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

16 Feb

Oswald peering through a woman's big hairdo

Oswald has to make some adjustments to living in a Tex Avery universe in TOWNE HALL FOLLIES (1935)

[I finally conclude my three-part series on the earliest work of Tex Avery with this installment, and apologize for it being a bit late. As always, life and my stamina on any given day will interfere with my ability to post. I hope you feel it was worth waiting for. –Rachel]

by Rachel Newstead

By the beginning of 1935, Fred “Tex” Avery had gone about as far as he could go working for Nolan and Lantz, and he knew it.

His imagination was anything but stifled–he had, in his nearly five years at the studio, been given an incredible level of creative freedom: he’d begun to work up his own storyboards with Bill Nolan’s approval, and the year before, was the uncredited director of at least two cartoons (Chris Columbus, Jr. and The Ginger Bread Man).

Though seeing his name where Nolan’s usually appeared would probably have pleased him greatly, by now he was accustomed to being a director in everything but name. Trouble was, while he may have had the responsibilities of a director, he didn’t have the salary of one.

He determined to do something about it by staging a “sit-down strike” of sorts–which promptly backfired. As Michael Barrier wrote:

Avery lost his job at Universal in April 1935. ‘I started laying down on my work,” he said, because he was unhappy with his salary, ‘and after about six weeks they let me go….’

(Barrier, quoting Tex Avery, Hollywood Cartoons p. 329.)

We all know what happened then: Leon Schlesinger and “Termite Terrace,” his elevation of Porky Pig to star character, the creation of new stars like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.  But just before all that, he made one last cartoon for his earlier employer–which, were it not for the credits, could itself be mistaken for something right out of Termite Terrace:  Towne Hall Follies.

In Towne Hall Follies, we see a comedically maturing Avery, who’s beginning to resemble the anarchist of animation we’ll come to know. It has everything: spot gags, loosely connected by a vaudeville theme; a lecherous villain ogling–then chasing–the leading lady; theater patrons with no discernible anatomy and improbably high hairdos, and rotund chorines who need mechanical assistance in getting offstage.

It even has Bernice Hansen, who would do innumerable “cute girl” voices for Avery in the next few years. He couldn’t have made a better “audition film” for Leon Schlesinger, whether he intended it to be or not.

As with She Done Him Right, we pay a visit to an 1890s stage performance. Right away we’re treated to another Avery staple, the expository opening song, here told in theater sing-along fashion–which unfortunately gets delayed a mite, as the person operating the magic lantern has to adjust the slide.

We learn the story of “poor but honest lad” Oswald, the girl of his dreams, “soubrett-ee of great renown”  Bunny Lou, and of course the Villain, one Blackie Sourpuss. But we won’t be meeting all of them right away:  Avery has a few sight gags he’d like us to see first.

While our rapt audience is seen looking back and forth at some offscreen aerobatics, Our Hero Oswald struggles to see around a rather large female patron in front of him. The orchestra conductor, meanwhile, has problems of his own, with one little fellow determined to blast out a few notes at precisely the wrong time.

When a slide comes up asking the ladies to please remove their hats, the portly woman in front of Oswald does just that–but her hair could fill half the row on its own.  I seem to remember a similar gag involving Woody Woodpecker and an equally bushy-haired cowboy type in The Screwball (1943); apparently Lantz had a long memory.

Crowd with heads attached to their necks upside down

Averyan physics strikes again in this early scene

The Man On The Flying Trapeze is next on the bill; like so many Avery characters after him, he’s able to hang in mid-air for as long as the joke requires before gravity kicks in. In an early demonstration of Averyesque anatomy, his audience rotates their heads completely clockwise multiple times trying to follow him. The acrobat caps off his act with a juggling high-wire bit that sends him and his unicycle through the nearest brick wall. With the balls he’s juggling still in mid-juggle, yet.

Bunny Lou from TOWNE HALL FOLLIES

Our lovely leading lady, Bunny Lou...

With the preliminaries taken care of, we can now move on to the reason for the story: sweet Bunny Lou, who sings a little number called “Won’tcha Be My Sweetie?” (In that now-familiar Bernice Hansen “cute” voice). In between Bunny Lou’s attempts to fend off the Villain, we get brief bits involving some incredibly thin male dancers, and one incredibly fat female one. The woman dancer’s corset gives way, causing her body to puff out like an inflatable life raft–the cascade of flab is so great a steam shovel has to remove her from the stage as the number concludes. (Avery seemed to love “fat-lady” gags at this point in his career–one even shows up in an early effort for Schlesinger, I Love To Singa, in the form of one large but tiny-voiced talent contestant. She seemed to have a little trouble vacating the premises as well, as I recall).Fat 1890s chorus girl in corset

One thing I found quite confusing: Bunny Lou continues to sing during the gag with the overweight chorus girl, making it difficult to conclude just who in fact was doing the singing. In a later cartoon, he might have had the overweight dancer sing a portion of the song before the gag kicks in, to give no doubt as to which person wasThe overweight dancer after her corset breaks open which.

