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Tex Avery

Frederick Bean "Fred/Tex" Avery (February 26, 1908August 26, 1980) was an American animator, cartoonist, and director, famous for producing animated cartoons during The Golden Age of Hollywood animation. He did his most significant work for the Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, creating the characters of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Droopy, Screwy Squirrel, and developing Porky Pig and Chilly Willy (this last one for the Walter Lantz Studio) into regular cartoon characters. His influence was found in almost all of the animated cartoon series by various studios in the 1940s and 1950s.

Avery's style of directing broke the mold of strict realism established by Walt Disney, and encouraged animators to stretch the boundaries of the medium to do things in a cartoon that could not be done in the world of live-action film. An often-quoted line about Avery's cartoons was, "In a cartoon you can do anything," and his cartoons often did just that. He also performed a great deal of voice work in his cartoons, usually throwaway bits (e.g. the Santa Claus seen briefly in Who Killed Who?), but Tex did on occasion fill in for Bill Thompson as Droopy Dog.

Biography

Early years

Tex Avery was born to George Walton Avery (b. June 8, 1867 - d. January 14, 1935) and the former Mary Augusta "Jessie" Bean (1886 - 1931) in Taylor, Texas. His father was born in Alabama. His mother was born in Buena Vista, Chickasaw County, Mississippi. His paternal grandparents were Needham Avery (Civil War veteran) (October 8, 1838 - after 1892) and his wife Lucinda C. Baxly (May 11, 1844 - March 10, 1892). His maternal grandparents were Frederick Mumford Bean (1852 - October 23, 1886) and his wife Minnie Edgar (July 25, 1854 - May 7, 1940). Avery was said to be a descendant of Judge Roy Bean. However his maternal great-grandparents were actually Mumford Bean from Tennessee (August 22, 1805 - October 10, 1892) and his wife Lutica from Alabama. Mumford was son of William Bean and his wife Nancy Blevins from Virginia. Their relation to Roy is uncertain though his paternal grandparents were also from Virginia. Avery's family tradition also claimed descent from Daniel Boone.

Avery was raised in his native Taylor, though he graduated in 1927 from North Dallas High School. A popular catchphrase at his school was "What's up, doc?", which he would later popularize with Bugs Bunny in the 1940s.

Avery first began his animation career at the Walter Lantz studio in the early 1930s, working on the majority of the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons from 1931-35. He is shown as 'animator' on the original title card credits on the Oswald cartoons. He later claimed to have directed two cartoons during this time. During some office horseplay, a paperclip flew into Avery's left eye and caused him to lose use of that eye. Some speculate it was his lack of depth perception that gave him his unique look at animation and bizarre directorial style.

"Termite Terrace"

Avery migrated to the Leon Schlesinger studio in late 1935 and convinced the fast-talking Schlesinger to let him head his own production unit of animators and create cartoons the way he wanted them to be made. Schlesinger responded by assigning the Avery unit, including animators Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, to a five-room bungalow at the Warner Bros. Sunset Blvd. backlot. Schlesinger placed the Avery unit there so as not to tip off Avery's predecessor Tom Palmer that he was about to be fired. The Avery unit, assigned to work primarily on the black-and-white Looney Tunes instead of the Technicolor Merrie Melodies, soon dubbed their quarters "Termite Terrace", due to its significant termite population.

"Termite Terrace" later became the nickname for the entire Schlesinger/Warners studio, primarily because Avery and his unit were the ones who defined what became known as "the Warner Bros. cartoon". Their first short, Gold Diggers of '49, is recognized as the first cartoon to make Porky Pig a star, and Avery’s experimentation with the medium continued from there.

Creation of Looney Tunes stars

Avery, with the assistance of Clampett, Jones, and new associate director Frank Tashlin, laid the foundation for a style of animation that dethroned The Walt Disney Studio as the kings of animated short films, and created a legion of cartoon stars whose names still shine around the world today. Avery in particular was deeply involved; a perfectionist, Avery constantly crafted gags for the shorts, periodically provided voices for them (including his trademark belly laugh), and held such control over the timing of the shorts that he would splice frames out of the final negative if he felt a gag's timing was not quite right.
Daffy Duck

Porky's Duck Hunt introduced the character of Daffy Duck, who possessed a new form of "lunacy" and zaniness that had not been seen before in animated cartoons. Daffy was an almost completely out-of-control "darn fool duck" who frequently bounced around the film frame in double-speed, screaming "Hoo-hoo! hoo-hoo" in a high-pitched, electronically sped-up voice provided by veteran Warners voice artist Mel Blanc.

