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Sunday, February 23, 2020

If He's Not The King of Cartoons, Who Is?

Tex Avery Switched On For Blu-Ray

Since when did we dub Tex Avery King of Cartoons? This, I believe, is the first time an animation director has had a Blu-Ray compilation dedicated to him. Avery was not modernly discovered till the 70’s, only barely then. His shorts weren’t televised intact before a Tom, Jerry, and Friends package went into mid-70’s syndication, having been prior-shown via network (mostly CBS), and shorn of main titles. Tex was sometimes credited as Fred Avery, and whilst at Warners, had his name left often off openings where cartoons were reissued. A favorite WB of mine was Hollywood Steps Out, which I bribed off a TV station employee and showed often at college, but who had directed it? Credits did not tell because there weren’t any, just a title. For me in the 70’s, and certainly the audience, that was enough. Rental catalogues were no help. Films Inc. distributed the MGM backlog, but did not make capitol of Avery cartoons. Their Rediscovering The American Cinema, which presumed to list all of classics within Films Inc. grasp, left animation off distinction’s plate, while UA/16, controlling pre-49 Warners, offered two, and only two, cartoon “Parades” dedicated to Tex Avery. These could be rented in 16mm, and on Eastman stock, subject to color fade or tilt toward red. To collect Warner cartoons was to scale a tall hill, MGM’s the Matterhorn. My best score was a pink, spliced-as-in-footage-gone, Tom and Jerry called Tee For Two, which I thought great because by then (1945), Hanna and Barbara were photostatting Avery pace and gags in their cat-mouse reels.

Word-of-mouth was what taught me of Tex. A NY collector showed up at an NC western con (early 80's) and tempted us with Leo lunacy the likes of which we’d not dream MGM capable of. Where had these howlers been hiding --- let alone from staid site of neutered Tarzans and de-humorized Our Gangs? It became imperative to have more of Avery … no, all of Avery, since it seemed no clucks emanated from this artist’s easel. Any short bearing Avery name was surefire. Movie nights rang upon thrill of cartoons all new to us and fresher than fresh. Were there ever seven so outlandish minutes as Red Hot Riding Hood? Outlaw 16’s ran generally to $35 per OK dupe, a bargain for laughs to surpass cartoons we collected before. Legit sources stayed unmindful of how great Tex Avery was. His work was long out of theatres, or so it seemed, but one 1979 night I did encounter Rock-A-Bye Bear as support to an Ursula Andress steam-bath about headhunters, the local venue having come by the 1954 cartoon who-knows-how, but no worry, it was a first, if inadvertent, exposure to Tex Avery in 35mm, and come to think of it, my last.

We too often forget that cartoons were once made for everyone, kids sure, but grown-ups too, and it was very much a mass and general audience that made stars of Mickey, Popeye ... and Red (Hot) Riding Hood, starring in a a white-hot series of naughty cartoons that everyone understood to be Tex Avery’s creation, not just industry-folk, but Mr./Mrs. Public plus offspring teeming through lobbies and seeing displays like this one on the left, Avery the prominent name and guarantor of corks-out laughter. He might have been MVP for MGM animation but for powerhouse team of Tom and Jerry, bona fide crowd-getters doing so over and over, eight at least to a year, while Avery, who got no closer to Hanna/Barbara than Droopy as a sustaining character, had to prove himself each time out with one-offs, or efforts at star-making that yielded nothing on the order of T&J, however much we enjoy George and Junior or Screwball Squirrel today. Status disparity between himself and H/B was said to rankle Tex, even as he passed them daily in Metro animation hallways.

