When we think of Tex Avery’s cartoons, his soundtracks don’t instantly spring to mind. Avery’s films are by far the most famous examples of unexpected, FAST visual gags and off-the-wall animated insanity in the history of the medium, and today, forty years after his passing and sixty five years since his last theatrical short he is still revered by cartoon buffs of all ages as a totally unique talent.
With vintage cartoons now popping up on YouTube, and in shelf copies on DVD or Blu-ray, generations of younger cartoon enthusiasts are now able to study classic era geniuses like Avery in microscopic detail, in a way unknown to we first generation chroniclers.
Once the newer fans become truly familiar with these directors’ works, inevitable questions arise about just how they were made: who animated that scene, who did all the background art, how were they gagged, and so on. Next people then ask about the audio…the dialogue, music and sound effects.
Avery might have seemed a total visual savant at first glance, but a careful listen to his soundtracks reveals his painstaking approach to comedy, built frame by crazy frame.
Tex’s tracks, like everything else in his canon of comedy, were funny in and of themselves.
With the imminent release of the new Warner Bros. Blu-ray collection containing nineteen of Avery’s MGM classics I felt that the cartoon buff community might like some information about his stock company of voices.
(Note: I’ve been researching this topic for thirty years and there are still gaps in my knowledge, so please don’t think I’m the font of all cartoon voice info. There are holes due to a frustrating lack of original MGM documents.)
As we know, Tex was the first to boost Mel Blanc to vocal stardom when he was directing at the Leon Schlesinger studio. From the spring of 1937, when Blanc became the improved voice of Porky Pig and at the same time the embryonic Daffy Duck speechifier, and up through 1940 when Mel and Tex crafted the voice for the great Bugs Bunny, they were a terrific creative match. Blanc’s crazy voices, vocal effects, hiccups and unmatched zany yells suited Avery’s deliberately over-the-top parodic style to a tee.
But when Tex departed the Warner studio in May 1941, Mel Blanc had just signed his exclusive agreement with Leon. For cartoons, Mel had to forego all the competing work he had been doing in abundance at Universal, Columbia, Paramount and MGM.
And so, Tex had to find new voices at Metro, the studio he ultimately landed at in the fall of ‘41.
Avery was a highly particular creative talent, a true one-off. His innate penchant for placing laughs above all else bred a lifelong comic’s insecurity in him, despite his often-astonishing results.He had the nervously perfectionist streak common to all original thinkers. This extended from his habit of changing layouts to his constant worrying about the timing of his animation, to his unmatched gags and his uniquely funny soundtracks. He believed strongly that exactly the right voices and sound effects were critical to the comic impact of his films. Fred MacAlpin, head of sound for Metro cartoons, recalled Avery always liked exaggeration in his sound effects. He also liked them loud, such as a musical saw vibration to indicate a body being hit or shattering glass for some poor schnook at the end of a fall.
While Tex’s MGM cartoons were as outrageously funny as the best of the Warners, his dialogue was often merely functional. Spare, short lines linking his wacky visual universe, but not quotable the way much of the Looney Tunes dialogue could be. Droopy would today be the only one well remembered for his fourth wall greetings to the audience (“You know what? I’m happy.”)
He had been auditioning freelance voices for years, and at MGM, where the budgets were appreciably higher, Tex was able to get some seasoned radio people. And while he couldn’t use Mel, he made sure at first to hire several top voice talents from his earlier Warner days, fine artists he knew could deliver for his special brand of comedy. Avery was always after a certain delivery and sought top voice talents, several of whom got their first breaks on one of his gigs (Blanc, Daws Butler, Don Messick). These actors worked hard for him. Avery could be infamous for his sessions where he would often get them to yell and scream until they were hoarse, and as various people noted – animator Mike Lah, writer Heck Allen and actor Daws Butler – he was customarily compelled to request a ton of takes.