Bugs Bunny

Avery's 1940 film A Wild Hare is seen as the first cartoon to truly establish the personality of Bugs Bunny, after a series of shorts featuring a Daffy Duck-like rabbit directed by Ben Hardaway, Cal Dalton and Chuck Jones. Avery's Bugs was a super-cool rabbit who was always in control of the situation and who ran rings around his opponents. A Wild Hare also marks the first pairing of him and bald, meek Elmer Fudd, a revamp of Avery's Egghead, a big nosed little fellow who, in turn, was modeled after radio comedian Joe Penner. It is in A Wild Hare that Bugs casually walks up to Elmer, who is out "hunting wabbits", and asks him calmly, "What's up, doc?" Audiences reacted positively to the juxtaposition of Bugs' nonchalance and the potentially dangerous situation, and Avery made "What's up, doc?" the rabbit's catch phrase.

Avery ended up directing only four Bugs Bunny cartoons: A Wild Hare, Tortoise Beats Hare, All This and Rabbit Stew, and The Heckling Hare. During this period, he also directed a number of one-shot shorts, including travelogue parodies (The Isle of Pingo Pongo), fractured fairy-tales (The Bear's Tale), Hollywood caricature films (Hollywood Steps Out), and cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny clones (The Crack-Pot Quail).

Avery's tenure at the Schlesinger studio ended in late 1941, when he and the producer quarreled over the ending to The Heckling Hare. In Avery's original version, Bugs and hunting dog were to fall off of a cliff three times, milking the gag to its comic extreme. According to a DVD commentary for the cartoon, historian and animator Greg Ford explained that the problem Schlesinger had with the ending was that, just prior to falling off the third time, Bugs and the dog were to turn to the screen, with Bugs saying "Hold on to your hats, folks, here we go again!" This line was known at the time as being associated with a risque gag, and the audiences might think there was a connection between the ending and the punch line. Schlesinger intervened (supposedly on orders from Jack Warner himself), and edited the film so that the characters only fall off the cliff twice (the edited cartoon ends abruptly, after Bugs and the Dog fall through a hole in a cliff and immediately stop short of the ground, saying to the audience, "Heh, fooled you, didn't we?"). An enraged Avery promptly quit the studio, leaving three cartoons he started on but did not complete. They were Crazy Cruise, The Cagey Canary and Aloha Hooey. Bob Clampett picked up where Avery left off, and completed the three cartoons.

Speaking of Animals

While at Schlesinger, Avery created a concept of animating lip movement to live action footage of animals. Schlesinger was not interested in Avery's idea, so Avery approached Jerry Fairbanks, a friend of his who produced the Unusual Occupations series of short subjects for Paramount Pictures. Fairbanks liked the idea and the Speaking of Animals series of shorts was launched. When Avery left Warner, he went straight to Paramount to work on the first three shorts in the series before joining MGM.

Avery at MGM

By 1942, Avery was in the employ of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, working in their cartoon division under the supervision of Fred Quimby. Avery felt that Schlesinger had stifled him; at MGM, Avery's creativity reached its peak. His cartoons became known for their sheer lunacy, breakneck pace, and a penchant for playing with the medium of animation and film in general that few other directors dared to approach. MGM also offered him larger budgets and a higher quality production level than the Warners studio. Plus, his unit was filled with ex-Disney artists such as Preston Blair and Ed Love. These changes were evident in Avery's first short released by MGM, The Blitz Wolf, an Adolf Hitler parody which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons) in 1942.

Avery's most famous MGM character debuted in 1943's Dumbhounded. Droopy (originally "Happy Hound") was a calm, little, slow-moving and slow-talking dog who still won out in the end. He also created a series of racy and risqué cartoons, beginning with 1943's Red Hot Riding Hood, featuring a sexy female star who never had a set name and whose visual design and voice varied somewhat between shorts, but who influenced the minds of young boys — and future animators — worldwide. Other Avery characters at MGM included Screwy Squirrel and the Of Mice and Men-inspired duo of George and Junior.

Other notable MGM cartoons directed by Avery include Bad Luck Blackie, Magical Maestro, Lucky Ducky, and King-Size Canary. Avery began his stint at MGM working with lush colors and realistic backgrounds, but he slowly abandoned this style for a more frenetic, less realistic approach. The newer, more stylized look reflected the influence of the up-and-coming UPA studio, the need to cut costs as budgets grew higher, and Avery's own desire to leave reality behind and make cartoons that were not tied to the real world of live action. During this period, he made a notable series of films which explored the technology of the future: The House of Tomorrow, The Car of Tomorrow, The Farm of Tomorrow and The TV of Tomorrow (spoofing common live-action promotional shorts of the time). He also introduced a slow-talking wolf character, who was the prototype for MGM associates Hanna-Barbera's Huckleberry Hound character, right down to the voice by Daws Butler.

