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Droopy's DVD Debacle

Discussion in 'The Animated Word' started by Dave Koch, Jan 24, 2014.

  1. Dave Koch

    Dave Koch Cartoon Admin

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    Tex Avery's Droopy:

    The Complete Theatrical Collection


    Yes, he's back... Droopy, that loveable, laconic and lethargic lapdog hit the store shelves last Tuesday in a new 2-DVD set from Warner Home Video. As the DVD title states, Droopy is the creation of legendary cartoon director Tex Avery (1908-1980), who is considered by colleagues and film buffs to be the greatest and most influential cartoon director who ever lived. During his lifetime he developed and nurtured a distinct brand of visual humor that to this day is often imitated but never equaled nor surpassed.

    A frustrated newspaper cartoonist, Avery had started out in the fledgling animation industry in 1930 as an in-betweener at the Walter Lantz studio. Over the next five years he became an animator and then quickly rose to the rank of director. In 1935 he heard about a job opening at Leon Schlesinger's cartoon studio at Warner Bros. and applied. While at Schlesinger's he directed 61 animated shorts (creating Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and helping to develop Porky Pig in the process) between 1935 and 1941. He then left Schlesinger's, reportedly over a pay dispute, and migrated to the cartoon studio at MGM. There he directed 66 animated shorts (including 17 of the 24 on this DVD set) between 1941 and 1954. In 1954 he had a falling out with MGM and returned to the Lantz studio for one more go-around as a director. He left a year later, again over money.

    During the next 24 years he worked on animated television commercials produced by Cascade Productions, including the memorable ads for Raid insecticide spray, and created the "Frito Bandito" to hawk Fritos Corn Chips (until Latino groups eventually protested the character and got him pulled from the airwaves). Avery spent the last two years of his life working as a gag writer and editor for his old MGM colleagues, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera (the creators of Tom & Jerry) at their animation studio.

    It was while at MGM that Avery perfected his own manic style of cartoon making, and proceeded in his films to shatter every known cartoon convention that had been codified by Disney a decade earlier. Avery's MGM cartoons are some of the wildest, sexiest and most outlandish ever committed to celluloid. In spite of this, however, Avery was never again able to create characters with the the same lasting popularity as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Nevertheless, in terms of imbuing one of his characters with a distinct and likeable personality, Avery felt that he had come the closest with Droopy.

    Avery reportedly got the idea for the Droopy character from listening to the Fibber McGee and Molly radio program, which in the early 1940's was at the height of its popularity. Featured on the program were a number of recurring characters, many of them voiced by actor Bill Thompson. One such character, Wallace Wimple, caught Avery's attention with his unique voice characterization. The Wimple character was apparently something of a milquetoast and whenever he spoke he sounded as if he had a mouthful of marbles. When Avery heard the Wimple character he immediately pressed Thompson into service as the voice of Droopy for his first short, Dumb-Hounded (1943).1 In this seminal cartoon Droopy is a police bloodhound who is sent out out to recapture an escaped convict (played by the Wolf character who would re-appear in Red Hot Riding Hood later that year).

    The basic premise of Dumb-Hounded and every other other Droopy short that followed is that there is simply no vanquishing the character or escaping from him. He usually overcomes his adversaries by showing up unexpectedly at every turn; through a combination of luck, naivete and what Stan Laurel used to call "white magic".2 Droopy is depicted here as an actual dog; he walks on all fours, barks at other dogs and avails himself of the occasional fire-hydrant. In each of his first three shorts, he is also apt to momentarily engage in a spastic display of wanton abandon (a trait which was toned down considerably during the remainder of the series). His character design is also more detailed than in subsequent shorts, with heavy, drooping eyelids and sagging jowls. In this respect it's interesting to watch all 24 Droopy shorts in close succession, and to see the gradual streamlining that he underwent over the next 10 years.

