Bright Lights Film Journal

Goosing Mother Goose: The Fairy Tales of Tex Avery

“Fairy tales, unlike any other form of literature, direct the child to discover his identity and calling, and they also suggest what experiences are needed to develop his character further.” – Bruno Bettelheim, “The Uses of Enchantment”1

“Children know something they can’t tell: they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!” – Djuna Barnes, Nightwood2

The origins of the fairy tale have been traced as far back as Egypt in the thirteenth century before Christ,3 but modern readers know the genre from Charles Perrault’s printed adaptations of popular folktales like “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood” in 1697 (Mother Goose Tales) and the Grimm Brothers’ somewhat sanitized updates in the early 1800s. A few decades later, Hans Christian Andersen brought new readers to the genre by writing new stories. With the advent of movies in the 20th century, fairy tales, which had never really vanished from the literary landscape, resurfaced as an important cultural form in feature films by Disney, but these were less a rethinking of the genre than an elaborate visual recapitulation, in plush and suffocating detail, of Perrault and Grimm. It was in the Hollywood cartoon short, and especially the work of Tex Avery at Warner Bros. and M-G-M, that a truly modern version of the fairy tale emerged.

With their simple storylines and language, exotic backgrounds, supernatural and melodramatic elements, interplay between animal and human characters, and frequent child heroes and heroines, fairy tales were an obvious choice of subject matter for Hollywood animators, just as they were for the medieval mothers who used them to entertain and instruct their children. (The fact that these stories, based on long-standing oral traditions, predate the copyright laws and were thus free to adapt was surely another factor.) In works like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), Disney brought the terror of “Old Europe,” with its misshapen men, paranoia-inducing forests, and witches masquerading as kindly apple-sellers, to American audiences searching for fresh thrills. A work like The Three Little Pigs (1933) played off classic childhood fears of an unstable world plagued by male-identified monsters (the wolf-father) whose perverse purpose in life was their destruction. Perrault’s versions of the fairy tales stressed morality by negative example: in his “Little Red Riding Hood,” Red foolishly chats with a stranger (the wolf), and both she and her grandmother are devoured, while the wolf lives to eat again. The Grimms disliked this scenario, and borrowed a hunter from another source; in their version the hunter kills the wolf and slits open its belly, freeing the undigested Granny and Red. Disney followed Perrault in creating frightening worlds seen from a child’s perspective and the Grimm Brothers in imposing a happy ending. From both sources Disney drew its devotion to a classical unity, what Bettelheim identifies in fairy tales as the all-important process of “bringing order out of chaos.”4

Not everyone in Hollywood was so enamored of order or happy endings or the sentimental school of mindless, grinning “funny little animals.” Perhaps the least enamored was Tex Avery, who during his stint at Warner Bros. and M-G-M made seven formal, recognizable fairy tales and one related blackout film (A Gander at Mother Goose) between 1937 (Little Red Walking Hood) and 1949 (Little Rural Riding Hood). These cartoons represent an assault on the Bettelheim school that sees fairy tales as the source of moral instruction for youth, and, closer to home, on the Disney aesthetic. Avery’s versions of these archetypal stories, made to satisfy both children and adults, attempt to reverse Bettelheim by “bringing chaos out of order.” For young audiences, Avery preserves the trappings of the genre – talking animals, supernatural events – and adds the cinematic touch of physical law constantly challenged. For adults, he litters his work with sexual innuendo and distancing devices that replace the sense of reassuring archetypes with a modernist construct that merges the story with its audience, puts adult preoccupations (e.g., sex) in place of children’s, and imagines characters not as clueless tabula rasas awaiting moral enlightenment but as sophisticated, willful creatures with a bottomless bag of tricks. Avery’s fairy tales jettison the whole idea of morality, along with other troublesome concepts like logic, sense, and sexual repression. He brings the “big bad wolves” and “red riding hoods” out of the sanctity of the linear narrative and into the service of the gag, creating in the process a unique world of self-conscious “cartoon actors” who know they’re in a cartoon and freely comment on their status as fictional creations, undercutting the story at every turn. Part of this approach was an outgrowth of the collaboration of Avery with fellow renegades Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and other denizens of Warner Bros.’ “Termite Terrace,” but Avery’s application of modernist elements to an ancient cultural form is the most complex and extreme of the lot.

