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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Saturday Morning Tex Avery Cartoons at the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival

Saturday, May 8 at 6:00am (ET) the virtual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival will air Tex Avery: The King of Cartoons. The 1988 documentary covers the life and career of animator and director Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery. The film will be followed by Tex Avery at MGM, a compilation of Avery's most beloved cartoons, including Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), Bad Luck Blackie (1949), Deputy Droopy (1955), Screwball Squirrel (1944), King-Size Canary (1947), and Symphony in Slang (1955).

One of the most influential theatrical animators of the 20th century, Avery led Warner Bros.' floundering Looney Tunes to become one of the most iconic franchises in animation history thanks to such enduring characters as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. These WB characters are among the many who refused to adhere to the sweetness and gentility that defined the personalities created at the home of their greatest competitor, Walt Disney Studios. Avery's shorts for Warner Bros. and later MGM, had a profound influence on countless subsequent animated shorts and television, from Hanna-Barbera to John Kricfalusi's "Ren & Stimpy" (Nickelodeon 1991-95) to Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Avery continued to provide blueprints for animation writers and artists well into the 21st century.

Avery's work is defined by a strong sense of visual and verbal anarchy, with characters gleefully breaking the fourth wall (and even the laws of nature) in pursuit of a madcap ideal that married the lunacies of the Marx Brothers with a free-form structure. His artistry began at the Art Institute of Chicago before he headed west to try his hand in Hollywood. In 1929, he landed a job with Walter Lantz's animation studio at Universal, where he assisted on many of the unit's "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" shorts. During this period, Avery was blinded in one eye by a thumbtack fired during office horseplay with other animators. Reportedly, the incident had a significant impact upon his perspective on animation. His unique, semi-surreal art and direction were credited in part to his lack of visual depth perception due to his injury.

Money disputes spurred Avery to leave Lantz for Warner Bros. in 1935. There, he convinced the studio's animation chief, Leon Schlesinger, to let him head his own production unit. He was granted a five-room bungalow on the Warner Sunset Blvd. lot - dubbed "Termite Terrace" due to its infestation problem - which he shared with several other up-and-coming animators, including Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, and associate director Frank Tashlin.

Charged with creating animated shorts that would compete with Walt Disney's, Avery's unit abandoned the idea of producing material that would challenge Disney's artistry in favor of shorts that were simply funnier than the Disney's. The first shorts established Avery's signature style: frenetic action that often defied the laws of physics, wild visual puns laced with sarcasm and a satirical approach to the fairy tales and travelogues that were part and parcel of Disney's cartoons. Avery also played fast and loose with the inherently artificial nature of animation by having his characters speak directly to audiences or burst out the frame to decry the pomp and circumstance of title and credit sequences.

Avery's cartoons for Warners introduced or developed some of the most iconic figures in animation history. Gold Diggers of '49 (1935) boosted Porky Pig from bit player to a featured star, while Daffy Duck burst onto the scene two years later as Porky's berserk foil in Porky's Duck Hunt (1937). Daffy would go on to bedevil Egghead, an early incarnation of Elmer Fudd, in Daffy Duck & Egghead (1938). Avery also took a pesky rabbit character that had appeared in several Looney Tunes shorts and transformed him into a quick-thinking trickster with a talent for deceiving simple-minded pursuers. He also lent the rabbit his own signature phrase, "What's up, doc?" from the verbiage of his Texas youth. In these and countless other Warner Bros. cartoons, Avery was deeply involved in nearly all aspects of production, from writing and editing to voices and catchphrases that became part of the American pop culture lexicon such as, "Which way did he go?" and, "Screwy, isn't it?". Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes characters became exceptionally popular among audiences and rivaled Disney for their affections.

Avery left Warners for Paramount, before moving to MGM, where he created some of his most inspired work. His MGM cartoons ranged from the antics of a slow-talking hound, Droopy, to risqué and sexually charged takes on classic fairy tale characters like Little Red Riding Hood (Red Hot Riding Hood) and a Lothario wolf whose reactions to the women's presence reached volcanic heights of arousal. Avery's tenure at MGM was marked by considerable success. His first project for the studio, The Blitz Wolf (1941), earned an Oscar nomination for Best Short Subject (Cartoons). By 1950, he was burned out due to his relentless pace, and left MGM for a year before returning briefly to complete two Droopy shorts in 1953.

That same year, he returned to his old boss, Walter Lantz, to direct five shorts, including the Oscar-nominated Legend of Rockabye Point (1955). His tenure there was doomed due to the same financial issues that prompted him to quit the Lantz operation in 1935. His moved into television commercials, producing memorable shorts for Raid and Frito-Lay. Though his career remained active and his work regarded with the utmost respect, Avery withdrew from the industry in the mid-1970s. He returned to television in 1980 for The Kwicky Koala Show, a Saturday morning series for Hanna-Barbera's that featured a character who shared several personality traits with Droopy. This would become Avery's last creation before succumbing to liver cancer August 26, 1980.

Tex Avery will live on through his many creations as long as there are Saturday morning cartoons and classic film fans to love and appreciate the imagination of a true animation pioneer.


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