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Pity the poor cartoon director. In spite of the many thousands of seven-minute theatrical cartoons that poured out of Hollywood during the heyday of the 1930s-'50s, few of their creators are household words, and most are unknown except among devotees. Animation may be unique in the way the fictional characters have eclipsed the men they were mostly men who made them. Woody Woodpecker is far more famous than his author, Walter Lantz. And even many fans would be hard pressed to identify the artist behind such popular two-dimensional personalities as Casper the Ghost, Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, or Superman. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule besides the obvious one, Walt Disney. One is Joseph Hanna and William Barbera, who as Hanna-Barbera flooded 1960s American television with Tom and Jerry, the Flintstones, the Jetsons, and other baby-boomer staples. The other is Tex Avery. A contemporary of Disney's, Avery created or developed some of the most timeless characters in cartoon history with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Droopy Dog, along with the inimitable catch-phrase "What's up, doc?" And like Disney, his name has come to symbolize a distinct, instantly recognizable, and widely merchandised style that has outlived the man himself and continues to be an important cultural presence. Avery's influence on animation equaled Disney's during his lifetime and continues unabated today with two shows currently running on American television that carry his name. The Wacky World of Tex Avery features new animation in the Avery mode, and The Tex Avery Show replays some of the 136-odd seven-minute cartoons he created during his heyday from 1935 to 1955 at Warner Bros., M-G-M, and Universal.
In a field teeming with talent, Avery stood out. Born in 1908 in Taylor, Texas, Frederick "Tex" Avery was related to both Daniel Boone and the infamous Judge Roy Bean, who allegedly assured prisoners that they would receive a fair trial before they were hanged. In retrospect, this was a fortuitous provenance Avery's humor was as savage as Judge Bean's and American history, particularly the "tall tales" that were common in Texas, was a favorite subject he treated with suitable irreverence. After graduating from high school in 1926, he took courses at the Art Institute of Chicago, worked loading fruits and vegetables in the docks of Los Angeles, and slept on the beach. His attempts to sell a comic strip to the newspapers failed, but his sand sketches landed him a job with a minor cartoon studio doing inking and cel painting. From there he went to Walter Lantz's unit at Universal, where he spent five years doing "in-betweening," drawing sequential poses for a character and generally assisting the animator, learning his art but also its limits.
By mid-1935 he had moved from Lantz to Warner Bros., where he would be a full-time cartoon director. But it was more than the need to grow artistically that pushed him. Money disputes with Lantz were one reason for the change. But something else happened that Avery said "made me think animation owed me a living." Avery had developed a reputation as a raconteur, ladies' man, and athlete. During a rough-housing session among the animators, he was hit in the eye with a paper clip and lost half his sight. This grim event was a turning-point: by all accounts, along with his eye he lost much of his fun-loving spirit, put on weight, and turned for solace to a driving perfectionism that provided both inspiration and frustration during his tenure at Warners, where he stayed from 1935 to 1942, and at M-G-M (1942-1955).
One of the challenges for Warner Bros. during this time was how to match the success of Disney, whose "personality animation" had taken commercial animation from stick figures and simple backdrops to credible characters and realistic imagery. Avery joined Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett in creating a cutting-edge unit called "Termite Terrace." From this ramshackle building on the Warners lot came Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and most of the great Warners characters. Avery, at 27, was the grand old man of the group, but his ideas about how to transform the theatrical cartoon were more radical than those of his younger comrades. In his pursuit of the gag, he added more jokes but cut out unnecessary exposition, often acting out the characters' parts himself and sometimes supplying the voices for the more buffoonish types. Above all, he steered the Warner Bros. house style away from Disneyesque sentimentality and made cartoons that appealed equally to adults, who appreciated Avery's speed, sarcasm, and irony, and to kids, who liked the nonstop action. Disney's "cute and cuddly" creatures, under Avery's guidance, were transformed into unflappable wits like Bugs Bunny, endearing buffoons like Porky Pig, or dazzling crazies like Daffy Duck. Even the classic fairy tale, a market that Disney had cornered, was appropriated by Avery, who made innocent heroines like Red Riding Hood into sexy jazz babies, more than a match for any Wolf. Avery also endeared himself to intellectuals by constantly breaking through the artifice of the cartoon, having characters leap out of the end credits, loudly object to the plot of the cartoon they were starring in, or speak directly to the audience (often shown as silhouettes at the bottom of the frame). Such unheard-of techniques pegged Avery as a modernist and suggested his affinity with Pirandello and Brecht not bad for a rowdy boy from Texas.
In 1941, at age 33, Avery moved to M-G-M, where his talent for sight gags, blackouts, rabid pacing, violent humor, and sexy characters found its fullest expression. He tried to duplicate his earlier success with characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but "Screwy Squirrel" was far from endearing, even by Avery's standards. Screwy's purpose, according to critic Greg Ford, was to "shatter audience complacency," which he did with some of the rudest gags on record. More successful was the series of World War II walking pin-ups that Avery created for American G.I.s stationed abroad. Again using the fairy-tale framework that served him well at Warners, he changed Cinderella and Red Riding Hood into gorgeous sexpots who tantalize "the Wolf" (unnamed) and the audience with their lurid charms. These characters were the basis for "Jessica Rabbit" in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but equally fun for audiences were the Wolf's reactions to Cinderella/Red's come-ons. Avery devised a series of wild reaction gags of the Wolf that eventually caught the attention of the censors; images like the Wolf suddenly stiffening in mid-air were rightly interpreted as "phallic gags." The Wolf's lust was never consummated, but you'd never know it from the sexy aura of cartoons like Swing Shift Cinderella and Red Hot Riding Hood. Avery enjoyed equal success with Droopy Dog, a tiny, impossibly unruffled character who barely acknowledges the brutal assaults on him and always triumphs.
At both Warners and M-G-M, Avery ruthlessly satirized sacred cows, everything from the capitalist concept of progress (The House of Tomorrow) to literary classics (Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men becomes Lonesome Lenny) to Frank Sinatra (Li'l Tinker). The sheer breadth of his targets and his exhausting perfectionism may have influenced his move from M-G-M in 1954 to the studio of one of his earliest collaborators, Walter Lantz at Universal. After directing only four cartoons there, he went into animating television commercials for bug spray and corn chips, and eventually found himself doing drudge work for former competitors Hanna-Barbera. He was working for them when he died of a heart attack in 1980, at age 72. Part of his decline can be blamed on historical circumstance: the theatrical cartoon was being phased out of theatres by the 1950s. More important, though, he was simply burned out, a term he used frequently to describe himself. His pursuit of the perfect gag has a romantic resonance to it, since like any ideal it was bound by its nature to fail. But like the characters, the work always outlives the author, and a bit of Avery continues to live whenever someone says, "What's up, doc?"
September 1998 | Issue 22
MORE AVERY: The Fairy Tales of Tex Avery
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