And so, let’s examine these forgotten people in the order of the cartoons’ appearance on the new Blu-ray, starting with one of Avery’s greatest.RED HOT RIDING HOOD
Frank Graham does the opening kiddie-storyteller and gives us the first appearance of his famous gravel-voiced Wolf character, who morphs into a Charles Boyer when attempting to seduce Red. He even throws in the nightclub MC and cab driver voices. Graham was a busy CBS radio announcer who was also a skilled actor, one of the first to be nicknamed “Man of a Thousand Voices.” He had been doing a nightly quarter hour radio series for a couple of years starting in 1939 called Nightcap Yarns, in which he played all the roles in each entry…one night a week was Western story night, another night featured a comedy story, and so on. Graham had by this stage built up a large range of accents and character types to impress any radio or cartoon director at auditions.
[Footnote: To be accurate, Frank Tashlin was the first director to use Graham’s talents at the Screen Gems cartoon studio, then Bob Clampett nabbed him for his Warner cartoon HORTON HATCHES THE EGG, after which Friz Freleng used him narrating FONEY FABLES where he first used his Wolf voice. But Tex Avery got the best animation performances out of Graham, using him over and over.]
Frank Graham was already familiar to Fred MacAlpin in the MGM cartoon sound department, because he had narrated the Tom & Jerry NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Tex acknowledged that Frank Graham required virtually no coaching and always considered him a class act.But what’s fascinating about the track of this cartoon is that two people voice the wolf! Tex was always after an audience jolt, and in this case it’s a sound jolt, not a visual one.…The wolf’s voice suddenly changes from intimate Boyer to goofball (“What’s yer answer to that, Babe?”) simply for comic effect. Tex knew who he wanted for the alter ego: the young actor-impressionist Kent Rogers had done some fine mimicry for Avery in HOLLYWOOD STEPS OUT and was the voice of Willoughby the dog in THE HECKLING HARE, Tex’s penultimate Bugs Bunny cartoon for Schlesinger.
Red herself has three distinct voices as well. Her speaking roles (child Red Riding Hood and adult Red Hot a la Kate Hepburn) is voice artist Sara Berner, a premier female character voice in the 1940s. She had been in several of Tex’s spot gag cartoons at Warners and was – like Kent Rogers – a fine mimic. She also doubles as the cigarette girls. Red’s singing voice was another matter.
The MGM music department was the biggest in Hollywood and its vocal arrangers had access to every singer in town. When Tex requested a sexy vocal for Red’s big number, “Oh, Daddy” he was rewarded with Connie Russell, a young singer of renown who had signed an MGM contract in 1940 (see her in Lady Be Good). Her sultry singing combined with the marvellous Preston Blair dance animation was one of the most striking moments in all the cartoons of 1942.
The budget extended to hiring Elvia Allman as Red’s lovelorn Grandma, and again Avery had full confidence. He knew Ms Allman was an expert radio comedienne and would need no direction. He had earlier used her in such WB cartoons as LITTLE RED WALKING HOOD and CINDERELLA MEETS FELLA. It was this, just his third MGM release, which took Avery to the pinnacle of Cartoon fame.
WHO KILLED WHO?
This terrific genre-buster opens and closes with still another comic innovation, a live-action bookend using the veteran character player Robert Emmett O’Connor in a send up of MGM’s own Crime Does Not Pay shorts.The atmospheric cartoon features the return of Avery’s old Warner voice man Billy Bletcher as the basso-voiced and super-loud detective, who is in turn a visual caricature of actor Fred Kelsey (known for scores of burly cop movie roles including comedies like THE LAUREL-HARDY MURDER CASE and the Three Stooges’ IF A BODY MEETS A BODY). Sara Berner and Kent Rogers appear again, she as the Brooklyn cuckoo clock and maid, with Rogers offering a fine imitation of English comedian Richard Haydn’s Edwin Carp character as “The Victim,” plus a Red Skelton voice – highly familiar to audiences of this era from Skelton’s hugely popular radio series – as what else, a “red skeleton.” And he even adds a Jerry Colonna imitation (“Ah yes, quite a bunch of us…”). Finally, he does Santa Claus saying, “Hey, Doc…can’t ya read?” That “Doc” appellation is a true Avery signature as we know, and we can almost hear Avery demonstrating the line before Rogers voices it. The cartoon boasts a uniquely eerie music score which was provided by Bernard Katz, veteran radio musician playing a Novachord and mysterioso organ. And how’s this for trivia: Bernard Katz was Mel Blanc’s cousin.
