“Tex Avery — Arch Radicalizer of the Hollywood Cartoon” consists of slightly glorified program notes that I wrote for the Zagreb Animation Festival in 1978. It was a big hit in the Old World and was published in Russian, Croatian, Dutch, French, and Italian (twice), but the only time it ever got printed in English was by Gary Morris in his cinephile-revered rag called Bright Lights. Now, thirty-one years later, Mr. Morris has decided to reissue the piece online. I have forgone attempting any actual rewrites, though, because the observations have not dated especially egregiously, except for my discussion of the then-current state of cartoon criticism. The biggest faux pas contained herein is my overconfident assertion that cel animation would inevitably dominate the future of the medium (oops – maybe not), as CGI was then but a distant pixel on the historical horizon. (Greg Ford)
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In any serious or even semi-serious discussion of American commercial-studio “genre cartoons” (all those six- or seven-minute-running animated short-subjects that were doled out to movie houses of bygone years to be shown along with the major studios’ live-action feature- lengthers), it is incumbent upon the historian to take into account Disney’s first quantum leaps in the Art of Animation. Mention of the Ub Iwerks-animated Steamboat Willie, preemed in 1928 with its all-talkie birth of Mickey Mouse, is surely mandatory. Disney brought a “believability” to animation that wasn’t there to begin with. He went farther than anybody did before to utilize “personality” as the determinant of content, and this might give the best clue for comprehending his formidable achievements. After Steamboat Willie, throughout many varied indispensable reference works, Disney created characters who were so full-blooded and full-bodied that they seemed to be autonomous from their creator. Disney’s characters came across as living-breathing organisms for whom viewers could feel a gut-level empathy. In Clock Cleaners (1937), three well-rounded and identifiable personalities, Mickey, Goofy, and Donald Duck, are made to cope with the overwhelming impersonality of ‘a big machine: Mickey dutifully polishes the clock’s enormous digits, Goofy confronts the mechanical bronze statuettes that come clickety-clacketing out to bell the hour, while the big mainspring gives Donald Duck an argument, talking back, boingingly mimicking Donald’s squawk in a well-animated scene. Mickey Mouse became more strait-laced, even boringly bourgeois, as the 1930s wore on, and it’s noticeable in this entry that he’s given a lesser amount of screen-time than are Goofy or Donald, the more slapstick-y jesters Disney found along the way. Surely a meatier role for the Mouse was as the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia, where he’s sadly unable to squelch an insurrection by an all-broom Cast of Thousands in intense, one-to-one musical synchronization to Dukas.
The ’30s to the early ’40s was Walt Disney’s heyday — an extraordinarily groundbreaking and generative decade for his studio; besides egging onwards Mickey Mouse and Clan to make their marks, the Disney league inaugurated another quite axiomatic string of films: the “Silly Symphonies.” These were to be wholly based on the synchronization of cartoon-action and music, with matters of narration being relegated to purely inter-interpretive parleys with the musical selections on the soundtrack. The first “Silly Symphony” brought out by Disney, once more in cahoots with his then partner Ub Iwerks as the cartoon’s in toto animator/drawer, was the perversely pleasant Skeleton Dance (1929) where, against charcoalish grays, graveyard skeletons danced, assembled and disassembled, formed bony wheels together, pogo-sticked on one another, and xylophoned each others’ spinal columns. Frolicsome romping-gamboling skeletons is one revelous thing, but later “Silly Symphonies” emphasized complex graphics as well as complicated character-activation: from the opening of the color Old Mill (1937, above), as we dolly-in through a shimmering glisteny spider web, artily struck by the sun, and move down to the weather-beaten old windmill, then track through its musty, broken-down interior of frayed wooden rafters, where an owl, bats, and a nest of baby birds reside, it becomes clear that the 3D-ish calisthenics of Walt Disney’s much-touted “multiplane camera” are the “raison d’etre” of this particular exercise.
Disney’s films aren’t everybody’s cups of tea, but regardless of specific tastes or private predilections, everyone enamored of commercial-studio animation must applaud the giant steps forward Disney took with his truly cornucopian array of contributions — his groundwork for the advancing of “personality animation,” his encyclopedic workings-out of new techniques to lend an underpinning of reality to moving drawings, and hence enhance cartoons with a new “believability principle.”
Walt Disney’s prominence was unrivalled in the early 1930s, his influence so very overshadowing that the other cartoon outfits could compete only by making films which, if not downright copies of Disney, were very much in a Disney groove. Warner Brothers Cartoons, one of the several newborn animation shops which mushroomed after Disney’s success with sound, was no exception. One need merely flit a glint at Mickey Mouse as “Willie” steering-wheeling at his steamboat helm — his feet solidly planted while his white two-buttoned breeched midriff capers left-right, gingered up, to mark the beats of the music — to appreciate that, from the outset, the Warner Brothers character ilk benefited from Disney’s tutelage. Mickey the Mouse and his simplified, musically-synchronized shenanigans just must have paved the way for the first of the Warner Brothers chaps: Bosko, appearing in the first of the Warners cartoons, a Looney Tune, Sinking in the Bathtub (1930). Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising (Harman-Ising — “harmonizing,” get it?) created these “Boskos” with Isadore Freleng (the selfsame “Friz”) as the head animator. The three of ’em were formerly Disney employees and their derbied Bosko (the Negro?) was a black-dot-inkblot specimen like a Mickey Mouse sans mouse-ears. And Bosko’s squeaky, sometimes-e’en-tremolo falsetto was, if anything, more guileless than the Mouse’s.
Chuck Jones’ first cartoons at Warner Brothers, starting from 1938, also clung visibly to Walt Disney’s influence, emulative of Disney’s more meditatively poetic side: character-action painstaking, in a natural fluidity, the scenic work mantled in a Disney-ish representationalism (exploring the nightfall forest phenomena of Sniffles Takes a Trip, the studiously applied light-and-shadow effects of Good Night Elmer, or Joe Glow the Firefly’s perilous navigating through various Textures and Perspectives in a sleeping camper’s tent).
But at this point, in other sectors of the Warners headquarters, the house style was beginning to shape into something quite distinct from Disney’s field-dominating product. While Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” depicted a childlike world, using nature as its model, Warners’ analogous series of “Merrie Melodies,” which Friz Freleng was then putting the finishing touches on, drew from a more modern but equally familiar landscape of the manmade: the bringing-to-life of magazine rack/canned goods/bookshelf inhabitants. And Robert Clampett’s Porky in Wackyland (1938) proffers the total antithesis of a Disney Silly Symphony: where Disney’s Summer, Old Mill, Flowers and Trees would promote a sort of God’s-in-Heaven, All-Is-One, Divine-Natural-Order-of-Things mentality, here was Clampett’s uncharted Wackyland, a modestly-budgeted Looney Tune, underwriting a cockamamie, UNnatural-Order-of-Things (where the native flora and fauna are nonsensical, practically unfathomable figments, where a mountainside turns out to be a phony stage drop-scene, where the sun is bodily lifted up by an acrobatic act, and where the stars and many moons are strung like party decorations).
In 1935 or ‘6, Warners acquired the film-directing services of one Tex Avery (who, since 1928, had been toiling unobtrusively as an “in-betweener,” later an animator, at Walter Lantz’s foster-home for Oswald the Rabbit). Tex Avery proved to be the studio’s resident innovative genius and his irrepressible stylings were to have a most profound effect on the still-evolving language of the Hollywood Cartoon. More than Chuck Jones’ early moody studies, Freleng’s “Merrie Melodies,” or Robert Clampett’s wigged-out “mindscape” films, Tex Avery’s development of a hepped and steppy sense of tempo in entries such as Hamateur Night, mindbending, unsymmetric structures and reversals, plays with film syntax, and his discovery of somewhat brasher, less “tactful” characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck gave to Warner Brothers cartoons a new range and complexity, breaking radically with the Disney-established parameters of the Hollywood Cartoon context.
