Saturday, 9 January 2021

Talking About Tex

I like Tex Avery cartoons.

Lots of other people do, too.

It’s cool that Tex lived long enough hear the appreciation of his work (mainly at MGM). There were midnight showings in the Bay area in 1976 and another showing at UC-Berkeley in 1979. The New York Cultural Center included him in a cartoon tribute in late 1973 (due to Greg Ford, I suspect). Going back further the Montreal International Film Festival featured a special Avery programme of ten shorts at the time of Expo ‘67.

In the mid-‘70s, Joe Adamson penned the wonderful “Tex Avery, King of Cartoons” with interviews with the great director himself, writers Heck Allen and Mike Maltese, and capsulised reviews of all his shorts; one interview had been published in “Take One” in 1970. It seems that’s when Tex started getting his due with articles in “Positif” (which went back to the late ‘50s), “Film Comment” and “Print.”

Tex was awarded an Annie in 1974 for his life’s achievements. He even showed up at Pasadena’s Crown Theatre in 1975 to discuss his cartoons (along with Bob Clampett. What an evening it must have been).

Much of this came at the end of his life—he passed away in 1980—but there were bits of recognition before. He was nominated for an Oscar six times. Some theatres in Texas would advertise “A Tex Avery Cartoon” in their newspaper box ads. And his name shows up occasionally in the popular press.

This is clipped from the Hanford Sentinel of May 5, 1945
Incidentally, there’s a grand M-G-M baseball cartoon. It's one of those delightfully zany M G-M Technicolor cartoons directed by Tex Avery, who is turning out the screen funniest cartoons these days. This one’s in the typical Avery tradition which means you never can suspect what’s going to happen next.
The Sentinel’s anonymous columnist loved Avery. From July 19, 1945:
Jerky Turkey, the Tex Avery-directed cartoon for MGM, shown on the same bill with [Meet Me in] St. Louis at the Fox, wins our nomination as the cinch Academy Award cartoon of the year. Swell stuff.
Hazel Flynn’s column in the Valley Times in Encino seems to have borrowed from BS news releases from MGM. She tells us on September 26, 1946:
Tex Avery has a new cartoon character, Phil Flea . . . He has rejected “Let Fleadom Ring” in favour of “A Flea Grows in Brooklyn.” He’s the fellow who made “The Secret Life of Walter Kitty” and “The Mouse on 92nd Street.”
The last two cartoons were never made. They may never even have been considered. Metro’s PR department used to send out releases with names of cartoons that were in development. They never were. It was all for publicity. (Another supposed Avery short was “Our Vine Street Has Tender Wolves”). To be honest, I like the first title better than what they used, What Price Fleadom.

He took time off at MGM because he was burned out. The Hollywood Reporter of June 29, 1951 announced his return “after a year’s illness.” The Avery unit was disbanded in the first week of March 1953; pictures are on Michael Barrier’s website. Animator Mike Lah stuck around to finish the cartoons he had in production; why Tex himself didn’t remain is a mystery.

The Reporter kept track of Avery, with a bit more information than I’ve seen elsewhere, in its edition of December 23rd that year.
Walter Lantz has signed Tex Avery, long time cartoon producer at MGM, to a 20-year contract as executive producer of all his productions. Avery, veteran in the cartoon field, makes the “Droopy” series at the Culver City plant. In addition to producing all the Woody Woodpecker and Chilly Willy Cartunes for Lantz, Avery also will supervise all animation as well as the creation of new characters for the Lantz organization. Avery’s first association with Lantz began in 1929 and lasted until 1935. The 20-year pact, as prepared by the law firm of Wright & Garrett, as a gag calls for a daily option clause.
As for “new characters,” the Reporter gave some insight the following January 8th, announcing the creation of Winny Woodpecker, Woody’s girl-friend; “Pa and Ma” and their horse Sugarfoot, at the same time revealing Chilly Willy would be turned into a series, with the penguin playing opposite “Nipper, St. Bernard dog.” (I imagine RCA might have had something to say about the dog’s name).

