon’s signature song as the two kiss–discreetly, of course–behind Poodles’ parasol.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

She Done Him Right certainly has the hottest jazz score this side of a Fleischer cartoon–were it not for the Averyisms here and there, one could easily believe it to be from Max and Dave.  The “Nelly” number is hilarious, as much for the pathetic, out-of-tune tinkling piano as Avery’s shtick. Even the incidental music–jazzy versions of songs like In The Good Old Summertime–sounds incredibly polished for a cartoon of this period, so much so it makes us overlook whatever technical faults this cartoon has. All this is due to the excellent work of James Dietrich.

Dietrich had a distinguished pedigree–he’d been an arranger for Paul Whiteman at the time Lantz worked with Whiteman and Universal on the 1930 musical The King Of Jazz. He stayed on to act as Lantz’s musical director, and would remain for the next seven years.  Though his style is not as “raw” as that of the Fleischer cartoons of the same period, he was a fine musician who apparently knew where to find good vocal talent. I regret to say I was not able to determine the identity of the vocalist on the Minnie The Moocher’s Wedding Day number, but thanks to her, I have a new song to add to my list of favorites from this era.

This is a truly crazy cartoon by 1933 standards, with more gags than I can reasonably list in this space. It’s a revelation to me that Lantz, whose cartoons I consider moderately funny at best, could be this funny this early–but we know who to thank for that.

Pooch the Pup, sadly, didn’t last long as a star character, but the cartoons featuring him were good (such as the King Kong parody King Klunk).It would take another six years before Lantz would start to create characters with real star power. His first successes would be in the form of animals unheard of in cartoons at that time: a panda, followed by a certain pesky woodpecker.

In the final installment of our series on Avery at Lantz, we’ll look at Avery’s “audition piece” for Leon Schlesinger, as he skewers vaudeville in TOWNE HALL FOLLIES.

A shadow of two cartoon dogs kidding from behind a parasol

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3 Responses to “Before He Was “Tex”: Avery At Lantz (1930-35) Part Two”

  1. Don M. Yowp February 10, 2010 at 10:50 pm #

    I didn’t realise Nat Shilkret has scored Lantz cartoons. I wonder if his short tenure there had to do more with his radio and recording work than being some kind of “experiment” by Lantz.

    I’m trying to find it in my reference stuff, but in one of the Avery books it mentioned he and Jack Carr were the guys who seemed to pitch the most gags at the joint story sessions.

    • Rachel February 10, 2010 at 11:44 pm #

      From what I could find out, he was credited as musical director on at least seven Lantz cartoons in the late ’30s. To be honest, it comes as much of a surprise to me as it does to you, as I knew next to nothing about him before doing research for this essay, and actually assumed Dietrich was musical director for the entire decade.

      “Experiment” was probably a poor choice of words on my part–I assumed Lantz, since he used so many different musical directors in so short a period before settling on Calker, was struggling to get the sound he wanted.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Who’s The Voice Behind This Pooch? « Dig This Crazy Test Pattern! - February 17, 2010

    […] some of you may have noticed in the second part of my recent essay about Tex Avery’s early years at Lantz, I love the cartoon She Done Him Right, especially the […]

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