THE FIRST GREAT TEX AVERY MOMENT IN FILM!
The following is excerpted from the article “Apprenticing the Master,” which appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of Animation Journal.
In 1929, Tex Avery took his first job in animation, as an inker and painter at the cartoon department of Universal Pictures. From this humble beginning, he began to learn the craft of animation, eventually contributing gags and then animated sequences, fumbling as a rank novice on the road to becoming a master of the cartoon short form.
Little has been documented of Avery’s time at Universal, yet these formative years provide remarkable glimpses into his developing sense of gags and timing. In a span of roughly five years as an animator for the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, young Avery first honed his personal style on film.
The cartoon department at Universal was managed by Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan, and Tex was promoted quickly, first to the position of in-betweener and then animator, receiving his first animation credit in August 1930. Some staff defections to the Disney studio may have accelerated Avery’s promotions.
Working in a roomful of animators, Tex learned his way without previous training. Some evidence suggests that he was either mentored by or influenced by Bill Nolan, as Virgil Ross recalled that these were the only two men there who animated “straight-ahead” rather than using key poses.
The Oswald cartoons were patchwork collaborations, allowing animators the freedom to create their own gag sequences. Walter Lantz usually decided a film’s topic, and after gags were fleshed out in a group meeting with the artists, Lantz would write a continuity on a few sheets of lined paper.
In 1930, however, Lantz made little effort to structure the gags tightly within the framework of a thought-out story. Rather, these early cartoons, like “The Singing Sap,” “Mexico,” and “Alaska,” are episodic and string together theme-related gags; in the case of these examples, it’s beach gags, Mexico gags, and frontier-town gags, respectively.
Lantz has boasted that the Universal animators enjoyed the gag sessions enough to actually return to the studio at night, where they would drink beer and wine while brainstorming more jokes for the cartoons. In these sessions, Lantz held Tex in the highest regard as a contributor. Inventing gags was enough of a passion for Avery that in his spare time, since the late 1920s, he created comic strips for submission to print syndicates, though with no success.
Also, his peers uniformly recalled him to be an incessant prankster in the workplace, and he placed as much ingenuity and zeal into these pranks as he did in his animation. Ed Benedict, a Universal animator, notes that a “gag was Tex’s forte of thought.”
Certainly, though, Oswald Rabbit was already outrageous before Tex lent his touch to the character. Bill Nolan, whom Lantz invited to co-direct the series in 1929, had been a lead animator in New York on Felix the Cat cartoons and brought his widely imitated “rubber hose” style to Oswald. A lot of humor was derived from stretching and distorting Oswald.
Also, his head comes off a lot, and Oswald resourcefully makes use of descriptors, as in grabbing a question mark which appears over a character’s head. In “Permanent Wave” (1929), musical staffs fly forth from a singing mermaid on an island, and Oswald runs on top of these music symbols to join her. For the most part, such gags were already tired reworkings of the Felix brand of humor.
Bill Nolan worked on Oswald for a year without a producing credit, although in a number of credits he appears to have lead animator status by the sheer size of his name relative to the others. Then, in August 1930, the series began bearing the credit “A Walter Lantz ‘Bill’ Nolan Cartoon,” occuring first on “The Singing Sap.”
Coincidentally, this is also the first film which credits Avery as an animator. The pacing of “Singing Sap” seems quicker than the previous Oswalds, yet the humor and level of violence remains roughly the same. At the end of the cartoon, Oswald tries to revive a drowned hippo by pressing him through rollers, but gets himself caught in it and he flattens out like a pancake.
In “The Hash Shop,” a horse gets stuffed inside Oswald, and in “Henpecked,” released immediately prior to “Singing Sap,” Oswald gets sucked inside out when he resists the suction of a vacuum cleaner. Such grotesque comedy makes one suspect Tex’s influence, but this is perhaps too simplistic a label by which to characterize him.
Identifying Avery’s earliest gags is admittedly conjecture, yet some insights from his peers have made identification possible. Virgil Ross, Avery’s in-betweener, and Ed Benedict have both admitted that the Universal animators all drew Oswald in their own manner, without the standardization of using model sheets. Benedict bluntly stated that during studio projections of the finished cartoons “you could tell one guy’s scene from another guy’s scene from across the street” and he felt that Tex’s animation was “way out.” Ross, who cleaned up Avery’s drawings, felt that he drew Oswald’s eyes too big.
