When it comes to American cartoons from the 1940s, I’m not particularly knowledgeable or experienced beyond the Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerries – I didn’t even watch a Tex Avery toon until 2018 despite the man’s ubiquity in the world of animated slapstick. However, that lack of awareness can result in finding something new from cartoons that might otherwise go ignored outside the relative mainstream. The Fox and the Crow are one such example.
I barely knew anything about this duo, who appeared in a series of cartoons produced by Columbia’s Screen Gems studio from 1941 to 1950. Only that their first short “The Fox and the Grapes” was directed by the underrated Frank Tashlin, that they had a long-running comic series through the 50s and 60s, and that John Hubley directed three of their final cartoons during the early days of the UPA studio. Illustrated trivia, essentially.
For whatever reason, I decided to start watching the series after I checked out and enjoyed those three Hubley shorts, popping onto the ol’ YouTube every now and again to view another one of their cartoons. (One big upside of their relative obscurity is that you can put their shorts on YouTube without being mauled by the copyright gestapo.)
As I watched the Fox and Crow cartoons, I started to gain an appreciation of what they were trying to do, and for an element that I’d never really thought about until this series: the importance of a good character dynamic for a golden age cartoon duo.
Cartoons of this time are famously full of duos in which characters play off each other to create memorable cartoons, sequences, dialogues and the like. Looney Tunes is bursting to the seams with them that it almost feels redundant to name more than Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck & Porky Pig. Over at MGM, Tom & Jerry is named for their duo’s legendary antics, while Avery often paired up Droopy with Butch/Spike. Famous Studios had Herman & Katnip, and even Terrytoons got in on the act with Gandy Goose & Sourpuss.
However, I’d watched a good few of the former from childhood, and so I took their dynamics for granted; never really thinking about how integral they were to what made those characters tick and how well they worked together because of it. I’ve never felt much disdain for the 1960s Looney Tunes shorts that paired Daffy Duck with Speedy Gonzalez, but maybe there was a failure in their dynamic that caused others to loathe those specific shorts so infamously. I was simply numb enough to not notice.
But because this was my first time watching the Fox and Crow cartoons, I did get the chance to become consciously aware of it, and to appreciate it. So, what is their dynamic? What is it that makes these two tick and why does it work when you put them together?
In short, I think there’s a strong contrast between the two, but peppered with enough similarities that you can really have some fun with how you portray them.
Let’s start with the Fox: He’s presented as something of a higher class fancyman. He’s well-spoken and eloquent with a melodious cadence to his voice, and a refined manner intended to peg him as a good natured, sensible man. He has fine clothes, often seen living in a fine house, regularly employed and sometimes with a motor vehicle. In that sense, there’s a pampered pomposity to his nature that can be read as deeply insensitive (one short has him skiing with a sackful of fine foods, while a starving Crow watches from the discomfort of his own home).
But at the same time, he’s just as often minding his own business – not doing harm to anyone and even trying to do good, like digging for victory during the war. He can even be quite pleasant, trying to offer kindness or politely brushing off the Crow’s attempts to take advantage of him. You can easily root for him, and some shorts like “Room & Bored” and “Mr Moocher” do place him as the sympathetic character being hounded by the Crow.
But that well-mannered placidity can go right out the window when pushed far enough, at which point he becomes violently mad and angry. That anger is something he seems incapable of hiding very well, as his expressions often feature a scowl when he’s having even a slightly irritating conversation with the Crow.
It’s far from strange to have cartoon characters going mad and running for the shotgun at breaking point, but I was fascinated by how much this played into his character. All these attempts to pass himself off as cultured and civilized, falling to pieces after a few minutes with the Crow. In short, the Fox is a pretentious ponce who can be enjoyably taken down a peg or two, with enough innocence to keep him from being entirely antagonistic.
Now how about the Crow? He is presented as someone just trying to get by. His gruff manner and poor grammar indicate him as being lower-class, along with the dirty cap he always wears, the menial jobs he performs, and the shoddy trees or houses in which he starves. Compared to the Fox’s opulence and pompous airs, the Crow is the downtrodden, common man – the Robin Hood to the Fox’s Sheriff of Notthingham. (Rather amusing, since the actual Robin Hood short they did has it the other way round.)
