Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Little Red Walking Hood

Red Riding Hood and Tex Avery had a long and fruitful relationship, which began at Warners and carried over to MGM. While the sexy Red of Metro may be the one most fondly remembered by animation fans, his first Red was the more ground-breaking. ‘Little Red Walking Hood’ (1937) was Warners’ first real fairy tale spoof, a concept imitated over and over at other studios and on television cartoons. Tex was developing a stable of gags and you’ll find some of his favourites of that period here—the theatre audience walking in while the cartoon is in progress, characters talking to the viewers, the ubiquitous guy interrupting the action, not to mention the presence of Kate Hepburn’s voice (à la Elvia Allman this time).

Something that may be unique to this cartoon is the backgrounds were etched in coloured pencil.

I’m hoping someone can enlighten me about who is responsible for these. Johnny Johnsen was Avery’s long-time background man through most of the ‘40s but I don’t know when he arrived at Warners. I’d like to presume it’s Johnny solely because of the uniqueness and because of Chuck Jones’ low opinion of the backgrounds of the cartoons at that time. He told Greg Ford “We used a man by the name of Griff Jay, who was an old newspaper cartoonist—and he did what we called “moldy prune backgrounds.” Jones was a little less diplomatic in other interviews, calling the work “diaper brindle” to Mike Barrier. And that’s the polite version.

Griffey Jay was born September 17, 1880 and raised by his widowed mom Georgie (maiden name Griffey) in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Jay was yet another Kansas City connection to California animation which started with Walt Disney. He had been a cartoonist on The Kansas City Post; Warners storyman Bugs Hardaway had been a cartoonist on the rival Star. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1924 and was doing advertising art; the 1927 city directory reveals he was working for the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company. His career at Warners was apparently brief. He arrived in 1936 from the Charles Mintz studio where he was a “writer” (he might have been doing story sketches). He died at his home on February 2, 1951.

Jay’s name is the only one Jones brought up in interviews. Also in the background department at the time was Elmer G. Plummer, class of ’28 of Redlands High School in Redlands, California (that’s his house you see to the right). Plummer attended Chouinard where an instructor was another Redlands native, Phil Dike. He was already being written up as an award winner in the Los Angeles Times in 1932 and the paper described him and his wife Barbara as “cartoon artists” in an edition of May 18, 1936. Plummer soon joined Dike at the Disney studio; the Disney connection is interesting in that Disney and Plummer’s son Philip were both members of the Order of DeMolay, though roughly 40 years apart. Plummer was doing freelance work for UPA in 1954. You can read his biography here.

I suppose I shouldn’t close out this post without mentioning the cartoon’s loopy animation by Irv Spence and the clever Ted Lewis-like sing/speak by Tedd Pierce as the wolf. Pierce was more adept at downing martinis than anything else, but he wrote some fine cartoons and his voice work is really underrated.


  1. Is it me or does the backgrounds look as though it was colored with colouring pencils but really colored in well?

    I think that Irv Spence did the scenes of the Wolf disguised as Grandma as Riding Hood enters - and the Egghead scene and he declares himself as the hero of this picture.

  2. Spence also handled the wolf failing to get the front door open and then grabbing his face as Egghead just walks in. Great both broad and subtle reaction shots here, and the subtle things like the shoulder shrug were among the little throw-in gags that started making Schlesinger's cartoons special around late 1937. (BTW - Between this cartoon and "The Isle of Pingo Pongo" one of the unheralded lessons of the early Warners cartoons is never get around Egghead's violin case if you want to stay safe).

    As far as the background, I pretty much thought in the 30s that the style, or the problems with style, pretty much went hand-in-hand with the struggles Warners was going through to make the animation work with and not against the gags. But if you asked the background department to do something special, as in the middle part of "Miss Glory", "Porky in Wackyland" or "Coo-Coo Nut Grove" they could do work that was certainly above the level Jones rated them at.