Mentor and legend Moon Mullins, he of many past Greenbriar expeditions, used to get 2000’ reels snuck out of Charlotte exchanges made up of IB Tech Warner cartoons in 35mm with tunnel openings snipped off, the better to disguise ownership, he said. These were gorgeous, some Avery-made, this by way of saying that cartoon collecting was in those days catch and catch can, snatch and grab, pinch or pilfer, whatever got the goods quickest. To think nineteen Averys can today be had for $17.97 from Amazon … pure science-fiction in piratical days, which I’m frankly glad are past, whatever the thrill of ill-had gains. Not that fans prospered better in a past forty-five (at least) years, despite home video on quality up and up. Avery was till now absent from DVD, other than singles as extra with a feature here/there, or an odd Droopy collection where the pooch was emphasized over his creator. Laserdisc, once thought an acme of home-view splendor, hosted a complete Avery-MGM group spread over five record album-sized discs, but close inspect found some incomplete (cut for sensitive content), all analoggy and well below standard we insist upon today. There is point at which one is spoiled by perfection, and we've reached it.

Here’s what took bloom off Tex Avery rose since 70’s discovery: Copycats who would be Tex, a breed born in the 40’s when even Disney aped Avery to reach a same level for laughs. Watch Roger Rabbit, not just the feature, but any of short cartoons 80’s-made, or miles of Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, the bagatelle. I’d call Tex Avery hands-down the most influential animation director the business ever knew, as much a model today as eighty years ago. Remarkable thing about Avery was being ahead of his time in the 30/40’s, being still ahead thirty years after that. It took animation even longer to catch up with him, and that was only by way of slavishing every technique he introduced. Avery won’t seem as revolutionary today for his style having been so appropriated by others who’d call it theirs. I wish Tex Avery had lived longer (d. 1980) to fully know what a giant he’d been. By all account he was self-effacing, no credit hog or bragger, so fans had often to drag reminiscence from him, plus there was much sadness in his later life. A book was out in 1975, Tex Avery: King Of Cartoons, much of it oral history with the Master and some of co-workers. Frame captures were cloudy but accurate as to shape the films were in at the time. We are fortunate beyond measure to have Avery looking so rapturous via this Blu-Ray.


Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Stinky loves Tex, a towering genius, and along with a handful of musicals, his cartoons are the best thing MGM ever produced.

What really should have rankled Tex was the existence of Fred Quimby, whatever it was he did.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Avery's Metro cartoons are something I should like but just don't get.

For that matter, I don't think I've ever seen a Metro cartoon that I found remotely funny, especially the Tom and Jerrys. That they're mostly ruined by the music doesn't help (though I can't tell if that's the fault of Scott Bradley or the MGM music department in general).

If you like 'em, more power to you, but I'll stick with my Popeyes and Termite Terrace output.

4:56 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That beat-up print of TEE FOR TWO I once had was a treasure mainly because of the music, which was culled from MGM musicals going back to the Mickey-Judys. One could listen to the soundtrack, and never mind Tom and Jerry's antics. One gag, however, really shows the Avery influence, where Tom is hiding underwater from bees and breathing through a straw. Jerry puts a funnel over the straw and the bees fly down, and into Tom's mouth. His reaction is pure Tex, one of the truly spectacular moments from a T&J 40's cartoon.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Watching the Tex Blu-Ray each night, a double dose, before starting the nightly feature. The image quality is incredible.

7:11 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

So what was the Ursula Andrews steam bath?

8:23 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The Averys were the only MGM cartoons I ever liked -- and I didn't discover them until the mid-'80s when the Thalia revival house in New York ran their weekly "Car-Tuesdays" show every summer. I've never heard a theater explode with laughter like the Thalia did when the Avery cartoons ran.

9:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

MikeD, the Ursula show was SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD, which sounds better than it turned out to be. ROCK-A-BYE BEAR salvaged the evening.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

I remember blind-buying that Tex Avery laserdisc boxed set ($100 i think)...not even sure what it was, but voracious for any and all classic studio product.

What a shock to find it was the cartoons I loved as a kid, that played with Tom & Jerry in the afternoons after school. I never knew what they were besides "MGM cartoons". The name Tex Avery meant nothing.

Despite much speculation about the "death of physical media"....the titles coming out on on Blu-ray lately are just extraordinary...both in variety, quality and rarity.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

MGM tossed Avery's pre-48 cartoons into an early '60s syndication package along with the studio's 1930s "Happy Harmonies," some Barney Bear's, and whatever other odds-and-ends of pre-48 cartoons the studio had lying around that didn't star Tom and Jerry. Given its lack of star power, I don't know how well that package sold, but it remained available into the 1980s. I used to see those cartoons on a local station, where they were shown on one of those early morning "Cartoon Carnival"-type shows.

