It’s just possible that Tex Avery was the only true genius born in the 20th century.
If you’re of this opinion then you’re probably also of the belief that Screwy Squirrel remains to this day the most tragically forgotten icon of the golden age of American animation.
If you have no idea who either Tex Avery or Screwy Squirrel are, then, my friends, what a delight awaits your curious mind…
Tex Avery was, no less, the man who invented cartoon violence.
A threadbare claim, maybe, but without his skewed input into popular culture every childhood since the war would be clogged with the likes of Merrie Melodies for their Saturday morning memories. And we certainly wouldn’t have heard of the Animaniacs, Itchy and Scratchy or the The Happy Tree Friends.
Avery was the man behind such iconic cartoon figures as Daffy Duck, Droopy and Chilly Willy, and was also the originator of the malevolent Bugs Bunny, before the character was taken away and modified.
His greatest creation, however, remains Screwy Squirrel, a rodent monster whose hyper-surreal, ultra-violent antics graced the silver screen for five gloriously bonkers adventures between 1944 and 1946.
The first of these was the self-explanatory Screwball Squirrel; the formula of which was simple, and repeated. In it, a dangerously unhinged squirrel (called Screwy, natch) goads a dimwitted dog (nicknamed Meathead by Screwy) into chasing him around for about seven minutes, with seemingly the only purpose being for Avery and his team to launch a series of repeatedly over-the-top gags aimed at breaking down the conventions of cartoons in general and Disney in particular.
Screwball Squirrel (1944), released, somewhat appropriately on 1 April, opens on a cutesy scene of bucolic splendour, with a doe-eyed squirrel skipping carefree through a pastoral scene. That is before he is unceremoniously stopped by another squirrel, a tough-guy kind of rodent James Cagney: “What kind of cartoon is this going to be anyway?” he asks, before summarily violently dispatching said cutie pie and telling the audience that the “funny stuff” will commence after the phone rings. The phone does indeed ring and Screwy (for it is he) initiates the plot – no more complex than provoking a dimwitted dog into chasing him around for a bit.
Immediately all the key elements are here: the violence, the iconoclasm, the breaking of the fourth wall and the deliberately unlikeable protagonist. This is in addition to the recurring themes introduced: gags-for-gags sake, false endings, an obsession with detachable body parts and the brilliant use of random objects for violent purposes (which, over the series, would range from phones, to photo booths, to mutoscopes to sinister boxes filled with “swell stuff to hit dog over the head”).
Oh, and the drumroll gag is definitely the best bit…
The follow-up Happy-Go-Nutty, also from 1944, repeats the formula. Screwy escapes from the ‘Nut House’ (mental illness was funny in the forties) and is chased around by the hospital security dog, Meatball. Working on the philosophy that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix’, this is essentially a replay of the previous film, except with better jokes involving cliffs and bombs, a gloriously groan-worthy telephone gag, plus a sideswipe at coca cola, a skunk with BO and a very silly ending.
By the third cartoon, Big Heel-Watha (1945) we have dispensed with the dimwitted dog in favour of a dimwitted native American warrior from a patronisingly caricatured tribe (which, along with the touch of ‘comedy’ racism from Happy-Go-Nutty does grate on modern audiences), whose task it is to find meat for his deprived tribe in return for the hand of (Mae West soundalike) Mini Hot-Cha, daughter of the (Droopy-soundalike) chief.
The gags don’t come quite as fast this time, although the key line that “in a cartoon you can do anything” does keep up the desire to continually break down barriers between audience and film.
The Screwy Truant (1945) is essentially a remake of Happy-Go-Nutty, with a school in place of the institution and Meathead replaced by a different kind of dimwitted mutt. The sight gags are brilliantly in evidence (‘500 yards of phony squirrel tail’, the whitewashing of the screen, a variation on the classic door gag), but this time we add some unexpected meta-referencing. At one point, the cartoon becomes inexplicably wound up with the plot of Little Red Riding Hood.
Don’t be fooled, though, by the Big Bad Wolf’s summation that The Screwy Truant represents a “corny B-picture”. This is 1940s animation at its best.
The same, sadly cannot be said for the last in the series, Lonesome Lenny (1946), in which Screwy becomes the playmate to a big, hulking dimwit (natch) of a dog, based, somewhat strangely, on Lenny from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (the dead mouse is the giveaway), voiced by Avery himself.
Here, the gags appear tired and worn (the best bit is the preamble set in the pet shop, which includes, among others, a gag about rabbit procreation and a reprise of the spitz joke from The Screwy Truant), and Screwy merely cruel. When he dies in the end it, sadly, comes as a relief.
Anyway, for those of you with a little frivolous time to spend, don’t bother with all these smugly self-referential ‘adult’ cartoons and their misplaced sense of irony. Go back to the source and marvel at how long all this has actually being going on. Enjoy.
Written by Cillian Donnelly. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Picturenose.com