Tex Avery: A Unique Legacy

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Floriane Place-Verghnes examines the work of this great American animator. Focusing primarily on four facets of Avery's work, the author first concentrates on Avery's ability to depict the American attempt both to retrieve the past nostalgically and to catch the Zeitgeist of 1940s America, which confronts the questions of violence and survival. She also analyzes issues of sex and gender and the crucial role Hollywood played in reshaping the image of womanhood, reducing it to a bipolar opposition. Thirdly, she examines the comic language developed by Avery which, although drawing on the work of the Marx Brothers and Chaplin (among others), transcended their conventions. Finally, Place-Verghnes considers Avery's place in the history of cartoon-making technique.

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Chapter I The Cartoon-Making Technique

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Provided that you have seen a few cartoons and you are rather curious, you must have wondered “How did they do that?” The magic atmosphere that pervades cartoons actually conceals a more practical side; that of the various techniques employed in order to achieve a maximum impact on the audience by constantly flirting with reality, without anyone noticing the amount of pain taken in timing the whole thing precisely. Five weeks of intense work, 8,640 frames and no less than 1,300 metres of film are required to create a six-minute cartoon. Cartoons in the 1940s had to be six minutes long, not more, not less, both for obvious financial reasons and because of their status of film preview: the duration of a cartoon, a set of commercials, a newsreel, and a film had to be precisely two hours long.

I now propose to follow the birth of a cartoon from its conception to the final result, by examining all the different departments that deal with its creation.

The very first thing you need to make a cartoon is obviously a screenplay. The script-writer (or storyman) is therefore the first person to put his shoulder to the wheel. Not only does he write the dialogue (unless a dialogue-man is appointed for this part of the process), but he is also responsible for the whole atmosphere of the cartoon through his detailed description of the characters, places, and forces at work in the story. He then works closely with the director to produce characters and situations that will work together visually. His role will be to translate the story in a limited number of sketches (from 50 and 150 for a six-minute cartoon), and to pair it with a few lines of dialogue, in order to see if the combination is effective. The drawings are very rough, not refined, and only depict extreme positions, behaviours, or physical expressions. “Extreme”, because knowing that a character, object, or landscape will gradually change (at a rhythm of 24 frames per second) between a period X and a period Y, the story-artist will not take the time (or the financial risk) to draw all the pictures between X and Y, but will merely sketch out the two extremes X and Y. The resulting story-board, which looks like a huge comic-strip, will then be pinned onto a cork panel so that the whole team (animators, model-makers, scene painters, etc.) can discuss potential modifications. The technique of the story-board has been used since the 1920s, but was significantly developed by Walt Disney.

 

Chapter II The Cartoon Before Tex

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Even though the art of animation is often associated with innovation, it has to be said that it finds its roots as early as 1645, when Athanasius Kircher (1601–1690) invented his Magical Lantern (the method of which he described at length in a book entitled Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae). It consisted of a

mere box in which a mirror and a source of light had been placed ... The light rays – reflected by the mirror – would come out of the box through a small slit, and go through a pane of glass on which an image had been stuck. The image was then screened on a white wall through a magnifying lens.15

Etienne Gaspard Robert – working under the pseudonym Robertson – used the same device almost 150 years later, when he gave a fright to the whole of Paris by screening the heroes of the Revolution in his Fantasmagorie show (1794).

This ancestor of the animated movies was therefore to be one of the longer lasting ones, since what other creators did afterwards was only to improve the original method by implementing it with two major principles of animation: the persistence of vision and the need for gaps between images.

 

Chapter III Tex Avery’s Americanness: An Attempt to Retrieve the Past

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Dealing with such a matter without evoking Tex Avery’s masterpiece in the genre, Symphony in Slang (1951) would be missing a crucial point. This cartoon could be set apart from the whole corpus. Its scenario is quite poor, the story being, in actual fact, nothing but a theme with variations on puns and American slang. However, from a linguist’s point of view, it displays an impressive richness. It is entirely built on set phrases, the meaning of which is always taken in its first degree (“I had goose-pimple”, “she had her hair in a bun”, “Mary’s clothes fit her like a glove”, “the law was on my heels”, “it was good to stretch”, etc.). See also Uncle Tom’s Cabaña (1947), in which “starvation was staring at me [uncle Tom] in the face” while the evil-doer Simon Legree is depicted as literally “two-faced”, “a low-down snake”, and “rolling in dough” or the brain-storming activity (clouds and lightening included) that takes place over the cat’s head in King-Size Canary (1947). It has been defined by Petr Kral as a succession of “puns translated into ... wacky idiosyncrasies”.33 This comic device is typical of the films by the Marx brothers. In Duck Soup (1933), Firefly (Groucho) addresses the portly Margaret Dumont piling up expressions with both a figurative and a literal meaning:

 