Also, there are a few animated sequences which have been confirmed by eyewitness account as Tex’s work. These serve as examples of his style from which to use as reference. Avery unfortunately stopped short of identifying his first animated sequence on film, in an interview with Joe Adamson, dismissing it as a “big bunch of nothing” after seeing it again many years later. The only scene from that interview which he mentions in detail enough to identify is from “Chris Columbus, Jr.” (1934) The scene features a sailor who gets his pegleg stuck in a lit cannon.
Shortly after Avery’s arrival at the studio, Lantz began work on the world’s first two-color Technicolor cartoon, a musical prologue to the Paul Whiteman feature King of Jazz (1930). Despite the novelty of the Technicolor short subject, Universal produced only black and white cartoons in the years following, and the most representative aspect of the prologue on the Oswald series was instead its big band score. Starting with “My Pal Paul,” a blatant plug for King of Jazz in which Oswald musically duels with an animated caricature of Paul Whiteman, the Universal cartoons developed the sensibility of a Hollywood musical.
Prior to this, music was used more as an element in spot gags or for mood-setting, rather than as a prominent feature of brassy song and dance numbers. Only two months before “My Pal Paul,” the cartoon “The Hash Shop” was released, and its soundtrack utilized minimal dialogue which was spoken very slowly, as if to ensure that the audience would understand the spoken words or to make sure that the artists could synchronize the animation to it. In either case, this demonstrates how primitive sound still was in filmmaking, and the novelty of timing animation to music seems to have led to scenes with no inherent meaning or humor outside of the synchronization. Frequently, nonsensical events like flowers leaping into dance or toes morphing into dancers will illustrate the soundtrack without being very accomplished pieces of animation on their own. In “The Singing Sap,” four snails emerge from their communal shell and begin to squirm and reconfigure their bodies. It is possible that Avery’s first animated “big bunch of nothing” was just such a sequence.
For roughly a year in the wake of King Of Jazz, the Universal musical cartoons remained eclectic, perhaps reaching their peak of oddness with Oswald belting out a German cabaret tune in “The Fowl Ball” (1930). Furthermore, his singing voice changes from film to film. “The Bandmaster,” released in 1931, finally showed a more sophisticated approach to sound, with its gags making use of the music in clever new ways. In one instance, Oswald plays some loud jazz and disturbs a neighbor with his noise. When the neighbor yells at him, instead of his voice we hear a musical riff that picks up the melody of Oswald’s tune. Also, Oswald conducts a symphony of birds gathered on some electrical wires. The birds inventively carry the tune by sliding on the wires and pecking on poles.
Universal animators in the early 1930s were in fact afforded a great deal of control over their work. Although Lantz and Nolan were credited with direction, Lantz was often busy representing the cartoon department at studio meetings and Nolan remained too valuable as a prolific animator for either man to concentrate on all facets of directing the cartoons. When Lantz or Nolan assigned sequences, the instructions could be as vague as where to have Oswald enter and exit a scene. Whatever transpired was very much the work of the animator: timing, execution, and staging.
Tex and the other artists, without the benefit of storyboards and strong guidance, arguably directed their own scenes. Tex flourished with this freedom. His sequences became extended bits of lunacy and he grew confident in his abilities to set up and telegraph a gag. In a scene in “A Wet Knight” (1932) which appears drawn by Avery, a lit cannon turns and looks at its own burning fuse. Alarmed at what it sees, the cannon drops its backside to the floor and then squirms around like a scared dog. In another scene from the film for which an Avery gag sheet exists, a gunshot blows apart a suit of armor, revealing inside it a tiny mouse on stilts.
In Tex’s universe, nothing is as it appears. Sometime around 1932, the large gag sessions sessions broke into smaller meetings with just the more inventive gagmen. Avery, along with Cal Howard, Jack Carr, Leo Salkin and a few others, began to shape the content of the cartoons. Walter Lantz, as before, connected the resulting gags into a loose narrative. Perhaps the competitive spirit of outdoing each other’s Oswald gags was irrepressible, as frequently during workhours the Universal artists toiled at upstaging each other with studio pranks.
Tex and Cal were the most flagrant pranksters on the staff. In fact, some have implied that Tex’s pranks were mean-spirited, and he often did prey on more introverted artists. However, Tex was also handsome, athletic, charismatic and a gifted talker. He was loved even as he orchestrated a roomful of men and women to laugh at a fool. He sent new hires out to purchase “in-betweening machines,” lowered fake spiders on to people’s heads, and accused women of farting to embarrass them. Yet he was also expansive enough to include everyone in on a joke, such as when he sharpened his pencils to the rhythm of a popular tune. He would begin singing along and rouse the entire studio into group renditions of “Peanuts” or “The Star-Spangled Banner,” among others.