WHATS BUZZIN’ BUZZARD?
Here’s the cartoon that Tex’s boss Fred Quimby found highly distasteful. The first buzzard is old friend Kent Rogers again, this time doing a great Leo Gorcey Dead End Kids imitation. He also does the voice yelling, “Send down one hamburger.” The second buzzard with the funny Jimmy Durante gruff is unconfirmed. I have my suspicions about who it is, but no actual proof. The final announcer is NBC newscaster John Wald who had been the identical radio voice in some MGM features that year, including Skelton’s Whistling in Dixie. He hammers home the wartime food shortage gag.
John Wald, who we just heard at the end of the cannibalistic Buzzard opus, opens this cartoon with his baseball announcer voice by employing a vocal trick many radio commentators had developed back in that time: the ability to talk very quickly but clearly. In the National Radio Artists casting directories of the period there was even a category called Fast Talkers. This cartoon is an example of Avery’s penchant for limited dialogue depending on throwaway gag situations. And the sound effects are a treat. Fred MacAlpin knew Tex loved odd sounds so instead of a standard baseball hitting noise he substituted a .22 caliber gun shot. At first, he worried that maybe it was too silly, but Tex told him, “That’s great!”
We can hear Pinto Colvig, the great voice of Disney’s Goofy, doing two lines as the pitcher McGrip (“Good joke!” and “I got it!!!”). Also heard is comic actor Jerry Mann who was then on staff at Metro for gags and voices between his stage engagements. He does the loudmouth yelling “Kill the Umpire,” and the catcher’s endless “That’s the old pepper.” The first gruff ballplayer voice we hear (“How about the MGM titles??”) is a radio actor named Wally Maher who adds the fastidiously effete and neat umpire’s voice. We will meet him again soon in the starring role for one of Tex’s oddest characters, Screwy Squirrel.
THE HICK CHICK
Kent Rogers, Avery’s mimic of choice had tragically died in the service by the time this cartoon’s dialogue was ready for recording. It is essentially a take-off of Red Skelton’s famous Clem Kadiddlehopper radio character, even adding Red’s radio girlfriend Sara Dew (or Daisy as played in the cartoon by Sara Berner, who goes from cowgirl voice to Katharine Hepburn depending on her male partner, and she doubles as the Mae West maternity nurse). The angry bull is Frank Graham reprising his gruff Wolf voice, and he also plays the Charles Boyer villain. Sadly, I can’t confirm the identity of the impersonator hired by Tex who does such a nice job of the Skelton “Lem” voice (this same impressionist was heard in the Screen Gems cartoon HOT FOOTLIGHTS the previous year). The square dance background was recorded for Tex by the well-known Pickard Family country swing group, with dad Obediah Pickard as genuine dance caller. In the cartoon they are topically billed as Spike Bones & his Chicky Slickers.
BAD LUCK BLACKIE
Tex is the real star of this cartoon doing his patented guttural belly laugh, first heard as a walrus in the old Warner cartoon THE PENGUIN PARADE. He does the sadistic chortling for the mean old bulldog who eventually gets his. Blackie the cat is another of those gruff-edged tough guys, supplied by radio character expert Patrick McGeehan.
Occasionally Tex did a cartoon that didn’t need dialogue, relying instead on striking sound effects. In this one we hear assorted gulps and belches, while the gopher’s chatter is a sped and reversed dialogue track. Avery admitted to a real affection for comic sound effects and had a good relationship with Jim Faris of the MGM sound department. Listen for a re-used recording of Sara Berner’s laughing effect at one point, as Spike is being tickled.
THE PEACHY COBBLER
The elf shoe manufacturing gags are almost a throwback to mid-30s cartoons, but always with Avery touches throughout, although here they are necessarily gentler. An early theatrical cartoon credit for the famous voice artist Daws Butler (his sixth gig for Tex). He sets it up as an old storyteller and adds the Geppeto-esque shoemaker voice. Avery had first used Daws as the suave city wolf in LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, a cartoon classic which doesn’t appear in this set. (Note to each reader: please buy one or two copies of this Blu-ray Tex Avery set so that it sells big-time, and WB will have to produce more in this series!! We need a Tex sign at this point, with the words, “Pretty blatant plug, huh?”)
