Avery, Tex (1908-1980)

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Avery, Tex (1908-1980)

Tex Avery, one of the most important and influential American animators, produced dozens of cartoon masterpieces primarily for the Warner Brothers and Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM) studios from the 1930s to the 1950s. Frenetic action, perfect comedic timing, and a never-ending stream of sight gags characterize his short, animated films. He is credited with providing the most definitive characterization of Bugs Bunny and creating such classic cartoon figures as Droopy, Chilly Willy, Screwy Squirrel, and Red Hot Riding Hood. Avery was most intrigued by the limitless possibilities of animation and filled his work with chase sequences, comic violence, and unbelievable situations that could not be produced in any other medium. Avery's manic style was best described by author Joe Adamson when he stated, "Avery's films will roll along harmlessly enough, with an interesting situation treated in a more or less funny way. Then, all of a sudden, one of the characters will lose a leg and hop all over the place trying to find it again."

Born Frederick Bean Avery on February 26, 1908, in Taylor, Texas, a direct descendant of the infamous Judge Roy Bean, Avery hoped to turn his boyhood interest in illustration into a profession when he attended the Chicago Art Institute. After several failed attempts to launch a syndicated comic strip, he moved to California and took a job in Walter Lanz's animation studio. Avery's talent as an animator led him to join the Warner Brothers studio in 1935. There, he became a leading member of a unit including now legendary animators Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett. From their dilapidated headquarters on the studio lot, which they dubbed the Termite Terrace, the young artists set about creating a new cartoon sensibility which was more adult, absurd, and filled with slapstick. Avery and his crew's characters were more irreverent than those of their Disney competitors and the cartoons themselves were marked by direct addresses to the audience, split screen effects, and abrupt changes in pacing. Avery also insisted that their films acquire a more satiric tone so as to comment on contemporary popular culture. An early example of this satire is found in I Love to Singa (1936), which features "Owl Jolson" in a take-off of The Jazz Singer. Avery constantly reminded his viewers of the illusionary nature of animation. Unlike Disney, which was known for its spectacle, Avery's Warner Brothers films highlight their unreality. This abundant self-reflexivity is considered an early example of animated postmodernism.

Avery's talent also extended into the area of characterization. He, along with Jones and Clampett, refined an existing character named Porky Pig and transformed him into the first popular Looney Tunes character of the 1930s. In a 1937 cartoon called Porky's Duck Hunt he introduced Daffy Duck, who became so popular that he soon earned his own cartoon series. Avery's greatest contribution to animation, however, was his development of Bugs Bunny. A crazy rabbit character had appeared in several Warner cartoons beginning in 1938, but with few of the later Bugs personality traits. Animation historians regard Avery's 1940 cartoon A Wild Hare as the moment Bugs Bunny was introduced to America. Avery had eliminated the earlier rabbit's cuteness and craziness and, instead, fashioned an intelligent, streetwise, deliberate character. It was also in this cartoon that Avery bestowed upon Bugs a line from his Texas childhood—"What's up, doc?"—that would become the character's catchphrase. Avery's style became so important to the studio and imitated by his colleagues that he became known as the "Father of Warner Bros. Cartoons."

Despite all his success at Warner Brothers, Avery's most creative period is considered to be his time producing MGM cartoons from 1942 to 1954. In these films he dealt less with characterization and concentrated on zany gags. This fast-paced humor was developed to accommodate Avery's desire to fit as many comic moments as possible into his animated shorts. The MGM films feature nondescript cats and dogs in a surreal world where anything can, and does, happen. The 1947 cartoon King-Size Canary is regarded as Avery's masterpiece and reveals the lunacy of his later work. The film features a cat, mouse, dog, and canary each swallowing portions of "Jumbo-Gro." The animals chase each other and grow to enormous heights. Finally, the cat and mouse grow to twice the earth's size and are unable to continue the cartoon. They announce that the show is over and simply wave to the audience. Avery once again revealed the absurdities inherent to the cartoon universe.

In 1954, Avery left MGM and began a career in commercial animation. He directed cartoon advertisements for Kool-Aid, Pepsodent, and also produced the controversial Frito Bandito spots. Indeed, his animation has been enjoyed for more than half a century due to its unique blend of absurdity, quick humor, and fine characterization. He inspired his peers and generations of later animators to move their art form away from the saccharine style embodied by Disney. He revealed that animation is truly limitless. Because of his ability to create cartoons with an adult sophistication mixed with intelligent and outlandish humor, he has often been characterized as a "Walt Disney who has read Kafka."

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Adamson, Joe. Tex Avery: King of Cartoons. New York, De Capo Press, 1975.

Schneider, Steve. That's All Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation. New York, Henry Holt & Co., 1988.