Avery was self-confident and, it seems, something of a leader. Certainly Lantz made no attempt to subdue this ringmaster of mischief, accepting the pranks as good for morale. Lantz was even good-natured when he was the object of Avery’s tricks. In one prank, he and Cal found a dummy in the studio backlot and slumped it over on Bill Nolan’s desk. Because the desk was dimly lit, Lantz was fooled into believing that Bill had collapsed and was promptly laughed at by the animators.
Considering this studio atmosphere, it should come as no surprise that the animators envisioned Oswald as a provocateur. In “The Clown” (1931), he strips a horse of its skin. In “Country School” (1931), a sheep draws its head into its body when he approaches, so Oswald blows into its neck hole and the head pops out from the other end of the sheep. In the roles in which he serves as a protagonist, his opponent is often a peglegged bear whom Lantz sort of generically referred to as Pegleg Pete, though he goes unnamed in the cartoons.
By 1932, the story meetings were consistently yielding motivating premises for the “hero” Oswald, yet his wise-aleck attitude remained unchanged, and on those occasions where he plays more of a straight man, his outrageous behavior is transferred to another character, though not the villain. In “Day Nurse” (1932), for example, he plays a cop who has to watch an unruly infant, and the kid turns out to be one with the arsenal of pranks.
Then in 1933 came what might be called first definitive Tex Avery moment on film, and it is recognized in an oft-cited recollection of Leo Salkin. It is noteworthy because it is not just another clever gag, but rather the debut of a certain comic disposition that it so widely associated with Tex. In “The Zoo,” the peglegged zookeeper unleashes a jarful of moths on a caged bear, who promptly gets his fur chewed off. Rather than screaming in distress, the bear looks casually at the audience and says, “Well, imagine that.”
Avery used such deadpan retorts effectively for the rest of his career. Such low key gags, however, were the quiet amid the storm. For the most part, Tex preferred his gags outrageous and loud, and Virgil Ross recalled a certain exasperation whenever he received particularly wild sequences to clean up. He just didn’t know how some of Avery’s drawings could be inked.
Also, Ed Benedict remembered that Avery stockpiled his gag sketches in a space behind his drawing board. Whenever he thought of another gag, which was frequently, the gag was quickly sketched on paper and tossed at the back of his desk with the rest of them. Benedict felt that “Tex was dreaming,” and not just of more gags, but also of his future as a director in which his gag stockpile would be useful. As history attests, it proved to be very useful…
1997, by Tom Klein. Some clarifications to this article follow. For the full list of footnotes and credits, please refer to Animation Journal.
Michael Maltese identified Avery’s first year with Lantz as 1929, though there is conflicting information regarding what constitutes Avery’s first job. In 1967, the Canadian Cinematheque’s Animation Family Tree, printed as a giant poster, reported that Tex first worked at the Mintz studio, and this information has been widely repeated, most recently in the introduction to John Canemaker’s Tex Avery: The MGM Years, 1942-1955 (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1996), pg. 11. Canemaker states that Avery worked only a few months at the Charles Mintz studio before getting his next job with Lantz, though Avery himself did not mention the Mintz job in his interviews with Joe Adamson, and implied that he started in the industry working for Lantz. In pursuing an answer to this conundrum, it is important to note the relationship of Lantz and Mintz to Universal. The Mintz studio in Los Angeles, which reported to its parent studio in New York, produced the Oswald cartoons for Universal. However, after Walt Disney left the studio in 1928, the Oswald series continued in a state of flux. Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, decided that contracting the Oswald series to Mintz was troublesome, and ordered a cartoon unit to be assembled on the Universal lot. In the final stretch of the Mintz contract in 1929, a number of men served as Oswald co-directors, among them Hugh Harman, Rudy Ising, Friz Freleng, Tom Palmer, Rollin Hamilton, Ben Clopton and Walter Lantz. Laemmle chose Lantz to continue the series as the head of the newly created Universal cartoon department. Considering this transition, even if Tex Avery began work at the Mintz studio in 1929, he would still have been ultimately working on Oswalds released by Universal, and Walter Lantz would still have been his boss.