by Rachel Newstead
Ah, yes–Tex Avery. There’s so much one can say, it’s easy for a humble blogger like me to think the posts will write themselves whenever he’s the subject. In reality, doing justice to Tex in writing is as difficult as trying to snare a cloud with a grappling hook. Do I write about the wild, exaggerated “takes” that were his trademark? Too obvious. The impossible gags, the visual puns? The subversion of the cute, the safe, the Disneyesque? The repetition of themes in his cartoons (such as the “ubiquity theme,” in which a character appears to be everywhere at once with no explanation given–or possible?) Good start, but not quite there. Rather, the topic of this Freeze Frame Friday will be Avery’s mastery of speed–or rather, his portrayal of it.
It’s easy to forget that the ability to portray speed in animated drawings didn’t come about overnight. The Disney Silly Symphony The Tortoise and The Hare (1934) and Frank Tashlin’s 1937 Looney Tune Porky’s Romance are generally credited as the first cartoons to successfully portray speed, relatively late in animation’s history. Both cartoons did succeed on a technical level; it’s one thing, however, to accurately portray speed, and quite another to make it funny.
At their best, Avery and his animators could make characters look as if they were moving at Mach 6 even when they were standing still. What Disney’s animators did with an amorphous blur of lines and Tashlin with a series of quick cuts, Avery did with the very plasticity and weightlessness of his characters. In his book on Avery, Joe Adamson credits Avery’s loss of one eye in his early days at Lantz with the development of his later style: after the accident, Avery’s characters had a quicksilver-like quality, a total lack of solidity, as if they could disintegrate at any moment. And as we can see in the frames included here, they nearly do; in these stills from Swing Shift Cinderella (1945), a very modern and Wolf-crazed fairy godmother yelps with joy at the sight of a Wolf in her midst, and speeds off in pursuit. Her form is almost wispy–not quite a “smear”, as we’ve seen in past weeks, as a series of light, quick brush strokes in keeping with the lightness of the figure itself. (Clampett would use a similar technique in his
Wabbit Twouble, when Elmer runs from tree to tree to evade a bear, dissolving into nothing more than a series of horizontal brush strokes in between. Bob apparently learned well from the master).
As soon as our oversexed fairy godmother begins to cohere, the trademark Avery rubberiness takes over as her legs appear to become literal wheels. As she and the Wolf tear through the room, their natural lack of weight and the laws of centrifugal force combine to send them scampering around the very walls. While Avery made his characters seem weightless, his Disney-trained animators knew
enough about the laws of motion to make the fantastic seem real.
I suppose that explains just why I could never quite warm to Avery’s later work in the 1950s, after the UPA model of flat, stylized drawing was adopted industry-wide. It’s odd, really–one would think that the flatter style would have helped rather than hurt Avery, but somehow it didn’t work that way.
According to Adamson, the UPA-like style was an abstraction of an abstraction–which is one too many. I, however, think the problem went deeper than that: the Avery characters of the later years never had that quicksilver quality, that ability to disintegrate themselves and re-cohere in an instant–to change shape and snap back again. They were static designs, and stayed static designs–they had lost their speed. Now, rather than appear to break the sound barrier standing still, they appeared to be at a full stop even in motion. And animated cartoons haven’t been truly “animated” since.