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The Compleat Tex Avery

The following article was written for fps: The Magazine of Animation and published in September 1994, Vol. 1, Issue 4, pg. 38:

Early last year, Ted Turner released a deluxe five-laserdisc set of seventy pre-1948 Warner Bros. cartoons on laserdisc, sporting a $100 price tag and the title The Golden Age Of Looney Tunes. The public's response to this boxed set took Turner by surprise: sales were so good that the folks in charge of his laserdisc pressings quickly prepared two more Looney Tunes packages, labelled as Volumes 2 and 3 of the "Golden Age" package. I didn't bother buying them, because I've seen all of the 1940s Looney Tunes on TNT and other sources, and I felt that the discs contained many cartoons that I wasn't really interested in. I can live without owning every single Warner Bros. cartoon in existence, and not being able to see Sniffles Bells The Cat or Have You Got Any Castles? or Elmer's Pet Rabbit or The Curious Puppy won't make me lose any sleep at night.

However, Turner is now applying the "deluxe" treatment to the MGM cartoons. The latest in the cartoon-boxed-set line is a 67-cartoon laserdisc collection of every single cartoon directed by Tex Avery at MGM, with the title The Compleat Tex Avery.

Now, a few words about Tex Avery are in order here. Many people know who Chuck Jones is; he's probably the most famous animation-related name of all time, right after Walt Disney. But Tex Avery was the true genius behind the cartoon boom at Warner Bros., and MGM in the 1940s as well: he abandoned Disney's ultra-realistic approach took the art of animation to an entirely new level. While Disney's cartoons strived to create painstakingly lifelike imitations of reality, Avery's cartoons did things that could only be done in cartoons. Joe Adamson, in his classic book Tex Avery - King of Cartoons, states:

"Avery's films will roll along harmlessly enough, with an interesting situation treated in a more or less funny way. Then, all of a sudden, one of the characters will lose a leg. And hop all over the place trying to find it again. Or one guy will take off the other's head and toss it out the window. Or his nose will jump off and run away. Or three characters will sprout when there was one, and dance all over the frame in a frenzy. In Slap-Happy Lion, a kangaroo hops into his own pocket and disappears. In Billy Boy, a goat is rocketed to the moon and eats it. In Northwest Hounded Police, a fugitive wolf reaches his hideout in the wilderness, slams eight different doors into the same doorway, then turns around and, without uttering a gasp, drops his jaw to the floor with a thud. In Homesteader Droopy, a pistol gets wounded in the midst of a gun battle, and its owner must send a bullet through it to out it out of its misery…"

Things like this could only be done in the animated cartoon, and no one could do them better than Tex Avery. He casually bent and broke the laws of physics, stretching his films into the wildest, craziest situations ever seen on film, achieving things in six minutes that live-action film could not do without a multi-million dollar special effects budget. Avery's characters often stated "in a cartoon, you can do anything," and his cartoons did just that. His cartoons are often easily dismissed as "kiddie stuff," because like most other cartoons of the 1940s they starred pigs and wolves and dogs and birds and bulldogs and sheep. Cartoons from other directors like Chuck Jones have been criticized as being too violent, and they're often censored on Saturday morning TV. But even though Avery's characters went through the most grueling tortures imaginable - being blown up, dropped off thousand-mile-high buildings, split into innumerable pieces, and any number of contortions, they always came through unharmed and they almost never died. (When they did die, it was always offscreen.) Pain only lasts for the briefest of moments in an Avery cartoon, and the characters often did impossible things to avoid it. Wile E. Coyote may be able to survive a five-mile drop down a cliff, but Avery's Wolf would develop brakes in mid-air to keep from hitting the ground. No pain. (Or, as Avery might point out: no brain, no pain.)

And if that's not enough, then there's the other aspect of Tex Avery's cartoons: they were unquestionably made for adults. There's enough adult humor in his cartoons to make anyone look twice. Red Hot Riding Hood, a 1943 cartoon and one of Avery's first at MGM, was so risque that it was banned from TV; it can only be seen on video. It certainly raised MY eyebrows when Red Riding Hood appears on the dance floor stage, does a striptease, and sings a song about "Daddy!"

Tex Avery's insanity was contagious: it affected the art of animation as much as Walt Disney's penchant for realism. But for a long time, the only way to see many of these cartoons was on daily TV, on shows like Tom & Jerry and TNT's Wild World Of Shorts, where you never knew what cartoon you were going to see next - and the cartoons were subject to censorship and editing by narrow-minded fools who didn't want the impressionable little kiddies to imitate the antics of the cartoon characters. In the past couple of years, Turner has been releasing his cartoons on video and laserdisc (including the discs Tex Avery's Screwball Classics and All This and Tex Avery Too!), but now at last we have The Compleat Tex Avery.