These were no mean feats. Yet until very recently, Avery’s accomplishments have been treated all-too-cursorily by allegedly erudite animation cognoscenti. Strangely enough, such “genre cartoons” of the type that Avery masterminded by and large have been sloughed off or glossed over in fuddy-duddy fashion by our rather flatulent English-language cartoon critical histories. Printed as lately as 1967 was Ralph Stevenson’s run-of-the-mill and none-too-modestly-titled softback Animation in the Cinema which, to its debit, does its share to nurse this most untenable condescension toward commercial Hollywood genre cartoons.
Most peeving of all, it seems to me, are Stevenson’s obvious slightings, or his barely-deigned faint praises damning the “Tex Avery School,” under which catchall heading he apparently subsumes Tex Avery’s whole career as a cartoon director at Warner Brothers and MGM and Universal, plus the entire directing careers of the more anchored Warners staffers Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson, and Friz Freleng, plus William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s direction of the Tom and Jerrys at MGM, plus, it seems, whatever other Hollywood animation he can summon that might foster his hypotheses and premature conclusions. Offering us a good cross-section of myopic critical prejudices disguised as straight-faced data, Stevenson can only carp about “sameness” and “repetition” in the narratives of the genre cartoons. And yet he might have seen that such ritual and repetition-of-formulae can only permit a director of high caliber to work within cleanly defined areas, can allow a director the opportunity to produce most subtle variations within the ritual superstructure — variances that can be, in truth, of the keenest aesthetical order.
In his most remarkable paragraph (p. 62), Stevenson, in all soberness, estimates as “bad quality” any sample of “neo-Disney” handiwork that moves at “express speed” or harbors “caricatured animals, drawn on cels.” The criteria are totally absent, though one suspects that the umbrage taken with cels is simple oversight, since cel animation, after Disney, was, is, and probably forever shall be regnant, really occupying a helluva lot of ground in the animation field, including acres and acres of the most ostensibly avant-garde and experimentalist territory that Stevenson loves to travel in.
But the most persistent bugaboo that historians have grouped behind to stigmatize the art of the Warners and MGM cartoons is the regular fastidious and qualmish plaint about violence or, rather, the “breakneck, unremitting, extreme violence” — to-do and hoopla based, I guess, on a sorely fallacious assumption that these most resilient cartoon figures ever possessed the same identical sentiency for hurt as would a flesh-and-bloodied live performer; to-do and hoopla founded on another mistaken notion that the fifty-seven varieties of splatted, squished, scrunched, or crunched-up shapes that were gotten into by the pliable figures necessarily registered pain at all — or, if not pain, that it necessarily went beyond the pain-with-humiliation of a banana-peel pratfall. (Of course, the contortion was just part of the language and could be used to express an unlimited range of emotions.)
Tex Avery at Warner Brothers (1936-1942)
Stylistic innovations. While the different directors’ styles at Warners endlessly diverged, the films of Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Robert Clampett and Frank Tashlin still all came to have in common their infectious maximal gagginess and fast FAST pacing. It was Tex Avery, primarily, who injected all the franticness that we’ve come to know and love in Warner Brothers animation — and who, in the process, really renovated the Hollywood Cartoon at large.
By the late ’30s and early ’40s, a tandem causal condition — the less rigidified production system at Warner Brothers Cartoons, the willingness and initiative of the different cartoon units there — determined that the films of the Warner Brothers artists would eventually supersede the Walt Disney Studio’s films in several major respects. Disney’s films were outdone by Warner Brothers’ more anarchic “Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes” in unexpected areas (i.e., with their storylines’ more sophisticatedly adult preoccupations, their regular players’ more grown-up and legitimately tension-creating characterizations, and their shrewder retrieval of a smattering of the pre-Disney, pre-classical zaniness to overlay the Disneylanders’ first-simplified, then-impeccable, then-increasingly creakily “realistic” animation). Essentially the Warners cartoons were crafted with a very Walt Disney-like manner of animation, as fully conscious and “believable.” The Disney-developed techniques were steadily being better and better grasped by the Warner Brothers personnel, going beyond the level of any merely talented aping. But the point is that the Warners artists, Avery first among them, were willing to wed this Disney-fashioned mode of animation to a freer, more expressively distortive type of tempo, filled with yank-forwards and jolt-stops — a wildly fractured, herky-jerky character movement that Disney’s own people, with their leanings toward a natural fluidity in animation, wherein the seriated drawings fall more uniformly, trippingly and continuously upon each other, seldom would apply.
Hamateur Night (1938, right) affords a handsome look-see at how Tex Avery (“Fred” Avery on this particular film’s credit roster) permanently pepped up the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes during his initial stay at Warner Brothers from ’36 to ’42. Hamateur Night testifies to much of the newfound insolence of Tex Avery’s humor: not content to solely dream up and center-stage a battering succession of the most godawful amateur acts in vaudeville history (all presided over by a snidely ironic emcee, a two-bit impresario who talks from one side of his mouth), Avery next compounds the situation with an equally impertinent jeering, catcalling and tomato-pelting crowd of theatergoers who engage the on-stage performers in the most antagonistic back-forth give-and-take. The comedy doesn’t merely stem from the rowdiness of Avery’s conception, though, but from the timing of the slapstick as it’s lurched forward and hastened, stopped cold, and sped up all over again in a way that’s possible only in cartoons, generating much suspense from the length of time it takes a given hammy act to get the trap-door and gong treatment, from the channel by which a thrown-out tomato will find its target, and even from the ways in which the stage curtain will unpredictably open and close (first by simply parting down the middle, but next by maybe forming little flap-open patches within the larger fabric, or by collapsing off the curtain-rod altogether).
Cartoon star-gazers should notice that the character-design for that peerless schmo, Elmer Fudd, had to have been evolved from that of Tex Avery’s “Egghead,” a plain Fudd progenitor with a bigger proboscis and more enigmatic motivations. In Hamateur Night, Egghead is cast as the little fellow who keeps zipping out to sing “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain.” More behind-the-scenes info, worth recording here, pertains to the boisterous hippopotamus who sits in one of the orchestra seats: the hippo’s heavy, show-stopping, can’t-help-laughing voice was done by Tex Avery himself.
Avery’s pics confirm an always-lingering suspicion that the many radical plays with movie syntax and the numerous distancing techniques employed in ’60s live-action films, of “New Wave Cinema” extraction, were, in fact, first invented, and used for purely comic effect, in animated cartoons. In the sportively structured Hamateur Night, for instance, the hootably bad amateur acts each by each are ushered in, listened to, hissed and boo’d, and given the hook with such frenetic on-and-off rapidity it prognosticates the jump-cut. Still more radically distanced is Thugs with Dirty Mugs (1939, above), an insightful Avery treatise on movie gangsterdom that kids the live-action crime thrillers being made at Warners studio during this period. Here the dogfaced mobster Edward G. Rob-’em-some successfully holds up a phone booth (“Operator, this is a stickup!”), and during a different phone-conversation, violates the split-screen effect by leaning over the divvying diagonal-line, and furtively leads his shifty fellow gangsters to crack a safe, but tells their German Expressionist shadows to stay behind, and in the end, gets turned in on State’s Evidence volunteered by an eyewitness in the theatre’s second row (“I know he did it — I sat through this picture twice”).
This last-cited eyewitness figure is seen in full-shadowed outline and moves along the bottom of the frame — supposedly a “real” audience-member who’s silhouetted directly against the movie-screen. The “shadow character” silhouette (actually a rotoscoped version of Warners cartoon storyman Tedd Pierce) was one of Avery’s most masterful distancing devices, allowing for much flagrant and hilariously rude intimidation of the viewer.1 In the Thugs film, even inspector F.H.A. (Sherlock) Holmes expresses his displeasure with the viewer’s tattle-taling, and the incarcerated Edward G. (being made to stay after school and blackboard “I’ve been a naughty boy” one hundred times) sticks his tongue out at the audience just before the iris-out.
