The Screwy Genius of Tex Avery

“Animation is the art of timing, a truth applicable as well to all motion pictures. And the most brilliant masters of timing were usually comedians: Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Langdon–and Fred ‘Tex’ Avery.”

–Chuck Jones, in the introduction to John Canemaker’s 1996 book
Tex Avery: The MGM Years, 1942-1955

Tex Avery’s name looms large in the history of Hollywood animation. In the 1930s, his zany yet keen comic eye took Warner Bros. to new competitive heights. The studio (like many during that time) had spent years attempting to emulate the child-friendly design aesthetic of Walt Disney’s popular productions, but when Avery came in, he made Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies a direct and potent threat to Disney’s top-o’-the-heap position in the industry. And as his career continued into the 1940s and beyond at another studio, MGM, Avery perfected his manic screwball style, producing a series of gag-heavy, utterly hilarious cartoons that were unlike anything being produced by any other director–though many of his colleagues and rivals would soon begin to ape his style in their own work.

Tex Avery at the Walter Lantz studio. Photo credit: animationresources.org

Tex Avery with colleagues at the Walter Lantz studio. Photo credit: AnimationResources.org.

As his nickname suggests, in 1908, Frederick Bean was born in Texas. As a youngster, Avery aspired to be a comic strip artist, and in January 1928, he headed to California to find his fortune. But he could not provoke interest in his comic, and soon turned instead to the growing animation industry. After a brief position as a cel painter at the Charles Mintz studio, Avery started working for Walter Lantz at Universal (Lantz, incidentally, is best known as being the creator of Woody Woodpecker). Throughout the early 1930s, Avery worked as an animator on several cartoons featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (a character with quite the tangled history, which you can read a bit more about in our piece on the early career of animator Ub Iwerks). It was during his stint with Lantz that Avery suffered a severe eye injury, when some office horseplay resulted in a steel paperclip being shot into his left eye. He subsequently lost sight in that eye, which reportedly affected his depth perception–a development that some animation scholars have credited with contributing to the skewed animated perception that is a hallmark of Avery’s many cartoons.

Avery had no illusions about his talent as an artist; as related in Canemaker’s book, he once stated, “I was never too great an artist. I realized there at Lantz’s that most of those fellows could draw rings around me.” So when he was given the opportunity to direct a couple of cartoons, Avery not only jumped at the chance, but found his calling. In 1935, he presented himself to Leon Schlesinger at Warner Bros., talking up his resume as a director and somehow convincing the producer to give him his own small production unit on the Warner lot. Schlesinger stuck him in a ratty bungalow that was quickly (and, unfortunately, quite appropriately) nicknamed “Termite Terrace,” and gave him an initial crew of four enthusiastic animators: Virgil Ross, Sid Sutherland, Chuck Jones, and Bob Clampett.

The Termite Terrace crew in 1935 (from left): Ross, Sutherland, Avery, Jones, Clampett.

The Termite Terrace crew in 1935 (from left): Ross, Sutherland, Avery, Jones, Clampett.

Avery’s crew worked primarily on the Looney Tunes series, and in Avery’s first cartoon for Warner Bros., 1935’s Gold Diggers of ’49, he cemented not only his own rising star, but that of a popular new character, Porky Pig. Though Porky had premiered six months earlier in the Friz Freleng-directed Merrie Melodies short I Haven’t Got a Hat, the character didn’t truly take off until he appeared in Avery’s cartoon. Porky served as the animated face of Warner Bros. for almost two years, until Avery created an antagonist for him–a loopy, insane, and incredibly daffy duck. Animated by Clampett and first appearing in 1937’s Porky’s Duck Hunt, Daffy became an instant star. His initial incarnation was not the fame-driven, self-proclaimed “greedy slob” that he would later become (particularly in the 1950s Jones-directed shorts), but of an out-of-control maniacal waterfowl bent on driving his costars batty as he bounced across the screen yelling his signature, “Hoo hoo!” That same year, Avery introduced the precursor to Elmer Fudd, Egghead, in the short Egghead Rides Again.