Avery's post-48 MGMs were included in the CBS Tom and Jerry series in the mid-60s, but I recall CBS favoring Barney Bear and Droopy over Avery's one-shots. Avery's post-48s were also included in MGM's "Tom and Jerry and Friends" package when those cartoons finally hit syndication in the late '70s, but the pre-48s were still in that old package, so to see Avery's entire MGM output in those years, you had to be lucky enough to have a station that bought both the "Tom and Jerry" package and the pre-48s package.

1:34 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I've been holding out against BluRay, but this may break my resistance.

In my late-boomer childhood it was a long time before I saw any MGMs outside of the Saturday morning Tom and Jerry show -- and that was eventually demoted to a Sunday morning slot. For theatrical cartoons, the Bay Area stations had Warner, Famous/Paramount, some Terrytoons, and a solitary outpost of pre-UPA Columbias. Disney, of course, was confined to Mickey Mouse Club (then syndicated reruns) and World of Color while Lantz was exclusively on "The Woody Woodpecker Show".

Only when in my late teens did some local stations begin carrying the MGM product. Somehow it was shocking to hear things like "If I Only Had a Brain" and "The Trolley Song" as cartoon scoring. Also noticed that MGM evidently wanted to compete with Disney: their cartoons seemed to be more lush and fully animated than most, even when the gags were lame or nonexistent. Avery brought over the freeze takes and abrupt moves he pioneered at Warner, which everybody now embraced on Termite Terrace but were still news at Leo's lot.

After MGM Avery landed at Walter Lantz's studio, creating Chilly Willy and turning out some memorable one-offs, like "Shhh!" Thence to commercials and finally to Hanna Barbara. His project, "The Quickie Koala Show", was completed and aired after his death. It looks mostly like typical HB product, although a pair of dogs echo Lennie and George while the title card for Quickie Koala segments -- a by-the-numbers HB formula -- carries the credit "Created by Tex Avery".

There was a syndicated show in 1997, "The Wacky World of Tex Avery", which got the rights to use his name but not any of his Warner or MGM creations. It looks like an imitation of "Animaniacs" with traces of "Ren and Stimpy" -- both of which try to evoke all the Termite Terrace crowd. For a long time this was all that would turn up when you searched for Tex Avery on DVD.

My favorite is "Red Hot Rural Riding Hood" ("I kissed a cow.").

3:39 PM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

I'd heard about this set only recently and am reluctant to get it, having been traumatized by a version of THE CAT THAT HATED PEOPLE from some years back that had the digital noise reduction cranked up to 11 (the gag where the stars in the sky move out of the rocket's way was destroyed by the DVNR, which erased all the stars!). If someone can verify more-or-less proper restoration and presentation, then I will happily snag it for myself.

ROCK-A-BYE-BEAR is for my money one of the fall-down funniest cartoons ever made. If anything could salvage an uneventful night with Ursula Andress, that would certainly do it.

It's also nice to see Scott Bradley get recognition as a musical-scoring genius along the lines of Carl Stalling. A few years ago the BBC Proms orchestra did a medley of Bradley's Tom & Jerry scores, and not only do they nail down the sound so well that you could actually visualize the action, it's fascinating to watch just how hard the musicians have to work to bring this cartoon music to life:

5:48 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Terrific video, Brother Herbert. Thanks for the link. Good to see Scott Bradley credited for the great music he arranged for these cartoons. And think of all the tunes he had to work with, accumulated over a past decade or more by Metro composers and song-smiths.