Avery’s dislike of Disney’s sentimental excesses fueled much of his work, and the first thing we notice about his versions of similar material are the radically different settings. Whereas in a film like Snow White Disney painstakingly reproduced the forest backdrop familiar from the written fairy tale, Avery dispenses entirely with such imagery in favor of urban hot-spots like pool halls and nightclubs. Much of the action of his most famous fairy tales – Red Hot Riding Hood, Swing Shift Cinderella, and Little Rural Riding Hood – takes place in a nightclub. In Cinderella Meets Fella, he masterfully merges the traditions of Old Europe and New America in a single image: a bar called “Ye Olde Beere Jointe.” Where Avery does use the kind of rural setting common to fairy tales, he makes it insufferably Disneyesque; in The Bear’s Tale, the camera self-consciously pans the same woodland so many times, with a mocking narrator each time intoning “. . .the beautiful green forest,” that the effect becomes purposely enervating. For Disney, the visual truth of a setting, and the resulting suspension of disbelief, was crucial in involving the viewer in the world onscreen. For Avery, the logic of the gag, which frequently called attention to the story-as-invention, always surpasses the need for mere verisimilitude.

The fairy tale plot tends to be grimly schematic and deterministic: the reader knows that dire events will follow from Red Riding Hood telling the wolf where her grandmother lives. Avery’s “plots” (one must use quote marks) are filled with distancing devices and narrative ruptures that make the universe appear far less predictable. In The Bear’s Tale, the story itself is fractured, as Red Riding Hood inexplicably appears in what’s supposed to be an account of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” (Red saves Goldie from the wolf by reaching over the split-screen line that separates them.) In Little Red Walking Hood, the action of the story is interrupted, to the loud disgust of the actor-wolf and actor-girl, by what appear to be real-life silhouettes of people clumsily entering the theatre and trying to find a seat to see the cartoon. Cinderella Meets Fella has a happier version of this distancing device, as Cinderella disappears, only to turn up as a real-life shadow waving and yelling at “Fella” (who’s still onscreen and in the narrative proper) from the audience watching the cartoon. Avery’s inclusion of the audience – even in silhouette form – in the story undermines the linear narrative, and any potential moral that might be derived from it, by pointing out that these are, after all, only fictional inventions.

Avery has never been considered a “personality animator” in the mode of Disney, and never thought of himself as such, though it’s hard not to see “personality” in characters like the eternally aroused Wolf, or the stupidly self-absorbed papa Bear in The Bear’s Tale, or for that matter in his sexy, droll Cinderellas and Red Riding Hoods. While Disney is correctly credited with singlehandedly rescuing the animated cartoon from the simple gag orientation of the silent era, many of his much-vaunted “characters” are quite dull, particularly the saccharine fairy tale heroines Cinderella and Snow White. (He got more mileage out of the Wolf in the Three Little Pigs, perhaps because of that film’s unavoidable connection to the too-close terrors of the Depression.) Contrast the Disney version with Avery’s Swing Shift Cinderella. Key elements of this familiar tale are blithely dumped; there’s no glass slipper here, or tearful reunion with the prince. (There’s no prince.) For love interest, Avery recruits Red Riding Hood’s horny Wolf. Cinderella’s no longer the timid drudge of Disney, Grimm, or Perrault, but a busty pin-up babe who does a sexy song-and-dance act that drives the wolf into a frenzy of lust. The story becomes increasingly unrecognizable, no longer a morality tale about the rewards of being “good” but a campy erotic farce in which the Wolf pursues Cinderella while trying to resist the equally frantic attentions of an aged fairy godmother on the make.

Avery’s relentless sexual motifs are a crucial part of his attack on Disney. In The Bear’s Tale, Goldilocks is skipping through the forest with exaggeratedly cloying moves, swinging her hands wildly through the air with a vacuous grin. But it’s typical of Avery that he rescues her from the Disneyesque bathos her first appearance implies; she confronts the Wolf in Grandma’s bed, and he’s disgusted with the fact that she’s not Red Riding Hood. She then does a surprisingly lascivious stroll in front of him and says provocatively, “What’s she got that I haven’t got?” Red is no longer the blank identification figure of the written versions, waiting for rescue by the hunter, but a willful, sexually aware gamin who may be as attracted to the wolf as he is to her. Little Red Walking Hood is another visually childlike character, at least in height, who shows an adult sexuality; her courtship by the wolf is typical of a kind of comic quasi-bestiality theme that runs through Avery’s work.

