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Tex Avery (1908- 1980 )

 The Fairytales of Tex Avery 

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Judging from the numbers, Little Red Riding Hood was Avery's favorite fairy-tale heroine; he did three versions of her story with Little Red Walking Hood, Red Hot Riding Hood, and Little Rural Riding Hood, and couldn't resist introducing her into The Bear's Tale, his update of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." He did the Cinderella story twice, once at Warners (Cinderella Meets Fella) and once at MGM (Swing Shift Cinderella). The "Three Little Pigs" appear twice ó once in the Hitler satire Blitz Wolf and once as part of a gallery of fairy tale characters in A Gander at Mother Goose. Some notes on these films follow.

 

A Gander at Mother Goose (1940) and Blitz Wolf (1942)

A Gander at Mother Goose is not a fairy tale proper, but a collection of blackout sketches based on fairy-tale characters that serves as a kind of mini-encyclopedia of Avery's fairy-tale gags and motifs. There's nudity (Humpty-Dumpty's fall tears his pants, revealing a very human pair of buttocks); quasi-incestuous sex (Jack and Jill go up the hill to make love); scatology (a dog wishes for a tree and becomes hysterically happy when it appears); and Disney sentimentality and payback (a cloying Little Hiawatha is berated by an eagle for shooting him in the ass). There's also an amusingly topical sequence based on "The Three Little Pigs"; the Wolf's slobbering, spitting exhalations force the disgusted pigs to hand him a bottle of mouthwash, and the embarrassed wolf's screamed response is a satire of a catchline from an ad for a then-popular mouthwash: "Why don't some of my best friends TELL me these things?"

Much of Disney's version of the "Three Little Pigs" is focused on the building of the houses. Avery, less interested in the virtues of the work ethic, minimizes this process in his take on the story. Blitz Wolf is an elaborate send-up of Hitler, who appears here as Avery's ubiquitous, comically pompous Wolf. The war, and catering to "our boys" who were fighting it, gives Avery the excuse to insert some surprisingly up-front sex gags. In one of his most blatant, the militant pig counters a very phallic missile with a copy of Esquire magazine. With a lewd smile, he holds up a cheesecake image, which causes the missile to retreat, bring back a group of its "friends," who then line up at stiff attention, emit a scream the viewer can't help but read as an orgasm, then fall limp back to Earth.


Cinderella Meets Fella (1938) / Swing Shift Cinderella (1943)

Egghead, a precursor of Elmer Fudd, is the "fella" of the title, and his co-star bears little resemblance to the sexpot created five years later for Swing Shift Cinderella. She's small, more like a midget than a child, but feisty; desperate to locate her fairy godmother, she screams with a man's voice at the police: "GO GET HER, BOYS!" As in the other fairy-tale films, the godmother here is a lush, a fact well known to the police who are helping Cinderella find her ("Don't worry, lady, we'll search every beer joint in town!"). The opening frames offer a neat precis of Avery's style, starting with a formal, traditional image and sound (a fancy invitation to the ball, with appropriately courtly music) but quickly moving into the modern era (the invitation ends with an ad for "Sweeney's Drive-In" with a hot jazz background). Cinderella Meets Fella is also prescient: in an early, ironic variety of the much-loathed "product placement" of present-day cinema, Fella finds a note from his beloved that says "Dear Princy... went to a Warner Bros. show."

Five years later, Avery abandoned the brassy midget of Cinderella Meets Fella in favor of a more mature version. The title character in Swing Shift Cinderella is one of Avery's war-effort creations, a sexy pin-up girl come to life to show the American armed forces what they were fighting for. But she's no lifeless love doll ó besides her night job as a "Rosie the Riveter" type steel plant worker, she's an entertainer at the local nightclub. The fairy godmother doesn't dress her up for a prince but for her nightclub act, "Oh Wolfie!", a lurid display intended to drive the Wolf crazy. Cinderella, wielding a huge mallet, is as violent in her rejection of the Wolf as he is in his attempts to nail her. Swing Shift Cinderella is justly famous for a series of phallic sight gags by the Wolf, but the female characters are just as sexual and just as phallic. The fairy godmother is as randy as the Wolf, the object of her desires, and transforms herself into a kind of battering ram as she tries to land him. In one trick, she shoots a plunger at him, which then becomes a fishing rod that lets her reel him in.