    [​IMG]

    Droopy, in one of his more "relaxed" moments: the final scene from Señor Droopy (1949)

    Droopy's next short, The Shooting of Dan McGoo (a remake of Avery's 1939 Merrie Melodie, Dangerous Dan McFoo)3 was not released until 1945. The generally-accepted reason for this was that Avery, between 1943 and 1945, had been trying to develop a new starring character who possessed and exhibited the same level of insouciance and brashness as the starring characters at other studios (i.e., Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Woody Woodpecker). In 1944 Avery introduced a completely off-the-wall squirrel named "Screwy" in the short, Screwball Squirrel. Avery seems to have been intent on showcasing his new "star" and featured the character in two additional shorts that year, Happy-Go-Nutty and Big Heel-Watha. Avery produced just two more cartoons featuring the character, The Screwy Truant in 1945 and Lonesome Lenny in 1946, before permanently retiring him. Years later, Avery admitted that Screwy Squirrel "...was never too funny".

    In the 1950's MGM re-issued a number of their earlier cartoons to theatres, and more often than not they incorporated subtle changes in content for their re-issue prints. Below are two frames from The Shooting of Dan McGoo. The one on the left is from the original version released in 1945, in which the Wolf character offers "the gal known as Lou" a carton of cigarettes (Avery's wry commentary on the exigencies of wartime rationing). On the right is a frame from the 1951 re-issue print that was used for the present DVD compilation. MGM undoubtedly altered this scene because the wartime reference was no longer relevant to contemporary audiences. This is a pity, because the scene would nevertheless have elicited laughs today when viewed in a historical context:

    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    (images courtesy Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research, used with permission.)

    This is just one of a number of changes that MGM made when re-issuing this cartoon; even the original beginning and ending title cards were changed. Unfortunately the original version of this cartoon exists now only in a few rare nitrate copies. According to animation historian Jerry Beck, the negatives and original prints for all of the MGM cartoons of the 1930's and 1940's were destroyed several years ago in a warehouse fire and are lost forever.

    When Warner Home Video first announced that they planned to release all of the theatrical Droopy shorts on DVD, there was much cause for rejoicing. Many of us, however, tempered that joy with some doubt and skepticism. Given the many problems inherent in WHV's previous release of The Tom & Jerry Spotlight Collection, Vols. 1 and 2, there was still good reason to worry that the cartoons in this new release might not be spared the kind of wholesale butchering to which they had been subjected when they previously appeared on Cartoon Network (and before that on broadcast television).

    The good news is that not one of the cartoons presented here has been edited for content by WHV or Turner Broadcasting; not even the more outrageous ones like Droopy's Good Deed(1951), which contains no fewer than three "blackface" gags. As a means of damage-control, WHV has stated on the outer packaging that these cartoons are intended for the "Adult Collector" and consequently may not be suitable for children. A cursory glance inside the DVD case reveals why. When one removes both discs from their clear plastic mooring a beautiful cheesecake picture of "Red Riding Hood" (the sultry siren who starred in her own series and is featured in two of the cartoons in this set) appears, teasing the beholder with a withering "come hither" glance.

    A further instance of C.Y.A. is the insertion, at the beginning of each disc, of the same 10-second written disclaimer ("The cartoons you are about to see are a product of their time, yadda, yadda yadda...") that WHV used when they released Volume 4 of The Looney Tunes Golden Collection. At least using this disclaimer in the past has emboldened them to release classic Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons that hitherto were either consigned to the editor's chopping block or cast into a PC Purgatory, so that, I guess, is a step in the right direction.

    Most of the cartoons in the present compilation were previously released on either VHS videotape or on LaserDisc. With the exception of Wags to Riches, its CinemaScope "remake", Millionaire Droopy, and Blackboard Jumble, this marks their first release on DVD here in the U.S. (an earlier French DVD set of the complete cartoons of Tex Avery contained truncated versions of some of these shorts).