But gangster-film fiction wasn’t the only movie-format that Avery rather devastatingly parodied at Warners, as he also churned out a row of mock-documentaries and pseudo-travelogues such as Detouring America, Cross-Country Detours, Aviation Vacation, The Crazy Cruise, etc. Here the proposition was simple enough: a pompous off-screen narrator would rattle off, in solemnly self-important strains, his proud collection of guidebook trivia on The Isle of Pingo Pongo or The Land of the Midnight Fun, his supposedly rational monologue being mercilessly confounded by the total irrationality of the cartoon images. There’s the fearless lion hunter who appears to have lost his head over his work in Day at the Zoo (1939) or the supersensitive microphone in Believe It or Else (1939), lowered down to record a niggling species of insect that is calling to its spouse (“Hey, Mabel!”). In Avery’s pictorial calendar revue Holiday Highlights (1940), the two moppets evincing happy Valentine’s Day tidings hug each other with an alarmingly adult lewdness, and the April Fool’s Day calendar-entry is nothing at all (at this, the narrator giggles idiotically until the theatre management slides a warning in: T’AIN’T FUNNY, M’GEE!). Besides this, Avery sometimes slips in gratis pinches of an ironic social outlook: in the June Graduation Day of Holiday Highlights, an idealistic Professor magisterially presents a diploma to his student and the kid scrams off with it to take his rightful place in the nearest breadline — and he finds his starry-eyed professor a step ahead of him in line.
While reversing audience expectations frequently and smashingly in these blackout visual sallies, the majority of Avery’s mock-documentaries and newsreels at Warners, if scrutinized today, seem less interesting in themselves, more valuable for the ways in which their madcap structures and surrealist juxtapositions anticipate the films that he would later direct at MGM. However strong was Avery’s recognition of the medium’s potential for absurdism and abstraction in his early years at Warner Brothers, it turns out that Avery (right, with Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett) was just warming up for his subsequent helming stint at the MGM studios, and direction of some even more incredible and more strident works which partook of even more absurd hyperbole. For when he made the switchover from the Warner Brothers studios to the auspices of MGM, Avery suddenly changed from an outright flouter to a veritable slashing-smashing pulverizer of conventions, making cartoons that are positively staggering in originality. Hence, many of Avery’s Warners pictures may be best construed today as privileged “flash-forwards” or preparatory “teasers” for the remarkable series of MGM cartoons to shortly follow.
The zealous, feverish fairy-tale adaptations that Tex Avery concocted over the 1940s at MGM, with the big-city settings, the mile-long snake-like luxury limousines, and the wolfish wolf gone gaga over the sexy nightclub songstress (as in Red Hot Riding Hood, Uncle Tom’s Cabana and Swing Shift Cinderella) comprise what’s possibly Avery’s fastest-paced and most outrageous series of cartoons. Generally speaking, each of these sexily updated cartoon fables and fairy tales that Avery directed over the 1940s at MGM was antedated by some or another more subdued, lesser-known “try-out” or “pilot” version dreamt up by Avery when he was still on the Warner Brothers cartoon staff in the late 1930s. Thus, Tex’s scorchy MGM item Red Hot Riding Hood (’43) was preordained by his somewhat tamer Warner Brothers cartoon Little Red Walking Hood (’37); his MGM poetry take-off Shooting of Dan McGoo (’45) was looked forward to by his earlier Warners Dangerous Dan McFoo (’39); his hectic Uncle Tom’s Cabana (’47) was forecasted by Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (’37); and his sassy Swing Shift Cinderella (’45) forerun by Cinderella Meets Fella, a typically Tex Avery-ized Warners “Merrie Melodie” of 1938.
While the film is much quieter in tone than the later-made MGM masterworks, the pacing of its animation never half so staccato, and the drawings of its characters never quite so emotionally evocative, Cinderella Meets Fella does certify Tex Avery’s standing as a Modernist by its newfangled insistence on a distanced or “distanciated” refurbishing of its hoary old Cinderella narrative. Indeed, Tex Avery’s wisecracking rewrite has all kinds of misfitting modern variations on the story tossed into it, left and right — the regal castle housing Prince Charming’s Royal Ball, otherwise quite quaintly moated and turreted and altogether traditional, also posts an extraneous “No Cover Charge” sign above its drawbridge entrance. And the formal invitation to this royal hoedown, as shown in the opening insert-shot, appends a flashing neon postscriptum advertising “Sweeny’s Hamburgers” yet!
There are other well-realized visual and aural incongruities aplenty: the fairy godmother doesn’t arrive on schedule, since the old crone was out gallivanting at some beer joint the night before. Cindy, worried, calls the cops, initiating a city-wide police dragnet to haul the fairy figure back in an impertinently contemporary-looking police paddy wagon (treating us to an unprepared-for cop/action montage, edited like something lifted out of the Warners feature-film “stock-footage” vaults). And once the fairy godmother is bum’s-rushed in at last, her maladroitly percolated magic wand sparks Santa Claus and reindeer instead of a posh pumpkin coach.
The ending of Cinderella Meets Fella is prime exemplification of Tex Avery’s inventiveness with distancing techniques. Another of Avery’s best gimmicks: little signs or placards that ironically comment on the action even as it’s transpiring. Where Disney would ask for constant absorption and a thoroughgoing emotional commitment from his viewer, Avery freely threatens all the classical unities and acknowledges the artifices of the forms he’s dealing with. Sometimes Avery sabotages any notion of classical self-containment before the film even has a prayer of getting underway: in Tortoise Beats Hare (1941), Bugs Bunny takes a leisurely stroll in front of the title-panel, inspecting it as if it were a big billboard, finally reading the credits aloud, mispronouncing all the names.2
Perhaps the sweetest summing-up of all these self-satirizing, self-reflexive tricks occurs in the black-and-white Looney Tune Porky’s Preview (1941, below), Tex Avery’s ultimate cartoon-within-a-cartoon. As Porky Pig, with beamish pride, unveils his own homemade, rickety animated film to a ticket-paying public of barnyard clientele, the abrupt cutaway from the seamless “real” movie to the unabashed sketchiness of the “movie-within-a-movie” is enough to make one gasp: the world is suddenly populated with infantile stick-figures, backgrounds downgraded to blank white paper, and characters doing crude hulas, quirky Mexican dances may be unceremoniously “ex-ed out,” mid-movement. Mainly endearing in attitude, Avery’s Porky’s Preview may be most properly understood as a short, affectionate greeting card to the Art of Animation, however puerile or sloppily scribbled it may be.
Discoveries in Character. Tex Avery was the foremost innovator at the Warner Brothers Cartoon comedy cooking hotbed, and his strategies of self-reflexive structuring and accelerated pacing were to influence all the other WB cartoon directors for the better.
Yet Avery also administered a shot-in-the-arm to the WB department with his special knack for star-making. Early on, he supervised the cacophonous premiere-appearance of Daffy Duck in a vintage black-and-white cartoon called Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937). Here, Daffy goes off on conniption-fitting tangents and ululates “woo! woo!” into the deep-focus of the lake horizon-line (and yet the finest-wrought moment of the film is inexplicably lyrical: carousingly drunk trout rowboating by and hiccupping together to the tune of “Moonlight Bay”). Having made the grade as Daffy Duck’s irrefutable discoverer on this first momentous occasion, Tex Avery forthwith put on view the first truly recognizable version of Bugs Bunny in the touchstone 1940 film A Wild Hare (below, model sheet and finished cartoon).
How is a character born? The chunkier rabbit in Porky’s Hare Hunt (1936), directed by Ben Hardaway, proclaims “Of course, you know, this means war!,” but he proclaims it in a scatter-brained way, and it was up to director Chuck Jones to stipulate that the line become the moral fulcrum to the later Bugs stories. It was Ben “Bugs” Hardaway who gave the Bunny his moniker, but it was up to Tex Avery to first prove that the moniker was a misnomer and that Bugs wasn’t buggy or batty at all, but was a character with much mental wherewithal. Facing the shotgun-toting hunter Elmer Fudd in A Wild Hare, the flip Bunny stays unfazed, and first delivers his crucial, scarcely-importuned catchline “What’s Up, Doc?”, stumping Elmer, then and forever, with his carrot-munching coolness.