SYMPHONY IN SLANG
In this famous Avery cartoon the wordplay is everything. And here Tex, the long-time radio comedy fan, once again went after a big-time supporting air-comedian, John Brown. Born in England, raised in Australia, but indubitably a product of Manhattan, Brown was a seasoned radio stooge for huge stars like Jack Benny & Fred Allen. Avery used him here doing his Thorny voice, the neighbour pal of Ozzie in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He also does St. Peter the heavenly gatekeeper and Noah Webster, a voice which resembles Brown’s sepulchral Digger O’Dell, the “friendly undertaker” from The Life of Riley.
SCREWBALL SQUIRRELHere is a cartoon for the true Avery-holics. Wally Maher was one of the stalwarts of Hollywood radio, a fine and mostly anonymous artist who played a million hoods and cops equally well in comedies or dramas. One of his strangest creations was this bratty voice with the adenoidal sniff, which actor Tommy Riggs decided to use as the slightly unhinged boyfriend Wilbur on his Tommy Riggs & Betty Lou Show. It is a perfect fit for this anti-cute cartoon star, a voice that Avery admitted came first before he even had a character ready. He just wanted to use the voice after it got such huge laughs on radio. I believe it’s Maher also doing the falsetto cutesy Sammy Squirrel.
The identity of the voice for poor maligned mutt Meathead is not confirmed although I have suspected for years it is gag man Cal Howard, Tex’s old crony from his early days with Walter Lantz. Cal Howard was at MGM at the time, at first under Fred Quimby’s employ as a story man, then with big-time producer Arthur Freed as apprentice to comedy writer Wilkie Mahoney. Howard had earlier done a few odd voices for Schlesinger and Fleischer. Normally I wouldn’t name an unconfirmed voice, but recently one of the best of the new generation of cartoon historians, Devon Baxter, made the same connection. Why? Because we had both heard the revival of this Meathead voice a few years later at Screen Gems in the 1945-46 era when Howard was their main gag man, and who Bob Clampett confirmed did voices there. Meathead’s voice is heard nowhere else in the history of animated cartoons but these two venues, and in the first Screwy cartoons, the canine’s voice is instantly the funniest of all the many brain-dead dumb dogs of cartoon-dom. [Interestingly, Tex tired of the Screwy character rather quickly and seemed a little embarrassed about him in his later years.]
THE SCREWY TRUANT
Wally Maher is back as Screwy and as annoyingly obnoxious as before. This time though Meathead is spoken by Pinto Colvig, who was freelancing as a gagman, song writer and voice at Metro and Disney. Pat McGeehan is the gruff wolf.
For this entry Avery was able to employ four of the West Coast’s top radio talents. They were Wally Maher as Screwy, Frank Graham doubling as the narrator and Chief Rain-in-Face, Sara Berner as Minnie-Hot-cha who finally speaks like Mae West, and Bill Thompson as Heel-watha doing his patented Wallace Wimple voice from radio’s Fibber McGee and Molly. This was Thompson’s last cartoon recording for a while as he was due to serve in World War II in the U.S. Navy. While he was away, it is generally thought that Avery filled in for him as the Droopy voice in a few other cartoons. Tex’s writer Heck Allen hinted as much in a couple of interviews.
This frantic cartoon marked Wally Maher’s final appearance as Screwy Squirrel (he doubles as the pet store owner). Sara Berner plays the snooty customer, in an imitation of one of those screwball comedy heiresses like Mary Boland. But the real star of this cartoon is Tex himself reprising his fine Lon Chaney, Jr. voice imitation from the movie Of Mice and Men. That film and especially Chaney’s performance had inspired Tex mightily back in 1939 to create Willoughby the dog (and to supply his voice) in the Warner cartoons THE CRACKPOT QUAIL and OF FOX AND HOUNDS.
