Thursday, September 21, 2006

Masters of Animation: Tex Avery

Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery was born, naturally, in Texas in 1908. His first project in the arts involved doing cartoons for his high school yearbook. His first attempts to make it in cartooning were not successful, and on the advice of some potential employers he went to the Chicago Art Institute to make something of himself. Avery lasted all of one month before deciding that the classes were teaching him nothing he needed to know, and he moved to LA. Tex worked on a dock, slept on the beach, and tried unsuccessfully to get himself a job as a newspaper strip cartoonist. Eventually, he was able to get a job in the ink and paint department working for Charles Mintz.

Avery left Mintz and got another animation job, this time at the Walter Lantz Studio. Working as an in-betweener, Avery found himself promoted pretty quickly (though he attributed this to a need for labor rather than any innate talent). Tex began at Lantz to define his own style of animated humor; something rebellious, surprising, and absolutely liberating. Because the Lantz Studio was such a relaxed environment, Tex was able to keep the rough, illogical, surrealist bent he had; at Disney, this would have been smoothed until it disappeared entirely. It is also at Lantz that Tex Avery lost his left eye during some horseplay with the other animators. This was a pretty normal way of blowing off steam, but someone substituted a paper clip for a wad of paper, put it in a rubber band, and left Tex Avery with only half of his sight. The accident changed Avery’s attitude towards his work. Whereas before he had been vain about his appearance, he now became slovenly and unpolished. He also started to worry a lot more about his work than he had before, obsessing over tiny, perfectionist details.

Tex Avery left Lantz in 1935 after a raise was refused, and got himself hired by Leon Schlesinger as an animation director on the Merrie Melodies series. Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones were assigned to animate in his unit, and the three fed off one another. Avery’s humor was the most bizarre of any of the animators at Schlesinger, but the audiences loved it, so the boss let him do whatever he wanted. Avery’s other colleagues followed his lead; they couldn’t compete with Disney’s level of emotional depth and artistry, so the Schlesigner animators instead chose to make their cartoons funnier and faster, chucking emphasis on characters to focus on gags and pacing. The results were not always successful, but slowly the animators managed to master their art.

Avery’s first cartoon for Schlesinger was Gold Diggers of ’49 (1936), starring Porky and Beans. A pig and cat team, Porky Pig was the zany troublemaker and Beans the Cat was a particularly boring straight man. Soon enough, Avery began to reshape the character of Porky Pig, turning him from a lovable infant into a more adult character. Avery wanted to stop aiming at small kids; Disney already had them, he figured, so why not go for an older audience with more sophisticated humor? The other Schlesinger animators followed suit, not necessarily due to a conscious decision, but owing something to influence and popularity. Avery’s streamlining went over well, and Porky Pig became the lead character of the Merrie Melodies, finally replacing Bosko, who had been around since the Harman-Ising days and who was proving to be little more than a paler version of Mickey Mouse. Porky was voiced by Joe Dougherty, a stuttering actor, but his stutter turned out to be more pathetic than funny, so he was replaced by Mel Blanc.

What Tex especially liked was twisting around recognizable styles; the violation of a style was a surprise, and Avery felt that surprise was what got laughs in his cartoons. He parodied fairy tales in the classic cartoons Little Red Walking Hood (1937), Cinderella Meets Fella (1938), and The Bear’s Tale (1940). He parodied the documentary in Believe It or Else (1939), the nature film in Fresh Fish (1939), and the travelogue in Detouring America (1939) and The Island of Pingo Pongo (1938). His Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (1937) was a burlesque that spoofed musicals. Avery preferred these kinds of cartoons to the repeated use of recurring characters. He felt they hampered the laughs in a story, because they had to conform to expectations of the character (the Disney animators, for their part, might have agreed; in the late thirties, they began to focus on Donald Duck because the expectations placed on Mickey Mouse’s behavior slowed down the laughs).

It is ironic, then, that Avery created two more characters in 1937. The first was Daffy Duck, who made his first appearance in Porky’s Duck Hunt as an uncontrollable, unstable trickster. The second was Egghead, who first appeared in Egghead Rides Again. Egghead merged with another character that Avery used in Dangerous Dan McFoo in 1939; the character was voiced by radio actor Arthur Q. Bryan, and the other animators loved his voice so much that they decided to build a character around it. Since Egghead wasn’t going anywhere, they took him and gave him a new voice and turned him into the earliest version of Elmer Fudd.