And several other ground rules for the Bugs-Elmer tussles were established in this film, character-building precepts that were hewn to by the other Warners directors: Bugs’ cautious testing-out of the situation with his gloved hand, before spinning out of his rabbit-hole and into sight at last (in Freleng’s 1942 Fresh Hare, set in snowy Canada, the gloved hand appears from the hole and goes through the same routine, only this time around, wearing little finger-sized snowshoes) and, of course, Bugs’ habit of planting kisses on Elmer’s lips and bald pate, here revealing not just Bugs Bunny’s insouciance, but also his genuine awe and affection for Elmer’s seemingly limitless insipidity. After A Wild Hare, only a few changes were left to be made in Bugs’ basic character-shape (i.e., the Bunny’s bulgier midsection and slightly squattier bow-legs in this cartoon had yet to be straightened out).
Some of Bugs Bunny’s more slyly-nuanced mannerisms in this genesis-cartoon were conducted in adeptly-detailed animation donated by Bob McKimson. In certain of the McKimson-animated scenes, such as in the “Guess Who” game (where Bugs sneakily covers Elmer’s eyes, quizzes “Guess who?”, and Elmer ventures, confusedly, “Pwissiwa Wane? . . . Owivia de Havawind?”) and in Bugs Bunny’s uproariously funny faked “deathbed” soliloquy (where Bugs’ lachrymosely overacted “dying” histrionics prove persuasive enough to dupe the very gullible Elmer Fudd), Avery really captured the quintessence of the rabbit who went on to become the Warner company’s biggest cartoon-star.
This was “personality animation,” to be sure, but seems to be forged from quite a different ideological bias than Disney’s. The Walt Disney Studio’s “bourgeoisification” of Mickey Mouse got more and more conspicuous throughout the 1930s, so that even Mickey’s meaty “comeback” part in the sumptuously-animated “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” installment from Fantasia could be hierarchically echeloned to present Mickey pretty much as a bourgeois middleman who tries to control the broom-workers all by himself, causes social chaos, and is obliged to fall back upon the authority-figure of the imperious Sorcerer to restore law and order. Where Mickey became a middle-class cartoon denizen, Bugs Bunny was more of a lower-class tough guy in the Cagney/Bogart vein, what with Bugs’ general self-assertive pluckiness, his incomparably Mel Blanc-voiced Bronx/Brooklyn twang (contrasting heroically to Elmer’s sappy, gutless lisp), and the stance he takes in every altercation with the hunters (staring down a rifle-muzzle, never balking, with a dauntless comic impudence).
Mickey Mouse was never really ousted or dethroned in popularity, but — at the very least — he was partially eclipsed by the resounding public support for Bugs Bunny, beginning from the early 1940s. Critic Richard Schickel has made all the predictable historical links between America’s entry into World War II and the rabbit’s partial usurpation of the Mouse’s ground:
In the war years, when he flourished most gloriously, Bugs Bunny embodied the cocky humor of a nation that had survived its economic crisis with fewer psychological scars than anyone had thought possible and was facing a terrible war with grace, gallantry, humor and solidarity that was equally surprising.
While one certainly shouldn’t fall captive to the preachiness that mars so much of Schickel’s writing on cartoons — the too-facile omniscience and clairvoyance with which Schickel second-guesses everyone’s political purposes of 40-odd years ago — one can still follow the argument enough to say that the Bunny’s personality was propitiously well suited, by whatever deliberate intention or whatever fluky unwariness on the part of the cartoonists, to the Temper of the Times.3
Of Fox and Hounds (1941) opens rather deceptively with a naturalistically rotoscoped, picturesque facsimile of a real “Tally Ho!”-type British fox hunt — misleading, since the film soon settles on a very cartoon-y, non-naturalistic hunting dog, a canine dimwit who boasts directly to the camera that he “knows every tree in the forest” (only to ram smack into a large tree — “yup,” he says, “there’s one now!”). The title, of course, gives a nice plagiaristic ribbing to John Steinbeck’s famous novel Of Mice and Men. Apparently Avery found tremendous mirth in John Steinbeck’s archetype-troglodyte Lenny, using a Lenny-like personality for the dumb bloodhound in this film, and referring to Lenny in many manic Warners and MGM cartoons to follow (and it’s amusing to note that Tex himself would very often personally supply the oafish voices for the Lenny-like characters in question).
The “Lenny” of Steinbeck’s original book, needless to say, was a very tragic character — an agrarian retardate who, in excesses of passionate love, would choke to death all mice, squirrels, rabbits and farmers’ daughters in his path. It is a measure of Avery’s iconoclasm that he’d exploit such somber stuff for the needs of animated slapstick comedy. To Avery, Steinbeck’s “Lenny” must simply have been a good joke, a swell blending-together of the special comic qualities of both the ultimate mental-defective and the ultimate rube.
The narrative gist of Of Fox and Hounds consists of the hunting dog’s vain attempts to track down a slippery fox (inevitably named “George”). Over and over, the numbskull asks to know the elusive fox’s whereabouts from the smooth-talking fox himself, allowing the dog’s repeated queries of “Which way did he go, George, which way did he go?” The bozo’s readings of this line are beautifully structured at regular intervals, as are the “wild goose chases” that the cool fox always sends him off on — the blundering dog will never learn and, giving us a classic textbook definition of Freudian “repetition compulsion,” invariably runs off heedlessly galumphing past the same tree-stump, around the same right corner, over the same rail fence and down the same precipitous cliff-edge. (The dumb dog’s thrice-repeated heels-over-head “galumphing” run, by the way, is a splendid piece of comic animation. Avery’s late-breaked divulgence that he “shot a lot of pencil tests on that” — filming various possible different running cycles for the dog before discarding them in favor of the one finally hit upon and employed in this cartoon — should come as no great surprise.)
Though Avery’s Of Fox and Hounds could hardly have made the same impact on Warner Brothers Cartoons as did his debut vehicles for Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, the film did exert a fair degree of subtler, more insinuative influence on the studio’s sense of character definition. For example, the fox in this picture — a rather debonair, “city slicker” kind of fox — was a trickster who was similar enough to Bugs Bunny, whom Avery had first fathered the year before with A Wild Hare, for Friz Freleng to later do a so-so remake of Of Fox and Hounds as a Bugs Bunny film, with Bugs in the role of the fox (retitled, appropriately, Foxy By Proxy). And the Lenny-like bloodhound’s touchingly moronic one-line refrain “Which way did he go, George, which way did he go?” may be heard again in scores of Warner Brothers films thereafter, sometimes emanating from some pretty unlikely sources, but most often issued forth from the mouths of dazed beings who have just been conked on the head, the precious staple one-liner denoting the conked character’s consequent stuporous or woozy state.
Avery’s own affection for Lenny didn’t stop with his Warners period, and he went on to direct several other Of Mice and Men spinoffs at MGM, such as the George and Junior Bear films, and also, notably, Lonesome Lenny (1946), where, rather shockingly, he permits one of his Lenny-like personalities to irreparably crush to death a character named “Screwy Squirrel” (and the mutilated squirrel carcass then feebly raises up a little sign: “SAD ENDING, ISN’T IT?”). Avery thus decidedly terminated a then-thriving series of “Screwy Squirrel” cartoons at MGM, wrapping them up for good and all and in no uncertain way. Formally closing up shop on an ongoing series of films by frankly and flauntily murdering off the central character might well strike one to be a tad morbid or unorthodox a policy, but nevertheless it does give some small indication of the quite lovely homicidal ruthlessness and no-holds-barred approach with which Tex Avery would come to pursue punchlines in the later phase of his career at MGM.
Heckling Hare (1941) presents us with another doltish canine nimrod (again, with Avery himself speaking the part in his “dumb dog” dialect), pitting the poor simpleton in an unevenly-matched battle-of-wits with the brainy Bugs Bunny. Heckling Hare is probably the best-conceptualized of the four Bugs Bunny films that Avery made at Warners, before he packed his bags and brought his innovative gifts to MGM in 1942. Michael Maltese, the contributing gag writer for this cartoon (and afterwards director Chuck Jones’ front-ranking scriber/collaborator for a decade-and-a-half’s worth of magnificently funny films) spills a bit of what he knows about Tex Avery in an interview conducted by critic Joe Adamson:
The guy with the most mischievous Bugs Bunny character in the whole studio was Tex Avery. He kept that studio jumping. Usually, anybody working for a director would say “He’s the boss,” and there would be problems. But Avery would cheer the guys into this crazy mixed-up attitude. And you can put this down — I don’t care what you hear from anybody else — he took Bugs Bunny and instilled into him the character that made Bugs Bunny. . . . When Avery was gone, the heritage that was left to us at Warners was Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig. And it was up to us to develop these characters and turn them into something.