However, he is an opportunistic grifter who’ll take advantage of the Fox at every turn, conning him out of money, food, accomodation and whatever else he can get away with. He’ll pull out a fake business card claiming he’s of a high-paying occupation. He’ll blatantly lie about the state of things and place unreasonable demands on the Fox. He’ll lie, cheat and assault the Fox into submission or frustration, whichever comes first.
Sometimes he’s got a good reason for his trickery, like protecting a pair of refugee eggs from a nosey bird watcher or simply trying to get something to eat. But he is just as often doing it because the Fox is the first sucker to appear within the vicinity of this cartoon. Again, tricksters are dime a dozen in the world of 40s cartoons, but it’s this specific mix of background and utterly cruel chicanery that makes such a fascinating character to me.
What strikes me about the characters of the Fox and the Crow is that they have roughly equal pleasant and despicable traits, and you can lean into presenting one more sympathetically than the other depending on what you’d like to do. You can keep things fresh from short to short, you can have a back-and-forth between them that never resolves, you don’t even need to have a character that the audience must side with.
Sometimes, cartoon duos can end up in this pattern where one character always gets presented as “the one that wins”, regardless of whether or not they deserve to in that given short. This is why some folks end up rooting for Tom and find Jerry’s constant victories insufferable, or why Elmer Fudd was eventually downplayed as a pure Bugs Bunny rival for Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck or other more openly malicious characters because he’s often too damn nice or innocent.
But with the Fox and the Crow being more varied, and having those traits push and pull at each other depending on the short, you can have more unpredictable cartoons while keeping with that dynamic.
What I particularly love is that for all their differences, the two have plenty in common – their constant attempts to present themselves as something they’re not, their violent, mean-spirited natures which break out when pushed to the brink, and many, many moments of sheer stupidity. The two have plenty of conversations which carry this absurdist current that they’re too dumb to recognize, or often end up coming to the same incorrect conclusions after having a few seconds’ thought.
All these combine to give them a dynamic I haven’t really seen in other cartoons of the day, but gives me a similar feeling of joy to watching Richie and Eddie in Bottom. Two idiots; one a pompous fool who soon breaks down into violence and shouting, the other a gruff moron using lies and trickery to get the upper hand; endlessly hitting each other while punctuated with circular conversations, brief moments of pleasantry, and endings that are either abrupt or end with more violence.
It’s just a shame the series doesn’t do as much with this dynamic as it’s capable of.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some great shorts that prove its potential, such as the excellent “Toll Bridge Troubles”, or the very absurdist “A-Hunting We Won’t Go” and “The Dream Kids”, along with ones I’m quite fond of like “Room & Bored” and “The Egg Yeggs”. Even the mediocre ones like “Unsure Runts” or “Treasure Jest” have some bright spots thanks to the Fox and the Crow’s interactions.
But there’s too many shorts that feel more typical in their antics, and I feel like I’m projecting what are ultimately impressions onto cartoons that don’t have much going on. I’m not seeing them for what they are, but for what I want to see.
I get the feeling as time goes on that the people working on the cartoons weren’t as passionate about that dynamic as they might’ve been earlier on, which is why it didn’t crop up so much in the latter toons and even got discarded by the end. “Tooth or Consequences” and “Grape Nutty” redo the Fox as a dimwit with a typical cartoon buffoon voice, resulting in two slightly different versions of the same character hitting each other.
The John Hubley cartoons had a better attempt at reinventing the pair. The aforementioned “Robin Hoodlum” basically inverted their positions with the Crow having all the resources and the Fox being a relative underdog, but the short revels in some delightfully daft gags. “The Magic Fluke” takes another stab at limiting the Fox’s vocabulary with him being nearly silent, using facial expressions and body language to excellently communicate his pompous, easily angered nature.
But the series ends with something of a whimper either way, never quite hitting that potential for more than a couple of standout cartoons. I’ve heard that the comic generally managed to keep up that dynamic much more regularly and consistently in quality, so perhaps I’ll check those out at some point down the road.
Regardless, I am happy to have watched The Fox and the Crow, and to have gained a new appreciation of a crucial aspect of 1940s American cartoons that had always eluded me. Even with the lamest shorts, I still learnt from them. It’s always good to live and learn.
Special thanks to Nobaddy, who not only read over the article and gave feedback but also uploaded the copies of the Fox and Crow cartoons I used for the screenshots featured in this article.
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.