In 1940, Avery took on a character who had been making the rounds at Warner Bros. with varied success–an ever-evolving rabbit designed by Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, which had been dubbed around the lot as “Bugs’ bunny.” The rabbit first appeared in the Hardaway-directed remake of Porky’s Duck Hunt, rechristened Porky’s Hare Hunt, in 1938, but hardly resembled the Bugs that audiences would come to know and love in later years. With Avery’s A Wild Hare–considered by many to be the first “official” Bugs Bunny cartoon–many of the character’s familiar traits took root: the wisecracking lines (including the first instance of his famous “What’s up, Doc?”), the mischievous personality, and Mel Blanc’s distinctive voice characterization.

Elmer and Bugs, "A Wild Hare" (1940). Photo credit: http://likelylooneymostlymerrie.blogspot.com.

Elmer and Bugs, “A Wild Hare” (1940). Photo credit: likelylooneymostlymerrie.blogspot.com.

Avery went on to direct three other Bugs cartoons before leaving Warner Bros. in 1941 after a dispute with Schlesinger. He signed up with MGM, where he would find perhaps his greatest success as a director. MGM–a studio noted for its lavishness in all aspects of filmmaking–provided Tex Avery the opportunity to produce higher-quality cartoons, along the same lines as its immensely popular William Hanna/Joseph Barbera-headed series Tom and Jerry. Avery hit the ground running at his new studio: the first short he directed for MGM, the 1942 Three Little Pigs parody Blitz Wolf, was nominated for an Academy Award. The incisive satirical bent of Avery’s mini-treatise on Hitler’s aggression effectively announced his arrival at the studio, and other animators took notice.

At MGM, Avery’s cartoons became even more creatively extreme, fused with a manic energy that was wholly new and exciting. In his work, Avery deliberately turned the “lifelike animation” touted by Disney completely on its head. “I couldn’t compete with Disney,” he once admitted in an interview, “and I didn’t attempt to. I attempted to do things that Disney wouldn’t dare to do … exaggeration in films, wild takes, distorted fairy tales–and I laid off of the fuzzy-wuzzy little bunnies because it wasn’t my bag.”

If Avery was competing with anyone, it was with himself. Unlike fellow animation stalwarts like Disney and Hanna and Barbera, Avery had no interest in forming a production company or starting his own animation studio. For him, it was all about the work, and how he could get the most laughs out of the audience. Avery was always striving to perfect his gags, making last-minute changes to his cartoon shorts to improve the timing. That timing was ultimately the key to Avery’s success, as he was able to make a gag “pop” like no one else in the business.

A typically exaggerated take from the 1946 Droopy short "Northwest Hounded Police."

A typically exaggerated take from the 1946 Droopy short “Northwest Hounded Police.”

Avery’s innate sense of timing brilliantly manifests itself in the character of Droopy, introduced in 1943. The diminutive hound dog matched wits with a sly unnamed wolf and a bulldog named Spike, always getting the better of his bigger and brawnier adversaries. Memorably voiced by Bill Thompson (noted for his multitude of roles for Disney theatrical releases), Droopy became a popular cartoon star, appearing in twenty-four theatrical shorts between 1943 and 1958, of which Avery directed eighteen.

Avery also introduced another recurring character, Screwy Squirrel, in 1944, though this one was ultimately much more short-lived than his canine counterpart. Screwy only appeared in five cartoons between 1944 and 1946. As indicated by his moniker, Screwy Squirrel is an unabashed lunatic, and his maniacal doings never quite gained the same level of popularity as Droopy.

Some of Avery’s best-remembered MGM cartoons revolve around his highly-sexed take on classic fairy tales, most notably the 1943 classic Red Hot Riding Hood. This short, featuring a lascivious wolf and a not-so-little Red, drove the Hays office into fits; apparently, they were concerned about the implications of bestiality in Wolfie’s onscreen panting after Red. And while that may not have been Avery’s intention, he continually courted the dismay of the Production Code due to the very adult sensibility of his cartoons. In actuality, the director never intended his cartoons for a younger audience in the first place; they were geared toward the grown-ups in the crowd, as were most theatrical animated shorts at the time. Indeed, when asked in later years if he tried to cater to children at all with his work, Avery replied, “I never did. I thought nothing of the children at the time.”

The Wolf puts the moves on a saucy nightclub singer in "Red Hot Riding Hood" (1943).

The Wolf puts the (unwanted) moves on a saucy nightclub singer in “Red Hot Riding Hood” (1943).