Chapter IV Facing Contemporary Politics

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The golden years of American materialism as depicted in The Big Money seemed too good to be true. There could be no wild years without a possible backlash. The first hints of the potentiality of the American foundations to crack and finally collapse appeared in the late 1920s and eventually, the “Roaring Twenties” came to a sharp end in 1929 with the Wall Street Crash. Apart from the unprecedented financial results of such a blow, the mental consequences on the people were to be terrific, limitless, and (above all) everlasting. This is a common phenomenon to be observed among people: each time you undergo a crisis, you tend to shape your subsequent behaviour according to the initial blow, even if the danger has passed away and you are hence secure. This is precisely what I mean by “an osmosis between the past and the present” – and as a consequence, the future. That is, the capacity of human beings to draw conclusions from their past so as to adapt to an awe-inspiring future. In the midst of such a crisis, testifying becomes an urgent necessity, since it binds people to one another, by making them aware of the fact that they are sharing the same predicament. The act of bearing witness is a painful relief. Tex Avery’s subconscious aim was nothing more than relief when he depicted insecure behaviours linked to the aftermath of the Depression. The American people had indeed undergone a huge blow. After decades of growing importance on the international stage, after claiming the American soil was a land of freedom and opportunity for everyone (see the rags to riches tales), its people had been reduced to the scum of the so-called developed world in a fortnight. No wonder then, that such an experience shattered their hopes for the future, and that they consequently perceived matters in quite another light.

 

Chapter V Tex Avery’s Unique Viewpoint on Good, Evil, and Morality

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In an era of normlessness (or anomie, according to sociologist Emile Durkheim), how can one give a precise description of what is good and what is not? After the deprivations following the Depression (for which, according to the Machiavellian doctrine, the aim justifies the means) and the horrors of the Second World War, morality was no more than a blurred concept, quite devoid of its theoretical meaning.

History is in the hands of blind and deaf forces, which will heed neither cries of warning, nor advice, nor entreaties ... Today the judges, the accused, and the witnesses are permuted.62

If such a permutation is possible, where does the boundary stand between good and evil? Such a matter is therefore highly personal, since no overall stance can be adopted (or else, the message would be more prescriptive than normative). It escapes definition because it is extremely relative; its value is both diachronical and geographical (bound by time and space). What is considered morally good in a certain society at a particular time may be considered immoral under different circumstances. On a less serious level, it is equally true that “morality in a comedy exists only to be denied”63. Even in the early movies by Charlie Chaplin, violence is rampant. Due to his later success as a naïve and poetic character, we tend to forget that Chaplin’s character has not always been the nice guy. “In the beginning, Charlot used to be fierce, cruel, and demonic.”64 His favourite accessory was a safety pin, with which he would prick people for no particular reason. Such senseless cruelty could be condemned by anyone possessing an ounce of morality. However, the result is comical. Why? Simply because

 

Chapter VI Freudian Pansexualism: Concepts of Activity/Passivity

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In his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933)106, Freud associated for the first time the notions of virility and activity, while attributing passivity to female behaviour. This simplistic theory is followed by the letter in Tex Avery’s cartoons. Freud’s impact on today’s world is immeasurable. Even nowadays, it is virtually impossible to tackle the subject of sexual urges without evoking or quoting the man. Just like Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici”, Freud’s declaration “anatomy is destiny” has become a maxim famous world-wide, although few realise how innovative it was, and to what extent it shaped our understanding of sex and gender. Freud’s statement expresses the belief that biological sex affects not only the gender (what may be defined as cultural sex) of the person but also his or her entire life. Sex is thus a master trait, a label, a main variable on which all the others depend. This sexual solipsism (to quote Betty Friedan) is still pervading all our accounts on, and explanations of sexual urges.

 

Chapter VII Reduction of Womanhood Into Two Types: The Destructive Power of Women

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Put the Blame on Mame, Boys!
Put the Blame on Mame
Remember the Earthquake in San Francisco in 1896
They Said That Old Mother Nature was up to her Old Tricks
That’s the Story That Went Around
Put the Blame on Mame, Boys!
Put the Blame on Mame …

Gilda (1946)

According to the aforementioned criteria established (or rather, dictated) by Freud and Hollywood, women are to be divided into two categories only: either they arouse sexual desire on the part of the man, or they do not. In the first instance, they are entitled to a sex symbol status, and are naturally given all the attributes dictated by a certain period – since such criteria vary historically, as Rubens’ representation of the feminine ideal illustrates. In the other case, they are vilified in an extreme manner. In a period which would swear by the feminine mystique, the most effective way to do so was to make these un-appealing women resemble what they should strongly differ from: namely, men. However, we shall see that the Averyan woman, whatever her sexual status, is equally threatening to men’s welfare – albeit in two very different ways.

