179. Screwball Squirrel – Tex Avery

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SUMMARY: A mean-spirited squirrel commandeers a cartoon from a cutesy little grey squirrel and replaces the Disney-esque antics with a frantic chase destined to subvert the accepted norms of the animated short.

WHY IT’S HERE: Of all the attempts to create an animated star character, Tex Avery’s Screwy Squirrel was probably one of the least likely to succeed. In this cruel sociopathic squirrel, Avery created one of the Hollywood cartoon’s most hateful protagonists. In doing so he also turned the Hollywood cartoon on its head and launched a character whose cult status was destined to be celebrated by a select few in decades to come. I am one of those few.

Like Bruce Springsteen pressured into writing ‘Dancing in the Dark’, Tex Avery was under pressure from MGM to give them a star character. Avery resented this interference and ultimately claimed to detest Screwy Squirrel. This is understandable given what the rascally rodent must have represented to him. And yet, in his subversive compliance with MGM’s wishes Avery created one of his greatest and most underrated cartoons. ‘Screwball Squirrel’ is a masterpiece in which Avery infuses the standard chase film with lots of unexpected embellishments. The first and most famous of these is the opening, in which the film appears to be a Disney-esque semi-realistic picture starring a cloyingly cute squirrel named Sammy. Baulking at the very thought of this, Screwy proceeds to take Sammy behind a tree and beat the snot out of him. Many other studios had taken good-natured pot-shots at Disney but this one goes for the jugular, effectively egging on audiences to celebrate their narrow escape from Disney treacle in favour of the violent hilarity to come.

From this fantastic opening ‘Screwball Squirrel’ just gets better and better. Each joke seems designed to wrong-foot someone, with one sequence in which the film seems to stick being designed specifically to annoy projectionists (something Avery would do even more hilariously in ‘Magical Maestro’ some years later). With his annoying laugh and unmotivated anarchy, Screwy is an unsettling presence and his ability to seemingly do anything, from conjuring a streetcar out of thin air to lifting up the corner of the frame to peep at the next scene, makes him even more disturbing. The ending, in which Avery piles on three unexpected moments back to back, does justice to this enigmatically wonderful cartoon. Screwy Squirrel would go on to star in just four more cartoons before Avery, in keeping with the series brutal nature, killed him off in the final cartoon of the series ‘Lonesome Lenny’.

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