    The best Droopy shorts in this set, in my opinion, are the ones Avery directed between 1949 and 1954. Two of these, Señor Droopy (1949) and Droopy's "Double Trouble" (1951) portray Droopy as a highly-sympathetic character who displays a child-like innocence and kind-hearted nature. Droopy's design during the late 40's was also more appealing. The latter short was dismissed by author Joe Adamson, in his book Tex Avery: King of Cartoons, as being "inadequate" and "unimaginative". I disagree completely. Personally, I think it's the best short in the entire series--with an excellent story line and deft character-delineation. It's also the first Droopy short to contain an extended amount of dialogue for any of its characters, and the first one to feature "Spike" speaking with an Irish brogue.4

    The outstanding short from Droopy's later years at MGM is, of course, Drag-A-Long Droopy (1954); a hilarious send-up of all the "cattle-rancher" sagas that have ever graced the silver screen. It's a pity that MGM didn't think to produce this short in CinemaScope; if only to show off John Didrik Johnsen's magnificent, "sweeping-vista" backgrounds. Speaking of which, it seems as though Avery couldn't make up his mind about the overall visual look of the shorts he directed in 1953 and 1954. On the one hand we have shorts with traditional, realistic backgrounds like Drag-A-Long Droopy and Homesteader Droopy (1954); and then there are the ones like The Three Little Pups (1953) and Dixieland Droopy (1954) which utilize stylized, UPA-inspired backgrounds. The stylized backgrounds, unfortunately, have no place in an Avery cartoon; since a large part of Avery's on-screen humor derives from his taking all manner of license with the conventions of cartoon reality (witness the Wolf as he accidentally skids off the film-frame in Dumb-Hounded and Northwest Hounded Police).

    The majority of the Droopy shorts on this DVD set (those not produced in CinemaScope, that is) are presented in their original theatrical aspect ratio (1.33:1). But now here comes the bad news, folks... the visual quality of the prints that were used for the digital transfers of the earlier shorts (1943-54) is variable; with excessive use of Digital Video Noise Reduction (DVNR) afflicting four of them. An example is provided below:

    For the uninitiated, DVNR is a hardware application that is supposed to digitally remove visual imperfections, such as scratches and dirt, from vintage films. When used in the restoration of live-action films it has worked wonders. When applied to animated films, however, the hardware cannot always distinguish between the outlines of characters, layout drawings and effects animation (such as wind and rain), and actual film scratches; and thus removes them, leaving the viewer to mentally "connect-the-dots". In this example, the wires connecting Droopy's trapeze have been erradicated. His left foot is also partially-obscured. Problems like this, of course, can be avoided; provided that whoever is in charge of applying the DVNR takes the time to preview the results before finally releasing the film(s) to DVD or Blu-Ray.

    Those shorts not afflicted by excessive DVNR suffer from varying degrees of film deterioration. Although none of them look abysmal by any means (some of them, like Dixieland Droopy, actually look great), there remain occasional artifacts that could have been excised if someone had gone to the trouble of removing them manually. Dumb-Hounded, in particular, has a number of fine emulsion-scratches and faded colors that are highly-noticeable when compared to the other cartoons in the set; although the print used for this DVD is reportedly in better condition than the one used for the French-issued DVD set.

    Out-Foxed (1949) has a few frames that are damaged near the end of the cartoon (although they are noticeable for only a second or two), and Northwest Hounded Police (1946) suffers from audio distortion during the opening titles. David Mackenzie has assured us, however, that any DVNR problems and other visual or aural defects inherent in this set will be addressed when WHV prepares its complete Tex Avery/MGM set. Mackenzie adds this caveat, however; that the complete Avery set might never see the light of day unless favorable sales of Tex Avery's Droopy justify its release.

    The final 7 shorts in the Droopy theatrical series were originally produced and released in CinemaScope and are presented here in brand new, sparkling 16x9 widescreen transfers. The picture and sound on these are marvelous. Unfortunately, six of these cartoons directed by Avery's longtime animator at MGM, Michael Lah, are somewhat disappointing; the pacing of some of their gags seems just a little sluggish.5 In addition, the last six shorts released by MGM feature an extremely streamlined design of Droopy in which his head looks disproportionately bigger than the rest of his body. Blackboard Jumble (1957) features three dogs, one of whom is supposed to be Droopy. It's difficult to tell since none of them has Droopy's characteristic drooping eyelids (due perhaps to a simple inking and painting error); neither do any of them speak during the cartoon. Perhaps Droopy is actually all three dogs in this cartoon... the theological implications here are staggering!