 
 

The Bear's Tale (1940)

This short, an amalgam of "Goldilocks" and "Little Red Riding Hood," is a masterpiece of self-reflexivity, with many of the gags based on narrative breakdowns. The Wolf reads the "Goldilocks" story that he's appearing in. Papa Bear claims he knows it's only Goldilocks upstairs, not a robber, because "I read this story last week in Reader's Digest." Best of all is the scene in which Red, with a broad New York accent, teams up with Goldie to defeat the wolf: "Hello, Goldie! This is Red Ridin' Hood. I just found a note from that skunk the Wolf..." Avery's suspension of physical law allows Red, who's in a different location from Goldie, to reach across the screen's dividing line and hand her a note. Avery is a literal presence in much of his work; here he "appears" as the voice of the buffoonish, self-entranced Papa Bear, whose laugh is like a heartier version of Screwy Squirrel's obnoxious cackle.


Little Red Walking Hood (1937) / Red Hot Riding Hood (1943) / Little Rural Riding Hood (1937)

Little Red Walking Hood is the first of Avery's three formal adaptations of this story. He was apparently so intrigued by something in the story that he even allows it to bleed into The Bear's Tale, his version of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Here he blatantly exploits what is implicit, but often unacknowledged, in the written fairy tale: the idea of the Wolf going to bed with Red. The bare bones of the story are intact, but the characters deviate entirely from the model, ridiculing each other and the story, and generally sending up the solemnity of the proceedings. The Wolf courts Red not because he wants to get Granny's address but because he's hot for Red. But she is one of Avery's many unobtainable women; she's bored by the Wolf and shows it by giving him the literal cold shoulder. Granny, like the old women in other Avery fairy tales, is a lush who interrupts the Wolf's attack on her to order "a case of gin" from the local grocer. (She also addresses the audience directly: "Will you people pardon me just a minute?") Even the climax is not safe from Avery's self-reflexive gags; Red and the Wolf stop their fistfight to denounce two patrons getting into their chairs in the theatre where this cartoon is playing. As "cartoon actors," Granny and the Wolf collaborate in continuing the drama: when the Wolf hears Red coming, he panics, and Granny quickly hands him her clothes so he can dress up like her for the next scene.

In the opening sequence of Red Hot Riding Hood, a simpering narrator says, "Good evening, kiddies! Once upon a time Little Red Riding Hood was skipping through the woods..." But this time the Wolf stops and refuses to continue: "I'm fed up with that sissy stuff ... Every Hollywood studio has done it this way!" Taken aback by this sudden revolt, which Granny and Red also join in, the shocked narrator agrees to try a new tack. Thus the terrified little-girl Red is reborn as a red-hot mama who performs at the local nightclub. Her lyrics are unapologetic in demanding material reward for sexual favors: "Hey Daddy ... you better get the best for me!" But, as in Swing Shift Cinderella, Avery surprises by devoting most of the time to the Wolf's frantic attempts to escape the violent attentions of an older woman, Granny, who's now a sex-mad hepcat.

In Little Rural Riding Hood, the title character reaches the height of stylization; she's no longer a child-image, nor a sexy pinup, but a hybrid: tall, ugly, and angular, with prehensile toes that open and close doors on the Wolf's face. She's also self-possessed and sexually volatile, though her voice sounds suspiciously like Screwy Squirrel's taken down a register. The Wolf's equally rabid; in a sequence that threatened to bring on the censors, he insists he has no plans to eat Red: he wants more fleshly pleasures: "Ah'm gonna chase her and catch her and kiss her and hug her and love her and hug her and love her..." As so often in Avery, both Red and the Wolf speak directly to the audience, not even bothering with the "suspension of disbelief" that's critical to most fictional constructs, literary or cinematic, but whose absence makes Avery even today the most modern of cartoon auteurs.

September 1998  |
Copyright © 1998 by Gary Morris


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