Daffy Duck's Dad, Tex Avery, Part 2

 (A look at a man who helped revolutionize animation, leaving behind a
legacy that will continue to entertain us for years to come.)

After Tex Avery had developed Porky Pig into the familar ham we all know and love, he continued to develop some of the other Warner Cartoon characters. Daffy Duck first appeared in his Porky's Duck Hunt (1937), animated by Bob Clampett. Unlike the Daffy of later years, who was an ego-driven victim of his own insecure competitiveness, this first encounter with the as-yet unnamed Daffy was a look at over-the-top-lunacy.

Daffy managed to baffle poor Porky with unrelenting handsprings, somersaults, and other nonstop acrobatics, all accompanied with his loony "Woo-hoo" laugh. Totally frazzled, Porky gave up and bounced woo-hooing into the sunset. (If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!) It's hard to imagine any of Disney's characters behaving with such uninhibited nuttiness, which was the key to the Warner Brothers animation studio's ability to compete with the Goliath of animation.

As for Warner Brothers' biggest cartoon star, Bugs Bunny had a mixed parentage. He first appeared as an anonymous rabbit in three shorts, Porky's Hare Hunt (1938), Presto-O Change-O (1939), and Hare-Um Scare-Um (1939).

Bob Clampett wrote the first of the three cartoons, and deserves credit for establishing some of Bugs' basic characteristics: the perpetual chomping on a carrot, the ability to fake his own death in an excruciatingly hammy fashion, and the "borrowed" Groucho Marx line, "Of course, you know this means war!" Fortunately Bugs' irritating, moronic laugh of the second short was quickly dropped.

In 1940 Tex Avery directed the first "official" Bugs Bunny cartoon, A Wild Hare. This was the cartoon that nailed down the wascally wabbit's personality for all time. Gone was the Daffy Duck lunacy of Presto-O Change-O, replaced by an unflappable cool that infuriated and befuddled hapless hunter Elmer Fudd. "We decided he [Bugs] was going to be a smart-aleck rabbit, but casual about it," Avery explained in an interview. "That opening line of 'Eh, what's up, Doc?' floored them [the audience]. They expected the rabbit to scream, or anything but make a casual remark. For here's a guy pointing a gun in his face! It got such a laugh that we said, 'Boy, we'll do that every chance we get.'"

Avery cannot, however, take credit for naming the hare. He had originally wanted to name him "Jack Rabbit," but was voted down. Somebody else suggested "Bugsy," after West Coast crime-lord Bugsy Siegel, but producer Leon Schlesinger vetoed the idea of naming the new star after a gangster. After further discussion, "Bugs Bunny" was born.

Avery continued on with his zaniness at MGM where he really hit his peak with the creation of a mournful little hound, Droopy Dog. Avery directed the series until he left that company in 1954, usually pitting the diminutive basset hound against a manic wolf. Premiering in 1943's Dumb Hounded, Droopy, modeled after deadpan comedian Buster Keaton, always emerged victorious. Avery's wolf character was used repeatedly, usually as a compulsive skirt-chaser, as in Red Hot Riding Hood (1943). (Sculptor Kent Melton has created at least four Tex Avery statues based on his wolf series: Hey Wolfie, The Wolf!, Driving Wolfie, and Wolfie Running, all available at reduced prices ranging from $59.95 to $110.)

While at MGM he also created less successful characters like Screwy Squirrel and George and Junior. Screwy debuted in 1944 with Screwball Squirrel, but was a little bit over the top for film fans and had the abrasiveness of a Woody Woodpecker without any redeeming qualities. The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer character was dropped after three cartoons.

George and Junior, two rare humans in 'toon land, were modeled after George and Lenny from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Like Screwy Squirrel, the series only saw three cartoons, starting with Henpecked Hoboes in 1946, and is noteworthy if only for the fact that Avery was the voice-actor for Junior.

By 1954 Avery was back at Walter (Woody Woodpecker) Lanz, brought in to redesign their penguin character Chilly Willy. He succeeded in getting the character an Academy Award nomination for I'm Cold, but was only to direct one more cartoon for Lanz, The Legend Of Rock -A -Bye Point (1955), before leaving over a salary dispute. For the next twenty years he was to specialize in commercial animation, working for a firm called Cascade Studios, turning out Bugs Bunny Kool-Aid commercials, as well as the Raid and Frito Bandito spots (the latter was dropped from the air as it was considered insulting to minorities).

Avery was rather a shy man who avoided publicity and reportedly was even embarrassed by Joe Adamson's excellent biography (Tex Avery: King of Cartoons, De Capo Press, 1985). In the last years of his life he shunned invitations to animation festivals, turned down a job offer from Warner Brothers, and turned down the key to the city of Dallas. His final work in the animation field was as an idea man and "trouble-shooter" for Hanna-Barbara, developing a character called Quickie Koala, as well as devising a new character for The Flintstones, Cave Mouse. After spending his life in a field he loved, Tex Avery died on August 26, 1980 at the age of 72.

There is a great deal of collectible material about or inspired by Tex Avery. Unfortunately, it may become more difficult to obtain videos of his work in the future: as of July 1999, Warner Home Video and MGM/UA Home Video are discontinuing almost all of their cartoon compilation videos, including the four volumes of Tex Avery's Screwball Classics, Tex Avery's Screwball Classics On Laser, and the LaserDisc All This And Tex Avery, Too! (some of these are available on eBay).
 

--Steve Stiles