In MGM’s 1943 animated short Dumb-Hounded, director Tex Avery debuted a new character, a laconic, quick-witted, slow-talking hound dog. Originally dubbed “Happy Hound” (though this is never explicitly mentioned onscreen), the dog spends the entire cartoon tracking down a wolf who has escaped from jail, remarkably appearing in every locale to which the wolf attempts to escape. From the city to the remotest areas of the planet, there is nowhere the wolf can go where the dog isn’t waiting for him, and every encounter with his would-be captor sends the wolf into frenetic takes marked by incredibly imaginative imagery.
Eventually christened “Droopy,” this seemingly mild-mannered, deceptively meek character became the perfect vehicle through which Avery could explore the wildest gags he could possibly conceive. Pint-sized though he may be, Droopy is clever and strangely strong, eventually besting even his most menacing challengers. Droopy’s practically magical ability to pop up everywhere and anywhere in his cartoons is reminiscent of Cecil Turtle, a character Avery developed while working for Warner Bros., who became Bugs Bunny’s incongruously speedy nemesis in Tortoise Beats Hare (1941) and its two sequels. But while Cecil’s tricks are obvious to the audience, Droopy’s constant popping-up where he shouldn’t be adds a level of “how-does-he-DO-that?” mystery to the character. And while the gag could grow old after a while, it’s the variety of ways in which his opponents, like the unnamed wolf characters or Spike the bulldog, react to seeing Droopy that really makes this recurring element feel fresh in every cartoon.
In Dumb-Hounded, Droopy’s design is more like that of a traditional dog a la Disney’s Pluto, though unlike Pluto, Droopy actually speaks (mumbles) in a somewhat lethargic tone. But in the character’s next cartoon, 1945’s The Shooting of Dan McGoo, Droopy becomes more anthropomorphized, standing upright on his hind legs and walking around like a human, much like Disney’s Goofy or Warner’s Bugs Bunny. This redesign ultimately provided more possibilities for the character in future cartoons, allowing Droopy to take on roles such as gunfighter, cowboy, or even matador, as his movements were no longer limited by a traditionally four-legged stance.
It’s worth noting that the version of McGoo that we see today is not the original version that was theatrically released in 1945. When the cartoon was re-released in 1951, edits were made to remove references to cigarettes, and additional alterations were made to the opening and closing titles. (According to cartoon historian Jerry Beck, the original cartoon–along with most of the original prints for all of the MGM cartoons produced prior to 1951–was destroyed in the 1967 MGM Vault fire, and only backup nitrate prints remain.)
Animated by frequent Avery collaborators Preston Blair, Ed Love, and Ray Abrams, McGoo is a parody of the 1907 poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew, by British-Canadian poet Robert W. Service. In (loosely) recreating the story from the poem, Avery borrows characters from his own classic animated short Red Hot Riding Hood: that cartoon’s Red becomes the sexy singer Lou, and the Wolf takes on the role of Droopy’s adversary. The interaction between these two characters is pretty much the same as in the earlier cartoon; the Wolf lusts after Lou in a series of increasingly outrageous, exaggerated takes as she sings a seductive tune, and when he tries to abduct her, the horndog wolf gets his comeuppance.
McGoo is populated by typical Tex Avery-style gags, jam-packed in from the opening shots: the Alaska town’s “welcome” sign boasts its punny name, Coldernell (which would reappear as the name of a refrigerator in Avery’s 1947 short King-Size Canary); as gunshots ring out, the population of the town–as advertised on the sign–shrinks. There are other sign gags and wild takes galore: a row of boozehounds turn into howling wolves at one word from Lou; beers sliding down an extended bar are subject to traffic lights; a burly bartender stands in front of a portrait of a (supposedly) naked lady, blocking the naughty bits and speaking directly to camera, “You might as well move along, doc. I don’t move from here all through the picture” (don’t worry–he’ll eventually get out of the way, making room for yet another spot-on sign gag). And that’s just in the first two-and-a-half minutes, before the plot even gets underway.
A great deal of the humor in the Droopy shorts comes from the dog’s voice, which is almost painfully deadpan. Bill Thompson provided the voice of Droopy in most of the theatrical cartoons; fitting, seeing as Thompson was partly the inspiration for the character through his radio role of Wallace Wimple on the popular program Fibber McGee and Molly (in fact, The Shooting of Dan McGoo features a nod to Fibber, as the Wolf adapts one of that show’s signature lines–“Tain’t funny, McGoo!”–before turning to the camera and groaning, “What corny dialogue!”). But during World War II, when Thompson was enlisted in military service, Tex Avery himself voiced Droopy in three cartoons: McGoo, Wild and Wolfy, and Northwest Hounded Police. So seamless is Avery’s delivery that it’s difficult to tell the difference between his vocals and Thompson’s! [For his part, Thompson was an adept voice-over artist; not only had he provided the voice of the pseudo-Hitler wolf in Avery’s Blitz Wolf, but he also played several famous supporting characters for Disney, including the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland (1951), Smee in Peter Pan (1953), and five different parts, including Jock the Scottie, in Lady and the Tramp (1955).]
Over the course of nearly two decades, Droopy would become one of the most popular recurring figures in the MGM animation lineup (behind perennial breadwinners Tom and Jerry), eventually appearing in twenty-four cartoons for the studio. Avery directed sixteen of these alone, and co-directed one with Michael Lah, who took over the series in 1957. The final Droopy theatrical short, Droopy Leprechaun, was released in 1958, well after Avery had left MGM. Though the series was rather short-lived in comparison to the run of other notable characters from the Golden Age of Hollywood animation, Droopy remains one of the most memorable animated figures from that era, if only for Thompson’s truly distinctive vocal characterization and the wall-to-wall gags that remain some of the most entertaining and outrageous visuals ever conceived for any cartoon.