Saturday, 4 May 2013

273. The Early Worm Gets the Bird (1940)

Warner cartoon no. 272.
Release date: January 13, 1940.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Willy the Blackbird / Fox / Annoyed Baby Blackbird).
Story: Jack Miller.
Animation: Robert Cannon.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A young blackbird is in dire need to eat a worm, and so wakes up early in the morning, but only to be outwitted by a particular worm.

Animator Bobe Cannon, has already been transferred from the Ray Katz unit to Avery's unit where he receives screen credit on that one Tex cartoon. Thanks to Sogturtle (from the GAC/TTTP forums), Cannon was transferred to Avery's unit after Rollin Hamilton's departure from the Studio, and he ended up moving over to Chuck Jones' unit a few days later. So, he went from Clampett to Tex to Jones in a matter of a few weeks.

At evening, there is a beautiful Johnny Johnsen background shot of the sunset in the sky, and the camera pans to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Blackbird. The music cue, I think, would be The Old Folks at Home - which you can hear in the Termite Terrace Gag Reels of 1939. The background shot would happen to take place at a cotton field in the Deep South.

Inside the room we find that the mother blackbird is seen sending her children to bed, where the young blackbirds are praying before going off to bed...which of course, would've been traditional for any young child living in that time period.

All the blackbirds hop into their beds after their prayer, but climb quickly down to shout 'Ahem', and then go to sleep. After the blackbirds bid goodnight to their 'Mammy' they then go to sleep. Some good old family racist tendencies used in the cartoon, as Tex portrays them as blackbirds, and hence the fact Mel Blanc delivers the character's voice in a stereotypical fashion. The mother has a very strong Southern accent, which Tex and Jack Miller display 'cotton fields' from the background, and the stereotype into that semantic field. Meanwhile, the main blackbird then grabs out his book, 'The Early Bird Gets the Worm'. He taps a younger bird (with his rear end sticking out) and the blackbird reads about it: 'I say It say here, "the early bird gets the worm"' until his sibling yawns: 'Aww, who cares 'bout that?'.

The mother blackbird is about to get ready for bed, as she comments about her children's divine behaviour with awe. However, she notices the light at the children's bedroom is still on through the cracks of the door. Funny how the letterbox reads the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Blackbird--and empathises that the father probably abandoned the family.

The child blackbird is caught reading the book, and she calls him by his name: 'Willie, you hand over that book!'. She looks at the book's title and throws the book out of the window with disapproval. She barks: 'Youse too young to be readin' dat trash!'.

This implies that the idiom 'the early bird gets the worm' has a negative connotation, coming from the mother. The mother blackbird then warns Willie the blackbird, about how a fox would catch him before he catches a worm. The children ask with eagerness and fear about what a 'fox' is. The voice actress for the mother is sure a mystery, and sounds rather obscure.

Then the mother goes into a lecture and demonstrates what a fox looks like. During the lecture, you hear Franz Schubert's Der Elkronig, which was beautifully arranged by Milt Franklyn. Stalling does some great arrangements when the mother comments 'just like you' as the children hide under their covers. The mother stops and turns off the light to go to sleep. Willie, however, acts secured and believes no fox could scare or eat him--though his siblings warn about the fox. He sets his alarm clock for early in the morning, so he could catch a worm. After setting the alarm, time ticks by quickly.

The next morning, the sun rises and the sunset fading in the background has been beautifully timed and the colours look great. The sun rises in theme of William Tell Overture. The alarm clock then rings at 5 o'clock in the morning where Willie then shushes the alarm clock for silence. May seem typical of Tex, though I like how subtle the gag is.

Willie then creeps out of the bed, as he tiptoes his way out of the room, while his mother is in bed sleeping. Yep, sure no father living in the house. As he tiptoes on one side of the walkthrough door; but quickly skids to the other side.

