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Chapter XI The Provisional Nature of the Averyan Universe

Place-Verghnes, Floriane John Libbey Publishing ePub

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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Chapter IV Facing Contemporary Politics

Place-Verghnes, Floriane John Libbey Publishing ePub

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.

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

Place-Verghnes, Floriane John Libbey Publishing ePub

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

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

Place-Verghnes, Floriane John Libbey Publishing ePub

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:

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Chapter VIII Oedipal Relationships and Their Consequences

Place-Verghnes, Floriane John Libbey Publishing ePub

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.

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