Besides its representation of the earlier, more prankish rough beginnings of the Bugs Bunny psyche, Heckling Hare (right) is also justly well-known for its elaborate final cliff-falling sequence. In this stunning aerial finish (animated by Rod Scribner), Bugs Bunny plummets down from a lofty pinnacle precipice and falls screaming through the sky, along with the slow-witted hunting dog who’s been trailing him throughout the film, and their fall, at first, is vertiginously terrifying, their screamings and their agonized arm-flailings really blood-curdling — but Tex Avery’s visual diction is distinctly modernistic, and so constantly reinforces our awareness that we’re watching a cartoon. At first, Avery’s “believable” animation lends as much emotional credence to the stratospheric fall as Disney ever lent to, say, the hunters’ bumping-off of Bambi’s comely doe-mother, but Avery then goes one better by deliberately extending this horrific scene — stretching its plausibility, and reminding us of any and all dramatic artifice. The spectacular drop-to-earth is extended for nearly a full minute’s time, and the impossible prolongment makes the once-fearsome falling seem ridiculous, finally hilarious as Bugs and the dog simply “apply their brakes,” grind to a halt, and land unharmed on the ground below. (Avery had used this gag before, with a forever-falling aircraft in his 1940 aeronautics-survey Ceiling Hero, and Bob Clampett repeated it with Bugs Bunny and a gremlin-nemesis crewing a long-cascading plane in 1943’s Falling Hare.)
Avery at MGM (1942-1954)
To better acquaint ourselves with the different modus operandi by which Tex Avery rendered sheerer apoplectic mayhem at MGM, it might be advantageous if we harkened back to one of his vintage Warners pics, Daffy Duck’s debut film Porky’s Duck Hunt, to see precisely what’s been left behind. Years after Porky’s Duck Hunt, Avery directed Lucky Ducky (1948), another duck-hunt film, and the similarity in subject-matter between this color project and the black-and-white Looney Tune of eleven seasons earlier provides a nice comparison in style between the more subdued Warners and the much wilder MGM phases of Tex Avery’s career. The basic comic narrative inverting of the “Who’s-the-hunter, who’s-the-hunted” controversies posed — with the “prey” irreversibly turning tables on the “predator” — is practically identical in the two cartoons, but the later MGM entry, beyond and besides its improved “cleaner” artwork, offers more farfetched action (as when the miniature lucky duckling bodily lifts the hunters’ boat up by the prow and violently thwacks it against the water, ten times, rat-tat-tat), and gags that are persistently more scenically/spatially/geographically spectacular (magnifying the carving-powers of the outboard motor on the hunters’ runaway speedboat, letting its propeller sculpt the Presidential faces of a new Mount Rushmore, and manufacture islets by buzz-sawing off whole peninsulas from the mainland).
The Warners Porky’s Duck Hunt offers a few modest “reality jokes” and textual alienisms, as when Porky Pig complains of Daffy’s addled antics, “Hey, that wasn’t in the script!,” or as Daffy takes his impromptu rollercoaster ride over the handwritten Warners-patented “That’s All Folks!” end-logos. But all suchlike syntactical japes in Avery’s Lucky Ducky (right) take the characters much farther afield, going so far as to race them past the Technicolor boundary-line (in one of Avery’s nuttiest-yet “reality jokes,” a signpost demarcates an imaginary cut-off point, everything to the left of which is shot in lavish color hues, and everything to the right in the lackluster black, white and gray gradations of a badly bleached print). On the other hand, the slower lyrical whimsy of the drunken-fish passage in the Warners Porky’s Duck Hunt would never again find its way into Tex Avery’s method, the hectic tempo of Lucky Ducky being maintained at all costs.
Indeed, some of Avery’s most important films at MGM took onto themselves a nerve-jangling shrillness, an acid unremittingness that no viewer could sit through with total equanimity. One such cartoon is The Slap-Happy Lion (1947) — a harrowing biopic that charts the harshly-toppled downfall of a once-noble King of Beasts, tracing his declining prowess from his first illustriousness as “Jungle Big-Shot Number One” to his last pathetic status as a driveling and seizure-ridden wheelchair convalescent.
The ever-heightened celerity of Slap-Happy Lion is such that Avery must condense his cartoon action to an unprecedented extent, compressing all the cartoon’s happenings to a new “nth” degree. Here Avery crams a seemingly unmanageably large stock of sight gags about a lion’s roaring into absolutely the fewest possible number of single frames: the lion roars so tumultuously that he swallows himself . . . so powerfully that his mane disconnects to become a hairy hula-skirt . . . so violently that his dentures get unloosed and his unfastened upper plate comes crashing down upon his lower lip. As if still not fully satisfied by this finely-animated scene, Avery wedges in a complementary set of gags, complete with stirring variations (which again are squeezed into the shortest-possible running-time), on the ways in which some spooked-silly bystanders, in a different part of the jungle, come to blanche, cringe, or flinch when they hear the lion’s bellows: one flustered kangaroo nosedives into her own pouch, and an apparently hefty alligator, scared campering out of hiding from a jungle pond, turns out to have had a teensy-weensy, shrunken-down body affixed to its disproportionately large, hefty head (the macrocephalic gator timidly turns to explain to us, in an unexpectedly high-pitched measly, meager voice: “Oo . . . I’ve been sick.”).
As previously hinted at, it’s the MGM cartoons that constitute the more substantial meat-and-potatoes diet in Avery’s overall oeuvre, while certain of Avery’s Warners films (not to misestimate or downplay the worth of most) are more exclusively interesting to the devotee or connoisseur. The above-cited alligator-figure provides a case in point: it would come as no small thrill to a hardcore Avery-film aficionado to learn that this bigheaded, tiny-bodied gator first appeared in Wacky Wild Life (1940), one of Avery’s otherwise undistinguished zoological travelogue excursions at Warners.
If none of Tex Avery’s equivalent “stars” at MGM have ever matched the world renown of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck or those of the Warners firmament, it’s undoubtedly for this reason: Avery’s MGM folk were conceived more as incarnations of abstract ideas, conceived less with any thought to affability or conviviality. Screwball Squirrel (1944), in fact, is a virtual paragon of obnoxity, launching Avery’s most single-minded attacks against cute-little-animal schools of cartooning. Where audiences were tickled pink by such smart alecks as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, enjoying these characters’ slick resourcefulness in outwitting the hunters, the wiseacre Screwy Squirrel is conversely calculated to upset audience composure, shatter audience complacency with his snot-nosed sniffling and unpleasant grating chuckle. Where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were lightly tinged with lunacy, Screwy Squirrel is positively rabid with it — incontrovertibly gone haywire. And Screwy’s ambitions to become the shaping force of his own cartoon are maddeningly manifold: no sooner does Screwy maneuver his adversary into a rain barrel and send it madly rolling down a hillside — the action well underscored by all the usual “Wham!” “Bang!” “Whizz!” and “Thud!” noises on the soundtrack — than the camera pulls out to reveal that Screwy, most implausibly, has been doing all the sound effects himself with a bird-tweeter, slide-whistle, and snare drum. Screwy prestidigitates his own “doppelganger” from out of nowhere, and magically predicts all the upcoming events in the cartoon before they even have a chance of taking place (sometimes simply by miraculous divination, and sometimes by lifting up the corner of the movie screen, like the leaf of a manuscript, and peeking ahead to the “next page”).
