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TCM's Cartoon Alley - July 2007
Remind Me
Frame blowup from "The Cuckoo" (1948) Gaumont British cartoon.

TCM's Cartoon Alley - July 2007

Cartoon Alley #46 Features three MGM cartoons featuring Screwy Squirrel: Screwball Squirrel (1944), The Screwy Truant (1945), and Lonesome Lenny (1946).

Tex Avery was never that interested in creating recurring characters during his peak directing period at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; he just made funny cartoons and if a character reappeared, it was because he thought of a bunch of new gags for them, not because they might catch on with the public with repeated exposure. Droopy Dog, of course, did capture the imaginations of moviegoers – no such luck with Avery's other prominent headlining character, Screwy Squirrel. While Droopy was charming and droll, Screwy was quite intentionally manic and annoying. As Avery biographer Joe Adamson wrote in Tex Avery: King of Cartoons, Screwy "...has a subversive sort of captivating quality, but a maniac who resolutely flaunts his insanity is a little more than frightening." Screwball Squirrel (1944) features a great opening and a perfect contrast for Screwy. We meet cute Sammy Squirrel skipping through the woods, fluffing his tail and being coy in a Disney fashion. Sammy explains to the audience that the cartoon is "about me and all my friends in the forest," but he is promptly taken behind a tree and beaten by Screwy – the real star of the picture. This brilliant cartoon proceeds to shatter all expectations for how an animated star should act – he phones up his nemesis, a dumb hound named Meathead, to initiate a chase. Avery never lets the viewer forget that he is watching a cartoon: in one scene Screwy lifts up the "page" of the frame to check out a future scene, and at one point the chase music skips until Screwy gives the record player a nudge. In The Screwy Truant (1945), the blue hound is now a truant officer and the chase is back on. Several now-famous Avery gags emerge in this one, most noticeably as the hound has a "blow-out" on one of his feet (but he brought along a spare), and that stubborn "500 yards of phony squirrel tail" that Screwy travels with. Avery thought of Lonesome Lenny (1946) as his chance to do a take-off on Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, although he would do this better (and repeatedly) in his George & Junior cartoons. Lenny is a big, dumb dog who wants "a lit-tul friend to pet and to play with," but he has a habit of accidentally killing his animal pals with brute strength. Screwy thinks he can handle the bruiser, but Avery finds the logical way to bring his association with the obnoxious squirrel to an end!

Cartoon Alley #9 Features three Gaumont British cartoons from the Animaland series: The Platypus (1948), The Cuckoo (1948), The Lion (1948).

Cartoon Alley #10 Features three Gaumont British cartoons from the Animaland series: The Ostrich (1949), It's a Lovely Day (1949), The House Cat (1949).

Cartoon Alley #11 Features three Gaumont British from the Animaland series: Ginger Nutt's Bee Brother (1949), Ginger Nutt's Christmas Circus (1949), Ginger Nutt's Forest Dragon (1950).

At the end of World War II, British producer J. Arthur Rank sought to expand The Rank Organisation's output in anticipation of reopened worldwide film distribution at war's end. A new unit was set up to create cartoons to compete with the best that the United States had to offer; the division was called the Gaumont-British Animation Department. Returning British soldiers would make up much of the large staff required to animate the films, but to head up the unit, no less than the supervisor of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was recruited.

By the time he headed for England in 1946, David Hand had been in the animation business for more than a quarter of a century. He began in 1919 working at Bray Studio for Max Fleischer, animating, in fact, on the earliest Out of the Inkwell cartoons. In 1927 the New York-based Bray folded and Hand moved to the opposite coast to work at Disney Studios. Hand eventually became the head animator at the studio, and one of Walt's most trusted lieutenants. He supervised the most important project in the studio's history - their first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and went on to direct Bambi (1942)as well.

At Gaumont-British, Hand and his team made numerous advertising films, and 19 cartoon shorts - nine in the Animaland series, and 10 Musical Paintbox cartoons. There were plans to move into feature films as well (adaptations of H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon and Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark"), but a financial crisis at Rank in 1949 forced the closure of the animation unit in 1950. For years, only four Animaland shorts were still known to exist; fortunately, the others turned up in film collectors' hands in 1999. TCM is proud to be showing the entire Animaland series on Cartoon Alley.

The Animaland cartoons adhere to the Silly Symphonies format of tuneful funny animals, but the character designs are less of the Disney-cute variety and veer more toward the screwball look of Tex Avery and Looney Tunes. The backgrounds are lush and impressive, and most notably, the animation is excellent, rivaling the best from MGM and Disney in this same period. Director Bert Felstead keeps things moving briskly and will occasionally experiment with the look and style. For example, "The Cuckoo" features a startlingly abstract nightmare sequence and there are dancing hieroglyphics in "The Ostrich" which have a nice halting non-fluid movement.

The primary recurring character is Ginger Nutt, a charming squirrel (a pointy-eared red British squirrel, mind you, not the grey American variety). Ginger Nutt is featured in four of the Animaland cartoons, regularly harassed by Corny the Crow and Dusty the Mole. Alas, the storylines and gags of the Gaumont-British cartoons often fall flat. In trying to ape the American style, they pass up the chance to develop a purely English sense of humor. In spite of the non-British flavor (or perhaps because of it), the cartoons were quite popular in England - popular enough, in fact, to spawn character merchandise. Regardless of the weaknesses, the Animaland cartoons are a visual feast, representing some of the sprightliest and most expressive animation of the period.

By John M. Miller