Avery’s giving us jokes with both barrels:  but with the sluggish, awkward and just plain off timing of cartoons of this era–and this studio in particular, it often seems as if he’s firing with a flintlock musket, not a machine gun. The gag involving the “flying” trapeze artist suffered similarly; it’s a problem Avery will struggle with until

Overweight dancer being carried away in steam shovel

The dancer with the overly Reubenesque figure gets a mechanical assist when she loses her "means of support" in these frames from TOWNE HALL FOLLIES

his arrival at MGM.

Like a true ancestor of Avery’s Wolf, the Villain doesn’t take long before he jumps onto the stage to pursue Bunny Lou; she takes refuge in a fake backdrop house, screaming from every painted-on window. As the pursuit continues to the high wire, it’s Oswald to the rescue:  “Fear not, fair maiden!” Taking ahold of the high wire, he fails to knock the villain from it, but succeeds in getting the acrobat’s unicycle to collide with him–sending both Villain and unicycle through the wall, right next to the hole left by the poor devil of an acrobat.

The Villain goes through a brick wall, leaving a villain-shaped hole

The Villain makes his exit from TOWNE HALL FOLLIES: note the continuity error with the frame below

The Villain dispatched down a nearby manhole, Oswald and Bunny Lou reprise Bunny’s number, with the Mickey Mouse-voiced Oswald inexplicably becoming a baritone! As the two kiss behind a stage curtain, we’re not so much bidding farewell to one stage of Avery’s career, but eagerly Earlier "brick wall gag" from Towne Hall Folliesanticipating what’s to come.  Towne Hall Follies, while far from perfect, is an “exit exam” showing great potential.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

According to Joe Adamson, Towne Hall Follies was one of two cartoons Avery claimed to have directed when he applied to replace the departing Jack King at Schlesinger. (The other, supposedly, was The Quail Hunt, a prototype Avery cartoon of yet another sort.) In truth, the identity of the individual cartoons matters little; even in these primitive, rough-hewn attempts at direction, Avery’s cartoons already looked fresher and more original than anything on the screen at that time, including Disney and Fleischer.   They form a blueprint that Avery would refine, and successfully follow, for some twenty years. He, at this point, is more than ready to become a director in fact as well as name.

"Dopey Dick" in sanitation worker costume, looking into manhole

Dopey Dick bids farewell to the villain, while we bid farewell to Dopey Dick. But we'll soon see him in other, more familiar forms.

When, after those twenty years (more or less) had passed, and he once again went to work at the place he began, he unfortunately did so not as a young man full of ideas, but as an older, jaded individual whose best years–and ideas–were behind him.

He was still funny–there’s no mistaking that. Two of the cartoons he made for Lantz–The Legend Of Rockabye Point and Crazy Mixed-Up Pup, were nominated for Academy Awards. They were certainly the funniest cartoons to come out of the Lantz studio in many years, and light years beyond his work in the early thirties.

But there was also this inescapable feeling we’d seen it all before: the gags in Rockabye Point resemble those in Rock-A-Bye Bear and Deputy Droopy. The dog in I’m Cold speaks with a suspiciously familiar Carolina drawl, while Chilly Willy emerged resembling nothing less than an avian Droopy.

At this point nobody cared…this was the great Tex Avery, after all, and there was a certain comfort in seeing the familiar routines again and again, just as we take comfort in hearing variations on the same joke from a standup comic.

Yet it’s hard to resist the excitement and optimism of the young artist who we know will one day achieve greatness. We can almost share in his excitement as we see now-familiar ideas when they were new and pleasantly shocking to audiences. Until the advent of home video, we’d been denied that pleasure–when television switched to color, it didn’t take long to forget that the studio that gave us Woody Woodpecker with his gorgeous red and blue once made cartoons in black and white.  And within that black-and-white world, gave a young man named Fred Avery a place to play. Now, we can become acquainted with that eager young man all over again.

I can’t think of a better reason for DVD to exist, myself.

[Edited for clarity, 2/16/10].

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

  1. Tantina December 15, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Great blog…

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