    The first Droopy cartoon produced in CinemaScope, Millionaire Droopy (1956), was released two years after Avery had already left MGM; and is essentially nothing more than a wide-screen re-formatting of Wags to Riches (1949).When MGM Cartoon Producer Fred Quimby retired in 1955 the production reins were handed over by MGM's Management to Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. Having nothing else except a handful of Tom & Jerry shorts in the pipeline for the 1956 release schedule, Hanna-Barbera produced Millionaire Droopy by simply merging the original animation and soundtrack for Wags to Riches with new layout drawings and UPA-inspired backgrounds. This is a "cheater" cartoon in every sense of the word! In 1957 they released Cat's Meow, which reused the animation and soundtrack from Avery's Ventriloquist Cat (1950) in similar fashion.

    How does the rest of the DVD set stack up? Well, for starters the bonus features are very lean indeed; consisting only of a short documentary on Avery and a seperate (and redundant) compendium of humorous clips from the Droopy shorts we have just seen in their entirety. As for the documentary, there are no clips featured from any of the shorts he directed at Warner Bros. to illustrate that part of his career. There are also no interviews with any of Avery's colleagues who worked with him at either Warner Bros., MGM, or even at Walter Lantz. In fact, a large number of the interview clips are of Andy Heyward of DIC and voice-actor Billy West. I was somewhat puzzled by this... what possible connection could these two individuals have in common with Tex Avery, other than a profound love of his work? I did a little digging and discovered that Heyward was the Executive Producer for that God-awful, television rip-off series, The Wacky World of Tex Avery; a cartoon which has absolutely nothing to do with either Fred "Tex" Avery or any of the animated shorts he directed during his career! If you look carefully at the end credits for the Avery DVD documentary you'll note that it was narrated by voice-actor Maurice LaMarche, who provides the voices for various characters in the DIC-produced TV series. Billy West also provides some of the voices for this series... talk about six degrees of separation!

    The DVD packaging is a little on the cheap side, using a cardboard binder and slipcase instead of a hard plastic 2-DVD case. One viewer reported to me that he had difficulty extracting the binder from the slipcase. This may be because a plastic theft-protection tag was affixed to the inside of the slipcase; I myself didn't experience any such difficulty.

    Fortunately WHV must have heard our cries of dissent when Volume 4 of The Looney Tunes Golden Collection was released; because they wisely have dispensed with the awkward packaging format (with 2 discs crammed into the space of one in each half of the DVD binder) that created no end of frustration for viewers.

    My overall assessment of Tex Avery's Droopy, then, is: if you are a fan of Droopy and wish to acquire all of his theatrically-released shorts in one set; then this compilation is for you. If you are a fan of Tex Avery and you wish to acquire a selection of his funniest animated shorts, in fairly-decent transfers (until something better comes along), then snap this set up. If you are a devout worshiper of Tex Avery (like me) and truly want to see full justice done to all of his MGM theatrical shorts; then by all means buy this DVD post-haste so that WHV will release the complete Avery set next year!

    _________________________________________________________________________________________________


    Notes:

    1. Thompson had worked for Avery at MGM before, providing the voice of "Adolf Wolf" in the 1942 Oscar-nominated short, Blitz Wolf. It should also be pointed out at this juncture that Thompson did not voice every Droopy short that was produced afterwards. During WWII he served in the U.S. Navy, and apparently was only able to record voice tracks while on leave. Later on, during the post-war years and into the 1960's, he would use a variation of the Droopy voice at Disney (as "Mr. Smee" in Peter Pan) and at Hanna-Barbera Productions (as "Touche' Turtle"). In a 1971 interview with author Joe Adamson, Heck Allen (Avery's longtime friend and storyman at MGM) recounted that whenever Thompson was unavailable to record dialogue for Droopy, Avery would step in and do the voice himself. This would account, then, for the discrepancy in the sound of Droopy's voice from one short to the next. Veteran voice-actor Daws Butler, however, tells a somewhat different story: his longtime friend and colleague at MGM and Hanna-Barbera Productions, Don Messick, had gotten his start in cartoons because Butler had recommended him to Avery as a substitute voice-actor to portray Droopy when Thompson was not around.