Tex again offers a dumb voice variation of his Willoughby/Lenny voice for Junior, the larger member of the George & Junior partnership. Actor-mimic Dick Nelson, who worked mainly in cartoons for Walter Lantz, spoke for the smaller George. The voice he used was a Flatbush dialect, an impression of the character Archie the manager from radio’s long-running comedy hit Duffy’s Tavern, which Nelson had already parodied a year before in Warner’s HUSH MY MOUSE.
RED HOT RANGERS
Nelson and Tex team again to voice this amusing duo, battling the animated flame to end all animated flames.
Here is the first appearance of the deceptively mush-mouthed basset hound Droopy, although he wasn’t officially named as Droopy until 1949’s SENOR DROOPY (slated – we fervently hope – for a future collection?). This mild dog was arguably Tex’s most famous MGM cartoon star, although fans of the Wolf, Red and Screwy may agree to disagree. Avery told his biographer Joe Adamson that it was inspired by Bill Thompson’s henpecked Wallace Wimple voice from the Fibber McGee and Molly program, but Thompson had to vary the voice a bit for Droopy. The dog sounds slower and sadder (his Heel-watha voice is more like the radio Wimple). Frank Graham is heard as the Mayor at the end and of course reprises his marvellous Wolf voice yet again, this time in a non-lecherous, more criminal guise.
WAGS TO RICHES
Bill Thompson was back from his war service but was unable to record the Droopy voice for this cartoon due to a scheduling conflict. Tex asked Daws Butler if he could do it, and Daws in turn recommended a ventriloquist-cum-actor he had met at a radio school in 1947. His name was Don Messick and as we all know, he and Daws went on to cartoon immortality some eight years later when Hanna & Barbera truly kickstarted the whole TV cartoon business with RUFF & REDDY.
The sonorous opening voice of the lawyer is Pat McGeehan, a fine radio talent who was the multi-voice male stock company for Red Skelton’s long running radio show, and who also worked as a straight announcer and stentorian narrator. Here McGeehan doubles as the Irish dog catcher. Tex does Spike’s barks and chesty laughs, which Messick lifted years later for Hanna-Barbera’s chuckling dogs like Muttley. And when Spike falls from an open window, the terrified scream is reused from one heard in many Tom & Jerry cartoons and which was done by the one and only Bill Hanna himself.
THE CHUMP CHAMP
Messick subs as Droopy again, filling in for Thompson (whose voice is heard in an old “Hello” which Avery cut in). Daws Butler is virtually every other voice: Announcer, Spike, the phony Fortune Teller and even the Queen of Sports, but Frank Graham is also heard saying, “And now the final event…” [This was an extra line recorded at a different session.]
The final cartoon in this collection has fizzy-voiced Bill Thompson back in the role he created and was born for. Tex does Spike’s woofs and “Tim – BER” again, and the cartoon also features an actor as the Circus Man. Could this be Shep Menken, whom Avery said he used in cartoons? (It sounds a bit like Freberg, but Tex swore he didn’t recall using him even though Freberg had been in on auditions.)
Avery’s deep catalog is only just beginning to be mined in this Blu-ray release so we must all cross our fingers and hope the series continues. Avery was one of the single most important contributors to the theatrical cartoon. He certainly has his detractors, those who find his work simply too wild and zany, but they are outvoted by the millions who love Avery’s daring and ground-breaking comedy and who just can’t get enough.
Sources: CBS & NBC Program Information; the great Ned Comstock at USC who sourced some fine MGM music department records for me; Margaret Herrick AMPAS Library; Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters Radio Life collection; Thousand Oaks Library radio script archives; Joe Adamson’s seminal book Tex Avery King of Cartoons, the fine Moondance TCM documentary (1988); correspondence with Jerry Brewer, Robert Bruce, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Chuck Jones, June Foray, Paul Frees; Card file indices at the Billy Rose Theatre Collection (Lincoln Center); information via Michael Barrier, Milton Gray, the late Hames Ware, Graham Webb, Devon Baxter. And my radio show collector network, especially Ken Greenwald, Ron Barnett, Skip Craig and Don Aston.
Thanks always to the inestimable Jerry Beck for this fine forum.
© Copyright KEITH SCOTT: Feb 1, 2020