Located about 30 miles northeast of Austin “deep in the heart of Texas,” the relatively tiny town of Taylor (2010 population 15,191) is honoring one of its most famous native sons tomorrow by declaring February 22, 2014 Tex Avery Day. As all good cartoon fans know, Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery (1908-1980) was a cartoonist/animator/director with the Warner Bros., MGM and Walter Lantz/Universal studios whose masterful use of slapstick and sight gags–and fondness for breaking the “fourth wall” while lampooning the conventions of the genre–resulted in some of the funniest and most memorable efforts from the Golden Age of Hollywood Animation.
He was also the creator–or, at least, an instrumental co-creator–responsible for the design and characterization of such toon legends as Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny, Droopy, Red Hot Riding Hood, George and Junior, and Screwy Squirrel. In fact, it was Avery who supplied Bugs with his iconic catchphrase “What’s up, Doc?,” which he said was a fairly common greeting on the streets of Taylor in his high school days. After studios stopped making animated shorts to play before their features, Tex continued to work on TV commercials (notably the Raid cockroaches and the Frito Bandito) and as a gag man for his old MGM colleagues William Hanna and Joseph Barbera until shortly before his death from liver cancer at the age of 72.
You could write an entire book (and, indeed, several have been penned) on Avery’s groundbreaking body of work and the influence his no-holds-barred visual style had on cartoons from Ren & Stimpy to Adventure Time and on such live-action films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Mask. Rather than go into a lengthy scholarly retrospective (in the middle of which one might expect to see Droopy pop up and exclaim “Bombastic, isn’t it?”), I’d like to offer my own by-no-means authoritative tribute to Tex with a chronological listing of my 12 favorite cartoons from his more than 130 directorial credits:
Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937) — After breaking into the business with the Charles Mintz and Walter Lantz studios in the early ’30s, Avery migrated to Warner Bros. in 1935. Placed in charge of a unit that included animators Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, Avery’s first cartoons were fairly standard musical-themed efforts (two standouts were 1936’s Page Miss Glory and I Love to Singa). The following year, Tex put Warner’s primary character, Porky Pig, in a hunter’s outfit and pitted him against a “crazy darn fool duck” whose frenetic cavorting around the screen–including during the closing credits–were unlike anything audiences had seen to that point. This madcap canard would get a name–Daffy Duck–and his own title billing in 1938’s Daffy Duck & Egghead.
A Wild Hare (1940) — Following Daffy’s success, the Warners animators tried to follow it up with a similarly screw-loose rabbit. This early “proto-Bugs Bunny” appeared in Porky’s Hare Hunt (1938) and Elmer’s Candid Camera (1940), but it was Avery’s A Wild Hare that established many of the basics for the many shorts that followed: Elmer Fudd in his hunting gear asking the audience to “Be ve-wy, ve-wy quiet”; Bugs sneaking up behind Elmer and covering his eyes for a round of “Guess Who?”; and, of course, Bugs nonchalantly asking his would-be pursuer “What’s up, Doc?” Said Avery about the soon-to-be signature greeting, “They expected the rabbit to scream, or anything but make a casual remark–here’s a guy with a gun in his face! It got such a laugh that we said, ‘Boy, we’ll do that every chance we get.'” The cartoon also garnered an Academy Award nomination for animated Best Short Subject.
Tortoise Beats Hare (1941) — Putting a Tex Avery spin on the old Aesop’s Fable, this Bugs Bunny outing featured another of the director’s self-referential trademarks: Bugs, calmly chomping on a carrot, walks in front of the on-screen creative credits and reads them out loud, only to do a spit take upon seeing the name of the cartoon (“Why, dese screwy guys don’t know what they’re talkin’ about! Why, da big bunch of joiks…and I oughta know, I woik for ’em!”), then tear the title card apart while searching for his reptilian opponent, Cecil Turtle.
Dumb-Hounded (1943) — After leaving the Warners studio in late 1941 (angry, some sources say, over the revamped ending tacked onto his Bugs Bunny short The Heckling Hare), Avery went to work for producer Fred Quimby at MGM. His third picture there, Dumb-Hounded, introduced both the Wolf, as an escapee from Swing-Swing Prison, and his determined tracker, a stone-faced basset hound named Droopy (“Hello, all you happy people. You know what? I’m the hero.”). Droopy’s near-supernatural knack for appearing at whatever hiding space the Wolf would pick–from a cabin in the woods to an Arctic igloo to a skyscraper rooftop–each time provokes a progressively wilder response from his quarry, who at one point actually manages to run out of the frame of the film.
Red Hot Riding Hood (1943) — The Wolf was back, none the worse for his encounter with Droopy, in Avery’s very next MGM effort, playing a love-starved Lothario in a jazzed-up send-up of the fairy tale favorite (which opened with the characters noting how “every studio in Hollywood” had done the Red Riding Hood story to death). This time, “Red” is a sultry nightclub singer (certainly the inspiration for Jessica Rabbit 45 years later) whose performance drives the Wolf into manically lusty and physically exaggerated reactions. Animator Preston Blair, who drew the voluptuous Red, later recalled that the short “caused such an uproar in some theaters that management was forced to stop the feature and rerun the cartoon.”
