The Unhinged Animator: “Tex” Avery

In 2008, the French government issued three postage stamps featuring movie cartoon characters created largely by a madcap, workaholic guy from Taylor, Texas.

“Vous savez quoi? Je suis heureux”—French postal stamps.

His family lineage was from Alabama and Mississippi, though legend has it that the family tree had branches that bore Daniel Boone  (disputed by his daughter in a comment to me after the posting of this piece) and the infamous “hanging judge,” Roy Bean. Some even called him by his middle name “Bean.” But his fellow animators at the Walter Lantz studio, where he first won employment in Hollywood, called him by the nickname that stuck—“Tex.”

Fred “Tex” Avery came to Hollywood at age 20 with friends from his hometown. Not finding employment, they soon went back home but Avery stayed in the film capital, loading produce on trucks and sleeping on the beach at night (another legend disputed by his daughter, who insists Avery had an apartment in Hollywood). Several years after landing a job at the Walter Lantz studio, an office prank firing papers clips across the aisles resulted in Avery’s losing sight in his left eye. Some critics have hinted that this lack of depth perception contributed to the flat plane look in his seminal work, although almost from the beginning, he and his animator ilk supported a deliberately flat-plane technique. It was a style that was the antithesis of the Disney Studios’ hyper-engineered multi-plane animation evident in their feature length films such as Snow White.

Tex Avery left the Lantz Studio in 1935 and joined the lunatics of the Leon Schlesinger unit for Warner Bros. His fellow inmates included Bob Clampett who would create the puppet TV show Time for Beany in 1949, as well as Chuck Jones, whose own Roadrunner series owed much, by his own admission, to Avery. Their off-lot Sunset Blvd. studios consisted of a five room bungalow that the denizens called “Termite Terrace” in tribute to the infestation of insects that almost dared to carry the edifice away.

Tex Avery

Avery is often dubbed the creator of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck; but knowledgeable historians suggest that the story is more complicated. Even as these wacky characters were being introduced to thrilled audiences as seven-minute wonders, animators further defined and refined salient character tics and accents. You see physical development of the figures from cartoon to cartoon. Avery, by his own admission, was not the best artist among the group but he had a unique gift for the bizarre illogic and non sequitur gags that came to define the madcap antics of Daffy and Bugs.

A barely recognizable Daffy is first seen in Avery’s 1937 Porky’s Duck Hunt. It’s about five minutes into the ‘toon before Daffy has a signature moment, back flipping across the water after flopping Porky’s hunting dog onto the shore. Almost as a harbinger of self-referential gags to come, Porky pages through a notebook and sputters, “Hey, that wasn’t in the script.”

Avery is also credited with Bug’s laconic query, nearly two minutes into the ‘toon, The Wild Hare, addressed to the hunter Elmer Fudd. —What’s up, Doc? “Doc” was the intimate moniker among Avery’s fellow classmates back at North Dallas High School.

Elmer Fudd here seems a bit epicene for a would-be hunter; he even launches into a full-fledged crying jag when he thinks he has killed Bugs. Aside from the slightly hydrocephalic and bald dome that’s revealed once he removes his hat, Fudd seems here less harried than many of the Looney Tunes characters. And Bugs is far from his frenetic, darting prey; Bugs’ dominant defense in this early incarnation seems to be his snappy dialogue. Only when Fudd sets a rabbit trap that snares a skunk do we have a hint of the cat and mouse chases to come that will run amok in Jones’ later Roadrunner/ Wily Coyote cartoons.

In 1942, Tex Avery changed studios again, this time moving over to MGM under the supervision of Fred Quimby. It was here, in the middle of WWII, that Avery became truly unhinged and produced what many consider to be his best work. One of these surreal characters is, simply, the “Wolf,” a brilliant character who remains unnamed in Red Hot Riding Hood, a cartoon embodiment of the GIs’ favorite pinup, Betty Grable. The cartoon opens with what is clearly a satire on the prevailing Disney studio house style of multi-plane backgrounds, as well as that of evoking the fable’s clichéd storyline. Less than a minute into the cartoon, Wolf, Red, and Grandmother have all chimed in chorus that they want nothing to do with the cartoon as it is unfolding. Wolf says, “I’m fed up with that sissy stuff.” The animator’s voice agrees to recast the story—with Red as a sexy chanteuse at a Sunset Strip nightclub, Wolf as a feverish erotomane, and Grandma as equally sexually supercharged, pursuing Wolf with her outsized, puckered lips. The rampant sexuality extends into Wolf’s ghost which assumes a phallic pose upon seeing Red. The cartoon’s frantic chase scenes are a promise of the even more dizzy ones to come in future Avery works. Despite her flashy costume and vamping, Red speaks in the cultured voice of Kate Hepburn, and the manic Wolf in the suave tones of Charles Boyer, a real visual/aural displacement. The complete ‘toon with its Disneyesque intro is on YouTube but would not embed. You can find it easily, but here is a version that begins after the intro with the “hot” sexy telling. There is a slight unfortunate cropping to the frame’s top and bottom, but the zany rhythms are still upfront.