Certainly wish I could have been at this concert, but delighted to see it performed on You Tube.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I had no interest in Hollywood Cartoons until I read the winter 1975 issue of FILM COMMENT magazine which was devoted to the Hollywood Cartoon. I still have it. In its pages I was introduced to Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Grim Natwick, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin, Shamus Culhane,Hanna-Barbera and a host of others. When I tried to rent the films I found them unavailable. But then my phone rang. A woman's husband had died. Would I take his film library. I said, "How much?" No one should argue with a widow. I didn't. In that library were cartoons. I did my first program. Got 8 people. I did a second. Got 50. The more programs I did the more calls I got from widows. Soon I had a library of uncensored Hollywood cartoons most of which were in great condition. Then dear Charlie Vesce to whom all of us from that era owe so much. By the time Avery died I had most of his films. I ran them all in his memory. I spoke with the man a few times on the phone. He was cheerful. He was never the sad man others report. Perhaps that was because I was more interested in him than in his work. He had said at the start, "Son, I doant want to talk about those old films." I said, "Neither do I. This is what I want to do..." After hearing me out Tex said, "That sounds interesting. Call me when you like." I had no idea he was in a hospital dying of cancer. There was not an ounce of self pity in him. King of cartoons? Yeah, Tex is the king. He's the Emperor. Copied? Yep. Surpassed? Never. Now if Warners can only give us the unbowdlerized best of Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng. CLEAN PASTURES, COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARFS and TIN PAN ALLEY CATS deserve to be seen in prints that do them justice.

8:02 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I vividly remember being introduced to Tex Avery in 1979 when Canal 7 in Argentina began to show the Tom and Jerry syndication package on early prime time, around 7 PM before the news. At first they were OK and had American editing cuts. Two years ago, a big bunch of MGM cartoons were added to the package. These, for the most part, were all of the color productions and unedited. The Avery cartoons were always the ones that were the ones that my family (we gathered together to watch television then) actually enjoyed since before them they played classic Disney fare that in comparison felt so mediocre.

9:20 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great memories of Tex Avery, Reg. How fortunate you were in knowing him, if only through phone conversations. Glad to know he was cheerful despite his health difficulties. How could a man who made such wonderful cartoons not be? Great that you were able to get prints of his films and put them before audiences, especially so early on when they were so very rare.

Strong second to your words of praise for Charlie Vesce, one of the greatest collectors there ever was, and a truly unique source for classic animation.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Charlie more than deserves a post by himself. He said, "You are one of my favorite customers." You call and ask for something. I call you when I find it. You say, How much?" I send the film. Most people will spend an hour trying to get me to lower my price. I drop it by less than the cost of their phone call. Then they take it." Charlie could always be counted on for top quality as could Ron Hall who is still with us.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

I remember attending the Tex Avery program in the Enchanted Drawing series at the L.A. County Museum of Art. In "Blitz Wolf" the Wolf makes his entrance and the theater audience starts to hiss him and, perfectly timed, just as it was getting underway, the Wolf whips out a sign that says "Go ahead and hiss! Who cares?" and the crowd goes wild. I swear, it must have been exactly the same reaction as in theaters when it first showed. Really extraordinary experience at the movies.

You can't really go wrong, but I was somewhat disappointed that the Avery Blu-Ray continues the Warner practice of haphazard, unsystematic selection, doling out the classics piecemeal instead of having them in one knockout package. The Looney Tunes Golden Collections were the same way, and Jerry Beck has said it's something Warner insists on. I couldn't believe the way people moaned about every print not being absolutely pristine when they finally did a complete chronological collection of something in Porky Pig 101. Even if they had been ashcan editions (and I found them never less than watchable throughout) it would have been worth it to get a sense of a series as it was created.

1:36 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

In fairness to the Warner Archive, George Feltenstein mentioned on the podcast that he wants to release all the MGM Averys, but since there was no guarantee there would be a volume 2 (or beyond), he wanted to give a good cross-section of his work in Culver City.

3:44 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The thinking is probably that a series of Blu-rays will maximize sales. As well, that may, in their minds, be less of a risk than a package which offers everything at once (which, of course, would demand a higher price).

I feel sales will drop off after the first set as most folks are not completists. I am. I like to see as much as possible, get all the info possible.

The best course is buy the Blu-rays, applaud the work they are doing (it more than deserves it} and encourage them to do more.

These people have to convince people above them. Let us help them do that. I used to pay more for one 16mm print of a cartoon (with color that would fade) then we pay today for a Blu-ray.