Avery’s “Screwy” personage wasn’t your average cutely crazy cartoon character, then, but rather served as a one-squirrel endorsement of the purest irrationality — utter mental derangement. Droopy, on another tack, a diminutive and hangdog dog, functioned contrapuntally: Droopy was a walking-talking bathos effect — the one sole piece of understatement in a hyperbolic cartoon world. Just how hyperbolic waxed Tex Avery’s world at MGM might be ascertained by a brief run-through of topmost bits of nonsense: a wolfish wolf turns “breakapart” and impossibly over-stimulated in his unrequited lust for the Red Hot Riding Hood (1943); clobbered with a frying pan, a misanthropic tabby shatters brittly like a porcelain vase, falls to a pile of pieces and is swept under a rug-corner in Cat That Hated People (1948). But maybe this insanity peaks in King-Size Canary: hooray for the beauteous grotesqueness of Tex Avery’s deft volumetric augmentations in this 1947 dilly, whereby an erstwhile Joe Average cartoon every-dog, an every-cat, an every-canary and every-mouse may be plumped and superadded up into towering Colossuses!!
Red Hot Riding Hood and Friends. It was with Avery’s revisionary fables and fairy tales that his animation style at MGM first matured into something nearly revolutionary. Red Hot Riding Hood is prefaced with a full-blown “false start” before the actual film begins: a saccharine and totally misleading, oh-so-pretty interlude in the forest, deliberately suggestive of certain cloying excesses of Walt Disney and Harman-Ising, with little Red gleefully skipping along through the over-fecund foliage of the garden variety fairy tale, the big bad wolf readying himself to pounce, etc., etc. But here’s the hitch: the wolf, Red, and Red’s old grandma are painfully aware that they are being asked to play-act in an all-too-simpering rendition of the fairy tale, and they demand, right to the camera, a new and less sissified interpretation. The modernizing variations liberate the principals and Avery’s increasingly more frenzied animation of them: Grandma’s been turned into a nymphomaniacal swinger, and her rustic cottage home is now a hip penthouse pad. Little Red is now a pert and leggy pin-up girl, a red-hot singer/stripper, the wolf has become a street-prowling “Hollywood wolf” (the 1940s stereotype of pure male lecherousness), and the forest is supplanted by the big-city nightclub as the enchanted place of forbidden sexuality.
The “set piece” sequence in this cartoon, as in almost all of Avery’s fairy-tale updates, is a spotlit, hot-and-flirty nightclub song-and-dance performed by the female lead and saucily animated by Preston Blair. Looking on, the wolf illustrates his lupine appetites with wild WILD reaction shots, cross-cut with Red Riding Hood’s tantalizing dance: like some whirligig erogenous zone, the wolf might whistle, stomp his feet, smash tables, chairs and other nightclub bric-a-brac, set in motion a Rube Goldberg handclapping machine, or else his eyeballs might unsocket themselves for mid-air ogling at the dish, his body maybe crackle itself into tiny flakes, send itself to the ceiling with a gravity-defying boost, or go through other unspeakable palpitating gyrations spoken of later in this essay. Most of the comedy is milked, though, from the delicacy of the cross-cutting between the lady’s smooth nubility in the dance, and the skittish strenuous helter-skelter of the wolf’s impossibly over-stimulated responses. The widespread theory that these most healthy lecherous acrobatics were incurred solely for the enjoyment of WWII servicemen is obviously a moot issue, though a partly corroborative image occurs in The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945): during one protracted wolf-whistle, the wolf’s body, turned erectile, has Army, Navy, and Marine uniforms zapped over it. (By the by, the first of Avery’s ever-unsated masher-type wolves was whelped at Warners, in 1937’s Little Red Riding Hood, first displayed “lurking in a nearby pool hall,” as the narrator says, but the Red Riding Hood co-starred here, a little sprite, hears only incidental resemblance to Preston Blair’s perter, suppler dame of the later MGM “Red Riding hood” spoofs.)
Besides expounding their exhaustive studies in bawdiness, the nightclub cross-cutting scenes of Avery’s fairy tales are rigorous analyses of clashing animation styles, elucidating differences between two alternating cartoon coordinates. The torchy dance-stepping motions of the mini-costumed singer have a naturalistic suppleness and fluidity of line that smacks of Disney animation (and, in fact, animator Preston Blair is an experienced Disney graduate, having labored on, among many other things, the inexorably plodding marching worker-brooms in “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”). Against Blair’s sensuous and smoothly-moving figure, Avery counterpoises stunningly herky-jerky work that’s replete with “stop”s and “go”s, fits and starts, and frozen-still portraitures of the all-but-salivating form (limbs briskly snapping off the rest of the anatomy to fly every which way). Another real boon to the highlighted nightclub sequences of these cartoons are the well-sung songs themselves — whole generous earfuls of energetically-syncopated risqué ballads with their specially revamped, cleverly convoluted verses of “Wolfie, I Want a Diamond Ring” from Red Hot Riding Hood, a shameless “Put Your Arms Around Me, Wolfie!” from Shooting of Dan McGoo, a slow and simmering “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” from Uncle Tom’s Cabana and the catchy “Oh, Wolfie!” from Little Rural Riding Hood. Today, Avery can’t quite remember the name of the real-life woman who dubbed the different singing gigs of the sexy cartoon chanteuse with such jazzy flair, but recollects that she was some obscure MGM contractee,4 an obviously meritorious would-be starlet who unfortunately never made it. Avery now fondly recalls her jivey presence at the cartoon recording sessions: “Brother, she was a real swinging kid. She helped those scenes considerably. She really put some stuff into it!”
Avery at Full Throttle. Just as the wildly implausible “takes” of the wolf in Red Hot Riding Hood capsulize an unrequited sexual zeal, so the equally exaggerated “takes” of the escaped-convict wolf in Northwest Hounded Police (1946) externalize the feelings of fear and paranoia. The wolf makes with these vivisectional, phobic “takes” whenever he lays his enlarged or out-poppable eyes on the inescapable Droopy, a seemingly ubiquitous or magically multipliable little dog. The wolf traverses entire continents to shake off Droopy, yet always finds the impassive basset waiting for him on the other side. In the jarring conclusion of Northwest Hounded, the wolf, once more placed behind bars, wonders aloud if “there could’ve been more than one of those little guys,” and Avery zip-pans to an unnerving shot of a hallway aisle littered with a plethora of cloned mounted Droopys, chorusing an unavoidable answer. (This, an inspiredly paranoiac touch of mass sameness — a nightmare of conformity — is looked forward to by the theatre-full of dittoed Eggheads in the final shot of Hamateur Night, and the clustered Hell-full of carbon-copied Satans in the capping-off diableries of Blitz Wolf).
Again, in Northwest Hounded Police (right), Avery shows no compunction about piercing through the illusionism of the cartoon and the motion picture mediums: the aforementioned cartoon “takes” (executed by Ed Love with crinkled tongues, bugging eyes, and various appendages exploding from the torso) are valiantly explicit tries to find the breaking points of animation “believability,” and one “chase” image in particular — when the wolf skids straight off the celluloid, past the sprocket holes and onto a blank white screen — impishly annihilates the formal strictures of the frame.
Besides very likely being the most famous cartoon film that Avery ever made at MGM, King Size Canary (1947) also counts as one of Tex’s most uncompromisingly and relentlessly carried through. In what begins as a relatively becalmed film (for Avery) — in an ordinary setting, with an ordinary bunch of household pets, all engaged in an ordinary survival-of-the-fittest bash-or-be-bashed cartoon tale — Averv need only deposit a single strange new ingredient to changeabout this run-of-the-mill narrative into something rather disconcerting: a little bottle of “Jumbo Gro” miracle potion. Mix well and stir. The result: an infinitely inflationary cat, canary, dog and mouse.
The bland, “Tom and Jerry”-like suburban home backdrop proves quite insufficient to meet the needs of Tex Avery’s ever-increscent monsters, so the jumbo characters then summarily smash right through these smaller, comfier confines, going on to play hide-and-seek among the city skyscrapers, periodically gulping fresh doses of Jumbo-Gro to aid them in their pitiless power-plays against each other, each of the animals growing eight or nine stories taller after each fresh swig of the drink. Mighty national monuments, geographical phenomena are manipulable as more props throughout this supercharged and overabundant cat-and-mouse chase and fight-to-the-finish: the Grand Canyon clears a little running space, Boulder Dam is an easy hurdle, the snow-peaked Sierras serve as stepping stones, a nearby train tunnel makes the niftiest mouse hole, and the final image is, perhaps, a foregone conclusion: an equibalanced mouse and cat, pear-shaped immensities with their grossly distended stomachs, standing on the tiniest Earth, now the likes of a small agate marble.