Tex Avery was also instrumental in the creation of another important animated character. In Elmer’s Candid Camera (1940), Avery pitted Elmer Fudd against a rascally rabbit. In his next Elmer cartoon, A Wild Hare (1940), Avery streamlined Elmer into something much closer to his final form, and developed the rabbit (with the help of Chuck Thorsen, Mel Blanc and Bugs Hardaway) into the familiar Bugs Bunny.

Bugs Bunny turned out to be the reason that Avery left Leon Schlesinger Studios. Schlesinger himself is well remembered as a hands-off animation producer; that is, he is famous for being the guy who let his animators do whatever they wanted and didn’t interfere with them. But once he saw Bugs Bunny becoming popular, he took it upon himself to interfere with Avery’s cartoon The Heckling Hare (1941), the ending of which showed Bugs apparently getting killed. Schlesinger couldn’t allow his new star to die, so he unceremoniously chopped off the last 40 feet of film, ending the cartoon rather abruptly. Tex hated him for it, and the animosity between the two grew so troublesome that Tex ended up getting fired.

MGM signed him immediately. Fred Quimby, producer of the MGM animated shorts, was by all accounts humorless; not only did he not understand why people thought William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s Tom & Jerry cartoons were funny, but he found Tex Avery’s humor incomprehensible. But he did know that Tex’s cartoons were pretty well-liked by audiences, and besides he could work very fast, so he took the chance and hired him. Tex was given an animation unit (including Ed Love and Preston Blair) and hired as a director.

Avery was expected to create new characters. Again, he didn’t care much for continuing the adventures of one character over and over, and his first creation, Screwy Squirrel, is a grating, obnoxious little puke (and besides that, he’s a thin rip-off of Woody Woodpecker). Avery preferred to play with archetypes instead of characters, twisting folklore in humorous ways. But Avery did have a few successes waiting. First, he won the Oscar for his MGM short Blitz Wolf (1942), a satire of the Axis powers that is one of the great World War II cartoons. Avery liked the Wolf, so he took the basic template and continued to use it throughout his career at MGM. Still, I always got the feeling that the Wolf was a different, completely new character each time. Avery wasn’t interested in personality and emotional depth; he just wanted to get to the action.

Action presented itself in only his third cartoon for MGM, the famous Red Hot Riding Hood (1943). Much has been made about how sexy the dancing girl Red is in a cartoon meant for children. And it did run into trouble with the Production Code, who ordered some scenes to be reanimated (among the cuts was an ending in which Grandma forced the Wolf to marry her, and a final shot of their children in a lust-crazed frenzy, watching Red on stage and going nuts; the powers that be felt the suggestion of bestiality was far too strong). But the fact is, Avery always meant the cartoon for an adult audience; specifically, American troops. There was a booming interwar interest in sex, and Avery took full advantage of it. At Disney, the realistic animation of the sexy dancing girl would have been filmed in live action first; Fred Quimby wouldn’t have paid for that, so Preston Blair simply animated without a live model reference. It took twice as long to animate as anything else, but it was an artistic triumph. It remains one of the most popular cartoons ever. When Red next appeared, however, in The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945), Blair used some live action film.

In his fourth cartoon for MGM, Dumb-hounded (1943), Tex Avery created the character Droopy. The wrinkled, jowly, sleepy dog didn’t have a name for many years; Avery thought he could use the character sometimes, but didn’t want to create a personality for him a la Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. The voice was provided by Bill Thompson; ironically, Thompson inspired the character with the voice he used for Wallace Wimple on Fibber McGee and Molly. For Droopy, Thompson used the same voice.

Avery’s timing really took off with Red’s next appearance, in Swing Shift Cinderella (1945). Even though it had seemed as if Tex was bored at MGM and not really invested in his cartoons, he suddenly found himself inspired. For example, Northwest Hounded Police (1946) is essentially a remake of Dumb-hounded, but much, much funnier. There is a period of just a year or two that saw some of Avery’s best work: Uncle Tom’s Cabana (1947), Slaphappy Lion (1947), and the classic King-Size Canary (1947), one of the funniest cartoons of all time.

After a string of genius cartoons in which Tex was able to shed all of the Disney influence that animators couldn’t avoid having in the forties, Avery saw Preston Blair leave his unit to become a director. Ed Love also left the unit, and Avery was saddled with former Disney men. Suddenly, cuteness was pervasive in his cartoons, as much as he tried to do away with it. Senor Droopy (1949), the first cartoon where Droopy is actually given a name, is something of a disappointment. It is like watching someone do a pastiche of Tex Avery’s style, rather than Avery himself. There were still moments of genius, of course--Little Rural Riding Hood (1949), Wags to Riches (1949)--but his cartoons were never the same.

