January 9, 2016 posted by

Tex Avery Under the Razor, 1934

Actress Phyllis Brooks visits with Oswald and Tex Avery in this rare 1934 publicity photo - click to enlarge (courtesy of Devon Baxter)

Actress Phyllis Brooks visits with Oswald and Tex Avery in this rare 1934 publicity photo – click to enlarge
(courtesy of Devon Baxter)

A mob boss getting a shave — it’s one of the iconic images in cinema, a classic visual trope of power and vulnerability. So here is a barbershop anecdote that will pull together some of my recent blog posts in a more visceral way. This took place on the Universal studio lot in the 1930s, which was the site of corporate intrigue and power plays, to say the least. This is a showdown that I have referenced recently, but to really understand the dynamics of what happened, this anecdote is best heard in the words of one of its participants, Walter Lantz.

TKlein16_AveryHastingsOne of his foremost employees, Tex Avery, had recently suffered from an on-the-job prank and lost his eye on account of co-worker Charles Hastings (click here for the detailed story). Yet Tex rebounded, showing both an unflagging spirit and a surplus of ambition. Perhaps thinking that Universal owed him something in the wake of the accident that impaired him—or maybe just inspired by a number of animators who had previously jostled to produce the Oswald cartoons—Tex made a serious play at Walter’s position overseeing animation at the studio.

There seems to be plenty of stories from the Golden Age where producers present themselves as hopelessly clueless to the artists who report to them, so let this be another in that fine tradition. A Universal executive named Henry Henigson was a longtime production manager for owner Carl Laemmle. Henigson kept an eye on Lantz’s expenses, but he seemed a bit theatrical or pretentious in how he dealt with meetings, often summoning Walter to first watch him get lathered and shaved.

The credit here goes to Joe Adamson for this material. He taped a number of interviews with Lantz in 1981 in order to gather information for his authorized biography. These recordings now reside at UCLA’s Arts-Special Collections archive. For this particular anecdote, I place the year of this event around 1934, and here is what I transcribed from the spoken words of Walter Lantz himself:

“I got a call one day, while Tex was working for me, from Henry Henigson. He was the studio manager. He was the one I told you about, remember, about spending too much on the pencils and paper. Anyway, I didn’t know whether Henry Henigson liked me or not. I’d go into the barbershop sometimes while he was getting a shave and reading the [Hollywood] Reporter, and he knew I was in there. He wanted to see me in the barbershop. And I’d sit there, Christ sakes, til he got through shaving and then when he got good and ready he’d say, “Oh, hello Lantz, I want to talk to you about those pencils” or something as silly as that; pictures are costing too much; you use too many pencils; you gotta watch that and cut corners. I spent all my life out there.”

Oswald-heyhey“Well, anyway, one day he calls me into his office and says, “Walter, I had a son of a bitch in my office here who works for you, and he says he can produce pictures for a bit less money than you can.” And I said, I don’t know, is it somebody from the outside? “Yeah, his name is Tex Avery, and I was just about ready to throw him out of the office. I just don’t like the idea of anybody coming in and trying to take somebody else’s job, especially when you’re doing so well.”

“[Tex] wanted to take over the department. He even went in there with a cost sheet, a breakdown. Henigson said, “Show me the cost sheet.” He said, “Here’s what we can make pictures for.” So after that I didn’t let him go. No, I kept him for a while longer, and that’s when he contacted Schlesinger and went over there. Because I liked Tex, you know, and I couldn’t have done a thing like that [made him leave Universal].”

That of course is the grist that makes it so interesting to speculate about their return working together twenty years later, when he left MGM and worked for Lantz again in 1955. My last post elaborated on that, but it is interesting to hear it as recorded by Adamson. Avery was, according to Lantz, the only person he ever employed whose terms had to be negotiated by legal representation. He apparently despised Avery’s lawyer and grew impatient with the dealmaking. Yet, in this excerpt, Walter bemoans the impasse in 1955 that ended their business partnership:

walter-woody-doll“If Tex had stayed with me, I think Tex would have been a millionaire today. If Tex had been with me, he would have been a partner in the business because I thought an awful lot of him. I would have brought him right into the business. But poor Tex, he was so money conscious.”

