Lost in the Movies: Free-form Fairy Tales - A Tex Avery Trio

Free-form Fairy Tales - A Tex Avery Trio

If Three Little Pigs contains some elements of subversion, then Tex Avery is around-the-clock, nonstop subversion, without relief. First at Warner Brothers, then MGM, Avery brilliantly demolished all the cliches of fairy tales and animated shorts with anarchic, randy panache. You can find a very thorough analysis of all Avery's fractured fairy tales at Bright Lights Film Journal, but I want to take a look at three in particular: his sublimely clever The Bear's Tale, the propagandistic bombast of Blitz Wolf, and of course the infamous Red Hot Riding Hood, a distillation and perfection of Avery's manic energy and subversive touch. I've got a few things to say about each, but the cartoons speak loudly and proudly for themselves, so I'll follow my comments with You Tube feeds of each. Ahem...

Once upon a time...

So begins The Bear's Tale which, in 1940, skewers the Disney brand with surprising delicacy (check out the multiplane panning in the opening, quickly abandoned). In some ways, this is my favorite of the Avery shorts, the most clever and, oddly, the most restrained, though it's often manic by Uncle Walt's standards. Notice how Avery holds a pent-up energy constantly in check: the bears and their bowls plop down rapidly and noisily but then they take their time to spoon the porridge. Elsewhere, characters strike a pose and freeze before zipping off (kind of like the Road Runner). Though later he'll abandon this tension and go all-out, racing at full-speed full-time, here Avery pulls the old tiptoe sprint tiptoe sprint routine. The frame will pan, stop, pan, stop in Grandma's house and twice whip-pan through the woods only to reverse direction as the heroine comes skipping the other way.

This is also one of the most overtly metatextual of Avery's cartoons, yanking Red Riding Hood into the story and referencing itself as a text repeatedly (the Wolf pulls a Goldilocks book off the shelf; Papa says he read the story in Reader's Digest). The sexual undertones are relatively subdued here, though they are more subversive in a way, combining cloying childlike antics with grown-up sexual swagger. The Bear's Tale's unexpectedly - and hilariously - modern touches foreshadow Red Hot three years later. The wolf catches a cab, Red phones Goldilocks, Red speaks in Brooklynese to warn her gal pal Goldilocks about "that skunk the wolf" before handing a note across the split-screen (modernity and metatext meet and shake hands...). I also love that non sequitor at the end - and if you like it, check this out too.

The Bear's Tale

After creative disagreements, Avery apparently left Warner Brothers' "Termite Terrace" studio for MGM. The cartoons suddenly become more manic than ever; evidenced right away in Blitz Wolf by a musical loop as the MGM logo appears, with the lion roar looped as well. The tiptoe sprint rhythm Avery maintained in The Bear's Tale gives way to something more like skip sprint skip sprint rocket booster. The rocket imagery is appropriate given Blitz Wolf's subject: Three Little Pigs by way of the Big One. Tex Avery and Adolf Wolf ("colossal stinker") reinvent Disney's pig tale as an all-out morale booster, comparing the playful pigs to Hitler appeasers, and giving the Big Bad Wolf a short mustache, a hilariously convoluted Germanic-sounding language, and appropriate militaristic garb.

Avery's dirty mind gets more release here than in The Bear's Tale: with all the phallic-looking bombs, no gag is missed, and more than one cannon or shell alternates between flaccid and "at attention." At one point a pig even knocks out a bunch of bombs with a sexy pin-up magazine. And Avery pushes the language barrier as well, without crossing over. The lazy pigs mock their uniformed brethren by chanting, "You're in the army now, you're in the army now, you're digging a ditch -" pausing in silence just long enough for us to figure out what rhymes with "ditch" and then taking up the chorus again. And when Adolf Wolf finally gets his comeuppance, the shrugging demons suggest what the censors won't allow (and, of course, it's much funnier that way).

Blitz Wolf

Red Hot Riding Hood has its antecedent in another Avery short, Little Red Walking Hood from six years earlier (unfortunately the video's not online). There you'll also find the urban setting, the prowling horny wolf driving his car along, and even the Katherine Hepburn-accented Red (vocal imitations of Hepburn appear throughout Avery's work - go figure). The early film is an odd entity, bouncy in its rhythm, hyper sharp in its lines, and somehow creepy. Fascinating as it is, it doesn't quite work, but by 1943 Avery had figured out how to improve its elements and create what may be his masterpiece, seven minutes of sheer non-step sexually-driven lunacy.

He opens Red Hot as he did Bear's Tale with some Disneyesque woodland shots, but here they're even more rushed, as if the characters and narrator are impatient with this approach. And indeed they are - before long the characters have confronted the narrator and the audience with the tedium of doing the "same old stuff" in retelling fairy tales. The narrator agrees and launches into the film proper. We get constant whip pans, characters as blurs moving from one position to another, and movement through space with logical abandon. Elevator lights shoot from building to building, cars stretch and squish as they speed along, and the wolf enters some kind of new spatial dimension at Grandma's penthouse, whereby the horny old broad can reappear in the room no matter how he's disposed of her.

Red Hot thrives on a sexual tension rather than sexual release - first the wolf is desperately trying to seduce Red, and then he's desperately trying to avoid seduction by her grandma. The hypersexual imagery - Wolf straightening out in mid-air, pounding the table, howling with passion - suggests desire, but a desire which never gets satiated, in life or in the afterlife. The wolf here is not frightening like in Disney, he's exaggeratedly elastic and rounded, big black saucer pupils in his ovular eyes, soft snout, conveniently bouncy body (the better for slamming into walls and falling out of windows, my dear...).

There's also another element about Red Hot that fascinates: it's more sexual, more modern, more attuned to 40s culture than many live-action films, and a reminder that sometimes cartoons can go deeper and expose the zeitgeist with a freedom that other works can't.

Red Hot Riding Hood


James Hansen said...

I love the moment in RED HOT when he is flying backward and his shirt (or pants maybe...I forget) sticks straight out right around the "crotchal region." Maybe making it the most obvious, but its hysterical to see it in kid-pitched cartoon. I actually haven't seen the others, but will check them out for sure. Nice post!

Joel Bocko said...

I didn't notice that, but I do love the sound effect as that happens. Some kind of weird, electronically manipulated shriek/warble.

Definitely check out the others too, they're really great.

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