The most anticipated Blu-ray release of 2020 lives up to the hype. In February, Warner Archive Collection released Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1, finally bringing the animation master’s work to Blu-ray. While some of his Looney Tunes works are available in the Looney Tunes collections, this is (hopefully) the first of a comprehensive collection of Avery’s MGM work.
Avery moved from Warner Bros. to MGM in 1941, where he stayed for just over a decade. Although he didn’t quite have the same success at creating beloved characters who would remain in the popular lexicon at MGM, he was at his creative peak. Without needing to rely on the Looney Tunes characters, Avery’s unit at MGM – under producer Fred Quimby – could do anything they wanted. And they usually did. For some inexplicable reason, Avery’s films were the total opposite of the staid, uptight and glossy MGM features, as if Louis B. Mayer couldn’t give a damn what animators on his payroll did.
WAC’s first Screwball Collection packs 19 shorts onto a dual-layered Blu-ray disc. Rather than going in chronological order, the label is cherry-picking shorts for these releases. The first volume includes nine “Tex Avery Classics,” four of the five Screwy Squirrel shorts, two of the four George and Junior shorts and four of the 18 Droopy shorts.
The collection kicks off with arguably one of the greatest animated shorts ever created, “Red Hot Riding Hood” (1943). It introduces everything a newcomer needs to know about Avery’s madcap, insane sense of humor. We start with a boring Disney-esque retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” before the characters demand a modernized take on the story. What follows is one of the most risque, fast-paced and totally inappropriate cartoons ever made. You might not want to share this one with little children.
Although not all of the shorts here are perfect (honestly, Screwy Squirrel’s act gets a little tiresome after just one short), there are plenty of perfect, seven-minute chunks of entertainment to be found here. The Droopy cartoons are a riot, particularly “Wags to Riches,” despite the repeated formula.
Aside from “Red Hot Riding Hood,” my absolute favorite is “Batty Baseball.” The short famously begins without credits, going deep into the opening minutes of the short itself before one of the characters stops all the action and asks the audience if they want to know who made this stuff. Then, the credits finally roll, including the MGM lion. After that is a short that makes the Goofy “How To Play Baseball” (1942) look like pure sanity.
This kind of fourth-wall breaking is peppered throughout the shorts in this set, but it can be argued that the true masterpiece here has none of the insanity that dominates the rest of them. That is “Symphony in Slang” (1951), a short that mostly relies on limited animated (or even totally still) pieces of art to tell its story. It relies entirely on word play, and it is masterfully written by frequent Avery collaborator Rich Hogan. It’s a wonderful six-minute tribute to the magic of animation.
The only possible negative of Screwball Classics is the lack of extra features, although animation historian Jerry Beck penned a nice introduction for the back of the case.
After going through all 138 minutes of animation lunacy though, you won’t miss extras. These shorts speak for themselves, and any commentary tracks would probably be a detriment to them. You don’t want to think about how Droopy gets from point A to B in a split second or why on earth Avery had his animators draw shoes doing a striptease. If you’re looking for a complete escape from today’s serious world, you can do no better than picking up Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1. A second volume can’t come soon enough.