Of course, so too was Walter. His resulting wealth and success remain a tribute to his prudent business sense. However, it is interesting to note that there is a third overlap between these two legends—Avery and Lantz—and that is the author Joe Adamson, who provided each man his most consequential book-length treatment, the only ones which appeared within their lifetimes. After he wrote Tex Avery: King of Cartoons, published in 1975, Adamson wrote The Walter Lantz Story. And the introduction to that book is by director Frank Capra, who incidentally also had a pivotal moment in his early career that spun at the mercy of the very same Universal executive: Henry Henigson.


  • I’ve owned and reread both books regularly over the years (stupid me for not bringing them with me to Asifa screenings and having Adamson sign them) but this is the first time I’ve seen the relationship between Avery and Lantz a lot clearer. The books seem to be very diplomatic about the situation mentioned in this article, perhaps not to stir up any hard feelings between both men who were, as mentioned, still alive when they were published.

  • I didn’t include the story above, but if anyone wants to know my cliffhanger ending, it’s on pg. 71 of Frank Capra’s autobiography. In short, Capra wrote that “the year 1927 was to be the un-brightest year of my whole life” because of a meeting his agent had with Henry Henigson, at which he reportedly said, “Keep that lying bastard three miles from my studio.” It took Capra some time to recover from this undeserved damage to his reputation that nearly derailed his career in Hollywood. Sure, it’s a Wonderful Life, but first you had to get past Henigson. “Hey Walter, do your animators have to use SO MANY pencils!!”

    • Capra’s “undeserved damaged to his reputation” is hilariously ironic considering that he did the same thing at the time smearing (quite successfully) his former boss Harry Langdon. Capra’s lies that Langdon was not creative and didn’t understand his character and was nothing without his Sennett writers (which included Capra) tainted Langdon’s reputation til the day he died.

  • I wasn’t sure whether or not even to believe Walter’s story when he told it to me, and he himself said (I think it’s on the tape) that perhaps I wouldn’t want to use that because of my relationship with Tex — In fact, if I could confirm it, I would’ve used it (you people seem to be forgetting that Tex died in 1980, before there was any thot of my doing a book on Lantz) — After the book came out, I had some more dealings with Walter and I finally realized that if he said this happened, then it probably happened (he, like everyone else, was known to falsify details of his own life and career — Woody was NOT created because of a woodpecker on his roof! — but small details about other people I found him to be pretty reliable on — ) This kind of thing was going on all over Hollywood — Let’s face it, wealth inequality was rampant, and that’s why God invented unions — ! Even for Tex to go to Leon Schlesinger and call himself a Director took chutzpah —

    • Thanks for clearing that up. My brother had the original Avery book from the 1970’s and I have the later updated version from after Tex died. I’ve had both the Avery and Lantz books for so long that the dates of what I got when have been blurred in memory. I still like pulling them off the shelf and reading them without any batteries or AC.

  • As a follow-up to Joe’s comment, Walter Lantz also told me the same story, privately, and not within the context of a book being written. As I remember it, however, he said that he fired Tex after that. I also remember him telling me in colorful detail how much he tore into Tex when Tex returned to his studio.

    I also remember Walter discussing at length one day how Tex’s “greatest weakness,” in his opinion, was that he wasn’t able to come up with a lasting, recurring character that audiences wanted to see. None of the characters Tex had even invented “stuck” with audiences, as Walter explained. And popular recurring characters, like Woody Woodpecker, for better or worse, were where the money (and studio longevity) was.

  • John, thanks for sharing what Walter told you, and I had it in the back of my mind because you once mentioned. However, I don’t believe the timeline of Avery’s Universal years allows for a version where Lantz immediately fires Tex once he hears about the Henigson meeting. That’s because Tex was actively recruiting animators to come with him to Schlesinger and he had the leeway over weeks to persuade co-workers to join him so it seems harder to believe that Tex had even been summarily fired and marched off the studio lot. I tend to think the Henigson meeting was a first attempt by Tex to move up the ladder, and when it failed (for which Lantz surely must have called him out or as you say “tore into him”) he then looked at other opportunities, which led to the Schlesinger directing deal. Another possibility that allows both versions is this: Lantz would hire his artists on roughly year-long contracts, tied to the length of the Oswald renewals, so if Lantz had ever told Avery that he “was fired” but it happened at the beginning of a contract term, then Lantz may have been obligated to keep Avery around on a sort of “lame-duck” status. It’s just one more bit of speculation in a period of Tex’s career that we can only now piece together from scraps. If that’s the case, then one can imagine the strong incentive to get a deal elsewhere, but I have never heard accounts of other animators suggesting that Tex was not renewed and had to leave Universal.

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