Editor’s note: Bad Luck Blackie has evidently disappeared from the interwebs.
So. Bad Luck Blackie. Directed by Tex Avery at MGM in 1949. Voted the fifteenth greatest cartoon of all time. Inspired by the advice of Bob Camp, I sat down to analyse how it works as a series of events by writing down what happens and when – even down to the individual frame numbers when the gags get really intense during the final payoff. It took half a day but it was totally worth it.
If you haven’t seen Bad Luck Blackie before and you have seven minutes, watch it before reading on. This analysis may spoil some of the gags.
Bad Luck Blackie works with “event riffs” (events happening in a particular sequence) mixed in with both subversion of expectations (both of reality and in the riffs) and ever-escalating gags.
The riff in the opening sequence is pretty simple – cat gets away from dog, dog outwits and cruelly humiliates cat (eating him, letting him fall onto the floor, trapping his tongue in a mouse trap, squishing him into a book). This riff isn’t really broken until the cat escapes from the dog. As the riff plays out, we learn that this is a cartoon world (major subversion of normality where the cat runs over the tongue staircase from dog to.. er.. dog), the dog is a horrible cruel simpering bastard, and the little cat is defenceless.
We get four repetitions of this sequence of events, plus a fifth aborted one when the cat escapes.
The riff in the middle sequences starts off as “Blackie walks in front of the dog, something hits the dog on the head” – this causality is even verbally explained by Blackie himself. “Just whistle,” he says, adding another element to the front: whistle, Blackie, wham.
This then becomes the slightly longer “dog accosts cat, cat sees dog, cat blows alert whistle, Blackie crosses the dog’s path, something hits the dog on the head, cat escapes”.
A fragile normality is established – the whistle and hence Blackie keep the cat safe from the dog. (Naturally one wonders what happens if the cat loses the whistle – of course he loses it.)
What hits the dog on the head gets more and more absurd and unlikely (flowerpots – believable because they’re near a building; a trunk – not quite as believable; a piano – now you’re being silly; a bomb; a cash register; a horseshoe.. followed by three more horseshoes and a horse). The ways in which Blackie crosses the dog’s path become more absurd and unlikely (appearing from a nook, appearing from behind a barrel, appearing from a tiny tin can and disappearing into another; floating by on a balloon, appearing out of a drainpipe – on a unicycle.) The sight gags for Blackie’s appearance and the dog’s comeuppance escalate into lunacy and subvert everyone’s expectations – especially the dog’s.
There’s secondary associative gags at the end of a couple of the riffs as well: the dog gets hit with a piano, its teeth turn into keys which the cat plays; the dog gets hit with a cash register, the cat escapes its mouth from a cash drawer; the dog accidentally clobbers itself with a single horseshoe, only for three other horseshoes and an entire horse to clobber him immediately afterwards.
Another note is soon added to a variation on second riff after a fade to black – cat is wandering along happily, cat sees dog, cat blows whistle, Blackie crosses the dog’s path, dog gets clobbered.
But the dog is starting to get wise. The riff gets altered by the dog clamping a hand over the cat’s mouth, stopping the cat from blowing the whistle – until a fly ruins everything. Whistle blown, Blackie trots into shot, fire hydrant drops on dog’s head.
Next, the riff appears to start again with the cat wandering along happily, but a jack-in-the-box derails it. The whistle is dropped (as anticipated earlier) and the dog steals it, thinking he’s outsmarted the cat and Blackie.
A part of the riff is now under the control of the villainous dog who wants his revenge on Blackie. It’s as if the riff has gone from major to diminished – what happens now that the villain has control of one of the very elements of the riff? If he blows the whistle, will Blackie still appear?
Expectations all around would indicate yes.
Accordingly, the dog hoists a safe up on a rope, draws an X on the ground where the safe will drop, then blows the whistle. Blackie appears, sees what’s going on, nonchalantly kicks the X across to underneath the dog and about a second later the dog cops his own safe. This establishes a shorter variation of the riff – “dog gets ready to take down Blackie, dog blows whistle, Blackie appears, something falls on the dog”. So even when you think the riff can’t happen, through a surprising gag it finds a way.
This riff variant is repeated – dog gets ready to hit Blackie with a plank of wood, dog blows whistle, Blackie appears (walking across a plank upside-down with suckers on his feet), dog is hit with a ton of nearby bricks.
The new variant is played one last time – the third time. Comedy comes in threes, they say. This time, as Blackie appears the dog paints him white. Blackie’s crossing has no effect. We suspect that the cat has to be black for the bad luck to actually work. Blackie runs back and forth in front of the dog to summon the next event in the sequence, but the riff is broken..
…until the little cat leaps into some black paint, walks in front of the dog and finishes the riff we all know. The dog passes out briefly and swallows the whistle.
And so we come to the final comedic riff of the short, a Blackie-less variation on the middle riff: the dog hiccups, the whistle inside him blows, something falls on his head. After a couple of blows to the head, the dog gets wise and the last event changes to something narrowly missing him – though frame by frame suggests they draw it coming straight for him and he blips out of the way at the last possible frame. The fact that cats aren’t crossing his path breaks the rules of the world slightly, so presumably in order to distract us from this inconsistency the pace of the action speeds up.
By now, we kind of expect unlikely stuff to fall out of the sky; the falling stuff escalates in absurdity and the intervals between hiccups and falling objects become shorter and shorter while the escalation gets completely absurd – a sink, a bathtub, a piano, a steamroller, an airplane, a bus and finally a battleship. It’s an accelerating crescendo of absurdity with the final event of the riff coming quicker and sillier until the villain runs off into the hills, vanquished. And it serves him right, too.
After this there are no more riffs, just ten seconds of the characters shaking hands on a job well done and the small now black cat making evil faces as we iris out of the short.
From doing this analysis I got a lesson in how audience and character expectations can be set up through establishing a pattern of events which then play out like a musical riff – except instead of notes, we have events. Sometimes it’s what we expect and sometimes it isn’t. The biggest turning points in the two initial characters’ respective fortunes came when the riff of events was waylaid by something getting in the way (an incinerator in the first instance, or white paint in the second).
The mid-section of Rock-A-Bye Bear seems to work the same way – once the setup is established, for a couple of minutes we get a riff of “miscreant dog makes guard dog make a noise (usually by hurting him), guard dog rushes outside to make noise out of earshot of grouchy sleeping bear, guard dog dashes back inside”. Again, there’s escalation (from pin on chair to hammer on foot to dynamite on tongue) and the surprising subversion of expectations. (How can someone walk out of a house when their feet and hands are occupied? He finds a way.) But before that we also get a riff of “noise is made, bear comes out and shouts about it”. This is subverted utterly when the bear’s house explodes and he doesn’t wake up.. then it’s quickly unsubverted again when someone wolf-whistles at the Red pin-up.
What makes it funny? Subverting expectations both in terms of established riffs and common sense, progressively escalating one or two events in already established riffs towards greater and greater absurdity.. and of course timing/staging/pacing it all so each event on the screen and soundtrack can be taken in clearly and unambiguously. In the end that’s a bit of a joyless dissection of comedic principles.. but hey, it still makes me laugh.
Admittedly, this analysis has all been pretty writerly, but writing is the part I’m most interested in at the moment. Maybe the concentrated riffing is a Tex Avery trademark or maybe everyone riffs – I guess I’ll find out once I do a few more analyses. I’m keeping my cup of expectations empty for now.