Tex Avery’s particular gift, when he chose to exercise it (he did have a tendency to repeat the same gags over and over), was a total irreverence for what had become the logic of cartoons. Today his humor is called surrealist, but Tex just didn’t adhere to any restrictions. He did a lot of gags that involved breaking the fourth wall, with characters commenting on the action, apologizing for the lameness of puns, walking out of the boundaries of the cartoon, etc. His thinking was completely unconventional, and the surprise of that unconventionality shocked audiences into laughter. This proved to be popular, and just like at Schlesinger, Tex’s cartoons started to rub off on his colleagues. Hanna and Barbera’s unit was already running a great series of cartoons with the Oscar-winning Tom & Jerry series; when they adopted Avery’s style, the cartoons got even better.

The truth is, Tex Avery could be a worrier and was obsessive about details. He would be gripped by anxiety over how a cartoon would come out in the end. He was a perfectionist who wanted his animation to be subtle; but he liked broad comedy, which was completely at odds with such a style. Though one could argue that this attempt to reconcile two irreconcilable styles created some of the finest cartoons in the history of the medium, it drove Tex mad with worry. He was always sure he was going to be fired; when he worked for Schlesinger, he would carry a stack of papers with him whenever he left his desk; this way, if someone saw him, he could claim to be working. He was also self-conscious about his art, despite the praise of nearly everyone who ever worked for him. Some say that Avery’s designs needed very little tweaking; but they also say that he considered his artwork to be crude and asked his animators and designers not to use them. He also hated to collaborate, either giving in when he knew his instincts were right, or staying late in order to check all the work done that day and prepping everything on his own, doing as much as possible by himself.

All the stress added up, and Tex finally took a year off in 1950 (he was replaced, to ill effect, by former Disney animator Dick Lundy). When he returned, it seemed as though his skills as a story man had stayed on vacation. His first cartoon after his return, Little Johnny Jet (1953), is almost completely lifeless. The animation industry had changed. First, the UPA Studios had introduced a new style of animation that was flat and angular. Ed Benedict redesigned the characters (including Droopy) to match that style, but the effect made Avery’s cartoons less than what they had been. And second, television had entered people’s lives. While Hanna and Barbera saw TV as a new opportunity, Avery remained firmly a theatrical man. When MGM closed down Avery’s unit in 1954, he went back to the Walter Lantz Studio. He only directed four cartoons there, two of them Chilly Willy shorts: I’m Cold and The Legend of Rock-a-Bye Point (the latter in collaboration with former Schlesinger story man Mike Maltese). Avery felt he was being ripped off financially (plus, Lantz’s budgets were smaller and his demands more rigid than Quimby’s) and left to work for Cascade, a company producing animated television commercials. At some point, he began drinking heavily. His son Tim died of a drug overdose in 1972 at the age of 24; the drinking got worse, and his wife of 40 years, Patricia, left him. In 1977 he took a job with, ironically, Hanna-Barbera, where he designed characters and wrote gags. He collapsed one day in 1980; William Hanna drove him to the hospital, where he was informed that he had lung cancer that had progressed rapidly. He died soon after, on 26 August.

In his lifetime, Tex Avery had found it hard to realize his ambitions entirely. His work did not flow easily; he worked hard to shape his cartoons, and was unsure of himself much of the time. Today, he is considered one of the biggest influences on modern animation. His cartoons are remembered as being among the funniest ever made. And, simply, they are.


Sherry said...

Wow, this is the something new that I learned today. I loved watching those cartoons when I was growing up and now I know that my laughs are courtesy of Tex. I never knew the history of Bugs.

I enjoy my animation lessons :-)

SamuraiFrog said...

Thank you. There's a couple more coming this weekend, I think.

VinnyLT said...

Tex avery is genius. His gags are noted and will be a part of my life forever

SamuraiFrog said...

I know how you feel.

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Brian said...

Thank you for a wonderful history of Avery and his work. Did Avery work on "Elmer's Candid Camera"? The director is credited as "Charles M. Jones". Did he and Avery collaborate?

SamuraiFrog said...

Actually, it seems I have some slightly off info, which I'm glad you caught. Chuck Jones directed "Elmer's Candid Camera," but Avery created the models for the characters. In every cartoon before this first one, Elmer Fudd was called Egghead, and the rabbit was called Happy Rabbit. So it's Jones directing Avery's characters, for lack of a better explanation.