Another of Avery’s undisputed masterpieces — a real humdinger, Bad Luck Blackie (1949, right) — is a breathless motion study and, secondarily, an ambiguous “Morality Play.” An innocent white kitten, troubled and tormented by a sniggeringly sadistic dog, secures the priceless services of a sharpie alley-cat named Blackie (His card: “PATHS CROSSED: BAD LUCK GUARANTEED”). The dramatis personae of this film would seem to fit quite snugly and securely into clichéd moral categories — there’s the smugly gloating bruiser bulldog, snickering in a fiendish wheeze, with his fat jowls a-flappin’ (read as Malefactor). The cruelly-baited white kitten gazes up imploringly, entirely composed of cuddly, psychologically pleasing, caressingly round circle-shapes (read as Virtue Unprotected). Enter Bad Luck Blackie, whose jinxing capabilities squarely earmark him as the film’s awaited deus ex machina to save the kitten from its plight (read: Defender of Innocence). Yet Avery discombobulates these merely manicheistic codes of Evil, Good and much-beloved Champion-of-the-Good.
The successive events that contribute to the peremptory moral comeuppance of the kitten-bullying bulldog precipitate in fast-flipped, chain-reactive fashion — as if the one action functioned as a Pavlovian “trigger mechanism,” the next its “conditioned reflex”:
1. bulldog attacks kitten
2. kitten blows on little blue whistle
3. Blackie crosses bulldog’s path, and
4. some brand new tortuous foreign object or another falls on the hapless bulldog’s head
Avery here masterfully intersects and cross-refers separate lines of cartoon action, each line of action with its own multifarious set of abstract variables: there’s the different routes by which the black cat may hex its target (crossing his path by doing a vigorous “cossack-stepping” dance, crossing his path while upside-down with suction-cupped feet, or crossing his path in mid-air while traveling by balloon), and the progressively more and more preposterous articles and artifacts that are brought down thunderously on the bulldog’s noggin. In 1963, the editors of Positif film mag took inventory on the skydropped debris, and catalogued the different falling objects for posterity: a first flower pot; a second flower pot; a huge 50-lb. trunk; a piano; a cash register; four horseshoes — then the horse; a fireplug, a safe, a brick, and then a whole brick wall; an anvil; a kitchen sink; a bathtub; (and building to a crescendo . . .) a streamroller, an uptown bus, an airplane, and lastly an unwieldy ocean liner, causing the rained-on bulldog concussion after concussion.
Animated with brio are the well-caught expressions that wash over the fact of the ill-starred bulldog, from his first overconfidence and diabolicalness, to the gradually dawning recognition of his Doom, to his last, understandably distraught consternation at the mystifyingly falling-down displaced objects of a Universe Gone Askew. The chief animators of the victimized bulldog in Bad Luck Blackie, and perhaps Avery’s key men in his animation unit over his full-blast, full-throttle hot-and-heavy years, were Grant Simmons and Michael Lah. Avery said of Simmons and Lah, “I would give them most of the delicate stuff, the more subtle stuff demanding tight expressions.”
Skirting Sociology. Revving up with yet another “false start” travesty of Disney-type didacticism (with consummate audaciousness, the film transmogrifies Disney’s Three Little Pigs: as liberally recapitulated by Tex Avery, the two stupid little pigs have signed a treaty with Hitler, while the smart little pig is a politically hip and home-defending interballistics expert), Blitz Wolf (1942) soon reveals itself to be an all-stops-out, epic-scale WWII movie. As with certain portions of Robert Clampett’s film Russian Rhapsody, today’s historical hindsight adds a lot of worrisome shock value to this wartime propaganda film, with several of the images taking on a much grimmer flavor than Tex Avery ever could have originally intended. One creepily prophetic scene, meant to commemorate Doolittle’s bombing raids on Japan, now seems more than a little discomforting: a single-shell bombardment of the Rising Sun empire, and the sinking of the entire island into the Pacific, in a relief-map abstraction.
A surprising three-fourths of the gags, however, could not be said to be dedicated to hate-the-enemy proselytizing but seem to be guffawing at the War’s oft-times absurd, incongruous technology (not unlike the curtain-raising battlefront scenes of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator). Among Avery’s rather zany portraits of mechanized war: a tremendously oversized Secret Weapon that somehow pokes from the Three Pigs’ minuscule bomb shelter . . . a battalion of gigantically looming tanks, placed against a rockets’-red-glare sky in a heroically-angled tableau, and rolling along parallel to an incongruously dinky little ice cream wagon . . . a mechanical flame-thrower suddenly turning pacifist with a burnt-out nozzle (saying “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” in a paraphrase of the then-current pop song) . . . an Incendiary Bomb that manifests its flammability by striking a kitchen match and giving the Fuhrer a low-comic “hotfoot.”
Even the jokes at Hitler’s expense are once removed from seriousness, aimed indirectly at Avery’s versatile wolf-actor who impersonates the dictator with a goose-stepping arrogance and a polished, comic guttural rasping accent.
Moving from Blitz Wolf to What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943), Avery turns from the fighting overseas to face the food rationing, meat shortages and the otherwise glum hardships endured at the home front during the war years. What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? was perhaps the most libidinous film that Avery directed at MGM, giving us the blow-by-blow of a cannibalistic free-for-all as two famished buzzards struggle to devour one another. No sooner does one “lean and hungry” bird narrowly escape the stove, stewpot, or frying pan of the other than the other is suddenly being spun about by the first on a rotisserie’s rotating spit.
Abject starvation, food rationing, and depleted meat supplies (references to which abound in What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard?) are no laughing matters in themselves, for chrissake, but Avery succeeds in sustaining the disturbingly funny mood throughout, through deployment of several special tools: the exaggeratedly scraggly, undernourished desperation that’s been etched into the two scrawny bodies and the quite-mad faces of the leading vulture players, the breathlessness of the timing as the culinary props — an automatic food grinder, forks, knives, cleavers, spices, sprinkled salt and pepper, and a big red frightening-looking electric meat dicer — keep appearing on cue from the off-space; and, of course, the careful use of explicit distancing and audience-implicating devices (to put the theatre audience in a droolingly carnivorous and bloodthirsty frame of mind, Avery, at the beginning, blips in a live-action photograph — a full-color glossy magazine-spread depiction of a porterhouse steak, dripping temptingly with gravy).
Tex Avery, in a printed conversation with critic Joe Adamson, remarked on What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? and its effect on MGM’s humorless cartoon producer Fred Quimby:
The cartoon he really hated was What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard?, about two buzzards trying to devour each other. He darn near threw up every time he saw it. Finally we got a notice that “This film has been chosen to be preserved in the Library of Congress Film Collection.” He said, “Aw, they coulda picked a better one than that.”
Into the late ’40s and early ’50s, Avery’s very unrepressed imagination was such that his cartoons continued to skirt sociological themes. Unlike Disney, whose lofty aims toward “timelessness” and “universality,” in many a “milestone” film, would have him censor out the less idealized comic possibilities of the Humdrum or the Day-to-Day, Tex Avery was forever a proponent of the Topical, and few contemporaneous fads, trends, or crazes of a postwar world, particularly those that were endemically American, got by him unnoticed. For instance, in Little ‘Tinker (1948), Avery offhandedly dissected the phenomenon of “crooner” fan worship: the foibles of some legionary baby-bunny “bobby-soxers” in a very funny scene, as the girls proceed to faint, flip out, and bean each other over the head in unquestioning idolatry for a second-rate “bogus” warbler (and almost sacrilegiously, the screaming, swooning, bouncing female bunnies in the scene bear a pointed likeness in design to Disney’s “cute” Thumper).