The same year that brought forth the Wolf also introduced what many (including me) feel is Avery’s most beloved character—Droopy Dog. Droopy was initially known as “Happy Hound.” The signature moniker only stuck in his fifth cartoon.

Droopy

“Dumb Hounded,” Droopy’s debut in the sixteen Droopy cartoons by Avery, opens with Wolf escaping from “Swing Swing Prison.” The pursuing bloodhounds are well out of the prison gate before a slow moving pooch ambles out, turns to the camera and says, “Hello all you happy people. You know what? I’m the hero.” And there has never been a more unlikely hero in Cartoonland. Wolf initiates an ever more manic effort to escape Droopy who, despite Wolf’s blurring speed, always seems to be waiting for him—even at the North Pole. Wolf’s speed is so great that at five and a half minutes into the ‘toon he runs clean out of frame— revealing the perforations—a bit of self-referential whimsy that harkens back to Porky’s frustration with the script in Porky’s Duck Hunt.

Three years later, in 1946, Avery recycled almost exactly the same story line and gags (Wolf this time escaping from Alka-Fizz prison) with Droopy and Wolf in Northwest Hounded Police, including Wolf’s running out of frame into the perforations. Wolf is even more manic, more bug-eyed; his body parts breaking into segments and reassembling like a child’s doll.

Wolf reacting to Droopy onscreen.

In a futile attempt to escape Droopy, Wolf slams eight doors a wall. An added brilliant touch straight out of Pirandello or Brecht is the moment when Wolf escapes into a movie theater, only to have an MGM cartoon come onscreen featuring—Droopy. The bravura and self-confidence of the animation and the over the top gags show just how far Avery and the Quimby group had come in just a few years.

The fifth Droopy cartoon, Senor Droopy from 1948, is generally considered the first one where the pooch is called by name—“Senor Droopy from Guadalupe.” Droopy is pitted against Wolf in a bullfight to vie for the affections of the real-life Mexican-American actress Lina Romay, whose actual photo adorns a magazine both “matadors” display. In the final tableau, with Wolf vanquished, Droopy is petted while sitting in the actress’ lap, while Wolf, along with the bull, is left outside, cradled in the arms of a giant Saguaro cactus. Droopy’s parting shot to the audience is the incantatory “ You know what? I’m happy.” Of course he is.

Droopy and Lina Romay.

In 1953, and after creating some 65 films for the studio, Avery left MGM and returned to the Lantz Studio. Several years later a disagreement over his compensation there caused him to leave again. In 1956, Quimby gave up production at MGM and the animation division closed a year later. Animation now was dominated by the more reductive style of Hanna-Barbera. Avery, unlike Droopy, was definitely not a happy puppy about the direction his craft had turned. However, he later wrote gags for the studio.

Avery went into commercials. Several of his most well known campaigns were the Frito Bandito, which invoked the ire of PC Latino groups, as well spots for the bug spray Raid. It was at this late stage of his career that I met Tex Avery.

In the early 70s, I most often worked day to day on commercials as a camera assistant. Commercials were safe from the scrutiny of the IATSE camera local 659 and its watchdogs, Herb Aller and Jerry Smith. A seniority system reigned and I was pretty low on the rigid hiring roster. Day checking made my peers and me a fast moving target, staying well ahead of the seniority police. One of the commercial companies that often employed me was Cascade Pictures on Seward St. in Hollywood. Cascade held accounts for many food products such as Birds Eye frozen vegetables and Pillsbury, especially the time-lapse rising muffins and the Dough Boy. I often worked there with then rising cinematographers Ric Waite and Don Peterman.

Carol and I were recently married and I usually brown-bagged my lunch, making every penny count, easing us through what were “feast or famine” freelance gigs. One lunchtime, sitting at the Cascade Stage office desk, I noticed an in-house phone directory. The first name on it read “Avery, Tex” and gave an extension. I had been a huge Tex Avery fan since my childhood days of Saturday matinees with cliffhanging serials and 25 cartoons. I dialed the extension, fully doubting it could be THAT Tex Avery. An answering drawl on the other end of the line gave me hope. “Excuse me for calling, Mr. Avery, but are you the man who made Droopy Dog,” I blurted. He answered in the pooch’s slack jawed affirmative. “Sir, if you are free now, could I come to your office and say hello?” “Come on up,” he offered” “I’m having lunch.” Was he another brown bagger?

I don’t remember much of that brief discussion except that I asked him what he was doing now? He replied without intonation, “Well I’m just putting starbursts on soap bubbles for a dishwashing liquid.” He made me a line drawing of Droopy and signed it. Somewhere in my travels, alas, it has been lost.

