Saturday, December 8, 2007

Short Film Week, Day 7: Two Looney Tunes Cartoons

[This entry is a contribution to the Short Film blog-a-thon being hosted right here at Only The Cinema, in association with Culture Snob.]

After my entry yesterday on Chuck Jones, I decided to dedicate my last blog-a-thon post to a short by another animation great, Tex Avery. Red Hot Riding Hood is probably Avery's best known cartoon, done a few years after he'd left Warner Brothers for MGM. As the title implies, it's a hilarious and raunchy updating of the story Little Red Riding Hood, featuring a wildly escalating series of physical gags that catapults the short from one moment to the next; after the opening minutes, there's little regard for traditional narrative, just a series of riotous slapstick routines. The film starts normally enough, though, seemingly just another Red Riding Hood retelling, with a narrator providing the usual story. The difference is obvious right away, though, as the narrator's voice is just dripping in irony, all but openly deriding the words he's saying, delivering them in the kind of condescending kiddy voice that the more smarmy adults sometimes adopt in addressing children. This narration is a sign, right from the start, that this won't be a normal fairy tale cartoon, and the point is underscored when, moments later, the characters themselves revolt against the scenario, refusing to go through with yet another iteration of the same old story.

The narrator, confronted with their anger, is forced to comply, and he shifts the story to a big city, where the wolf is a club-hopping ladies' man in a stretch limo, Granny is a sophisticated old dame, and Red is a sexy nightclub singer, dancing in a skimpy red outfit and shedding her trademark red cape and hood very early in her act. It's a hilarious set-up, and perfectly executed. Red's nightclub performance becomes an excuse for an elaborate series of jokes on the wolf's sexual excitement, as his eyes literally bulge from his head, he howls and smashes his fist (and eventually a chair) against the table, and finally sets up a Rube Goldberg-like clapping machine so he can applaud while leaving a free hand to whistle. All the while, Red sizzles as much as a cartoon character can sizzle, swaying and crooning and looking very much like the Jessica Rabbit predecessor she is, earning the wolf's overblown admiration with every shake and shimmy. From there, it just gets sillier and crazier, as the wolf takes off in pursuit of the coy Red, who rejects his advances initially with shyness and finally with a screamed "NO!" that sends him flying through the air. The film externalizes the mechanics of sexual desire and rejection like no other, with every facet of the wolf's body reflecting his manic want for Red; when he first sees her, he elevates into the air, his nose pointing forward, his whole body directed towards her, making of himself a giant arrow pointing at the thing he wants. And one negative word from this object of desire can send him reeling, with a force and physicality as though he'd actually been hit, devastating him physically as well as emotionally.

When the action finally arrives at Granny's house, she becomes the third point of a love triangle, since she reacts to the sight of the wolf much as he had to the sight of her granddaughter. The chase then gets reversed, with her heading after the wolf through her funhouse apartment, which is loaded with false doors — leading to a 60-story drop or a brick wall — and traps for the luckless wolf. It all ends with the wolf's bitter suicide, accomplished with a massive pistol on both sides of his head, and the restarting of the cycle with the wolf's ghost howling at sexy Red. This is a masterpiece of outlandish slapstick, gleefully violating physical laws with the characteristic flair that animators like Avery, Jones, Clampett, and Freleng brought to the golden age of cartoons. Watching something like this, totally familiar by now (even though it's scandalously not available on DVD yet), it's obvious how much more the cartoons of earlier eras had to offer than today's animation. Until it finally arrives on DVD, you can watch it here.

Finally, I couldn't resist going back for one more Chuck Jones short, this time the middle installment in his classic Bugs/Daffy/Elmer hunting trilogy, Rabbit Seasoning. This is quite possibly Bugs' most passive and laconic performance, in which in order to outwit both Daffy and the hunting Fudd, he need only say a few words and let the other two do the rest of the hard work. Daffy is trying to get Elmer to shoot Bugs, but the clever bunny comes up with a simple trick to confuse matters, so that inevitably Daffy gets shot instead. Bugs just acquiesces to the hunter, and asks, "OK, would you like to shoot me now or later?" When Daffy jumps in yelling "shoot him now," it's all over, because Bugs just leads him through some tricky word play that goes differently every time but always winds up with some variation of a confused and annoyed Daffy yelling to Elmer, "OK, shoot me now!" Even though the whole short is basically comprised of variations on this word game, it doesn't get boring or routine, and it's a delight each time Daffy is shot to see just where his beak is going to wind up — the anatomical incorrectness of these characters is taken to its extreme in Daffy's beak, which seems to be entirely detachable and to leave simply a smooth black surface behind when it's knocked off.

Even Bugs' drag routine in this film is uncharacteristically laidback, as he basically just sits on a log reading, letting the other two hash things out while he seduces Fudd without a word. The obliviousness of Fudd is, as always, something to behold. When the short starts, he doesn't even realize that Bugs is a rabbit until Daffy tells him, and by the end a blonde wig and a little makeup is all it takes for him to forget. This is one of those classic Looney Tunes shorts that, while maybe not as profound as some of the series' absolute high points, is just a whole lot of fun to watch, and not only because it brings back memories of childhood Saturday mornings. Watch it here.

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