Avery took a year sabbatical from MGM beginning in 1950, during which time Dick Lundy, recently arrived from the Walter Lantz studio, took over his unit and made one Droopy cartoon, as well as a string of shorts with an old character, Barney Bear. Avery returned to MGM in October 1951 and began working again. Avery's last two original cartoons for MGM were Deputy Droopy and Cellbound, completed in 1953 and released in 1955. They were co-directed by Avery unit animator Michael Lah. Lah began directing a handful of CinemaScope Droopy shorts on his own. A burnt-out Avery left MGM in 1953 to return to the Walter Lantz studio.

After MGM

Avery's return to the Lantz studio did not last long. He directed four cartoons in 1954-1955: the one-shots Crazy Mixed-Up Pup and Shh-h-h-h-h, and I'm Cold and The Legend of Rockabye Point, in which he defined the character of Chilly Willy the penguin. Although The Legend of Rockabye Point and Crazy Mixed-Up Pup were nominated for Academy Awards, Avery left Lantz over a salary dispute, effectively ending his career in theatrical animation.

He turned to animated television commercials, most notably the Raid commercials of the 1960s (in which cartoon insects, confronted by the bug killer, screamed "RAID!" and died flamboyantly) "and Frito-Lay's controversial mascot, the Frito Bandito. Avery also produced ads for Kool-Aid fruit drinks starring the Warner Bros. characters he had once helped create during his Termite Terrace days.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Avery became increasingly reserved and depressed, although he continued to draw respect from his peers. His final employer was Hanna-Barbera Productions, where he wrote gags for Saturday morning cartoons such as the Droopy-esque Kwicky Koala.

On Tuesday, August 26, 1980, Avery died at St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank, California at age 72. He had been suffering from lung cancer for a year. He is interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park at Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, California.

Legacy

Although Tex Avery did not live to experience the late-1980s renaissance of animation, his work was rediscovered and he began to receive widespread attention and praise by the modern animation and film communities. All of his MGM shorts were released uncensored in a laserdisc set, including the "politically incorrect" Uncle Tom's Cabana and Half-Pint Pygmy. Several of them were released on VHS, in four volumes of Tex Avery's Screwball Classics, and two Droopy collections, with many gags edited out for television showings left in. King-Size Canary and Little Rural Riding Hood were included on MGM/UA's first non-Tom and Jerry tape of vintage animated shorts, MGM Cartoon Magic, and One Ham's Family was part of a Christmas collection. Avery's Droopy cartoons are available on the DVD set Tex Avery's Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection. The seven Droopy cartoons produced in CinemaScope were included here in their original widescreen versions, instead of the pan and scan versions regularly broadcast on television. Also, some of his works could be found on tapes of Warner Bros.' Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts, and the same is true of his few Lantz Studio cartoons. His influence is strongly reflected in modern cartoons such as "Roger Rabbit", Ren and Stimpy, Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Freakazoid, Tom and Jerry Kids Show, Spongebob Squarepants, and the Genie character in Disney's Aladdin. In fact, an Averyesque cowboy character bore his name in the otherwise unrelated series The Wacky World of Tex Avery. His work has been honored on shows such as The Tex Avery Show and Cartoon Alley. His characters (particularly Bugs Bunny and the risqué antics of Red Hot Riding Hood) were referenced in the Jim Carrey film The Mask. In the mid 1990s, Dark Horse Comics released a trio of three-issue miniseries that were openly labelled tributes to Avery's MGM cartoons, Wolf & Red, Droopy, and Screwy Squirrel. It should also be noted that Tex Avery, unlike most Warner Brothers directors, kept many original title frames of his cartoons, several otherwise lost due to Blue Ribbon Reissues, and were recently sold on eBay. In 2008 France issued three stamps honoring Tex Avery for his 100th birthday, depicting Droopy, The girl and The wolf.

Today, the copyrights to all classic color cartoons directed by Avery at Warners and MGM are owned by Turner Entertainment, with Warner Bros. handling distribution (WB owns the black-and-white cartoons directly). Turner and WB are both units of Time Warner. The cartoons he directed at the Lantz studio are owned by their original distributors, Universal Studios. A few of Avery's WB shorts are in the public domain, but WB and Turner hold the original film elements.

Films directed or co-directed by Tex Avery

Warner Bros.

Paramount

MGM

Walter Lantz

References

Further reading

  • Adamson, Joe (1975). Tex Avery: King of Cartoons. New York: De Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80248-1.
  • Barrier, Michael (1999). Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516729-5.
  • Benayoun, Robert (1988). Le mystère Tex Avery. Paris: Editions du Seuil. ISBN 2-02-009870-9.
  • Canemaker, John (1996). Tex Avery: The MGM Years, 1942-1955. Atlanta: Turner Press. ISBN 1-57036-291-2.
  • Morris, Gary (Sept 1998). What's Up, Tex? A Look at the Life and Career of Tex Avery Bright Lights Film Journal.

External links

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