    2. Droopy's ability to be in more than one place at the same time apparently has a precursor in an earlier Bugs Bunny short (also directed by Avery), Tortoise Beats Hare (1941), in which Bugs' adversary Cecil Turtle unexpectedly appears at each leg of their race. In that cartoon, however, there was at least a logical (but rather tedious) explanation for the tortoise's being in two places at once. Northwest Hounded Police offers a similar explanation for Droopy, but in a more matter-of-fact way.

    3. The similarities between Droopy and the canine hero in Dangerous Dan McFoo are striking, leading me to believe that Avery was also thinking of that particular character (voiced by Arthur Q. Bryan, in a characterization similar to that of Elmer Fudd) when Droopy was being developed at MGM.


    4. In the Droopy cartoons that followed, Spike was renamed "Butch" to avoid confusion with the bulldog who was featured in Hanna-Barbera's Tom & Jerry cartoons from the same period. That bulldog was originally named "Butch", but eventually he was rechristened "Spike" for the remainder of the Tom & Jerry series. In the 1980's Filmation Associates produced their own series of Tom & Jerry and Droopy cartoons for television, having licensed the original characters from MGM. Generally speaking, these new cartoons came closest to capturing the spirit (if not the outrageous humor) of the original theatrical shorts. The producers at Filmation, however, failed to make the necessary distinction between the bulldog in the original Tom & Jerry shorts and the one who appeared in the original Droopy shorts; both of whom were, in fact, two separate and very different characters. As a result, only one bulldog named "Spike" (sporting the same character design as the bulldog from the original Tom & Jerry shorts) appeared as an adversary in both the Filmation Tom & Jerry and Droopy cartoons. To add further to the confusion, in the Filmation Tom & Jerry cartoons "Spike" delivers his dialogue using the "Jimmy Durante" type voice he had in the original MGM Tom & Jerry shorts; but in the Filmation Droopy cartoons he speaks with a completely different voice (and not the Irish brogue, as provided by Bill Thompson, from the original Droopy shorts)!

    5. Cabellero Droopy (1952), the only Droopy short directed by Dick Lundy, also seems to drag in places. Lundy had worked at Disney and for Walter Lantz before coming to MGM. Lundy was initially hired to temporarily replace Avery (who had left the studio for a year's sabbatical in 1950, citing overwork as the chief reason). Lundy also directed the last batch of Barney Bear shorts released by the studio. When Avery returned in 1951 Lundy had already left MGM, although the Barney Bear shorts he directed continued to be released through 1954. This is a good indication, according to Leonard Maltin in his book, Of Mice and Magic (Plume 1980, 1987; pp. 302-303), of just how much MGM stockpiled their cartoons prior to release; as well as the actual length of time (usually as much as a year-and-a-half) it took to complete a cartoon from its initial storyboard stage to the finished film. This also accounts for the discrepancy between the date of Avery's final departure from MGM and the actual release dates of the last cartoons he directed there.
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  2. Trailblazer

    Trailblazer Apprentice Forum Member New Member

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    I clicked on the link for The Tom & Jerry Spotlight Collection, Vols. 1 & 2 and I got an error message. I purchased this 2 DVD set and now I am wondering what the problems with it are. This set also features the disclaimer about the cartoons being a product of their time, which I think is the right thing to do. If only other Warner / MGM cartoons would be released uncut with this warning (Johnny Quest) I'd be happy.

    In any case, this is a well-written article! Good job! [thumbup]
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  3. Zavkram

    Zavkram Moderator Staff Member I SUPPORT BCDB! Forum Member New Member

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    Thank you! This review was written a number of years ago and so any embedded links I had included may no longer work. I had written a number of reviews for "The Animated Word" in the older Big Cartoon Forum. When they were transferred here, however, nearly all of the frame-grabs I had included in my discussions of various cartoons had disappeared. It will take some time for me to go back and re-edit those older posts. I will most likely have to create new frame-grabs. If you look carefully you will see my older reviews of the T&J Spotlight Collection and what was initially wrong with them.

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