 

Chapter VIII Oedipal Relationships and Their Consequences

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Tex Avery’s cartoons rarely stage happy, solid families. Absent parents – the kitten in Bad Luck Blackie (1949) – , mothers without children and consequently trying to compensate for this lack – the owner of Lenny in Lonesome Lenny (1946) – , characters carrying out an eternal quest for a mother-figure – all the adaptations of Of Mice and Men, with Junior parodying Steinbeck’s Lennie –, the family as an institution is often severely handicapped. However, despite this lack of mutual bonding, Tex Avery’s cartoons always take into account the contemporary need for a mother experienced by a whole generation of soldiers who had fought in the Second World War. As we have already seen, the feminine mystique did not explode without warning. The Depression, the Second World War, and the invention of the atomic bomb were all determining factors in terms of sociological impact. The nation being generally scared, the need for the assuaging, soothing force best embodied by the mother-figure suddenly became a sine qua non. What the GIs wanted was to re-create the peace of their boyhood homes. The increasing number of pin-ups in the postwar years is no coincidence at all: as mother substitutes (see the size of their breasts for further instance), they fulfilled a sociological function that would have otherwise left a representational void. This climate of sociological insecurity was definitely propitious to the feminine mystique boom. The next stage was unavoidable: from then on, the idea that femininity could only be sublimated through motherhood propagated swiftly. However, the concept was carried so far as to result in many cases of castrating mothers, either through aggressive behaviour motivated by revenge or through a process of maternal over-protection (a term borrowed from David Levy) motivated by extreme love. Maternal over-protection resulted from a feeling of being unloved, left apart, since the only prospect of self-fulfilment for a woman was to be connected with her offspring. A woman could not simply live for herself but had to live for (and through) her children, so that her behaviour often displayed traces of emotional blackmail.

 

Chapter IX The Burlesque Heritage

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The ... American comedy finds its roots in the French comic
movies of the pre-First World War period, and – above all –
in the Anglo-Saxon music-hall, with all its acrobatics, pantomimes, nonsense, gags, and slapstick
.155

Georges Sadoul’s statement conveys a deep, analytical meaning – provided one knows what the slapstick genre is.156 Giving a precise definition is a rather difficult enterprise, even though it is easy to spot its characteristics while watching a film of the genre. The following section, although far from exhaustive, will concentrate on four of these characteristics which are among the most prominent ones. Firstly, a burlesque film stages caricatures, stereotypes, people who could not possibly exist in real life; it also displays elements of excess (to which the Marx brothers may own the copyrights). However, a burlesque film is generally best identified through its frantic rhythm, and not only because of the early techniques used in silent movies, but also through the mechanical gestures which its protagonists repeatedly make.

 

Chapter X Towards a Pragmatic Relation With the Audience

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“Pragmatics”? This seemingly highbrow, fearsome term does in fact not conceal much at all. Its first occurrence (with the meaning I grant it) may be found in a diagram by literary critic M.H. Abrams185:

A work of art is linked to the artist who produced it, to the universe it represents, and to the audience who receives it.

“Pragmatics” should therefore be understood as the science that deals with the relationships between the addresser and the addressee of a message (i.e. the cartoonist and his audience).

For a spectator unacquainted with Tex Avery’s style, guessing what gag is to come next is rather difficult; however, after watching several cartoons, the same spectator can virtually build the story by himself. He has thus attained a certain degree of activity, since he is no longer a passive cartoon-watcher, but a cog in the plot-making process. The Model Spectator can be either the virtual concept of an idealised addressee (the spectator the cartoonist had in mind when he created his cartoon) or its realised version (an actual viewer who is extremely familiar with the corpus). I have not elaborated this concept – based on literary criticism – for the mere sake of theory, but for the insight they offer in terms of reception theory.186 It would be very wrong indeed to level Tex Avery’s audience regardless of their differences. The following part will hence concentrate on the Model Spectator who can build the plot through his – later fulfilled – expectations, as opposed to the Naïve Spectator’s (or first-time viewer’s) “disappointed” expectations. What are the factors that enable such a transformation of the spectator into an active participant? The activity of the Model Spectator of Tex Avery’s cartoons seems to result from the combination of connivance with the cartoonist and distancing from the cartoon (so as to get a better understanding of its overall unity), both factors being initiated by the cartoonist.

 

Chapter XI The Provisional Nature of the Averyan Universe

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The uniqueness of Tex Avery’s comic language is tightly linked to the historical and sociological circumstances of his time. Characters, objects, or settings, it seems that nothing in the Averyan universe can claim to keep a definite shape once and for all; everything is likely to undergo the most incredible distortions.

Tex, more than any other director, was fascinated by the limitless possible extensions of the medium. He simply ignored all the physical laws of the universe, with, perhaps, an occasional nod to the law of gravity.218

What is valid for the physical nature of things finds a parallel in socio-cultural references. In the same way the axiological theme (good vs. evil) at stake in Tex Avery’s cartoons is actually inherited from the concept of survival cherished by a generation who lived in “the perpetual fear of the following day”, the provisional – physical – nature of the Averyan universe may be read as a metaphor for a general lack of safety, sociologically, politically, or economically speaking.

 

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