Here, critic Ronnie Scheib eloquently describes one of Avery’s scathing looks at a cultural commonplace of the ’50s:
Within a revised spot-gag structure,TV of Tomorrow (1953) uses a frame-within-a-frame to depict the takeover of the suburban household by a small box and the reciprocal smaller-than-life domestication of the image. The jarring implications of TV’s insidious replacement of direct experience and total integration of technology into the home are highlighted in a contract bridge set featuring a live-action black-and-white TV “fourth,” who deals cards directly from the screen to an animated, colorful card-playing threesome in a brilliantly drawn and coordinated sequence. But the confusion of inner and outer, of the unlimited fantasy power of the image and the packaged enclosure of the box-as-possession (an age-old sexual problem, given new impetus by the overweening voyeurism of sex through technology) is most explicit in Avery’s lineup of boob tubes, including a keyhole-shaped set for Peeping Toms, a slot-machine model “for those who like to gamble on their channel, ” which rolls first the beautiful head and arms, then the lovely legs of a woman, only to turn up a lemon in the center, and a new low of displaced sexual drive: a TV set with a deep-plunging, lace-trimmed neckline.
Be forewarned that much of TV of Tomorrow is conducted in the sparer, more under-detailed, post-UPA style of “limited animation,” but, as with all decent limited animation, the paucity of movement is judiciously related to the content of the film and isn’t motivated simply by budgetary restrictions or financial expedience. The matter-of-fact outlandishness of visual ideas like the keyhole-shaped TV and the card-playing TV are truly better served by sparser drawing.
Tex Avery began and ended his career in theatrical animated films with Walter Lantz, coming full circle. Lantz wrote to Zagreb:5
Tex Avery applied for a job when I was producing the Oswald Rabbit cartoons for Universal Pictures in 1928. I was impressed by the talent he had for drawing cartoons and started him out by doing “in-between” drawings for the animators. It wasn’t too long before he became an assistant animator. He was a very hard worker and his ambition was to become an animator.
The thing I noticed mostly about Tex was that he had a natural talent, especially his exaggerated sense of humor. He was a rabid practical joker. We didn’t have a story department in those days. The animators and assistants would meet with me in the evening every two weeks. Everyone contributed gags, but Tex was the outstanding contributor and the funniest. He soon became a very good animator.
But Tex wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to be a director. Bill Nolan was directing 13 cartoons a year and I was also directing and producing. We were turning out 26 cartoons a year.
Tex left my organization in 1936 to direct Porky Pig for Warners. He moved right up the ladder and was one of the excellent group of directors who made Bugs Bunny famous. It wasn’t until 1954, when Tex Avery left MGM, that he joined my staff again.
He only produced and directed four cartoons for me at Universal, but all of them were truly outstanding — The Crazy Mixed-Up Pup, Sh-h-h-h, I’m Cold, andThe Legend of Rockabye Point (the latter two featuring the little Penguin “Chilly Willy “). Then, in late 1955, Avery decided to go into business for himself, doing TV commercials.
The entire industry admires Tex Avery and his wonderful talent.
I especially admire Tex and hope he will be around a long time contributing his zany sense of humor to the wonderful world of animation.
Avery’s last-made cartoon, Sh-h-h-h (1955), is perhaps the most imaginative of the four films that he directed at the end of his career for Walter Lantz at Universal. By the release date of Sh-h-h-h, the pared-down detailing and flattened-out perspectives of the UPA cartoonists had been thoroughly assimilated into Avery’s visual style; in Sh-h-h-h, though, Avery doesn’t merely incorporate these then-trendy designing advances of UPA — he puts them into the service of a new and disorientingly “void-like” atmosphere. Sh-h-h-h is pervaded with a sort of chilling “hollowness” of a kind the UPA people hadn’t used theretofore.
The visual minimalism of Sh-h-h-h is surpassed in skimpiness by the aural minimalism of its deliberately under-recorded soundtrack — a soundtrack that’s stripped down to almost nothing but the lonely “wah-wah” of a corny slide-trombonist and a woman’s wild abandoned peals of quite hysterical laughter. Sh-h-h-h’s bold experimentation with sound is such that the woman’s wild laughing and the corny slide-tromboning are practically the only noises to be heard — all else cushioned in a hushed-up world.
The soundtrack of Sh-h-h-h was actually pirated from a long-lost comedy record of the 1920s that, when played at parties, was supposed to induce contagious giggliness among the guests. For the noise-fixated, dozing-off, homunculus-hero of Sh-h-h-h, though, whose nervous system seems to be in total disarray, the incessant, remorseless singing-and-tromboning drone from the room next door can only drive him to distraction or lock him in a nightmarish groggy insomnia. Like some films from Eastern Europe with the schematized overtness of its experimentation with Sound and Image, its bleak pared-down feel, and the very potent diagrammatic two-dimensionality of its “humanoid” Everyman, Avery’s final cartoon-statement is, coincidentally enough, his most “Zagrebian” effort.
Acknowledgments: For their help in putting together the retrospective-programs and in the preparation of this piece, the author gives thanks to the following people: Walter Lantz of Walter Lantz Productions, Chuck Jones and Mary Roscoe of Chuck Jones Productions, Steve Schneider, Mrs. Herman R. (Juliet) Cohen, Jack McLaughlin of United Artists Television, Doug Lemza of Films Inc. and Tex Avery himself.
- Tedd Pierce gives his most poignantly padded-out performance as one of Avery’s screen-silhouetted audience members in a film called Daffy Duck and Egghead (1937) where, shot in cold blood by one of the screen’s cartoon characters, he does a lengthy reeling, keeling, falling-over-backwards plop to death. [↩]
- Avery’s many contrivances for distancing his subject matter — as well as the very processes of the cartoon medium — weren’t the least of the legacy he bequeathed to his colleagues at the Warner Brothers studios before his departure to MGM, and his new ideas of self-reflexive structuring were subscribed to by a sizable percentage of the quite talented confluence of WB cartoon directors after Avery left. The embracement of these new ideas was best manifested in the cartoons of Chuck Jones: humorously, in 1945’s Hare Tonic (where Jones and Bugs Bunny, in collusion, coax the theatre audience into thinking it’s contracted the dread disease “Rabbititus” by swirling symptomatic red and yellow spots upon the screen), but most tellingly and adroitly in the superb Duck Amuck (1953), a culmination of many different strands of development in the Hollywood Cartoon. Duck Amuck depicts a very angst-ridden Daffy Duck, in the throes of an existential dilemma, trapped on an animation board: victim to the capricious brush-strokes and pernicious pensmanship of a disrespectful animator just off-screen, Daffy’s body is humiliatingly daubed with garish polka-dots, completely erased, repainted as a petal-headed mutant, and his backgrounds made to shift faster than Daffy can catch up with them (so that Daffy is appareled in a farmer’s straw hat and farmer’s overalls, all malapropos, against an icy Eskimo snowscape). Duck Amuck is particularly praiseworthy for the way it questions the animator’s possibly sadistic control over the frame — puts to the question the animator’s thumbs-up, thumbs-down Emperor’s Rule over his cartoon subjects. [↩]
- Some small measure of American populist politics may similarly be read into the class stratifications and relationships of many of Bugs Bunny’s typical later scrimmages, long after Bugs’ first Year Zero pattern-setting tiff with Elmer Fudd in A Wild Hare. Director Chuck Jones, the chief delineator of the rabbit’s psychological makeup after Tex Avery left, presents Bugs Bunny in a savory revenge plot entitled Long-Haired Hare (1949): here, the inoffensively folk-singing, banjo-picking hare is repeatedly put upon and stifled by a conceited opera basso, who feels that Bugs’ folk-singing interferes with his own, more reputable, beltings-out of arias. The rabbit is prodded into waging a musical revenge, treating the whole “Hollywood Bowl” amphitheatre as his oyster: he demolishes the opera singer’s outdoor concert from the orchestra-pit podium with a hilariously demonic impersonation of the maestro Leopold Stokowski. Anyhow, one can see Bugs throughout as a kind of proletarian hero fighting back against the pretensions and repressions of High Culture. [↩]
- According to the Internet Movie Database, the MGM contractee is Imogene Lynn, whose voice can also be heard, uncredited, in Mother Wore Tights and Li’l Abner. [↩]
- See Acknowledgments. [↩]