restricted access Chapter 4. Fred "Tex" Avery and "Trickster" Animation
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61 FOUR Fred “Tex” Avery and “Trickster” Animation Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery,whodirectedcartoonsforLeonSchlesinger Productions from 1935 to 1941, often gave them a very unlikely African American aesthetic. No scholarship on animation reveals the remotest familiarity on Avery’s part with black culture. A white man from Texas, he frequently resorted to ethnic stereotypes—especially African American ones—for humor in his films. When he decided to develop unique ways of getting laughs from film audiences, however, he drew on elements of African American expression that had been integrated into American culture for generations. Avery set himself apart from other directors by pioneering “trickster animation .” While his contemporaries continued to make animated musicals and melodramas, he deliberately sought to fool audiences with cinematic pranks. For example, stories often had titles that were obvious puns such as Friz Freleng’s Clean Pastures, playing on The Green Pastures; the phrases sounded similar, and both were connected to films about blacks. In contrast , one of Avery’s early cartoons, Golddiggers of ’49 (1936), displays a glitzy title card suggesting the famous troupe of showgirls. The film is not about chorus girls, however, but about Western prospectors searching for gold. Avery, in signifying one genre of Hollywood film (the lavish musical ) to represent another (the Western), employed a common device in the folktales of black slaves—deception as a means of humor. Such stories are often moral tales concerning a “trickster” character who acts in a certain manner in order to manipulate the behavior of another figure, especially an adversary. Avery made audiences think that they were about to see one kind of film then fooled them with a completely different kind of picture by capitalizing on the duplicitous cultural meaning of “golddigger.” Avery also drew humor from visual duplicity in the film Uncle Tom’s LEHM_txt_final.indd TXT:61 LEHM_txt_final.indd TXT:61 10/11/07 11:15:27 AM 10/11/07 11:15:27 AM 62 Chapter Four Bungalow (1937), which pokes fun at the “plantation melodrama” film genre of the 1930s. The cartoon looks like previous takeoffs on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, featuring plenty of scenes of cotton fields and wooden shacks. As usual, Uncle Tom appears as an old man, shaking violently as he walks down a dirt road in his first scene. Avery counts on viewers to equate the slave figure’s jerkiness with his age. When the offscreen narrator addresses Tom’s instability, however, the old man replies, “Brudah, ‘ma’ knees ain’t shakin. Ah’s truckin’! La-de-ah!” The joke itself is duplicitous in nature, for Avery not only manages to trick the audience by making Tom’s dancing look like an elderly man’s walk but also throws in anachronistic humor by having the slave speak in modern slang.1 After Uncle Tom’s Bungalow, Avery kept experimenting with trickster animation. He deceived audiences first by making realistically designed characters behave in a surprising manner. For example, in his parodies of travelogue documentaries, animal figures moving very much like their live-action counterparts calmly and unexpectedly respond in wisecracks to off-screen narrators. In Wacky Wildlife (1940), a camel wandering in a desert stops the narrator’s bragging about the animal’s remarkable hydration to counter quietly but emphatically, “I don’t care what you say. I’m thirsty.” Such gags originate from folktale trickery as well as nineteenthcentury minstrel shows, in which “endmen” characters shouted barbs and danced around the stage—all to the dismay of the dignified, reserved master of ceremonies or “interlocutor.” In addition, the relaxed demeanor of the camel coincides with an emerging African American cultural style, perhaps best epitomized by the groundbreaking bebop musician Lester Young. In the 1940s Young disregarded the showmanship and flamboyant gestures of his more famous contemporaries , such as the dancing of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong’s dabbing of his forehead with his handkerchief. To him such actions were superficial, clownish distractions from performing music. Instead, he maintained a reserved bearing both on and off stage and distanced himself from audiences by wearing sunglasses while performing. His audiences, initially taken aback, eventually embraced his “cool” pose.2 Within a year of developing this African American cultural approach to cartoon humor, Avery developed a star for it. His previous films focused more on gags than on characterization. For each phony travelogue, LEHM_txt_final.indd TXT:62 LEHM_txt_final.indd TXT:62 10/11/07 11:15:27 AM 10/11/07 11:15:27 AM Fred...