By Quim Casas
Between 1936 and 1955, Tex Avery directed or supervised one hundred and thirty two cartoons. There were years in which he directed ten. Their quality and originality were never affected: a gag per scene for six or eight minutes, and like that, five, seven or ten times a year. Out of that wide range of the most outstanding American animation works, we will focus on two masterpieces, Red Hot Riding Hood, from 1943, and Lucky Ducky, made five years later.
In Red Hot Riding Hood, considered the seventh best cartoon of all times in a 1994 poll in which took part animators, directors and film historians, Avery gave his version of Little Red Riding Hood that turned the wolf into a sex obsessed creature and a red-haired Riding Hood into anything but an innocent little girl walking through the forest with a red hood carrying a basket full of food for her granny. The grandmother of the film wasn’t exactly innocent either: she paints her lips a live red to kiss the wolf, wears a sublime crimson dress and keeps the key to her house in the cleavage of that provocative outfit. In the first sequence of this prodigious short film, the characters themselves assert that it was about time someone told classic tell-tales a different way. Avery’s cartoons mean a before and after in the evolution of animation: in his films, he explained everything in a different way.
Red Hot Riding Hood belongs to his major era, within the Metro Goldwyn Mayer, teaming with producer Fred Quimby, composer Scott Bradley, writers Heck Allen and Rich Hogan and animators Ed Love and Ray Abrams. There, at the house of the roaring lion, Avery developed one of his main creations, Droopy, Droopy, nihilism turned animated flesh, the Buster Keaton of cartoons, with its unshakeable facial mask, permanently weary expression, affected dialogue and monotonous voice. In 1937, when he was still working for the Warner Bros, he signed his works as Fred Avery -his real name was Frederick Bean Avery-, had the innovative Carl Stalling as music composer and supervised the episodes of the two most popular animation series in the production company, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, the author already conceived a forst version of his Little Red Riding Hood, Little Red Walking Hood, in which the backgrounds where painted with colour pencils so that the chromatic texture of the film was more similar to that of the children book illustrators’. In 1949 he went back to the same story for the third time with a rural but far from bucolic version, Little Rural Riding Hood. It wasn’t the only tale reviewed through the anthropomorphic heterodoxy of Avery, who perfectly understood the subversive character that the original texts and drawings could have: Cinderella is the basis for Cinderella Meets Fella, in which the guests of the sophisticated party held at the palace devour cheeseburgers, and for Swing Shift Cinderella, a masterful crossover between Cinderella and the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood in which the protagonist works in a plane factory and the Fairy Godmother sexually molests the wolf.
Any good animation film is pure disobedience: Disney and Winsor McCay, Segundo de Chomón and the brothers Fleischer, Chuck Jones and Jiri Trinka, Aardman and Pixar, Miyazaki and Bill Plympton, the brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer. Referring to Droopy as the animated Keaton wasn’t meant to be a petty thing: the surrealists adored the author of The Modern Sherlock Holmes and effusively saluted Avery’s personal poetics, imagination, metaphors and all round pain in the neck, whose breaking of the norms, in a way of making films already as transgressive as animation, was always essential (the wolf in Red Hot Riding Hood opens a door and crashes against a brick wall on which it is written the following: “Imagine there’s no door”, an absolutely surrealist idea). Hence his reformulation of the classic tale as a political parable, The Blitz Wolf, in which he uses the story of the three little pigs to mock Hitler, or the bravery of making a comedy of slavery using Uncle Tom’s Cabin, condensed in two vitriolic eight-minute short films made in 1937 and 1947, the first with a bungalow, the second with a cabin.
Red Hot Riding Hood is like a systematised catalogue of the Avery universe. There’s the concept of the coming gag that raises viewer’s expectations, but which doesn’t materialise itself in the orthodox way: the shot of the crouching grandma while she peeps through a keyhole, with her bum exaggeratedly turned-up, and the would behind her with a shiny needle in hand/the following scene showing grandma up in the air screaming in pain. There’s also the gag that a heir of slapstick in sound comedies, Blake Edwards, would continue: the would calls a taxi, tells the taxi driver to follow that car and sees, surprised, how the taxi starts and leaves before he can jump, since the driver has literally obeyed his order and has quickly departed to “follow that car” (the distressed Clouseau would experiment an identical situation in The Return of the Pink Panther). There’s, of course, the genesis of The Mask, fantastic comedy starring Jim Carrey: the actor would repeat one by one the wild gestures of the wolf when seeing Little Red Riding Hood onstage for the first time, with his heart coming out of his chest and the eyes out of his sockets when, in The Mask, his character discovers Cameron Diaz (a scene showing a wolf fascinated and excited by a young ginger head would be a recurrent theme in Avery’s time at MGM). This film full of static backgrounds and delicate decor painted with watercolours concluded with the granny taking the battered and handcuffed wolf to the altar, another instance of political incorrectness on behalf of Avery that US censorship at the time decided to cut before the film was exhibited in some states.
If Red Hot Riding Hood systematises the Avery style, Lucky Ducky represents the maximum perfection in classic cartoons. It’s no longer about creating a situation gag, but about getting a (good) gag in every scene, with that devilishly fast pace that characterises and summarises the best of slapstick and screwball comedy (equally crazy but without the verbal loquacity). It’s the story of two duck-hunting dogs. There’s a given time to hunt and it has to be strictly respected. During that time, the dogs have to endure a kid of delirious rat race full of obstacles against a little duck that includes moments of boundless imagination: the dogs chase the duck in a motorboat that leaves the lake and ends up sculpting the faces of several US presidents in a mountain -that’s Avery’s version of the creation of mount Rushmore-; one of the dogs becoming Santa when covered with cherry and meringue, after the noisy sneeze of its companion in front of a cake; the gun that gets scared when seeing a diabolic doll, shrinks in a clear and brilliant sexual allusion and ends up spitting two tiny bullets, and the sign at the crossroads that alerts the two dogs, always on the road, that it’s a school way… and what appears aren’t students, but a walking school building!
Fascinated by gags with meta-language, Avery films his two protagonists crossing a space that moves from colour to black and white. When, bewildered, they retrace their steps, they discover a sign explaining that Technicolor ends there. The cinematographic medium is the gag. Avery did many similar things: in Batty Baseball, a baseball player realises a minute into the film that the title credits haven’t appeared, so he complains to the camera and the film starts again. The framework is thus revealed, in the same way as in Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man, when a crane travelling reveals the setting. Earlier on I talked about Avery’s influence in Edwards and Carrey, and he even influenced Jacques Tati. Symphony in Slang, a narrative experiment created in 1951, in the final but still prolific years of his career, tells the story of a man through independent situations inspired by slang sayings that are performed literally. Héloïse Guerrier and David Sánchez did the same with Spanish expressions in their two books, Con dos huevos and Cagando leches.