From a clear blue sky

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Joe Adamson’s book Tex Avery King of Cartoons is a majestic summation of the work of a great artist — a filmmaker whose cartoons express a coherent and unique view of life and the universe just as Keaton’s or Chaplin’s films do. This book should be in every school. And it should certainly be in print, which it ain’t, though you can get second-hand copies for a reasonable price.

I can’t add anything much to Adamson’s account of Avery’s 1949 classic BAD LUCK BLACKIE except better stills — I haven’t seen the 1975 edition of his tome but the 1985 one is alas illustrated with fuzzy b&w frame enlargements that capture nothing of the vivid colouring and intensity of an MGM toon.

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Plot summary — a nasty bulldog is persecuting a cute white kitten. Adamson points out that this is a unique sequence in cartooning, since it’s so mean and unevenly matched. Avery didn’t usually go for cuteness, and here he uses it as a weapon against the audience, making us uncomfortable whenever he forces laughs from us with outrageous gags whose subject is the mistreatment of a blameless and defenceless infant.

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Help arrives in the form of the title character, who presents his business card and says he can deliver instant bad luck to an enemy. Despite the business card and the air of a sharp freelancer offering a service, no money changes hands — it’s hard to see how the kitten could have paid, and to raise the question of financial reward might evoke the spectre of the protection racket (Blackie has the rasping, plebeian tones common to many Avery characters, and could be mistaken for a gangster. Don Bluth, maker of saccharine and inferior animated features, couldn’t bear those voices).

What happens next is peculiar. Whenever Blackie is summoned by a blast on a whistle, he crosses the evil dog’s path and some stray object, a flower-pot, say, will fall on the dog’s head. Instant bad luck. Avery described the cartoon to Adamson before the latter had been able to seen it, and he asked, reasonably enough, where the falling objects were falling FROM. “Avery’s answer was a small stammer and a vigorous waving of the hand, as if I had asked the most irrelevant question in the world. Which, in a sense, I had.”

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As the cartoon develops, the falling objects become more varied and, by some inscrutable but easily accepted logic, more dangerous. The dog is beaned by a horseshoe, then another, then another, then another, then flattened by a confused looking horse which drops from above without explanation. A cascade of bricks, a refrigerator, a piano, all drop without visible source or reason, seemingly teleported from the Twilight Zone into the perfect midair spot to do the most damage to their target below.

What fascinates me most, as it did Adamson, is the plot’s final twist. Blackie gets painted white and loses his power. The bulldog snatches the whistle from him and blows on it to prove its impotence. So the kitten paints himself black and crosses the dog’s path. A falling object stuns the dog, who swallows the whistle.

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Now the dog gets hiccups, and each involuntary contraction of his diaphragm causes the ingested whistle to let loose a shrill blast. By some strange simplification of the rules previously established, the whistle now causes objects to fall from the sky, with no crossing of the path required by anyone. It’s as if God or Fate of whoever is in charge of dropping things on dogs has developed a Pavlovian reflex response to the sound of a whistle anywhere near this dog. “And then, with a hiccup-tweet-THUD, there’s a rapid culmination of all the operating threads, as fate becomes more vindictive, more absurd, and more resourceful all at once, smashing the dog with a steamroller, a passenger plane, a Greyhound bus, and, as a coup de grace, the S.S. Arizona.” As the celestial brickbats enlarge, the dog diminishes on the horizon (little black dot visible above Greyhound bus, below).

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I think rapidity is key here. A set of clearly understood rules has suddenly been reduced in complexity so that an initial cause leads to a final effect with all the essential in-between steps inexplicably omitted. In a weird way it reminds me of the ending of Cronenberg’s THE FLY. The movie has established that when two creatures go into a telepod together, molecularly disassembled, transmitted and reconstructed in another telepod, they get genetically spliced together. This causes, for some reason that doesn’t really hold up if you think about it, the larger of the two organisms to slowly mutate into a cross between each passenger.

At movie’s end, this hybrid of scientist Seth Brundle and a house fly, known as Brundlefly, attempts to repeat the process with his pregnant girlfriend, so as to become more human — two adults, a foetus and a house fly will make him less Brundle but a lot less fly. However, at the last moment the girlfriend telepod is disconnected (not sure why she needed her own telepod — the fly managed fine) and the computer screen announces that Brundlefly has been fused with… his telepod.

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I read an account of this plot point in, I think, SFX magazine, which claimed that the fusion was with “the organic elements of the pod” — upholstery and stuff, I guess. But upholstery doesn’t have DNA, and so the idea of gene-splicing with it makes no sense. Also, the effect in this case is not a slow mutation but an instant melding of insect-man and machine, to create a hideous, disabled biomechanical nightmare.

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As with Blackie’s apocalyptic whistle, the filmmakers have used the frantic energy of their climax to hotwire the narrative, jumping from original cause to final effect with all the essential in-betweens left out. If we’re engaged in the film, we seem to accept this crazed leaping, though we can certainly analyse it afterwards and see how audaciously illogical it is. Am I saying it’s good or bad? Well, faultless narrative logic that achieved the same effect might be preferable, but I love both BAD LUCK BLACKIE and THE FLY so I guess I’m saying insane leaps of logic are good.

Is that any comfort on this Inauguration Day?

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5 Responses to “From a clear blue sky”

  1. Randy Cook Says:

    I knew Tex, and I knew Bluth. Never knew that Bluth hated those voices, but it totally makes sense.

  2. Yeah, he’s condemned out of his own mouth on that one, isn’t he?

  3. It is. Thank you, this is perfect.

  4. The title character in “King Sized Canary” vanishes when the dog appears; then the dog vanishes and we’re left with the cat and mouse. The stuff is so fast and outrageous you forget this was about a canary.

    Like cartoons, scifi and fantasy can define what’s possible and not in their universe. The difference being a seven-minute cartoon can change the rules mid-game and get away with it. In scifi and fantasy, the setup is usually that success is impossible … until it’s not. The superhero can suddenly punch harder (because He Cares), there’s some nittering stupid loophole in the magic spell, the spaceship hull CAN hold for another few seconds. The bad luck whistle is pretty sensible in comparison.

  5. Outrageous abuses of plausibility are far more acceptable if they make things worse for the protagonist, which is why The Fly one perhaps scrapes by.

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