It’s difficult to discuss the evolution of animation without highlighting the groundbreaking contributions of Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery, a visionary animator, director, and cartoonist.
His influence has transformed the animation industry, and his works are celebrated as some of the greatest in cartoon characters.
Tex Avery: The Maverick Animator
Tex Avery’s journey in animation began in the 1930s, at the Warner Bros. studio, where he had an instrumental role in developing and refining the characters that would eventually become icons of the “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” series. Under his supervision, characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig took on the dynamic, zany, and larger-than-life personalities we recognize today.
Yet, at MGM Studios, Avery arguably did his most definitive work. There, he directed a series of animated shorts that showcased his distinctive and irreverent sense of humor, flawless comedic timing, and boundary-pushing creativity. Cartoons such as “Red Hot Riding Hood,” “Droopy Dog,” and “Screwy Squirrel” encapsulate Avery’s unique style and innovative animation techniques.
“Screwball Classics, Volume 1” provides a robust introduction to Avery’s work. Choose your viewing pace, but we suggest watching them in the order we’ve ranked from best to worst for the optimal experience.
You’ll find at least five definitive masterpieces. Even Avery’s less prominent work outshines most other cartoons, with inspiring moments scattered throughout.
Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)
In the traditional version of Little Red Riding Hood, the main characters rebel against the stale storytelling, demanding innovation. Conceding, the narrator restarts with a contemporary urban spin. Now, ‘Red Hot Riding Hood’ is a stunning Hollywood nightclub performer, with the Big Bad Wolf as an infatuated Hollywood swinger.
After Red’s captivating performance of Bobby Troup’s “Daddy,” the Wolf futilely tries to woo her. Despite Red’s evasion to her Grandma’s skyscraper penthouse, the Wolf arrives first, only to find Grandma is an enthusiastic man-chaser who instantly falls for him.
Who Killed Who? (1943)
Live-action host Robert Emmett O’Connor introduces the cartoon, asserting that the short aims to demonstrate that “crime does not pay conclusively.”
The narrative unfolds on a stormy night with the presumed mansion master of “Gruesome Gables” (voiced by Kent Rogers mimicking Richard Haydn) reading a book featuring his cartoon character. Spooked, he reflects on his impending demise as indicated by the book. Suddenly, a dagger thrown into the room carries a note predicting his death at 11:30. On his objection, a second note revises his doom to midnight.
What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943)
Directed by Tex Avery and produced by Fred Quimby, this 1943 American animated short film features a musical score by Scott Bradley. The film humorously addresses WWII-era food shortages, centering its narrative on two turkey vultures grappling to locate food in the desert.
A wolf breaks out of Swing Swing Prison, mimicking Sing Sing Prison, triggering the release of numerous bloodhounds to pursue him. Droopy, one hound, stays back, introduces himself to the audience as the story’s hero. Despite his initially slow pace, he quickly locates the wolf, who spends the entire film trying to elude Droopy.
In his attempts to escape, the wolf hops on a taxi, a train, a ship, and even an aircraft. Yet, Droopy constantly reappears, greeting the wolf with sarcasm. When questioned about his persistent appearances, Droopy dismisses the wolf with, “Let’s not get nosy, bub.”
Screwball Squirrel (1944)
Tex Avery created the animated character Screwy Squirrel, also known as Screwball Squirrel, for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This anthropomorphic squirrel stands as one of the zaniest and most antagonistic screwball cartoon characters of the 1940s.
Screwy pushes the limits of outrageousness, doing just about anything to anyone: he conjures objects out of nowhere, duplicates himself, and consistently breaks the fourth wall, all punctuated by his trademark cackling laugh. Despite his antics, Screwy didn’t achieve the same success as Avery’s Droopy. Screwy starred in only five cartoons: “Screwball Squirrel” (1944), “Happy-Go-Nutty” (1944), “Big Heel-Watha” (1944), “The Screwy Truant” (1945), and “Lonesome Lenny” (1946).
Batty Baseball (1944)
On a beautiful day at the ballpark, everyone revels in an afternoon filled with amusing on-field gags and puns. Amidst the fun, a cheating Catcher risks more than just his team’s victory in the game.
The Screwy Truant (1945)
Focusing on a younger version of Screwy Squirrel, the cartoon portrays him skipping school for a fishing trip. This prompts truant officer Meathead Dog, slightly altered in color but otherwise identical, to embark on a quest to apprehend Screwy, encountering numerous setbacks.
Eventually, Meathead succeeds in catching Screwy and questions his absence from school. Screwy reveals he’s been avoiding school due to measles, shocking Meathead who realizes he’s now contracted the illness from Screwy.
Lonesome Lenny (1946)
Lonesome Lenny is a 1946 Screwy Squirrel cartoon directed by Tex Avery.
Red Hot Rangers (1947)
Set in Jello-Stone National Park, a parody of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, “No Smoking” and “No Vacancy” signs abound.
Despite the warnings, a man lights up a cigarette and carelessly tosses it from his car, igniting a leaf. This sparks an anthropomorphic flame, which consumes the leaf sandwiched between “Help Prevent Fires” and “No Smoking” signs, then a small tree, before engulfing a large tree.
