When Tex Avery began directing animated shorts at Warner Bros. in 1935, he jumped headlong into a demanding production schedule. Though Avery’s was not the only unit producing cartoons for the Warner studio–two other units were headed by Jack King and Ben “Bugs” Hardaway (at least until the return of Friz Freleng, who had defected briefly to MGM, in 1939)–the “Termite Terrace” crew were making some of the most indisputably entertaining cartoons on the lot. Avery’s crew generally worked on the black-and-white Looney Tunes series, but in 1936, he was assigned to direct three of the Technicolor Merrie Melodies shorts: in May of that year, his first color cartoon, I’d Love to Take Orders from You, was released; the following month saw the premiere of the Art Deco-influenced Page Miss Glory; and the month after that, Avery and company delivered the simple tale of a misfit musician punningly named “Owl Jolson” in I Love to Singa.
Animated by Chuck Jones and Virgil Ross (with “supervisor” Tex credited as “Fred Avery”), the cartoon is a parody of Warner Bros.’ first talkie, The Jazz Singer, which had been released to much fanfare in 1927. I Love to Singa simplifies the original story, deleting the potentially sticky religious elements of its predecessor (as well as the controversial blackface scenes). Here, the conflict between father and son lies in Professor Owl’s determination that his son will not sing the forbidden jazz, but instead be forced to conform to family standard and “sing like we want him to.”
Unlike many of Avery’s later cartoons (think Blitz Wolf and his screwball fairy tales), the parodic elements of I Love to Singa are more of a gentle nudge than a slap across the face. The cartoon serves as a sort of fond tribute to the original film as opposed to an outright satire of it. That relative benignity is fitting, considering The Jazz Singer’s storied reputation at Warner Bros. and its position in the studio’s history–to take the cartoon in a sharper direction likely would have been frowned upon, to say the least.
The title song was taken from another Jolson film, The Singing Kid, released by Warner Bros. in April 1936. It was a typical move for the studio–after all, the Merrie Melodies series initially had been designed by producer Leon Schlesinger solely as a marketing tool to promote the soundtracks to Warner Bros. films, and the Jolson film fit the bill. Jolson performs the catchy tune “I Love to Singa” several times in Kid, including twice in duets with storied bandleader Cab Calloway (who plays himself in the movie).
The cartoon is noteworthy for being one of the first Warner shorts to be produced using the full-color, three-strip Technicolor process, as Disney’s stranglehold on the patent for that process had finally expired a few months earlier. Most of the prior color Merrie Melodies (beginning in 1934) had been made either with the two-color Technicolor process (red-and-green based) or the more muted Cinecolor technique, and the lack of vibrancy in those earlier shorts is almost startling in comparison to later cartoons. I Love to Singa takes full advantage of its new multicolored palette, and the results are undeniably lovely.
Even though it features few of the manic hallmarks that would later come to define his filmography, over the years, I Love to Singa has become one of Avery’s better-known shorts. References and tributes to the cartoon and to Owl Jolson have popped up in other Looney Tunes media, and even on modern-day series such as South Park. All things considered, the continued love for the character is really not all that surprising. There’s just something mighty appealing about that jazzy little owl.