Avery left MGM in 1953 and went to work briefly once more for Walter Lantz, where he worked with the character of Chilly Willy, helping to develop the penguin’s personality. But displeasure with his contract caused Avery to leave the studio. In later years, he turned to directing animated commercials, and eventually went to work as a gag man for his former MGM colleagues and rivals, Hanna-Barbera. Avery’s later years were marked by depression and alcoholism, and in 1980, he died from liver cancer at the age of 72.

Tex Avery’s contributions to the field of animation are legion. His distinctive and innovative style was eventually adopted, at least in part, by other cartoonists who recognized the effectiveness of the Avery model: unending and inventive gags (often at the expense of a defined plot); exaggerated reactions; multiple asides to the audience–whether by sign or by having characters break the fourth wall; intensely sped-up action; an impeccable sense of comedic pacing; and always, that brilliant, unerring timing. Avery’s animation is the very definition of “screwball,” one that places the value of a laugh above anything else, and in the process of bringing us to uncontrollable guffaws, Avery brought us pure bits of genius. He was truly one of a kind–there was no one quite like Tex Avery then, and it’s safe to say there never will be again. And thankfully, there will never be a time when a Tex Avery cartoon is anything less than gut-bustingly hilarious.

 

Selected Sources and Further Reading/Viewing on Tex Avery:

John Canemaker, Tex Avery: The MGM Years, 1942-1955. Turner Publishing, Inc., 1996.
“A Conversation with Tex Avery.” Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 2 (Disc 1, Special Features)
“Droopy and Friends:  A Laugh Back.” Tex Avery’s Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection (Disc 2, Special Features)
Animation Resources (animationresources.org)
Tex Avery Tribute (texavery.com)

Don’t forget to enter our awesome Tex Avery prize pack giveaway (details here)!

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10 thoughts on “The Screwy Genius of Tex Avery

  1. Nice bio. It’s too bad Tex didn’t get to live out his later years in the comfort and recognition befitting an elder statesman of the cinema. I guess that fate befell some live-action directors too, and at least Avery got to keep working in animation in some capacity. Still, it would have been nice for him to have gotten more recognition during his lifetime.

    • Thanks! I agree that Tex Avery deserved a happier ending than he got. I’m glad that in the thirty years or so since his death, he’s finally gained the recognition he justly deserves.

  2. Can it really be said that Chilly Willy had a personality? Tex’s Chilly Willy cartoons are a lot like Friz Freleng’s Tweety & Sylvester vehicles–the dog (voiced by Daws Butler) pretty much gets the lion share of the laughs. I think Chilly Willy fell into the “fuzzy-wuzzy little bunnies” category, which made him a hard character for Tex to work with.

    That aside…great piece, Brandie!

  3. I can hear Red singing “Oh Wolfie! Oh Wolfie!” in my head right now. Once I started paying attention to such things, seeing “Tex Avery” in the director’s credits was always a guarantee of loonyness of the highest order. I’d love to see some of the Screwy Squirrel shorts again; I’ve only seen a couple of them once, but their utter dementia made them instantly memorable.

    I think if there’s any director who exemplified the Avery influence, it would have to be Bob Clampett.

    • Good point re: Clampett. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Clampett’s best cartoon, PORKY IN WACKYLAND, emerged in the two years after Avery became head of the unit.

      Do you have the cable channel Boomerang? They play a block of MGM cartoons most mornings at 3:30am. When I find myself unable to sleep, I always turn it on. They play some rarities, including many Tex toons. Haven’t seen Screwy Squirrel, but I’m sure it is in the rotation.

      • Now I’ve got *two* reasons for regretting having dropped the cable tv, the other being TCM. What I don’t miss is the $80+ we were shelling out per month for a bunch of channels we never watched vs. $16 for a couple of subscriptions to streaming services.

        “Porky in Wackyland” is major fun, not the least for those Dali-inspired backgrounds. In my book, it’s right up there with the dream sequence in “The Big Snooze” for nuttiness and bizarre imagery.

        (That “run this way” sequence in TBS, with its ludicrous musical mashup of “Turkey in the Straw” and Cossack? dance while Elmer-in-drag follows Bugs’ hilariously impossible moves never fails to get me laughing out loud. “Have any of you giwls evew had an expewience wike this?”)

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