And compleat it is. I compared the 67 cartoons in the directory to the Avery filmography listed in Adamson's book, and it's completely accurate. Every single cartoon Avery made at MGM is here, including two cartoons made in CinemaScope that were re-drawn to fit the wide screen after Avery left MGM in 1954; those cartoons are letterboxed on the disc. The toons are presented in chronological order, based on the date of release from The Blitz Wolf (first released on August 22, 1942) through Cat's Meow (January 25, 1957). Several cartoons shown on this disc have never been seen on TV because of their politically incorrect or risque nature, but they're worth seeing nonetheless.

The discs are all in CLV, which is a minor disappointment; but having them in CAV would have doubled the size of the collection (and its price, no doubt), so I can live with it. The chapter stops are accurate, unlike some discs, and the pictures are crystal clear and the sound is sharp. The cartoons fill up nine sides of five discs, though the box only barely fits the whole package. More space would have been helpful.

There's also an insert that lists all of the cartoons, as well as including pictures of several of their theatrical posters. It's only a four-page insert, and the back page is a very brief history of Tex Avery's career at MGM (it has a pencil sketch from Chuck Jones' book Chuck Amuck, too). This insert says very little, other than listing the toons. It's a pity more info on Tex's career wasn't included here. If you look hard enough you can probably find Joe Adamson's book in the used bookstores, but considering the high price of this disc collection, a little additional information would have been nice.

To discuss every single cartoon in the collection would be ridiculous, of course, but there are several high points worth mentioning:

Of course, not every cartoon here is a genuine masterpiece. Some of them, such as One Ham's Family or The Hick Chick or What Price Fleadom are just plain silly. There are the five Screwball Squirrel cartoons, which tried to give us Screwball Squirrel as MGM's next cartoon star (remember the reference to him in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) - but Screwy was so obnoxious and offensive that his cartoons fell flat on their faces. And unfortunately, like the rest of Hollywood, there are several racist bits in these cartoons that can make the viewer wince, as "blackface" gags are used to elicit cheap laughs. (Contrary to recent discussions on rec.arts.animation, the racist moments in the cartoon Droopy's Good Deed have not been edited out.)

But these these disappointing moments are few and far between. And even Avery's very worst cartoons have moments that are genuinely original and funny. Several gags in the Screwy Squirrel cartoons are priceless, and when Avery hit his peak with such cartoons as Bad Luck Blackie or Lucky Ducky ("Technicolor Ends Here!") or Ventriloquist Cat or TV of Tomorrow, he gave us some of the funniest pictures ever made.

The Warner Bros. cartoons are well-known for being some of the greatest cartoons of all time, especially with Chuck Jones' 1950s masterpieces like One Froggy Evening or Rabbit Seasoning or What's Opera Doc? or Duck Amuck. Tex Avery's cartoons didn't go for the "intellectual" humor of Jones' cartoons, but that's okay, because there's a place in our hearts for cheap laughs, corny gags, silly situations and outlandish puns. When Warner Bros. cartoons were good, they were very very good - and when they were bad they were BAD. (Remember Bob McKimson's fillers?) Avery's cartoons may not have hit the hilarious peaks of Warner Bros., they didn't sink into the depths either - and EVERY one of his cartoons was funny. Avery's cartoons have influenced several popular live-action directors, notably Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) and the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker team of Police Squad! and The Naked Gun, and the success of those movies proves that we'll always go for Avery's insane, cornball humor.

That's why The Compleat Tex Avery is worth having. Its high price means that only serious cartoon fanatics will shell out the cash - but those who do will not be disappointed. Unlike the Golden Age Of Looney Tunes collections, this Avery collection is complete. You get everything in this package, making this the definitive cartoon box set.

And most important of all: every single cartoon is funny. You've seen Avery's cartoons on TV a thousand times by now - but these are toons that you will never, ever get tired of watching.

Heck Allen was credited as "writer" on Avery's cartoons, though he's quick to point out that Tex did most of the writing - and nearly all of the gags - himself. He points out Tex was a quiet man who didn't show off to get laughs with the people right there with him - he preferred to make anonymous people laugh, sitting in theaters 2,000 miles away and two years in the future. Considering this, I think he would have been flattered by The Compleat Tex Avery. Thirty to forty years later, he's still making us laugh.

And he always will.

The final cartoon directed by Avery at MGM was Cell Bound, in which a prisoner escapes from prison by hiding in the warden's TV set. The final line of the cartoon, and consequently the final line of dialogue written by Avery for MGM, sums up his career on a fitting note:

"You'll like this guy. He's crazy!"