These prints won't fade, shrink, warp or get scratched.

We are living in a golden age.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

The renderings of the film posters look relatively primitive compared to the renderings of the actual cartoons.

9:16 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

The fact that Warners has given us three volumes of 40's Popeye suggests there will be more Avery. Clearly there is interest and demand for Classic Era cartoons on Blu-Ray.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Clearly there is interest and demand for Classic Era cartoons on Blu-Ray."

There is an interest for Popeye, yes, but for classic era cartoons I am not so certain.

I chose to work with no financing except what I had in my pockets which has always been next to and all too often nothing.

Doing that I have always been forced to find away to interest the public at large in my work. My number one rule is to never assume people care. They don't. My job is to make them want to care.

We can't just throw stuff out there. I read and studied advertising and marketing. The result has been that my programs over the years have packed venues.

We're not going to hit a home run every time we step up but if we don't step up we won't hit any runs.

I hope Warners follows through with the complete Tex Avery. Those 1950s Popeyes really run out of spinach but it would be nice to see those done.

Cecil B. DeMille said that if we want to get people out we have to promise them the Devil but once they sit down they want God. "They won't come out for God but if we don't give them God they feel cheated," he said.

He's right.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Happy big-screen Avery memories: When we lived in L.A., I took my wife to an Avery Fest at one of the revival theaters, probably the Nuart. My wife, bless her, was very pregnant with our 2nd and exhausted, but came along. She fell asleep about two cartoons in. THE MAGICAL MAESTRO came on, and it has the famous gag with "the hair in the projector gate." When the hair was plucked, the audience EXPLODED with laughter, waking my wife with a start. I'm not positive, but I think she left to sleep off the remainder of the show in our car.

That was actually the second-loudest laugh I'd ever heard in a theater. The first was during a much earlier Avery, CROSS-COUNTRY DETOURS. "Here we show you a close-up of a frog croaking." Nobody gets "theater laughs" like Avery.


3:25 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I'm guessing that "hair in the projector gate" might not be understood so well in this digital age we live in. At least I can't recall any hairs in the gate when projecting DVD or Blu-Ray's.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

My recollection is when they did the Complete Droopy when the DVD boom was in full swing it didn't do well, which put the kibosh on more MGM Avery (i.e., if his presumably most salable character can't make it, then . . .). I get the feeling (though have no data) that the Porky 101 set didn't do as well as hoped, which may bode poorly for that approach. I hope I'm wrong. The reason to hope that the Avery series will continue is that Warner Archive does serve niche markets, and it won't have to prove itself out in the same way the Droopy DVD had to. It's obvious they put some work in restoring the Avery set (compare it with the dumped-on-the-market prints served up as an extra on the Platinum Collection), which suggests that people inside Warner Archive have a commitment to it. Shouldn't wonder that we'll finally see the aborted Volume 2 of the chronological Tom & Jerry Blu Ray sets. I'd always feared that when the DVD boom died out before they got around to prime Avery that was all she wrote, and I'm happy my fears were wrong.

It would seem to me that the possibility that there might be only one Avery set would be all the more reason to have all the classics on it, not less. When they did the complete Bluebird Fats Waller on CD they did it in reverse order, last records first, because every attempt at a complete Waller on LP had ended before they got there.

Movies and pregnancy: My father told me it was while he and my mother were attending an Alec Guinness double feature that she told him "It's time" for my elder brother to be delivered. "Are you sure?" he asked her, "It's Alec Guinness!"

1:20 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I loved running MAGICAL MAESTRO in out of Toronto cinemas. Not only did the hair gag get huge laughs but also the projectionists would blow themselves blue in the face trying to get the hair out. Yes, the gag still works and work brilliantly with current audiences in the digital age. There is a lot people don't know about projection.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Thad said...

The Avery Blu-Ray is excellent, no DVNR, no edits, no b.s. The level of clarity is insane.

6:04 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

Channel 38 in Boston showed the "MGM Cartoons" package with pre-48 Avery's in the late 60s.

10:15 PM  

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