That evening I rushed home to tell Carol about my meeting with the great Tex Avery. We were still at this time in the throes of our foreign cinema ecstasy; the New Wave may have crested in France but it hadn’t yet begun to ebb here. I had never discussed Droopy with her,as we were watching Truffaut, Malle, Godard, Chabrol, et al, so I asked if she had ever heard of Tex Avery. Without even catching her breath she looked at me squarely. Her jaw went slack and she intoned in a musician’s pitch perfect cadence, that frequent plaint of the pooch—“Somebody stole my bone.”

Years later, after Avery’s death in 1980, fellow animator Chuck Jones caught the modest manner of Avery when he said, “I was as ignorant of his genius as I suppose Michelangelo’s apprentices were oblivious to the fact that they, too, were working with a genius.”

Of course it would have to be a Frenchman to provide us with a window into Avery’s antic genius. Philippe Cottet has a website that yields riches about Tex Avery’s great MGM years:

cottet.org link

 

NEXT: TWO “TESTS” OF EARLY COLOR PROCESSES, FROM 1903 AND 1922

6 Responses to “The Unhinged Animator: “Tex” Avery”

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  • John Pearley Huffman

    Nice piece and appreciation. Just one small correction. The building holding the animation unit at Warner was called “The Termite Terrace” not “Termite Alley,” wasn’t it?

    JOHN’S REPLY: Correct you are, John. I’ve made the correction.

  • John… I think its great that you have such a keen sense to bring such subject matter into your blog. If it has had any impact in cinema, past or present, you bring to light its importance, and demonstrate how far-reaching all filmaking is.

  • I am Tex Avery’s daughter and am always pleased to see new fan sites.

    Sometimes parts of the websites have repeated inaccurate information.

    Some examples such as sleeping on beaches when he first moved to Hollywood is a false statement. He rented a bedroom in a home in Hollywood shortly after he arrived. Also, he was not relatesd to Daniel Boone! Joe Adamson originally wrote that, I believe, in his book Tex Avery-King of Cartoons.

    About Warner Bros. and the Termite Terrace days-yes there were termites in the building. It also leaked when it rained and WB was too cheap to fix it and showed Tex’s cartoon unit very little respect — and they worked overtime continually with no extra salary1

    I have lots more to tell fans who have questions would be glad to talk!

    Nancy

    JOHN’S REPLY: Thank you, Nancy, for your comments. I have duly noted your concerns about false legends regarding your father and revised them in the blog.Your father’s capacious imagination as seen in his work is so rich that one could believe almost any legend about him as fact. I only wish that I had had more than that one brief encounter with him in his office.

  • Interesting article — however: Tex told me he slept under the pier in Santa Monica at first — had no job, no income, so how would he rent an apartment?? — Never heard that he loaded trucks (SHIPS he helped load — Santa Monica had a port at that time — ) Heck Allen (Tex’s key story man at MGM) told me Tex was “a lineal descendant” of Judge Roy Bean — Tex confirmed he was related, but said he didn’t know what the relation was, because his relatives wouldn’t tell him — I later realized the “lineal descendant” part was novelistic yarn-spinning on Allen’s part (he went on to write novels under the names Will Henry and Clay Fisher — some of which, like THE TALL MEN and MACKENNA’S GOLD, were made into films) — But my research disclosed that Roy Bean was descended from Daniel Boone — so if he was related to Roy Bean, he was related to Daniel Boone! I have not been able to confirm either of these links using Internet connections (ancestry.com), but I have not heard of anyone disproving them — Nancy was not around when any of these things happened originally, any more than I was, so on what basis does she decide there’s no truth to what I wrote?? In the past she has cooperated with and even assisted my research. Most of what people know today about Tex Avery is due to my original research and discussions, not only with Tex, but with collaborators like Heck Allen, Michael Maltese, Chuck Jones, and Bob Clampett.

    JOHN’S REPLY: Many thanks, Joe, for your info. on Tex. The fact that there is so much unknown, maybe myth, maybe not, only makes him a more fascinating character– just like the ones he created in the ‘toons.

  • Hello John- My mother did geneology so she had legal records. There was a William Bean, who was best friends with Daniel Boone and they rode through Kentucky together. I have seen the records.Tex Avery was related to William Bean. I dispute any fact that Roy bean was related to Daniel Boone. I would have to see the family tree proof.

    Could you tell me how my father got in with Cascade and if he was a part owner? Do you know why he left? I would really appreciate knowing!

    JOHN’S REPLY: Nancy, I’m in Atlanta prepping a film. I’ll reply privately in the next few days.

  • Hello John- I am wondering if you know of a producer who would like to make a documentary on Tex Avery. I recently parted ways with one. Could not get along. I have permission from Warners to license clips and stills. Greg Ford in NYC is interested but is busy at this time.

    If you think of someone I would appreciate a contact.

    Best

    Nancy Avery-Arkley

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