The start of Tex’s career post-theatrical was announced in the Reporter of May 17, 1956.
Tex Avery joins Cascade Pictures this week as a director of animation, according to Barney Carr and Roy Seawright, Cascade toppers. Avery, director of animation at MGM for 13 years, will work with Hal Mason, who has been with Cascade for the past six years.
Awards started coming fast. The Reporter from July 17th:
Foote, Cone & Belding and Cascade Pictures have been given the Chicago Federation of Advertising Award for Best Commercial of the Year in two categories—animation, produced by Tex Avery, and live-action animation, made by Hal Mason for S.C. Johnson [makers of Raid].
Avery had his own little studio after leaving Walter Lantz on August 20, 1954 before going to Cascade. After Cascade, he took out legal ads in June and July 1973 stating he had formed a company called “Tex Avery Cartoons” out of his home on Weddington Street not far from North Hollywood High.

Tex, as anyone familiar with his life story might know, was born in Taylor, Texas and graduated from North Dallas High School. Historian/author John Canemaker quoted a story about him from a Dallas newspaper of 1933, but we’ve found one published in neighbouring Fort Worth several years later. First, this short note from the Star-Telegram, July 6, 1937.
The clever Merrie Melody on the Worth bill with the exciting film of secret service work and intrigue "The Emperor's Candlesticks" was supervised by Mrs. H. C. Meacham's favorite nephew, Fred Avery.
A Dallas boy, Avery stumbled into film cartoonery when he drove his aunt to California nine years ago. He looked around for a job there with a newspaper cartoon strip in mind. Unlucky at that plan, he took some drawings to the cartoon studio and went to work at the bottom. Now he's at the top, responsible for turning out one Merrie Melody a month.
He visited here last a year and a half ago.
Unfortunately, neither the story nor the ad for the cartoon say what the title is.

A fuller look at Avery appeared in the same paper, August 30, 1938, along with a picture. And this leads us to a bit of controversy.

There’s a reference to Elmer Fudd. And the character is Egghead.

For years, fans and people who believe in strict canon as if we are dealing with the real world have bought the Bob Clampett explanation that in 1940 or so, they took Egghead, checked off some stuff, and redesigned him as Elmer Fudd. But that doesn’t jibe with studio publicity materials at the time, nor Egghead’s designation as Elmer Fudd in A Feud There Was (1938). So some espoused a theory that Egghead had no hair and Elmer did. Or vice versa. I can’t get it straight.

Anyway, it seems the studio used the names interchangeably, with “Egghead” appearing on some title cards. Much like Bugs Hardaway’s Bugs Bunny was redesigned in 1940, so was Fudd.

There’s a line in one edition of the paper that refers to the song “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” but there’s no context (a second edition leaves it out). It’s possible it could refer censors being iffy about a dog/telephone poles gag as that song played in the background in Friz Freleng’s Dog Daze (1937), but I really don’t know.

The other note here is that Leon Schlesinger looked at a Rip Van Winkle feature. The trade press of the day speaks of Schlesinger in New York conferring about a feature. There’s no reason to disbelieve what Tex is saying.

He Laughs at Garbo, Makes Her Like It
The man whao [sic] can laugh at Greta Garbo, Longfellow and Mother Nature and make 'em like it:
Fred Avery, animated cartoon director, who let us in Monday on what can be expected in the immediate future in a field more exciting than Errol Flynn's Fall picture schedule.
All the while he absent mindedly mutilated our autographed picture of Tyrone Power with a sketch of Elmer Fudd and made us like it.
Avery is one of three directors of Merrie Melody and Looney Tune cartoons required by Warner Brothers to turn in a total of 42 products a year.
Our fondest recollection of one of his recent subjects is the takeoff on the FitzPatrick travel talks entitled "The Isle of Pingo Pongo." We praised it highly at the time.
Now we learn from Avery he considers it his best effort because throughout he used an innovation he had tried previously in "The Village Blacksmith" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin"—
An offscreen commentator with a serious Pete Smith voice and a running script of screwey [sic] gags.
Elmer Fudd was in it, too, remember? The bungling little fellow with the half-mast eyelids and the fiddle case who kept interrupting the announcer. Well, Elmer will be seen again as Prince Charming in "Cinderella" and as John Smith in "Pocahontas."
He's an important guy.
You may also expect from Avery: "Believe It or Else" a parody on Ripley, a burlesque version of "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," and the comeback cartoon for Daffy Duck, the haywire fowl with the Hugh Herbert personality.
How do movie stars take the cartoon caricatures of themselves? They like it.
Bing Crosby ordered a print of the recent one that featured him and he wasn't trying to buy 'em all up. Katharine Hepburn is said to have secretly snickered—raaly, we mean—at a takeoff on her voice.
The cartoon characters in fact are treated like stars themselves. They get fan mail—and Will Hays' scowl of censorship.
[ The music: "Little Man You've Had a Busy Day." ]
He just got past by the skin of his teeth in a nature cartoon which had a lizard shedding its skin.
It used a strip-tease technic.
As to the longevity of the feature-length animated cartoon, introduced in Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Avery says his studio has dropped plans to make one based on Rip Van Winkle.
It's a costly process. Just an ordinary cartoon of 700 feet requires the work of 78 people from the time the director goes into a huddle with four gag men until it comes out on the screen.
Avery's dream is for two-reeler animated cartoons which would give sufficient footage to tell a story And why not?
Cartoons are rapidly nosing comedies out of the picture. May they start next on the lousy band shorts the public has to endure.
Mr. and Mrs. Avery, visiting his aunt, Mrs. H. C. Meacham, 1100 Elizabeth Boulevard, will head homeward via the Grand Canyon in a few days. They met when Avery worked on Oswald the Rabbit cartoons for Universal and she was one of the inkers.
The next Merrie Melody to show here will be "The Major Lied 'Til Dawn" Saturday at the Worth.