The flame itself alerts park rangers George and Junior. As they rest, the phone rings, interrupting their leisure. Junior hands George the phone. Stunned by the flame’s confession about the fire, George takes a moment to comprehend before exclaiming, “FOREST FIRE?!?!?!?!”
Hound Hunters (1947)
Delighting audiences with its distinct brand of humor, “Hound Hunters,” a classic 1947 animated short, embodies the creativity and wit of its time. Directed by the legendary Tex Avery and produced by Fred Quimby, the cartoon features the comedic duo of George and Junior, two anthropomorphic dog characters styled after George and Lennie from John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
The plot revolves around the misadventures of the bumbling pair as they attempt to fell a tree for wood but end up tangling with a grumpy bear instead. The slapstick comedy and pun-filled dialogue provide a series of quintessentially Avery laughs. Notable moments include George’s persistent attempts to trick the bear and Junior’s gullible yet endearing demeanor.
The charm of “Hound Hunters” resides in its narrative's simplicity and its masterful comedic timing. It’s a testament to the timeless humor and creativity that typifies Avery’s work, providing audiences with a charming blend of humor and endearing characters that still resonates today.
Bad Luck Blackie (1949)
“Bad Luck Blackie” is a 1949 animated short that stands as a highlight in Tex Avery’s illustrious portfolio. It’s a classic story of comeuppance and poetic justice, featuring a little kitten who finds a unique way to combat a bullying bulldog.
The kitten employs the help of a black cat, “Blackie,” who promises to cross the bulldog’s path whenever a whistle is blown, resulting in a series of escalating misfortunes for the bully. Avery’s genius shines through in the innovative gags and their relentless pace, constantly raising the stakes until the uproarious finale.
The cartoon serves as a satisfying narrative of the underdog (or undercut, in this case) finally getting the upper hand. With its humor derived from slapstick comedy and visual puns, “Bad Luck Blackie” expertly embodies the spirit of Avery’s animated universe. It’s an ingenious blend of humor, wit, and poetic justice that keeps audiences entertained.
Wags to Riches (1949)
“Wags to Riches” is another gem from Tex Avery’s collection of 1949 animated shorts. This cleverly titled cartoon introduces us to the character of Droopy, a small, seemingly meek basset hound, who unexpectedly inherits a vast fortune from his deceased master.
However, the catch is that the master’s scheming pet Butch also has his eyes set on the fortune. The majority of the cartoon revolves around Butch’s comically inept attempts to do away with Droopy, only to have each plan hilariously backfire, often with Droopy emerging unscathed and entirely oblivious to the intended malice.
The Peachy Cobbler (1950)
“The Peachy Cobbler,” a charming 1950 short animated film directed by Tex Avery, presents a delightful twist on the traditional story of the Elves and the Shoemaker. The setting is a cobblers’ shop in a whimsical world where discarded shoes come alive, having personalities as vibrant as their vivid animation.
A highlight of the film is its remarkable creativity in bringing life to inanimate objects. The shoes take on roles based on their types: the ‘baby shoes’ are the children, the ‘old shoe’ is the grandmother, and so on. The narrative unravels as a cobbler shoe works tirelessly to mend the worn-out shoes, displaying Avery’s knack for infusing a touching story with a heaping spoonful of humor.
“The Peachy Cobbler” is an engaging example of Avery’s ability to break the mold of conventional storytelling and present the audience with something entirely fresh and memorable. The blend of humor and heart makes it a truly timeless piece.
The Garden Gopher (1950)
Tex Avery’s 1950 classic “The Garden Gopher” is a testament to the animator’s inherent skill in creating compelling character-driven stories. The cartoon features the ever-lovable and calm Droopy, the basset hound, in a battle of wits with a pesky gopher intent on ruining his beautiful garden.
The film is a delightful showcase of Avery’s signature comedy style — over-the-top antics, extreme physical humor, and expert timing. Droopy’s laconic, deadpan responses to the gopher’s destructive antics contrast brilliantly with the gopher’s frantic energy, creating a humorously absurd dynamic that keeps audiences entertained.
Symphony in Slang (1951)
“Symphony in Slang,” a 1951 cartoon, serves as an innovative testament to Tex Avery’s unrivaled creativity. This animation departs from the traditional narrative style, presenting a storyline that’s entirely built upon visual puns.
Using modern slang, the plot centers around a recently deceased man explaining his life story to Saint Peter in heaven. The words are taken literally, creating a series of brilliant visual gags as angels depict each slang phrase in a literal sense, resulting in hilarious absurdities.
The Tex Avery Style: Breaking Boundaries, One Cartoon at a Time
The “Tex Avery style” broke away from the traditional molds of animation. Avery’s cartoons were noted for their rapid-fire gags, visual puns, and extreme character reactions. He played with and pushed the limits of cartoon physics, bending reality to his will. He dared to be absurd, outrageous, and surreal, blurring the line between reality and the animated world in a way that hadn’t been done before.
Avery’s characters would talk to the audience, breaking the fourth wall and eroding the viewer's and the cartoon's divide. He enjoyed subverting expectations, making his audience think they knew what would happen next, only to pull the rug out from under them with a surprising twist. This innovative approach to storytelling was groundbreaking at the time and continues to influence modern animation.