The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Red Hot Riding Hood (1943/USA/dir. Tex Avery) appeared at #30 on my original list.
What it is • We all know the story: a little girl goes romping through the woods to visit her grandma, while a sinister wolf lurks behind the trees ready to lead her astray. As Red Hot Riding Hood opens, a goofy narrator dutifully recites these familiar details, until the irritated wolf whirls around and stares straight out at the audience, lambasting the hidden storyteller. The credits roll again, in flashing neon, baring a subtitle "Something new has been added." That "something new" may be modernity - the new tale unfolds not in a rustic forest but amidst the urban jungle of Los Angeles with spotlights shooting from the skyscraper windows and a Hollywood and Vine street sign wrapped around the wolf's head after he takes a tumble. Or the "something new" might be sex, what was implicit in the original story now brought to the forefront - you'll lose count of the phallic symbols within about ten seconds of this new beginning. Little Red is now involved in a nightclub striptease and the wolf is her biggest fan, flipping between sleazy pickup artist, put-on Euro-sophisticate, and gawky goofball, depending on what he thinks will work. None of it does and as in the fairy tale, he races to Grandma's (some have read her as a bordello madam, awaiting the return of one of her employees) to intercept her and try again. Instead, the old woman who greets him is even hornier than he is, and has a stamina that ultimately defeats the exhausted canine, chasing him through rooms, knocking him out windows, reappearing in doorways when he thinks he's gotten rid of her. None of these descriptions convey the lightning energy of the short itself - it must be watched to be digested. Perhaps the "something new" that's been added is cinema: this is a fairly tale completely reconfigured for a new mass medium, a folk legend given new life by celluloid and the animator's brush.
Why I like it •
The cartoon's manic pace makes me giddy - this is a side of the forties we don't usually see in live-action. Avery's animation just barely manages to keep up with his imagination, gags cascading over one another so fast we can barely breathe - and yet he's so in tune with the pace of cinematic perception that he knows we can understand each ludicrous conceit in a matter of seconds. While still following the rough shape of the tale (absent the heroic, patriarchal figure of the Huntsman), the movie manages both to mock its sense of anxious dread and dissect its underlying themes of masculine aggression and confused identity. I also appreciate how the film subverts not only the classic story but also cultural expectations: flipping Red from a demure chorus girl to a tittering Kate Hepburn knockoff, turning the wolf into terrified prey, and establishing the side character of Grandma as both the central hero and villain of the piece. Avery's work at MGM - and the contemporaneous Warners output he helped shape in his earlier years at that studio - acts as a kind of evil twin to Disney's more earnest, naturalistic approach during the same period. It's no coincidence that Avery kept returning to fairy tale subjects, constantly dragging them into the twentieth century and shifting their mode from spooky moralism to bawdy humor and social satire. I've also always been a sucker both for fairy tales and for imaginative re-tellings of them (indeed, I was introduced to many of these stories not through a book or bedtime recitation, but through Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre series). Finally, I love the film's wicked sense of subverting not just content but form: this is animation less interested in duplicating reality than creating something entirely new, following its own radical form of physical logic.
More from me • I reviewed this cartoon alongside two other Tex Avery classics in 2008, under the title "Free-form Fairy Tales".
How you can see it • Red Hot Riding Hood is uploaded on DailyMotion. Otherwise, it's surprisingly hard to find; I'm sure it's available on some Tex Avery DVD collections out there, but I'm having trouble determining which ones.
What do you think? • Is the film's vision of predatory courtship an outdated convention or a brilliant mockery of the era's cultural assumptions? How does the film's "message" (if it has one) differ from the original story's? What are your favorite Averys and/or fractured fairy-tale cartoons?
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Yesterday: Singin' in the Rain (#31)
Tomorrow: Goodfellas (#29)