The skid was very appealing, and well timed by Tex...that feels much believable and even humorous in a subtle way. Just outside the blackbird's house; Willie is about to climb down the tree in order to find his worm. Much of the music cue for the morning scenes is all heard in the Schlesinger Gag Reels, as Stalling used the music from this cartoon as stock cues for the reels. Willie, then loses his balance on the step of his house and he makes a fall. Instead of a serious accident, Tex Avery obviously halts the drama and just has Willie prepared to land. The timing as well as the gag was well executed, and Tex makes it look so normal and subtle in the animation world. His hat also skids and lands on top of his head.

The worm, makes his introduction in the picture, and is undoubtedly another stereotypical feature, minus the voice. The worm reads the book which was tossed out of the window the previous night. The worm reads the phrase, and I can't make out what remark he is saying with that voice. The music cue, of course, is Ain't We Got Fun.

The worm then strolls away from the book, and ends up sniffing like a dog. Willie also sniffs like a dog as both are following the same tracks. Rather cutesy for Tex to have both characters with a dog attitude.

Both characters end up encountering one another, as they stare at each other face-to-face. Both make a take with a shocked outburst and they rush out of the scene. Willie rushes out of the scene and hides behind a mushroom. Willie looks at the worm, and realises its who he's after.

He rushes over to chase after the worm but the worm jumps straight back inside his hole. Willie runs towards the hole and he protests for the worm to jump back out. The worm jumps out of the other hole and then copies Willie's actions. From watching the actions, you can tell the story writers as well as the directors were still on the lookout for a wacky personality whose wits were mightier than their enemies. The worm finds he is being watched by Willie and then runs away from Willie.

The worm then hides inside some used tin cans which are piled up on the ground. Willie looks inside through the cans looking out for the worm, and even gets fooled by the worm who points to him at a wrong direction.

Willie then runs at the long distance where he stops, and then a sign fades through Willie reading 'Sucker' with You're a Horses Ass played and hilariously arranged. Sort of the "epic fail" of its day.

That is a great scene for its many reasons, Tex Avery is developing a lot of character personality and even experimenting with a formula that was very popular with the Warner Bros. cartoons of the later period. Willie chases the worm, though the worm then hides inside a lily.

Willie peaks his hand inside the lily and the he gets a jerky reaction from his mouth. Tex's timing is really weird, though creative during Willie's exit, where all is left is his spirit that fades from the screen. Turns out the worm is acting like a bee inside the flower. The worm whispers to reveal his appearance, and Willie chases after the worm. A bee living inside a lily makes the flower move, fooling Willie the worm is inside. Willie jumps inside and there is some fighting and rustling inside the lily until he is tossed out by an angry bee. The worm whispers for Willie, and then the chase continues.

After the chase, the villain enters his cue: the fox. Why, he even grabs out a card to point it out himself. To prove it was so obvious, he pulls out another card: 'As if you didn't know'. He then scamps off to chase after the blackbird. Willie turns around and asks: 'You all tryin' to catch 'em, too?'.

The fox, puzzled, then pretends: 'Err, yeah, yeah sure, sure'. Willie, not knowing he is in danger of a fox, then chuckles how both of them will catch the worm. The fox then responds with a thirst for blackbirds: 'Yeah, we'll get 'im!'.

This then turns into a pantomime for the fox, as Willie comments: 'There's one thing us early birds gotta look out for - the fox'. The sly fox then asks with awe: 'The fox?', and this turns into a sequence where Willie explains what the fox looks like.

There is some great character animation there, where Willie recites what his mother told him about what a fox looks like. He uses his arms to gesture its appearance, as well as stretching his nose. He slowly turns nervous, and the fox's facial expression turns much sneakier. Willie then opens up the fox's mouth open to check who he is speaking to: the sharp teeth is a giveaway for him, and it greats good suspense. Willie slowly attempts to run away but the fox catches him in time.

Willie then ends up screaming at the top of his lungs for his mother, or anyone to help him from being eaten by the fox. The worm then stops, decides to stop and think, and then rushes over to the lily for his idea. He then calls for the bee out of the lily who then peeps out with anger.