Screwball Squirrel (1944) — Even more manic and surreal than his predecessors Daffy and Bugs, Screwball (or Screwy) Squirrel’s reign of cartoon chaos was apparently too much even for Tex, who “killed off” the rascally rodent after five shorts. This first entry, in which Screwy (off-screen) beats the living daylights out of his cloyingly cute counterpart Sammy Squirrel and then proceeds to wallop a dim-witted canine named Meathead with whatever he can grab out of a trunk labelled “Assorted Swell Stuff to Hit Dog on Head,” is certainly the best.
King-Size Canary (1947) — Take one starving cat, add one scrawny canary, and toss in a bottle of Jumbo-Gro plant formula. The result is a slapstick exercise in one-upsmanship in which the dim bulb feline and his feathered quarry–plus a mouse and a dog thrown in for good measure–take turns drinking the serum and outgrowing one another. Before long they’re running through the city like King Kong and Godzilla, climbing over mountains and the Hoover Dam, and getting nearly too big for the planet before circumstances force them to end the picture.
Lucky Ducky (1948) — The canine duck hunters in this short apparently aren’t the Of Mice and Men-inspired George and Junior, whom Avery used in earlier cartoons, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Their dawn-to-dusk pursuit of the pint-sized title duckling is the backdrop for a rapid-fire display of the director’s funniest sight gags, including one where the characters chase each other into a sound-free, black-and-white region. Upon backtracking, the trio sees that they ran past a sign reading “Technicolor Ends Here.”
Little Rural Riding Hood (1949) — The titillating title chanteuse of Red Hot Riding Hood was too good a creation to vanish after just one film, so Tex and MGM re-used her–and the Wolf–in several subsequent shorts, including 1945’s The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945) with Droopy, 1946’s Swing Shift Cinderella, and this “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse” revamping. A hick wolf (voiced by Pinto Colvig, who also voiced Goofy in the Disney cartoons) chases a gangly farm gal until he’s invited by his sophisticated cousin to come to the big city and see a real woman (Red, of course) performing at his favorite nightspot. The country wolf’s leering, hooting, over-the-top reactions to the show lead his urbane counterpart to return him to the farm…at which point the appearance of “rural Red” causes the city wolf to lose control in the exact same way.
Magical Maestro (1952) — After his offer to open for opera star The Great Poochini is rebuffed and he’s tossed out on his ear, stage magician Mysto uses his magic wand to impersonate the orchestra’s conductor and proceeds to bedevil Poochini during his recital of Rossini’s “Largo al Factotum,” transforming the tenor into a ballet dancer, square dance caller, fruit-hatted Carmen Miranda look-alike, Hawaiian native singer, and more, often in the company of a pair of sidekick rabbits (also courtesy of Mysto). A “fourth wall” gag that only Avery could get away with pops up at a particularly dramatic point in the aria, when Poochini bends down and plucks a “hair” that appeared to be stuck on the screen, as often happened in those pretty-much-bygone days of film strip projectors.
Crazy Mixed Up Pup (1954) — The stress of overwork had forced Avery to take a year-long hiatus from MGM in 1950, and he would later leave Metro for a two-year tenure with old employer Walter Lantz, who had since gained fame with such creations as Andy Panda and Woody Woodpecker. Tex only made four cartoons during his time with Lantz, but each was a quantum leap above the studio’s usual output. The first was this Oscar-nominated romp in which a man and his dog are injured in an auto accident. A cockeyed ambulance worker switches bottles of human and canine plasma, leading the duo to start exhibiting each other’s characteristics and driving everyone around them–especially the man’s wife–nuts, until a typically zany and Averyesque ending restores domestic tranquility…sort of.
The Legend of Rockabye Point (1955) — Another Oscar nomination came the following year with this Chilly Willy cartoon in which the always-hungry penguin and an equally starving polar bear are trying to raid a fishing boat’s haul of bluefin tuna. Standing between the rival would-be fish thieves and their next meal is a fierce bulldog. Each time that the bear tries to put the dog to sleep with a rendition of “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” Chilly manages to wake it up so he can sink his teeth into the flightless fowl’s competition. Eventually the hapless bruin and his canine foe wind up on the title crag in a never-ending lullaby.
You may have noticed that, with the exception of his Droopy cartoons, most of Tex’s MGM work is not easily found on home video at the moment. A few of the shorts appear as bonus features to various movies, but the time is certainly overdue for Warner Home Video, who has the rights to both his Warner Bros. and Metro pictures, to come out with a comprehensive Avery retrospective. Oh, well, maybe for next year’s Tex Avery Day.