This is the fifth winning card of Tex Avery's first streak at the MGM. "Who Killed Who", a clever (and hilarious) whodunit (but who cares as long as it's funny) centering on a mysterious murder. It's not the first Avery cartoon to deal with death, so it doesn't even come as a shocker.
The film sets the tone immediately, after a dark and ominous intro showing a pistol gun, a live-action narrator (somewhat a precursor Hitchcock in his TV series?) announces in a very serious and no-nonsense tone that the case is meant to prove "beyond a shadow of a doubt that crime doesn't pay" then the story begins... the actor is played by Robert Emmet O'Connor and if the sight of live action is incongruous by Avery's standards, it's only the tip of an iceberg.
As I mention in my previous analyses, the first years at MGM allowed him to establish his personal brand of humor, that elevated parody to the highest levels of hilarity. He used madness, violence and sex in most of his first cartoons, but the notability of his talent also relied on his continuous fourth-wall breaking. But it's not until "Who Killed Who" that he really outdid himself on that level, literally pulverizing the wall.
It starts with the narrator addressing the audience but it goes further. The film opens on a dark and gloomy house, where you can hear female screams and devilish laughs in the background, they're so overplayed they're ridiculously funny. And then after a long silence, a sign says "gloomy, isn't it?", rather predictable but it's immediately followed by the back of a chair where the word "The Victim" is written. So much for the suspense. It is even spoiled for the primal concerned, the victim reads "Who Killed Who" (from the cartoon of the same name) and realizes he's going to be killed and then..
... well, forget it, if I'm going to reveal the whole crime, I better stop here. Let's say this is perhaps one of the Tex Avery shorts with the highest average of laughs per twenty seconds (which is saying a lot), it's one gag after another, and it never really stops until the final twist on the murder that I won't dare to spoil, but there's one little gag I will spoil, and pardon me if I do. it's just a darling of Tex Avery and it deserves a mention.
When the crime is committed and the policeman comes (he's voiced by Billy Bletcher who did the Big Bad wolf and Pete in Disney studios) he orders everybody to stay still, but then you see the shadow of a man, visibly a theater spectator trying to reach his seat. The policeman hits him on the head and the poor guy falls. That's classic Avery and it says a lot about his genius, why he was above them all. He thought in three dimension, he had the story and the characters, the audience and himself in the God-like position.
Basically, the policeman hitting the spectator, is like Avery deciding that there's no frontier between the characters and the viewers, and various gags in the film are all meant as nods to the audience, some come from the characters, some from Avery himself. When the policeman takes off a painting, he reads a sign" What did you expect to see back here?", the film is just a hilarious succession of situation involving the three parties. He used these gags a lot in his Warner Bros period, "Who Killed Who" might be the only one to do so and by that, he's one of the most memorable, the closest to this gag might be the hair pulled out in "Magical Maestro".
This is certainly the cartoon with the greatest symbiosis between the world of animation and live action, proving that everything is possible when it comes to make people laugh, it's certainly one of his best... and ironically, one of his least known. I couldn't tell why. Maybe it has a sophistication and wit that put it off the radar, but it's one of these underrated Avery masterpieces (like "What's Buzzin' Buzzard?") that deserves more publicity.