The worm is being chased by a bee, and the fox is busy preparing Willie inside a sandwich and he grabs out a bottle of 'catsup'. During the pacing shots, the bee is chasing after the work, and the fox is pouring ketchup on top of Willie.

Then, it reaches to the point where the worm lands on top of the fox's behind, and the bee stings him. After the sting, the fox then jumps with a wild take, and Willie and the worm exit. Ketchup ends up being splattered all over the fox. He looks at the ketchup on his first, and believes at first, it is blood. He then dramatises the 'agony' of the 'blood' around him. He then shouts in a ghetto voice: 'I've been stabbed! They dun killed me! Doctor, doctor, save me! Save me! Hallelujah!'. Willie and the worm then show some truce towards each other, though the bee flies through the scene chasing after them.

After failing to catch a worm all early in the morning, Willie walks back to his bed, exhausted. Just as the alarm rings, Willie throws himself back under the covers. The mother blackbird then walks over to wake up her children. She asks her children whether they had a healthy sleep. All three blackbirds respond with an enthusiastic yes.

However, Willie, the last of the blackbirds, is then awoke with a very tired facial expression. He responds very tiredly, 'Yes, Mammy'. The mother then asks, 'And just what does ma little angles want for breakfast'. All of the other blackbirds respond enthusiastically for 'worms'. However, Willie, feeling tired and fed up, responds 'I don't want worms for breakfast, Mammy'. The worm, then pops out from under the covers and comments: 'Neither duz I, Mammy'. A rather typical Tex conclusion for the cartoon with a funny punchline as the cartoon finishes.

Overall comments: It's good to see that Tex was at least turning out something different other than a spot-gag cartoon which he has turned out a couple of times in a row previously. In this cartoon, Tex is rather more ambitious than he was previously last year. In this cartoon, he is really focusing on character personality, and looking for a suitable one. The worm, of course, is the main reason for Willie's failure, and has the tendency to try and outwit him. Now, at the same time this cartoon was made: the staff writers and the studio were on the lookout for a new character personality. Already, they were attempting to develop a rabbit character, with the 'screwball' concept being tamed--and yet in this cartoon there was a trickster personality still being developed. Of course, it would then evolve into Bugs Bunny. With the exception of A Wild Hare, Avery would still develop that concept in Of Fox and Hounds--even though Bugs Bunny had already been established by that point. Evidently, the cartoon is a whole African-American stereotype as it's set in the Deep South, and I don't generally have too much comments about the whole 'tendency' issue as it feels much minor than other racist cartoons.

Watching this cartoon, Tex is portraying not the average director than he was in the previous years. Watching a Tex cartoon of the 1930s: you'd expect it to be a parody, full of dated radio one-liners, or even Egghead. Here, at around this point: Tex was really working on a complete story, as the cartoon itself has little to no references. It feels like a different move for Tex, than what he would usually do, as there isn't really too much distinctive traits the whole cartoon has. It feels more of an entry that would've landed to Hardaway-Dalton or maybe Chuck Jones. Anyhow, it is full of Tex's charms such as the 'sucker' gag, and even the wits of the worm--which sums it up into an Avery product. As always, Carl W. Stalling's music arrangements for the cartoon was great. About the first half of the cartoon's musical score is all featured in the Schlesinger gag reels, and it's great to listen to how Stalling arranged his music with timing. The cartoon felt a little bit slow-paced throughout the story, but it's mostly the whole opening: which does go on for quite a long time. Judging how the pacing of the cartoon worked, it all had to be included in there: the mother's description of the fox, and Willie demonstrating the size of the fox to the fox.


  1. I wonder who played the mama blackbird here??SC

  2. I'm from Brazil, and I'm enjoying this blog so much!! Sorry for the poor English... Plz keep up the good work!! :D :D :D

  3. You're about to start reviewing the true masterpieces! Plz don't stop now :D

  4. Sometime it pays to sleep in when your very very tired