Before He Was “Tex”: Avery at Lantz (1930-35) Part One

7 Feb

Tex Avery's first fairy-tale grandma

Tex Avery's first fairy-tale "Grandma," from GRANDMA'S PET (1932)

Every Avery fan knows this gag. But this was the first time Tex used it. From THE SINGING SAP (1930)

by Rachel Newstead

I’ve always been fond of essay-style posts, where I can discuss a cartoonist’s body of work, or even a single cartoon, in-depth. This one had been germinating for quite some time;  originally intended for the old Orphan Toons blog back in 2008, this series will take a look at a period of Tex Avery’s career that’s often overlooked or glossed over by historians, the period from which the ideas that won him fame originally sprang. It’s my pleasure to bring the first part to you now.

It’s ironic, I suppose, that a man who disdained established, continuing characters as much as Tex Avery would be so inextricably linked to so many of them: the lecherous Wolf, the red-hot Red. The addlepated Egghead. The deceptively languid Droopy. George and Junior and Screwy Squirrel. Then, of course, there’s his long association with a certain rabbit.

No, not that rabbit.

If they bothered to take enough time to glance at the credits, theater audiences on Sept. 8, 1930 watching a fairly typical early sound cartoon called The Singing Sap might have noticed the name “Fred Avery”. And just as quickly forgotten it. Yet unknown to those unsuspecting theater-goers, a revolution was brewing, and young Frederick Bean Avery would one day be its standard-bearer.

To understand the Tex Avery of King Size Canary, Dumb Hounded, A Wild Hare and Red Hot Riding Hood requires us to carefully sift through the archaeological layers, back to a time when the studio he worked for was run by a fellow named Walter Lantz, and the rabbit he worked with was named “Oswald.” A time before he was “Tex.”

Circus juggler goes through brick wall

Tex Avery makes his mark on the world of animation--but not quite like this guy. From TOWNE HALL FOLLIES (1935)

Animation historians, with more than a hint of romanticism, often look for the source of Tex Avery’s humor in the tall tales of his Texas upbringing, and the backwoods hyperbole of his ancestor, Daniel Boone. It makes for good copy, all right. But those wishing to find the real source of his humor need look no further than his earliest days at the Walter Lantz studio.

If MGM had been Avery’s graduate school, the Lantz studio was his kindergarten. It’s probably fortunate he’d started there, and not at Disney; the restraining hand of a Walt Disney would have hobbled a man like Avery, a natural gagman. While Walt’s people concentrated on creating clearly-defined personalities in structured stories, most other animators in the early thirties pretty much carried on as they had in the silent days. Characters, at a studio like Lantz, existed to have things happen to them; their star Oswald was nominally a rabbit, but he could just as easily have been a fox, a dog, or any number of imaginable species. His actions, his personality and even his voice varied as the needs of the story required.

A lecherous rat charcter leers at a pretty singer

The species is different, but what he's thinking is the same. From TOWNE HALL FOLLIES

Avery spent his years at Lantz under the supervision–if one could call it that–of Bill Nolan, Lantz’s business partner and fellow director until 1935. Nolan had been in animation from its very earliest days, as had Lantz, and both retained the free-wheeling, stream-of-consciousness humor of that era. Nolan pioneered the technique of “rubber hose” animation–he reduced his characters to a formula of simple circles, ovals, and cylinders, and would animate straight ahead, one idea flowing naturally into another.

By the time he partnered with Lantz, however, he’d pretty much delegated the animation and story ideas (such as they were) to his animators. In his book “Hollywood Cartoons”, Michael Barrier printed an interview with a former Lantz employee, who gave a vivid account of the working environment of that era:

“He [Nolan} would say, ‘OK, it’s a scene in the woods, and Oswald is running from right  to left, and he’s being chased by a bunch of bees. You bring him in from the right and  work out 250 feet, and run him out to the left…’ That was all the connection there  would be.”
(Barrier, quoting in-betweener Leo Salkin, Hollywood Cartoons p. 328).

A tree lifts up its "skirts" to reveal Oswald and Kitty

Another strangely familiar Avery gag: from GRANDMA'S PET.

This, to us, might seem a recipe for chaos–and it was. But it was the perfect environment for someone like Avery, and in his hands, it was a wonderful chaos indeed. All the gags, all the situations, even some of the character types we would come to know in later years existed, in rough-draft form, in those first cartoons at Lantz.

To show you precisely what I mean, I’m going to look at three of what I consider to be pivotal early Avery cartoons, all animated at Lantz: Grandma’s Pet (1932), She Done Him Right (1933) and Towne Hall Follies, from 1935. Though the earliest of the three, Grandma’s Pet is perhaps the most Avery-like of the lot.

By 1932, when this cartoon was made, Avery had risen to become Nolan’s head animator and de facto director, and his influence even then was obvious. Grandma’s Pet has Oswald, having fallen asleep reading the Red Riding Hood story, dream he’s actually a character in that story. Kitty, his girlfriend, takes on the “Red Riding Hood” role. It starts off as a pretty standard re-telling of the fairy tale, which Oswald just happens to have stumbled into:  the Wolf, himself a standard character in later Avery cartoons, wouldn’t look out of place in an early-thirties Disney film, and the dialogue between him and Kitty/Red Riding Hood is rather stilted and deliberate, very story-bookish.

Avery's earliest version of his Wolf

An antediluvian version of Avery's Wolf, from GRANDMA'S PET.

