Friday, 20 July 2012

Music by Screwy Squirrel

Screwy Squirrel cartoons are lots of fun. The only thing wrong with them is Screwy. You can like the gags he pulls but you can’t really like him. And I think that’s the way Tex Avery wanted it. The gags are the real stars in the Screwy cartoons.

Tex came up with great routines where the business of filmmaking actually appears during the cartoon; he did it at Warners then carried on doing it at MGM. In “Screwball Squirrel” (released April 1, 1944), Screwy is even responsible for some of the sound in his own cartoon. During one chase scene, the William Tell Overture blares in the background. Suddenly, a portion of the music keeps repeating, like a stuck record. The action on the screen repeats with it. Screwy steps out of the action, walks over to a record player, fixes the skipping record, then the chase resumes (passing behind the record player and on to the next gag). It’s a great little routine that comes out of nowhere.

But the best musical gag comes along later in the cartoon. Meathead the dog is in a barrel, rolling down a steep hill. Musical director Scott Bradley has a drum roll on the soundtrack.

Cut to a shot at the bottom of the hill. It turns out that Screwy is playing the snare drum. Not only that, he provides musical sound effects. When the barrel hits a tree, Screwy bashes a bass drum. Meathead flies up into the air and down. Screwy plays a slide whistle to accompany the action. When Meathead lands, Screwy bashes the bass drum again, then finishes up with a bird twitter as Meathead lays on the ground, dazed.

Only Avery would try a sequence of gags like this. Better still, he doesn’t let the audience rest. The short zooms along from one routine to the next once it gets past the deliberately syrupy opening with the overly-cute, frolicking Sammy Squirrel (who Screwy beats the crap out of behind a tree. Take that, Harman and Ising).

The credited animators are Preston Blair, Ed Love and Ray Abrams. The backgrounds (note the house on stilts) are by Johnny Johnsen. Claude Smith designed the characters; the first model sheet is dated December 1942.


  1. I just noticed those houses on that hill. Hopefully they have insurance! :-)

  2. It's interesting that Avery at Warners pretty much abandoned Daffy Duck, who was the best vehicle for his pure-gag efforts, at the end of 1938, and left the 'pure' screwball characters to Bob Clampett over at the Katz Studio. What cartoons Tex did after that with 'crazy' characters at Warners always had some motivation for their actions, and he deliberately steered Bugs away from being Ben Hardaway's Daffy Duck in a rabbit suit, as described by Friz Freleng (even Tex's "Crackpot Quail" didn't focus on the craziness of the bird, but on the lovably dumb personality of the dog).

    Whether the change was because the late-30s Merrie Melodies were considered too high-falutin' to devote to an outright (and decidedly non-Disney) lunatic, or if Tex just didn't think the animation level at the time worked with those type of gags, while the animation levels by the mid-40s at Metro certainly did (and if Hardaway's success with Woody over at Lantz made lunatic characters acceptable for Avery to pitch to Fred Quimby at MGM). Whatever the reasons, it was a pretty big gap between "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" and "Screwball Squirrel" to pair the lunatic characters with matching gags that Avery is best remembered for.

  3. My introduction to Tex Avery was this very cartoon, which I first saw when I was eleven. It made me love him forever, thanks to gags like the above. Before that, I didn't know cartoons could be that funny.

    Tex never liked Screwy, supposedly, and neither do a lot of animation historians. But you can't totally hate a character who beats the living daylights out a fuzzy-wuzzy, Disneyesque, so-cute-you-want-to-vomit squirrel. Even though I've come to like Harman-Ising cartoons since that magical moment when I was eleven, I still cheer when Sammy Squirrel gets his. It was almost as though Tex Avery were announcing the start of a new era at MGM, right there on screen.

  4. April 1 was DEFINITELY the BEST time to release a Screwy Squirrell short!

    Steve C.

  5. Wally Maher is Screwy squirrell..!SC