Avery discussed this idea in an interview with Joe Adamson; it was something he was well aware of in his career because he had censorship problems with it. The title character of Red Hot Riding Hood was designed as a pin-up, to boost Army morale, but the Hays Office objected to the wolf’s reaction to Red – “showing body heat, the steam coming out of the collar, and the tongue rolling out” and forced Avery to make cuts. “Sometimes we would just stiffen him out in mid-air; he’d make a take and his whole body would stiffen out like an arrow! And they cut that one out on us.” Such imagery was apparently important enough to Avery that, rather than capitulate, he devised a strategy to salvage it. He would insert a number of over-the-top gags he knew would be cut, and the ones he really wanted would be left alone by a then-satisfied censor.5 Like Djuna Barnes, Avery knew that kids – and soldiers – “like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!”

Judging from the numbers, Little Red Riding Hood was Avery’s favorite fairy-tale heroine; he did three versions of her story with Little Red Walking Hood, Red Hot Riding Hood, and Little Rural Riding Hood, and couldn’t resist introducing her into The Bear’s Tale, his update of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” He did the Cinderella story twice, once at Warners (Cinderella Meets Fella) and once at MGM (Swing Shift Cinderella). The “Three Little Pigs” appear twice – once in the Hitler satire Blitz Wolf and once as part of a gallery of fairy tale characters in A Gander at Mother Goose. Some notes on these films follow.

A Gander at Mother Goose (1940) and Blitz Wolf (1942)

A Gander at Mother Goose is not a fairy tale proper, but a collection of blackout sketches based on fairy-tale characters that serves as a kind of mini-encyclopedia of Avery’s fairy-tale gags and motifs. There’s nudity (Humpty-Dumpty’s fall tears his pants, revealing a very human pair of buttocks); quasi-incestuous sex (Jack and Jill go up the hill to make love); scatology (a dog wishes for a tree and becomes hysterically happy when it appears); and Disney sentimentality and payback (a cloying Little Hiawatha is berated by an eagle for shooting him in the ass). There’s also an amusingly topical sequence based on “The Three Little Pigs”; the Wolf’s slobbering, spitting exhalations force the disgusted pigs to hand him a bottle of mouthwash, and the embarrassed wolf’s screamed response is a satire of a catchline from an ad for a then-popular mouthwash: “Why don’t some of my best friends TELL me these things?”

Much of Disney’s version of the “Three Little Pigs” is focused on the building of the houses. Avery, less interested in the virtues of the work ethic, minimizes this process in his take on the story. Blitz Wolf is an elaborate send-up of Hitler, who appears here as Avery’s ubiquitous, comically pompous Wolf. The war, and catering to “our boys” who were fighting it, gives Avery the excuse to insert some surprisingly up-front sex gags. In one of his most blatant, the militant pig counters a very phallic missile with a copy of Esquire magazine. With a lewd smile, he holds up a cheesecake image, which causes the missile to retreat, bring back a group of its “friends,” who then line up at stiff attention, emit a scream the viewer can’t help but read as an orgasm, then fall limp back to Earth.

Cinderella Meets Fella (1938) and Swing Shift Cinderella (1943)

Egghead, a precursor of Elmer Fudd, is the “fella” of the title, and his co-star bears little resemblance to the sexpot created five years later for Swing Shift Cinderella. She’s small, more like a midget than a child, but feisty; desperate to locate her fairy godmother, she screams with a man’s voice at the police: “GO GET HER, BOYS!” As in the other fairy-tale films, the godmother here is a lush, a fact well known to the police who are helping Cinderella find her (“Don’t worry, lady, we’ll search every beer joint in town!”). The opening frames offer a neat précis of Avery’s style, starting with a formal, traditional image and sound (a fancy invitation to the ball, with appropriately courtly music) but quickly moving into the modern era (the invitation ends with an ad for “Sweeney’s Drive-In” with a hot jazz background). Cinderella Meets Fella is also prescient: in an early, ironic variety of the much-loathed “product placement” of present-day cinema, Fella finds a note from his beloved that says “Dear Princy. . . went to a Warner Bros. show.”

Five years later, Avery abandoned the brassy midget of Cinderella Meets Fella in favor of a more mature version. The title character in Swing Shift Cinderella is one of Avery’s war-effort creations, a sexy pin-up girl come to life to show the American armed forces what they were fighting for. But she’s no lifeless love doll – besides her night job as a “Rosie the Riveter” type steel plant worker, she’s an entertainer at the local nightclub. The fairy godmother doesn’t dress her up for a prince but for her nightclub act, “Oh Wolfie!,” a lurid display intended to drive the Wolf crazy. Cinderella, wielding a huge mallet, is as violent in her rejection of the Wolf as he is in his attempts to nail her. Swing Shift Cinderella is justly famous for a series of phallic sight gags by the Wolf, but the female characters are just as sexual and just as phallic. The fairy godmother is as randy as the Wolf, the object of her desires, and transforms herself into a kind of battering ram as she tries to land him. In one trick, she shoots a plunger at him, which then becomes a fishing rod that lets her reel him in.