Anyone looking closer, however, would get the feeling we’re not exactly in a Disney cartoon: when Oswald sees Kitty/Red skipping along through the woods, he decides to pick a flower for her–which turns out to have a stem about 200 feet long. (The only thing missing is a sign saying “Long darn thing, isn’t it?”) When the Wolf talks to Red, he does so wearing a sheepskin literally ripped off the body of a poor innocent sheep. One can’t help but think of Magical Maestro: the disgruntled magician in that cartoon uses his magic wand to remove the clothes (and the hair, nose and moustache!) from an orchestra conductor, so he can take the conductor’s place. (The similarities to Magical Maestro don’t stop there, as we’ll see shortly).

Oswald, who naturally knows the story, confronts the Wolf: “I know you!” His cover blown, the Wolf snarls back, “You know too much!” and attempts to shoot Oswald. The cannonball-sized lead shot misses him and hits a small tree, which morphs into an anthropomorphic little boy.

Oswald pullling an incredibly long flower stem out of the ground

“Mama, mama!!” he cries. The “mama” tree immediately picks up the wolf and watches as the “baby” spanks him.

Meanwhile, Oswald and Red continue to Grandma’s; however, this Grandma’s a bit closer to the one in Little Red Walking Hood than the storybook version: when we first see her, she’s not lying sick in bed, but up and about, playing a harmonica and guitar. (We don’t see it, but we can easily assume there’s a bottle of gin someplace). When she sees the Wolf, the startled senior citizen accidently swallows her harmonica– from here on in, only harmonica sounds issue from her mouth. The wolf shoves her in the freezer to save for later, instantly turning the poor thing into one large “Grandma-sicle.”Avery's Grandma frozen in a block of ice

There’s still a fairy tale he has to get on with, after all, so as soon as he hears the sound of knocking, the Wolf  puts on Grandma’s nightgown and awaits Kitty and Oswald. We get the standard “what big eyes you have!”… routine, again not very different from any standard telling. It’s when the Wolf reveals himself and chases after Kitty and Oswald that we’re firmly back in Avery territory–and we stay there.

You see, Red, for seemingly no reason whatever, happens to be carrying a magic wand in her basket–which the Wolf happens to discover. (Which of course, raises the question of why she didn’t use it against him to begin with, but who expects a cartoon like this to be logical?) The music on the sound track switches to Chopin’s “Minute Waltz”, and we’re off like a runaway train. (A more than apt analogy, considering what’s coming).

The Wolf uses the wand to zap poor Oswald into a rapid series of increasingly dangerous predicatments: the garden wall he’s climbing becomes a 50-story skyscraper under construction; he falls onto a pair of wires, but soon finds himself on a set of train tracks on a railroad bridge–as a train heads straight for him. When he avoids this disaster, the Wolf sends him into the mouth of a whale, then into the middle of a carnival shooting gallery.Oswald hanging from girder while Wolf looks on Every scene flows into the next seamlessly: the wires on which Oswald lands become the train tracks; the tracks Oswald holds over his head to allow the train to pass over him become the whale’s mouth; the plume of water from the whale’s blowhole becomes the shooting gallery’s waterspout. The only real difference between this series of scenes and Magical Maestro some fifteen years later is the timing–and the latter cartoon is only slightly faster.

There’s even another future Avery staple: the “sick” ending. When OswaldAvery's Wolf on a kitchen table manages to free himself from his trap, subdue the Wolf and grab the wand, he sends himself, Kitty, and the Wolf back to Grandma’s house. Just before Kitty and Oswald embrace for the final kiss, the Wolf, now lying helpless on Grandma’s kitchen table, gets turned into a roast turkey. Oswald matter-of-factly remarks to the now fully-thawed Grandma, “Well, Grandma, now you can eat the Wolf!

Poetic justice, Avery style. From GRANDMA'S PET

Before we have time to ponder the gruesomeness of this act, Oswald awakens from his dream–only to discover he’d been kissing a cow instead of Kitty/Red. Though I would have loved to hear him say, “Kissed a cow!”, I had to be content to watch him blush in embarrassment.


First drafts of a great artist’s work are always fascinating–and there are more “first drafts” of later ideas in this cartoon than anything else Avery will do at Lantz. But that’s not its only appeal for me. For its time, it’s a great cartoon in its own right, and lives up to Avery’s credo, “Give’em what they least expect.”

To understand the impact this cartoon must have had, one must remember what audiences in the early thirties had been conditioned to see: the plotless little semi-musicals of a Harman-Ising or Van Buren cartoon, the jazz-infused hallucinations of Fleischer, and the children’s fables of Disney. In Grandma’s Pet, Avery threw bits and pieces of all those elements together to create something entirely new, something that would one day become the new standard by which cartoons are judged.

I think we can pretty well assume  that nobody in 1932 expected that.Oswald kisses a cow

[In the next installment of this series, Lantz makes like Fleischer, and we meet the ancestor of Droopy, when I look at the Pooch The Pup cartoon She Done Him Right.]

(Edited to add a phrase which had been missing in the original draft, 2/8/10).

(Edited to remove “business partner” statement re: Bill Nolan. He and Lantz were technically employees of Universal at this point.)


2 Responses to “Before He Was “Tex”: Avery at Lantz (1930-35) Part One”

  1. Tex Avery December 11, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

    1.-Grandma’s Pet (1932):

    2.-The Singing Sap (1930):

    3.-19.-Hell’s Heels (1930):

    4.-Towne Hall Follies (1935):


  2. James Ciambor August 16, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    I showed Thad Koromoski this link to prove a point about Bill Nolan and he spat in my face.

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