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COMMENTARY

Tex Messaging

When a writer’s thesis is original and arresting, we can excuse a few errors of fact. By the same token, the more numerous the errors, the greater the burden on the author to command our excited attention through the power of her thought.

Tex Avery: A Unique Legacy (1942-1955) by Floriane Place-Verghnes, a lecturer in French Studies at the University of Manchester, fails on both counts. The book is riddled with errors, some of them so elementary that no scholar of animation should make them, and the ideas shaping the book are heavily embroidered borrowings and commonplaces.

Tex Avery: A Unique LegacyFirst, a few of the errors. Walt Disney, we’re told, ‘had a monopoly on cartoon production’ at some vague date (the vagueness is typical), apparently the 1930s. ‘There was not one animator left on the labour market who had not been trained by Walt Disney’ (p. 15). Again, it’s difficult to tell the period to which this statement refers, but no matter: it was never close to being true.

Place-Verghnes repeatedly spells the surname of Max and Dave Fleischer as ‘Fleisher’ (p. 24). Perhaps there is some European justification for this variant spelling, which I’ve never seen before, but there is none in American practice. Other misspellings are scattered throughout the book, as with ‘Fritz’ for ‘Friz’ Freleng.

In her potted history of the Disney studio, the author says that Walt’s ‘nephew Roy’ was his collaborator at the time of Mickey Mouse’s birth, in 1928 (p. 26). She has of course confused Walt’s brother, Roy O. Disney, with Roy’s son, Roy Edward Disney, who was not even born in 1928.

The author misdates Tex Avery’s departure from the Leon Schlesinger studio, which occurred in the summer of 1941, not ‘towards the end of 1941—beginning of 1942’ (p. 30). Avery joined the MGM staff in September 1941 (see my own Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, p. 365).

Place-Verghnes attributes the creation of the Hays Office, the movie industry’s self-censoring body, to an act of Congress in 1930—‘a crucial piece of legislation introduced by’ Will Hays, who was a former postmaster general and not a member of Congress (p. 60). She apparently does not understand that the Production Code was not only created by the industry itself but was intended to forestall federal legislation of the kind she invents.

Having established her shaky grasp of the facts, Place-Verghnes follows familiar academic practice by plugging references to Avery and his cartoons into arguments that owe much less to close examination of the films than to the work of others.

For example, she leans heavily on a book called Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, by Shoshana Feldman and Dori Laub. But in describing Avery as a ‘witness,’ and referring to his ‘testimony’, Place-Verghnes can’t just make the obvious point that Avery, like contemporaneous American filmmakers working in Hollywood studios, was an artist whose work clearly reflected the times in which it was made. In her account poor Avery resembles no one so much as the Russian composer Shostakovich, ostensibly bowing to the demands of his masters while maintaining a sardonic posture. Avery, she contends, ‘scorns the materialism of America’, citing, most implausibly, Little Rural Riding Hood (1949), which could just as easily be interpreted as a city slicker’s ridicule of rural life, and is in fact mercifully free of social commentary of any kind.

Place-Verghnes places a bizarre interpretation on Avery’s account of an army colonel’s interest in the original version of Red Hot Riding Hood, in which Red’s grandmother pursues and wins the wolf and gives birth to his children—a denouement that the Production Code’s administrators evidently found too strongly suggested bestiality (see pp. 413-14 of Hollywood Cartoons). The original version had been seen by an army sergeant who was at the MGM studio to, as Avery told Joe Adamson, ‘help plan the training films’ the MGM animators were making, and the sergeant evidently spread the word about that version’s merits.

Says Place-Verghnes: ‘Such a declaration by Tex Avery serves only as a further proof that in times of war, the American army was almost a fully integrated component of the making-process of a cartoon or at any rate, an authority to be reckoned with’ (p. 61). How it proves that—since the cartoon was, after all, released in its censored form, and there’s apparently no evidence that the army ever got the version it wanted—she does not explain.

The author’s efforts to give Avery a more impressive cultural pedigree lead to additional peculiarities. We’re told, for example, that he was influenced by Beat poetry that was published years after he left the MGM studio (p. 53). A sentence later, though, it’s Avery’s cartoons that ‘prefigure’ the Beats; you pay your money and take your choice.

Similarly, the book abounds in the most sweeping sort of generalizations about American history and culture. After World War II, we’re told, “Every man in America suddenly felt the need to re-create his childhood home” (p. 56). Really? Every man? The only authority that Place-Verghnes cites for this and many equally broad statements is Betty Friedan’s polemic, The Feminine Mystique, which simply can’t bear the weight.

Avery has long attracted the attention of scholars, especially the French, who seem drawn to his combination of the intense (lots of violence and lust) and the coolly schematic (the violence in particular has no consequences even remotely realistic). Place-Verghnes’s book abounds in translated quotations from what appear to be dreadful French essays about Avery’s cartoons. The problem is that Avery was probably the most single-minded cartoon maker who ever lived—he wanted laughs, lots of them, and nothing else but laughs.

Was Avery misogynistic in his cartoons with Red Riding Hood and the wolf? Of course. Does it make a bit of difference? No, because the cartoons are funny, and that’s all that Avery cared about. Guilty as charged; penalty waived; let’s see that cartoon again.

What’s interesting about Avery is how well his comedy works in some instances, how poorly in others, even though the basic mechanism is almost always the same. But the very simplicity of Avery’s goals makes it exceptionally difficult to write about him and his work. There’s always the temptation to wander away from a tight focus on Avery’s comedy and attribute to him aims of other kinds. When that happens, the result is invariably solemn absurdities like these in Place-Verghnes’ book:

‘While wanting to kill its demons, puritan American attempted to obliterate the natural urges of its citizens, a move clearly condemned by Tex Avery’ (p. 105).

 ‘In Lonesome Lenny (1946), the rich old lady who buys Screwy Squirrel wears a coat that covers her body down to her knees while Cinderella’s godmother’s swimming-costume [in Swing-Shift Cinderella] resembles pyjamas more than it alludes to sexy underwear. Clothing fulfils a moral function, since it serves as a metaphoric veil for sin’ (p. 113).

‘The pseudo-masturbation elements are plentiful and always linked with the eyes of the male. They either crack in ecstasy or literally bounce out of their sockets, a metaphor for testicles with the whole body epitomizing the penis (as its sudden erect position illustrates’ (p. 126).

Despite her many descents into such stuff, Place-Verghnes can’t help but acknowledge the obvious, that ‘the motivating force in Tex Avery’s cartoons is humour’ (p. 126). She occasionally writes appreciatively of central elements in Avery’s kind of comedy—his precise timing, especially. Unfortunately, she can’t say much about Avery’s comedy without lapsing again into the same heavy-handed manner that dominates the rest of the book.

Before she is done, Place-Verghnes has endorsed a highly suspect comparison of Avery with Lewis Carroll (Avery’s cartoons are probably the least dreamlike and the most wide-awake ever made), suggested that Avery made King-Size Canary as a metaphor for the Cold War, and written that Avery’s cartoons ‘left his audience bewildered, in a state verging on vertigo.’ That’s a strange thing to say about the state of mind of the audiences with whom I’ve seen some of the best of Avery’s cartoons.

The happiest and most illuminating passages in the book are a few quotations from Joe Adamson’s pioneering study (for example, ‘The laws of nature in Avery’s universe are determined by the mood of the moment’). Adamson not only had the good sense to understand that comedy was what Avery was all about, but he wrote about that comedy with sympathy and enthusiasm. There’s certainly plenty of room to improve on Adamson’s work, but Place-Verghnes’ book is, to say the least, no improvement.

[Posted March 3, 2009]

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