The Bear’s Tale (1940)

This short, an amalgam of “Goldilocks” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” is a masterpiece of self-reflexivity, with many of the gags based on narrative breakdowns. The Wolf reads the “Goldilocks” story that he’s appearing in. Papa Bear claims he knows it’s only Goldilocks upstairs, not a robber, because “I read this story last week in Reader’s Digest.” Best of all is the scene in which Red, with a broad New York accent, teams up with Goldie to defeat the wolf: “Hello, Goldie! This is Red Ridin’ Hood. I just found a note from that skunk the Wolf. . .” Avery’s suspension of physical law allows Red, who’s in a different location from Goldie, to reach across the screen’s dividing line and hand her a note. Avery is a literal presence in much of his work; here he “appears” as the voice of the buffoonish, self-entranced Papa Bear, whose laugh is like a heartier version of Screwy Squirrel’s obnoxious cackle.

Little Red Walking Hood (1937), Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), and Little Rural Riding Hood (1937)

Little Red Walking Hood is the first of Avery’s three formal adaptations of this story. He was apparently so intrigued by something in the story that he even allows it to bleed into The Bear’s Tale, his version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Here he blatantly exploits what is implicit, but often unacknowledged, in the written fairy tale: the idea of the Wolf going to bed with Red. The bare bones of the story are intact, but the characters deviate entirely from the model, ridiculing each other and the story, and generally sending up the solemnity of the proceedings. The Wolf courts Red not because he wants to get Granny’s address but because he’s hot for Red. But she is one of Avery’s many unobtainable women; she’s bored by the Wolf and shows it by giving him the literal cold shoulder. Granny, like the old women in other Avery fairy tales, is a lush who interrupts the Wolf’s attack on her to order “a case of gin” from the local grocer. (She also addresses the audience directly: “Will you people pardon me just a minute?”) Even the climax is not safe from Avery’s self-reflexive gags; Red and the Wolf stop their fistfight to denounce two patrons getting into their chairs in the theatre where this cartoon is playing. As “cartoon actors,” Granny and the Wolf collaborate in continuing the drama: when the Wolf hears Red coming, he panics, and Granny quickly hands him her clothes so he can dress up like her for the next scene.

In the opening sequence of Red Hot Riding Hood, a simpering narrator says, “Good evening, kiddies! Once upon a time Little Red Riding Hood was skipping through the woods. . .” But this time the Wolf stops and refuses to continue: “I’m fed up with that sissy stuff . . . Every Hollywood studio has done it this way!” Taken aback by this sudden revolt, which Granny and Red also join in, the shocked narrator agrees to try a new tack. Thus the terrified little-girl Red is reborn as a red-hot mama who performs at the local nightclub. Her lyrics are unapologetic in demanding material reward for sexual favors: “Hey Daddy . . . you better get the best for me!” But, as in Swing Shift Cinderella, Avery surprises by devoting most of the time to the Wolf’s frantic attempts to escape the violent attentions of an older woman, Granny, who’s now a sex-mad hepcat.

In Little Rural Riding Hood, the title character reaches the height of stylization; she’s no longer a child-image, nor a sexy pinup, but a hybrid: tall, ugly, and angular, with prehensile toes that open and close doors on the Wolf’s face. She’s also self-possessed and sexually volatile, though her voice sounds suspiciously like Screwy Squirrel’s taken down a register. The Wolf’s equally rabid; in a sequence that threatened to bring on the censors, he insists he has no plans to eat Red: he wants more fleshly pleasures: “Ah’m gonna chase her and catch her and kiss her and hug her and love her and hug her and love her. . .” As so often in Avery, both Red and the Wolf speak directly to the audience, not even bothering with the “suspension of disbelief” that’s critical to most fictional constructs, literary or cinematic, but whose absence makes Avery even today the most modern of cartoon auteurs.

  1. Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment, New York: Vintage Books, 1989. p. 24. []
  2. Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood, New York: New Directions, 1937. []
  3. Leach, Maria, ed. Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, v. 1, New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1949, p. 366. []
  4. Bettelheim, op cit., pp. 74ff. []
  5. Adamson, Joe, Tex Avery: King of Cartoons, New York: Popular Library, 1975, pp. 182-184. []