Finally, something completely removed from animation. The Los Angeles Evening Citizen-News of March 7, 1949 published the picture you see to the right of Tex and Patricia Avery winning a prize freezer for their House of Today.

Our post is done. Un-sad ending, isn’t it.

My thanks to Devon Baxter for supplying the Tex photos.


  1. The line "Bing Crosby ordered a print of the recent one that featured him and he wasn't trying to buy 'em all up, " does seem a little at odds with the later stories of Crosby's lawyer threatening Schlesingers if they didn't stop portraying der Bingle as "a vainglorious coward" in cartoons like 'Bingo Crosbyana'. (Bing would have to wait for Tashlin's return to Warners to finally get a favorable portrayal, in "Swooner Crooner").

    With Avery's unit being shut down at MGM at roughly the same time Warners was laying everyone off but Friz's core crew in March of '53, it would have been an interesting 'What if' to ponder if Warners had opted to hire Tex back at the end of '53 instead of reforming the McKimson unit. Certainly the budgets would have been higher than his Lantz efforts, but he would have been a director accustomed to doing mainly one-shots put back into a studio where starring characters were the norm by '53, and directors got to do at best 1-2 one-shot cartoons per year.

    1. The impression I get is the McKimson closure was apart from the rest. He was shut down in Feb., the others in June. The others came back at the start of Jan. There was no indication that a third unit would be reactivated. I gather a decision was made soon after because they started hiring people for it, going by the Warner Club news.

    2. That's what I understand as well -- the McKimson unit was cut first, and then the cuts to the Jones unit and parts of Freleng's unit followed, while when the unit reactivated again, it only did so at first because Bob was handling much of his own animation. Hard to see Avery taking a return deal like that, where he'd have to serve as his own main animator on the initial series of cartoons, but the idea of a mid-to-late 1950s WB cartoon directed by Avery is still intriguing, if for no other reason than the energy Tex put into some of his earliest mid-60s Kool Aid ads featuring Bugs and Elmer.

    3. By the way, J.L., it wasn't just "later" stories. The Hollywood Reporter mentioned the suit on Aug. 5, 1936. Perhaps it went nowhere because it demanded the cartoon to be pulled from screens. It was still showing in December.

  2. How much do you suppose an "autographed picture of Tyrone Power with a sketch of Elmer Fudd" by Tex Avery would go for today?

  3. Considering slight changes in the titles, the "Secret Life of Walter Kitty" and "The Mouse on 92nd Street" cartoons were eventually made, just not by Tex. The Chuck Jones-directed The Mouse on 57th Street was released in 1961, and Filmation produced an live-action / animated Saturday-morning series in 1975, The Secret Lives of Waldo Kitty.

  4. Never knew he tried to spoof Walter Mitty.

  5. "So some espoused a theory that Egghead had no hair and Elmer did. Or vice versa. I can’t get it straight. Anyway, it seems the studio used the names interchangeably, with 'Egghead' appearing on some title cards."

    Look closely: with the singular exception of the very first cartoon (EGGHEAD RIDES AGAIN), Egghead—billed as such—always has wide eyes and hair, and Elmer—billed as such—is always bald with squinty eyes.