Saturday, February 26, 2011

Happy Birthday, Tex Avery

Today's posting recalls a line from The Last Hurrah, the Spencer Tracy vehicle directed by John Ford: "how do you thank a guy for a million laughs?"

You can't, really, but one of those I would thank first is the great Tex Avery.

A year ago, I wrote, "Whatever modest snippet of humanity reads this blog very likely not only knows the legend of innovative and outrageous animator Frederick Bean "Tex" Avery, born in Taylor, Texas on February 26, 1908, but owns DVD copies of every cartoon he directed for Warner Brothers and MGM."

Tex passed on in 1980, and would have been very uncomfortable with anyone calling him a comic genius, but that's exactly what he was. In live-action comedy, only Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Charley Chase and Ernie Kovacs could go toe-to-toe with Tex in consistently writing brilliant, original sight gags.

Tex Avery was, among other things - rescuer of various members of the Warner Bros. cartoon staff during a ski trip mishap, blind in one eye (due to a prank gone terribly wrong at the Walter Lantz studio), a descendant of Judge Roy Bean - the guy who brought the cartoon biz out of post-Production Code of 1934 (and Disney envy) doldrums by joining the Warner Brothers cartoon studio in 1935.

Here is one of the Oswald The Lucky Rabbit cartoons Tex animated on at Lantz, back in the "rubber hose animation" era of 1933; whether Tex was personally responsible for some of the Pre-Code "bad taste" jokes here, we'll never know!

Tex had helmed a couple of Ozzie cartoons, but had not headed up his own unit when he presented himself to producer Leon Schlesinger as a director of Looney Tunes.

Tex joined Warner Brothers' cartoon outfit at a time when the Schlesinger Studio had only been in operational for less than two years, Disney reigned supreme, Fleischer was still both competitive and original with their gritty Popeye cartoons - and everyone else in the cartoon biz was racking their brains and pencils trying to figure out a way just to keep up.

The fledgling Leon Schlesinger studio had been producing passable but far from scintillating "Buddy" cartoons and even less scintillating Merrie Melodies for Vitaphone release.

The Merrie Melodies series, while now in color, hit a serious rut and were infinitely less peppy than the entries cranked out by former producers Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising just a few years earlier in 1931-1932.

The series had become so weak that in the trade ads, only the characters who succeeded Buddy and Bosko in WB's Looney Tunes (including the early, grotesque version of Porky Pig) were seen in the 1935 trade ads.

Tex' opportunity to direct at Schlesinger's arose as a result of the sudden departures of former Disney staffers turned Looney Tunes directors Earl Duval and Tom Palmer in 1934.

The "Termite Terrace" boys in the summer of 1935: (from left) Virgil Ross, Sid Sutherland, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Bob Clampett

Schlesinger assigned veteran animators Sid Sutherland and Virgil Ross, along with young troublemakers Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, to Tex Avery's new Looney Tunes unit and made sure this band of wackos was separate from Friz Freleng's Merrie Melodies group. The result: Termite Terrace, where Tex challenged the gospel according to Disney and started making damn funny cartoons pretty darn quickly.

After seven years at Warners, Tex moved on to Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. One of the most hilarious of the Tex Avery's MGM cartoons is the following delirious 1940's-style spin on Robert Service's macho Yukon saloon poem The Shooting Of Dan McGrew, featuring classic jokes (I especially like the "drinks are on the house" bit), Droopy, Red Hot Riding Hood and the ever-lascivious Wolf.


Tinky said...

Well, I don't actually own copies of every cartoon he made at WB or MGM; in fact, I don't know any. I was of course familiar with his name and some of his work. Still, I learned a lot from this. And a girl can never watch too many cartoons.

paul etcheverry said...

As far as I know, Tex and Keaton didn't meet in the MGM commissary. Too bad - imagine Tex working with The Great Stone Face on Metro's Red Skelton pictures, the guy who coined "What's Up, Doc" swapping outrageous stories with Red, Buster and Eleanor Keaton. . . Yow!